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The long awaited continuation of The Elder Scrolls franchise has finally arrived on consoles. Last year the game was supposed to launch across all platforms but was halted and delayed due to its horrible performance and reception on the PC. Thankfully more games are taking the approach to delaying games after some big AAA titles suffered from embarrassing and bumbled launches. The Elder Scrolls Online received a lot of well deserved harsh criticism for the early versions on the PC, but we are not in Kansas anymore, this game looks and runs beautifully. Yes, servers are having issues, but that should be expected with an MMO during the launch week. If you go to Amazon right now, literally every 1 star review is just someone griping about the servers. Don’t listen to these people as they are not reviewing the game but venting about a problem we just have to accept with a game and a community that is this large and this instantaneous. So where does the actual game shine, and where does it fall short?
Big but accessible
One of the dangers for games like this is that they can be too daunting or confusing for players who aren’t familiar with them. Skyrim was certainly guilty of this, but the quality of the game captured a massive audience and was kept strong by many impressive mods on the PC. Skyrim basically expected you to understand a somewhat complex skill tree and leveling system with little to no explanation. This caused many, myself included, to feel a sense of regret as you got deep into the game and only then started to fully grasp everything. In The Elder Scrolls Online the skill trees, action skills, smithing, enchanting, and crafting are far more accessible and explained very succinctly by the NPCs with some side missions. There is still a bit of a learning curve, but for the most part they have increased the accessibility in these areas. The combat is also expanded with an injection of simplicity by using a system similar to Dragon Age Inquisition with unlocked action skills being assigned to the button of your choice. What I appreciated about this was it enabled me to setup the best combos and attack sequences and I’m able to see my button assignments whenever I’m in combat.
My only gripe about the early game accessibility is that after choosing my race and class wanting to dual wield with a Dark Elf I was given a two handed sword out of the gate. For a long time I couldn’t manage to find two swords or daggers to start leveling up my dual wield so I leveled up a skill I was completely uninterested in for quite a while. The same thing happened with my armor. An easy solution would have been to start the game by walking out into the opening room where I grabbed the two handed sword and instead be told to pick the weapons and armor that I think look the best after a brief description of how the leveling system worked. I know that a massive amount of the community is dialed in to how it all works, but for new comers this may be a point of frustration similar to how I felt when I got deep into Skyrim and felt like I needed to start over (and I did).
Smooth and beautiful
The first thing I noticed about the combat was that it was smooth and thoughtful. There was no clunkiness or clumsiness like what I felt in Neverwinter, and you definitely can’t just mindlessly hack and slash your way through the game. And the ease of use with the skills makes balancing magic and melee attacks very smooth. It was probably my fault, but I never felt like I could get a good mix and rhythm with the magic and combat attacks in Skyrim. But in this game I feel more empowered in the same way I did with the combat in Diablo 3 where you can handle a group of enemies with your various skills, defensive abilities, and ultimate attack. My only gripe so far about the combat and interaction mechanics is that the A button is used for picking up items, talking to people, stealing, and jumping. I consistently hop in front of NPCs or items that I’m trying to pick up and I even stole something by accident. Since the X button only activates a skill when in combat it would make more sense to have that be your interaction button.
The combat isn’t the only thing that is smooth as the graphics look clean and impressive for an MMO on a console. Neverwinter always felt dated to me, which made it really hard to get into as I got the impression I was playing a free arcade game on the XBOX 360 instead of a next-gen title. The environments are unique and dynamic, and motion effects like fire, lava, or water look pristine and realistic. Many will probably compare graphics across platforms and see differences, but a game this size should be enjoyed for its content and scope rather than having the best possible graphics. I have yet to see anything that feels old gen or sub par with respect to the graphics.
A few gripes
Even though my experience has been refreshingly positive, I do have some gripes. First, what the heck is going on with the inventory? In a game where you instinctively pick up everything because you may need it for crafting, healing, or selling, I’m growing a bit tired of constantly having to stop and destroy things just to pick up a few items. I have hit a rhythm with selling, deconstructing at the smithy, and putting ingredients in the bank, but it’s still a bit tiresome if I forget to do all that. Which here’s a tip: all crafting materials are accessible from the bank when you go to make weapons, armor, clothing, etc. Even with the “clear out my inventory” rhythm, I just feel like this is a mechanic that I’m constantly having to babysit instead of just being able to play the game and craft and sell at my leisure. I suppose an upside to this is that it forces you to be more attentive to your inventory and money, when in Skyrim I got sloppy and lazy with my inventory which turned it into a slog to dump or sell everything.
Second, there is absolutely zero hand holding with respect to story missions. Thankfully a few wikis made it clear that every 5 levels you get summoned to the Harborage, but prior to this I was completely lost as to what I was supposed to do next. I enjoy side missions as much as the next guy, and actually lost track of what I was doing because I was enjoying myself so much. But I after 5 or 6 of them I was ready to start moving the story along. Now that I understand this mechanic I can explore and level up and run side missions knowing that I’ve got a story waiting for me after so many levels. Again, the aim for games like this should be to capture new gamers with the increase in console sales for both the XBOX One and the PS4. It can be a dangerous decision to design a game around expectations of knowledge the player should have that is more in line with an experienced player than a new comer.
Third, while the combat is smooth and accessible I’ve had a few fights that just flat out didn’t make sense. I went into a dungeon, saw a boss 4 levels above me, and promptly left after just a few ranged attacks almost killed me. After leveling up for a while I was fighting and handling enemies 2 levels above me, so I decided to go back and take out this mini-boss who was now only 2 levels beyond me. The fight went the same as before as just a few range attacks wiped the floor with me. I’ve had this happen on a few occasions where enemies at a certain level are manageable and suddenly the tables dramatically turn for no apparent reason and I die almost instantly. Some of this could be lag, but I doubt it as most of the time nothing in the game was giving me evidences of lag or synchronization problems. I’m not sure what the issue is, but with the early game having gold somewhat sparse, dying like this can be incredibly besetting as it feels cheap and takes your very valuable money.
Lastly I was going to gripe about having to pay money for fast traveling, which I still think is stupid and, like Skyrim and other features of this game it is almost completely unexplained. However, I learned that if you use a Wayshrine to fast travel is costs no money. Thankfully there are enough of these around the world to minimize the need to pay money to fast travel. But the reason this can be irritating is that riding your horse from place to place isn’t the most effective means of transportation as it was in most of Skyrim. Practically every enemy seems to have a perfectly aimed ranged attack, so even Mudcrabs were sniping my horse running at full speed and eventually knocking me off. This can make traveling tiresome if you try to rush it, so I just started trying to either stear clear of enemies or quickly hop off and deal with it before continuing on my journey. And another tip, don’t try to sprint passed even a small mob of enemies. They will aggro to you and follow you relentlessly, and as I said, every single enemy seems to have some form of ranged attack. It will generally go very bad for you even if the enemies are 4-5 levels beneath you. Handle the mobs and travel smart to minimize death and frustration. And make a b-line for the Wayshrines if you want to fast travel and save your coin.
Overall I have been thoroughly enjoying the game and am glad to have a next-gen title that I can sink my teeth into that is both good for streaming and fun to play.
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