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Archive for March 6th, 2014

Hallifax Bender in Glenumbra

Recently I’ve been participating in the beta testing for the forthcoming and much anticipated Elder Scrolls Online MMO. Until now all players have signed non-disclosure agreements and hence it has not been possible to write a review of the game, post screenshots, or divulge any information about the game whatsoever. The e-mail I received last Wednesday, inviting me back to join the beta testing on the coming weekend, contained the following piece of good news:

We encourage you to post the best screenshots and videos from your adventure! You’re not required to follow a Non-Disclosure Agreement during this test, so share your favorite moments with the world.

Hence, I should like to take advantage of that opportunity and offer a preliminary review of the game.

First things first, overall, it is a marvellous piece of work. Though not devoid of flaws nor perfect in its design, the game exudes an impression of high quality and polish throughout; in its appearance, its sound, the level of detail that has gone into what appears to be a truly vast world, and, perhaps most surprisingly for an MMO, its narratives. The storylines might not all be that original, nor have that much depth and complexity, yet whereas in some MMOs narrative functions much the same way as it does in porn – a contrived and shallow shoehorn to the action – in the Elder Scrolls Online (hereafter ESO) it is more than window dressing.

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The quests all contain elements familiar to fantasy RPG players, and indeed, to those of the Elder Scrolls games. There are collections and fetch and carry missions aplenty, yet these are almost always couched in a rather more engaging and at times surprising story-line.

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Rarely did the process of completing quests feel like a chore; they were well-paced and not unnecessarily gratuitous with their objectives – rather than collecting 20 of something, in the Elder Scrolls Online, it is far more likely to be 4, and that process is, most often, not overly frustrating.

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This is not to say that the questing in ESO is merely adequate, for much of it is highly entertaining and quite moreish. At times the questing has a fantastic playfulness about it – like being asked to follow a firefly around as it leads to quest objectives, or that old Elder Scrolls staple – follow the barking dog.

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The game offers sufficient variation in its quest objectives to avoid the taint of grinding. It was difficult, once engaged, to step away from the keyboard. Often the quests reveal themselves to be part of a considerably longer chain, which has many chapters and relates to larger events in the world around the player. In Glenumbra, what began in one town as a mission to flush out werewolves masquerading as refugees from the recently captured city of Camlorn to the north, turned into a full-blown assault, first to retake the siege camp outside Camlorn, and then the city itself.

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Fans of Oblivion will see many similarities between this and the recapture of Kvatch, though minus Oblivion gates and daedra. In ESO, it is often rollickingly good fun pursuing these quests, in part because they have the power to reshape the world around you.

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The quests also work very intuitively in most cases, and make life considerably easier by ensuring that the next step is, much of the time, close to the last on the map. Thus, one rarely has to traipse across half the world in order to advance the story. Often the quest giver or an ally of theirs will appear after a quest objective has been completed, not only saving the player a return journey, but giving those in need of help a more dynamic role in the action. At times the player might be joined by an NPC both to guide and assist them, providing useful back up. This can make the storyline rather too convenient, which can rob it of the same intense immersion a lengthy Skyrim journey might entail, yet, in MMOs, the pace of the game is usually more frantic anyway and mostly it was a relief that quest objectives were not too obscure – though at times they were bugged. But hey, it’s Beta.

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The game begins in Coldharbour, one of the planes of Oblivion and the realm of Molag Bal.

The official description from the wiki informs any would be visitors that Coldharbour “resembles… Nirn, but the ground is nothing more than sludge; the sky constantly burns, and yet the air is beyond freezing.” It goes on to paint an even grimmer picture, and in the game, Coldharbour wears a suitably grim palette.

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I rather forget exactly how and why players have wound up in this awful place, suffice to say that somehow or other they died and have had their soul taken, along with thousands of others known as the soulshriven. The game basically begins with an escape aided by a mysterious man called the prophet and a very tall woman with the appropriate name of Lyris Titanborn. It’s not the most satisfying start, but it takes little more than ten minutes and could probably be zerged in about five by someone keen to get through it. Still, it serves its purpose of introducing basic gameplay, orienting the player, and kickstarting a story that gradually becomes more interesting. The run through Coldharbour likely won’t wow you, so don’t be put off, though it finishes in a splendid set – endowed with a kind of monstrous industrial chic.

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From here one is able to go through a portal to Tamriel, where the game begins in earnest.

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Character generation takes as long as one is fussy about appearance, which in my case, can be as much as an hour. The menus offer a deceptively sumptuous array of customisation options – I say deceptively because it is impossible in most cases to change the base model of most features – eyes, nose, mouth etc – only to tweak a set model. Somehow this ends up making all the female Bretons and Nords look like glamorous Russian tourists, whilst everyone else looks like they come from the same family, within the bounds of their race.

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Rather like the many passport photos of Mr Nice, one can see the same person underneath that facial tattoo, hair style, accessory and facial hair option. All the same, so far as the face is concerned, the initial tweaking of the base model is a curious system, which works by choosing a point inside a triangle with Heroic at the top, and Soft and Angular on the bottom left and right respectively.

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It’s a similar graphic for body size, though with muscular at the top, and large and thin at the bottom. Proximity to these particular points will adjust the features accordingly, which certainly does allow for a fair range of possibilities – yet again, always starting from the same base. It’s nice that they allow the player to adjust body shape and size to the point of being very short, tall, slender or rather corpulent. Most people veer towards the slim and muscular in build, but I did spot the odd fat and bald toon doing the rounds, which at least adds another dimension.

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The hair styles are done wonderfully well, but again the range soon comes to feel limited, after an initial impression of abundance. I’m sure these will expand given time, and the existing styles are more than satisfactory, though the adjustable hair-length toggle is absent. Similarly with tattoos and facial markings – after a while, they all become very familiar, but it is fun to experiment. I was surprised by the complexity of the ear menu, which allows one to adjust the “ear-tip flare” – whether or not they stick out. It’s nice to be able to pin one’s ears back, or adjust the tilt of the smile for that matter, yet I would rather have been able to choose from a range of different mouth models than commence with the aforementioned Russian pout.

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Elder Scrolls Online offers the standard array of races familiar to most players. There are presently nine races available for selection, with the tenth, as yet un-activated slot being held by Imperials. The only difference in ESO is that the races have been divided into three separate factions: the Ebonheart Pact, which includes the Nords, Dark Elves (Dunmer) and Nords, and who are located in the provinces of Skyrim, Morrowind and Black Marsh; the Aldmeri Dominion, consisting of the High Elves (Altmer), Wood Elves (Bosmer) and Khajiit, in the Summerset Isles, Valenwood and Elseweyr; and the Daggerfall Covenant, including the Bretons, Orcs (Orsimer) and the Redguard in the regions of High Rock, Orsinium and Hammerfell. Each of these races has a different start area, to which they journey upon leaving Coldharbour, in accordance with the above groupings, though each race is free to choose from any of the four available classes.

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At this stage in Elder Scrolls Online there are only four class choices available: The Templar, Nightblade, Sorcerer and Dragon Knight. These, however, are designed to work flexibly with other build choices the character might choose to make, such as fighting style, types of armour, attribute and skill allocations, and other, perhaps more cosmetic choices. The Elder Scrolls series has always been famous for the degree of freedom players have in choosing the paths they take and the types of skills, powers and abilities they wield. ESO has limited that freedom significantly. It is not possible, for example, simply to learn a spell from any school – within skill level limitations – and cast it, indeed, it doesn’t seem possible to learn spells other than through levelling and selecting abilities. Only the Templar class has access to the restoration school initially, which sets them up as the only true healers in game, though I can’t say at this stage whether or not other classes can acquire access to this school or heal effectively through other means.

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My principal gripe with the game’s design is on account of the number of limitations that are placed on a player’s freedom of movement with character paths and their freedom to vary their weapon and ability choices easily. Firstly, there are no hotbars – or rather, there is one, though it functions by hitting the related numerical key, rather than via mousing. This admittedly makes for a less cluttered interface and improves the aesthetic of the game by limiting on-screen distractions from the visuals, yet it also robs the player of any real chance of indulging in what Elder Scrolls games have traditionally done best – allowing them to use as many skills, spells, effects etc as possible. Yes, there were no onscreen hotbars in Skyrim or Oblivion, but this was mitigated by the fact that during gameplay one could simply press TAB to pause the game and select an item or effect from the inventory or relevant directory – known spells, for instance. Or, if one was quick enough, it could be done live through the favourites list – enabling a player quickly to select an ability or item not presently hoy-keyed. There is, however, no opportunity to pause in a live MMO, and the favourites menu has been replaced by a clunky radial one. By level 6, my character already had more spells and abilities than I could set in the mere five places available, making the extra skills as good as redundant, since it was neither convenient nor desirable to keep switching those allocations.

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The lack of hotbars is also unfortunate in that it takes away much of the pleasure of being high level and having a seemingly vast array of curious abilities ready to deploy given the right situation. In Dungeons & Dragons Online a high level wizard might have 35 odd spells with a wide array of effects at their disposal, all within a mouse click, and ten of the most prominent available on a command hotbar. In ESO, until 15th level, it is only possible to have one weapon style set, and it is not at all convenient or easy to change this during a combat situation. What this means is that I cannot use my bow at range and then quickly switch to a melee weapon when the enemy draws near. Nor is it possible to switch weapons in combat with any ease. Thus, it is not possible to begin whacking something with a two-handed weapon, then switch to sword and shield for improved defence, without copping it sweet for a bit while fiddling in your inventory and interface.

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At level 15, a further weapon set becomes available, opening up another 5 hotkeys in effect, yet this still limits the player to a mere two weapon combinations, and, whichever weapon they equip, the player still only has space to set five abilities in conjunction with that weapon set. Are we really going to be using only five spells or special attacks for almost the entire game, despite potentially knowing many more? Will there only be two weapon sets available, or will it be possible to have three or four eventually? Is it really not possible, as in Skyrim, to begin with ranged, dual-wield in close combat, then switch to one-handed and shield should the situation require it? It’s frustrating, because this flexibility has always been a staple of Elder Scrolls games and it makes one’s character seem far less free to evolve down a variety of paths.

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On the subject of fighting styles, characters are welcome to choose freely which combinations they wish to use: two handed, dual wielding, one-handed and shield, bow, restoration staff and destruction staff. Each of these weapon styles has its own skill line with special attacks and abilities related to that weapon type. As many of the special attacks require the player to have that weapon set equipped, this further hampers the ability to switch in a combat situation, as even should one equip one’s bow, for example, the dual-wield attacks will still be the ones hot-keyed. As mentioned above, level 15 allows another weapon set, but this still seems an unfortunate hindrance in freedom of choice and movement.

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There are also issues with quickly using inventory items. Without hotbars, the only option for accessing potions during combat seems to be through hitting Q and bringing up a radial menu on which a range of inventory items can be accessed. Whichever one was last chosen remains as the set option, so a quick hit of the q key will use whatever it is, whereas holding the key will bring up the menu and allow the player to choose another option. The problem is that it’s not really easy, natural or intuitive to use in a combat situation as one cannot steer simultaneously, and, if you think about it, the only time you’re really desperately going through your inventory in a combat situation is when you are in trouble, need a quick fix, and need to put some distance between you and your opponent. How much easier to keep your finger on the w key and run like hell, whilst easily navigating the mouse to a hotbar. If it is the existence of consoles that have brought this about, then I have only one thing to say: Stuff consoles, they really destroy complex games. Can we have a PC version?

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Either way, I don’t really see the point in imposing so many limits on character progression and development. Is it kow-towing to consoles, or just good old fashioned dumbing down? Surely it’s not to do with balance, because, if anything, players who spread their skills more widely are likely to end up jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none, which will in effect gimp them rather than overpowering them.

Stealth also seems rather mysteriously absent in any sophisticated way. Anyone can use it, but I found no evidence of any existing skill-line, even in the Nightblade character class. If this is an omission, then it’s sure to annoy a lot of players who wish primarily to play stealth-based characters. Sure, there are stealth-style attacks and an invisibility spell, but no obvious means of judging your move silently and hide in shadows kinda capability nor improving it. I often crept past enemies, but the only factor that seemed relevant was proximity.

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This is very much a wait and see situation, though at first glance, stealth appears to have either been massively simplified or utterly neglected. I admit that I may well be missing something, but I did test-run a Nightblade to see what skill lines were in fact available. Perhaps one can join the thieves guild, which might open up another skill line as joining any guild will do in ESO.

Returning to the subject of character generation, each class in ESO has three different skill lines in which further skills and abilities become available as the player’s skill level increases. As in other Elder Scrolls games, using a skill is the key to improving it, and one’s spells and special attacks become increasingly powerful as the skill level goes up.

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At certain points, it is possible to upgrade an already selected ability, a process which usually adds a further effect to that attack or spell. This might change a spell from a single-target spell to an area of effect, or add a snare effect to a melee attack, for example. It’s satisfying to upgrade one’s abilities, yet I wonder if this is compensation for the fact that so few can be allocated to hotkeys – a deceptive kind of progress in that you’re still using the same ability in effect.

Depending on which faction the player’s race comes from, they will journey to one of three different starter areas – Stros M’Kai, Khenarthi’s Roost and Bleakrock, all of which are islands.

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In each case the game rather cleverly ensures that players must first complete a starter quest to get off the island and progress to the mainland, where they will have much more freedom of movement. Though there are options to cut this process short and clear out early, most new players should benefit from the training, levelling and loot. Each of the islands is relatively large and offers a variety of quest options for fresh characters to cut their teeth. Perhaps inevitably, there are some naff moments, yet it all moves along at a pleasant clip and many of the interactions are surprisingly good fun. New players are bound to experience that mix of curiosity and frustration that comes from not knowing the lie of the land. It is nigh impossible to know from the start what to keep and what to discard, what the numbers really signify and which class options will prove wisest in the long-run, but such is the case for noobs in any game.

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One thing I do really like about this game is the music. It is subtle and un-intrusive, adding huge amounts of new material to rehashes of previous Elder Scrolls scores, without pandering to the loud, brash battle brass, combat percussion and heavy-handed strings of some fantasy soundtracks, nor the overly saccharine and jaunty medievalism which too often prevails. Indeed, so pleasingly subtle and atmospheric was the ESO soundtrack, that at times I forgot that I hadn’t done what I used to do playing Dungeons and Dragons Online and put on Brian Eno.

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On the subject of sound, did I mention that every single line of dialogue from NPCs is voiced? It is a fine example of the level of detail ESO, at its best, has to offer.  The fact that many of the voices are familiar – clearly some of the same voice artists have been used who worked on Oblivion and Skyrim – links this game more closely with its single-player foundations. It is wonderfully familiar in places, whilst being excitingly new and different. One of the NPCs encountered in the starter area of Coldharbour, an elderly chap with a saucepan on his head called Cadwell, has been voiced by John Cleese.

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I’m unaware of any other famous actors participating – no evidence that Patrick Stewart is back for this one – but either way, the quality of the voice work is solid throughout. The dialogue, it is not badly written, if one accepts how genred this type of natter must necessarily be. There are a number of entertaining characters with recurring appearances in the opening stages, who help to guide the player through the early quests in what amounts to a continuation of the rather light-touch tutorial.

Jakarn, the loveable rogue...

The Prophet

Females and males are drawn equally well, and whilst archetypes abound, they often buck the trend. One thing I’ve always admired about Elder Scrolls games is the level of gender equality and liberal attitudes in their worlds – there are equal numbers of powerful, clever and successful women, sexism and racism are frowned upon and only occur in villainous types, and gender does not restrict the roles characters play.

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You are just as likely to be led into battle by a female sergeant as a male. The Elder Scrolls games have always flirted with adult pretensions and ESO doesn’t shy from occasional innuendo and suggestion.

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Graphically, bearing in mind that this is an MMO, which usually sacrifice texture and model detail to the need for high frame rates, ESO looks impressive. On the Elder Scrolls scale of visual excellence, it lies somewhere between vanilla Oblivion and Skyrim. Yet, perhaps it’s the light or palette, or the styling of the characters and objects, but it is a step down from the immersive realism of Skyrim. The environment does not feel as tactile or gritty, the winds don’t blow so cold, nor does it rain so hard, yet ESO presents some wonderful vistas and atmospheres.

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Your jaw might not drop, but now and then your heart will fill with that curious yearning to truly be in this world – to watch the sun set through the rainy forest, or stroll on the beach, staring across the glittering sand to the distant horizon. It has genuine atmosphere, and is pleasing enough on the eye. There are also attractive, water-colour style transition screens when entering new areas or important quest locations.

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Movement in the game flows very well and seems smooth at the best of times, though the over-pitched running style of the characters means that, in motion, they all seem to be mimicking running, as a mime might do whilst standing still, rather than actually running. I was disappointed by how this looks, especially after Skyrim did such an excellent job of implementing sprinting with such a visceral, tactile feel to it, even if it could make female characters run in a rather masculine style.

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Frame rates during play were always extremely high, even with the graphics maxed and a huge number of players and enemies present in an instance. Though I didn’t measure frame-rates, I never once had stuttering or lag and everything flowed with a most satisfying fluidity. This may well be due to having recently built a new top-shelf rig to cope with Rome Total War 2, but either way, it bodes well for performance on servers that will no doubt be packed. Despite occasional crashes of either the interface or the game itself, log in times were certainly far superior on this second Beta than the last, during which I had to queue to get on the server. Hopefully the game will continue to run with such smoothness.

There’s much more that could be said here about crafting, guilds, travel and questing, but it would be too exhausting to go into such detail, so I’ll say just a few words. One can of course collect reagents and raw materials for make potions, weapons and armour, though from my efforts so far, it appears to be a long and potentially painful road to skilling up sufficiently to make truly powerful items.

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Mounts are available to purchase, though these will remain out of the price range of all new players, unless financed by an alt or given a hand-out. Fast travel can be used in game at an initially not insignificant cost, though this can only transport the player between way-shrines, which act as teleport points.

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As mentioned above, players can join game-world guilds such as the mages’ and fighters’ guilds which open up new skill lines for players to invest their points in, and I believe it is possible to belong to five at any given time. It is, of course, possible to players to join player-founded guilds and these have already begun to spring up in ESO.

No doubt like all MMOs, much activity in this game will eventually revolve around the auction house. This was not up and running as yet, to my knowledge, and it will no doubt take some time before market forces combine with game mechanics to set a price on things. Once the economy gets off the ground, I’m sure it will create a whole new range of objectives for players to pursue. There’s nothing like getting rich quick in an MMO once you know how to farm a rare and valuable reagent, for example.

As the wiki points out, the Elder Scrolls Online is set “roughly 1,000 years before the events in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and the coming of the Dragonborn, and just before the rise of Tiber Septim, the first Emperor of Tamriel. Three Alliances have emerged across the continent, each struggling for supremacy over the land. As these great powers battle one another for control of the ImperialCity – and with it all of Tamriel – darker forces are moving to destroy the world.”

Map of Tamriel

This provides the overarching narrative of the game, which drives the world’s dynamics. Rather like the factions in World of Warcraft, each has their own realms in which to operate, though in this case, the three factions surround the central province of Cyrodiil. To my understanding, Cyrodiil in effect acts as a central battleground. Not having been there, nor looked into it closely, I know little about it, but believe that the entire province is PvP, whereas the rest of the game is not, and that players can not only engage in personal battles, but large scale sieges and raids. I’ve never been much of a fan of PvP, largely because it is the cause of some of the worst trolling imaginable. As much as I love grouping and co-operating with teamwork, I prefer to do this in a PvE environment. Maybe that’s lame, and I do hope ESO might make PvP a more attractive proposition. Yet again, it’s a wait and see situation. Having experienced all too much stupidity in the public Zone Chat window, I’m not feeling especially hopeful about how this community will turn out. Still, it’s always possible to find good people, especially when so many are likely to participate in ESO.

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On that front, it did get rather frustrating seeing how petty and troll-like much of the chatter was. Indeed, the vast majority of conversations seemed endlessly to recycle the same tiresome whinge about the cost of the game and the subscription price. My advice to anyone new to the game is to learn, as soon as possible, how to switch off the Zone chat so you don’t need to listen to a bunch of peasants complaining about spending all of, wait for it, fifteen dollars a month. It’s less than a movie ticket, less than an hour’s pay in a crap job, less than lunch – once a month – and yet this was all people seemed capable of talking about as though they were being asked to mortgage their future. Of course, with an MMO, you do mortgage your future, but its time not money on the line. Unfortunately, it distracted the conversation from far more important and relevant discussions such as the nature of the interface, the problems caused by having open instances and the like.

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The open instances of the game are, I think, its major design flaw. Most of the quests take place in public instances – there is no division between what the player is pursuing and what other players are pursuing, even if they are not grouped. This hugely spoils the pleasure of the game as one can never be free of other players trying to achieve the same goals. In almost all of the quests I ran in the early stages, I would, for example, enter the hold of a ship just as some other, unconnected players killed the very enemies I had come to destroy. Because I was in the same space at the same time, I would get quest completion, merely for turning up. There was no chance to use stealth, face any sort of challenge, or just enjoy the idea that I had been entrusted with this quest and was the one who had to carry it through. This would be less of a problem in an empty server, but it should not be such a problem on a busy one. In one quest, there were almost twenty other players in the same room, doing the same quest – I didn’t even have a single fight – everything was killed before I could even get to it. Where, I ask, is the fun in that?

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Yet this is not merely a problem from an immersion / enjoyment point of view. In some cases, if I missed the moment when other players killed enemies who were necessary for completion, I had to stand around waiting for them to respawn, something which, though it may have been bugged, seemed to take forever. It also causes what I consider to be a serious imbalance in the opening scenes on Coldharbour – and a major source of irritation elsewhere. If other players have already looted the contents of containers – crates, sacks etc, then there is nothing there for anyone else who enters the instance. As a consequence of this, it is possible to come out of Coldharbour with the two extremes of an almost completely full inventory, brimming with armour and weapon crafting styles and recipes, reagents, potions, some extra gold etc – or absolutely nothing at all except the rags on your back and the crappy weapons pulled from the starter rack.

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Players who bother to stop and search the utterly ludicrous (and this is not mere hyberbole) number of containers, should be rewarded for this, not find them all previously looted and entirely empty. On one character I acquired a range of recipes and crafting knowledge that my other players did not get – because all the crates were looted – and have not found since.

I really don’t see the point of making these areas public, or at least, quite so public. If the player enters a cave, mine, dungeon, building, ship, tomb or whatever, why not just lock that instance off to other players who are not grouped with the protagonist? This works perfectly well in Dungeons & Dragons Online, ensuring that the player or group and only those people are involved in completing that particular quest in their own private instance.

Not grouped, but still in it together

It seems rather stupid when you sneak into a building, excited about the chance of using some clever combat tactics, when another couple of players rush past you swinging swords and start killing the very people you were about to surprise. There’s little point emphasising the story and role-play elements, if you then completely trash the way that story plays out. The game loses all its immersion and gravitas and really, how many times can I say this, it is no fun at all when there is nothing to do and a quest completion is achieved without even a single fight or challenge. The one positive in all this is that sometimes when a boss is too difficult a fight, one can casually wait for another individual or group to show up, and then fight with these instant allies – without having to group at all.

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Despite these issues, some of which I think might ultimately annoy me greatly, I still found the game to be utterly compelling. It was fun to explore the world, the questing was enjoyable, surprising and amusing and the look and scope of the game promise hours of discovery.

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Combat was fun, if potentially repetitive, and whilst I only grouped in a relatively limited capacity and spent most of the time soloing, I did get the sense that this would be a cracking game to explore with other likeminded players. There are definitely issues that need to be ironed out, and quite a number of quests are chain-breakingly bugged – bugs which in some cases persisted from the previous beta. I’m sure these will be ironed out, though as stated above, it is more the fundamental mechanics of the game that concern me. Something tells me that despite all the whinging about cost, some of which is fair comment, but most of which seems like mean-spirited bitterness, this game is going to be a huge success. Whether it can rise to rival the global scale of World of Warcraft remains to be seen, but it certainly seems a worthy rival and I doubt ESO will tank in quite the same way that Conan did.

MMOs are perhaps best judged a year or two into their existence, as most worlds take a while to mature and iron out internal issues such as balance.

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With relatively limited experience of it so far, it’s difficult to predict what issues might hamper ESO or deter players, but I’m sure some will arise in due course. The game’s stamina will depend upon its ability to fix any problems that arise, and I’d like to think they’ll ultimately get it right. If it is still buggy on release, or you feel a little under-whelmed by the opening sequences, stick with it. There is plenty of fun to be had and I believe this will prove an eventual winner.

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