Exploring Epic MMO Elder Scrolls Online [Feature]


(photo Rob LeFebvre, Cult of Mac)
photo Rob LeFebvre, Cult of Mac

Elder Scrolls Online is a new massively multiplayer role playing game by Zenimax Studios and Bethesda Game Studios that attempts to compete with the behemoth of the premium subscription MMO, World Of Warcraft, on its own turf in the fantasy genre. While the base gameplay is fairly similar — go on quests, fight bad guys, level up, game with thousands of other players — this new MMO has a lot that’s unique to offer gamers.

What Elder Scrolls Online brings to this competitive gaming genrea is a long history of games set in fantasy world Tamriel, beginning in 1994 with The Elder Scrolls: Arena and continuing through three the present day with four sequels: Daggerfall, Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim. There’s a ton of lore and backstory here, as much as any high-fantasy Tolkien-esque novel you might read, and this deep infusion of fictional reality — as well as the action gameplay style of the original single-player games mentioned above — is a solid asset in Bethesda’s favor.

Reviewing any MMO is a massive undertaking itself, and so we decided to dig in deeper than we usually do to give you a better sense of the world of the game, filtered through the eyes of a new Elder Scrolls Online player.

Here’s what we came up with.

Find Your Sense Of Wonder

It's just so...pretty up here.
It’s just so…pretty up here.

I dash up a sandy dune, rushing past palm trees, looking for the spot on my map where an eyeball icon beckons my attention. The sky is blue — it’s mid-day here in the Hammerfell region — with a few clouds to tease the eye. It’s hot enough to fry an egg on my heavy armor, but hey, I’m not really running anywhere.

As I crest the little hill, a brilliant lens-flare from the sun draws my attention skyward, distracting me from the broken bridge. I tumble heavily to the sea below, splashing into the water.

I’m in good company: there’s a small school of orcs and elves who have made the same rookie mistake. We make the slow swim of shame to the sandy beach, then rush off to explore this idyllic, if tricky, land.

This all takes place on the continent of Tamriel, which will be familiar to gamers who’ve played the previous titles in the series: Skyrim, Oblivion, Morrowind. It’s like Middle Earth for game nerds. While each of the previous games took place in just one area of Tamriel, the Elder Scrolls online promises the whole land mass.

It’s paradise –I wonder if I can bring my kids with me when I move here.

That's a really big number.
That’s a really big number.

Elder Scrolls Online is one of the most hotly anticipated MMOs in recent memory. It’s been in development by Zenimax Studios for five years, already, and just released for public Mac and PC consumption by long-time series publisher, Bethesda. The beta alone registered five million people who wanted to play the game before its release; that’s roughly the population of Norway.

The amount of things to do and see is staggering, as well. The number of characters that players can create can only be expressed with a crazy exponential number (above), and there are over two thousand books in the game you can read. Seriously, it would take you 32 hours to read them all. That’s just reading — this Bethesda infographic has a ton of fun and useless info on all the stuff you can do in the game.

The landmass in-game is equally massive, with some players estimating a straight run across the map taking a little over eight hours. That’s a huge area to explore.

I’ve only been exploring the opening areas in my newbie journey and enjoying the wide-open vistas and visual set-pieces almost more than I have the actual mechanics of playing the game.

All you need to decide, though, is whether the $60 up front cost and subsequent $15 per month subscription is worth your time. Elder Scrolls Online requires a significant commitment, in bandwidth (it’s a hefty 22 GB download), up front cash, and the amount of time you can sink into.

The OCD will enjoy the micromanagement of equipment and character stats and abilities, but frankly I’m a gaming social climber who performs tedious management work so I can go see areas that require the higher levels and better spells.

The graphics card in my Macbook Pro allows me to crank up the graphics to High settings. Even though there’s another setting higher (Ultra), the fact that I can lose myself in the game’s environment at the lower graphical setting is a testament to the artists and developers as well as the technical prowess of their game engine.

Really, though, Elder Scrolls Online is a World Of Warcraft-style MMO that I want to spend time in. The mechanics of motion and questing (at least at first) will be familiar to any WoW player, with various movement keys on the keyboard and hot-keys for spells and potions. The difference here is that Elder Scrolls Online brings the action-RPG elements from it’s earlier iterations in Skyrim and Oblivion, making the mouse more important than it is in typical MMOs, the battles more active. You have to move around to avoid getting hit, clicking like crazy on your mouse right and left buttons (seriously, get a double-button mouse, already) just to stay alive in early fights. When you die, and you probably will more than once, you’ll go to a special Wayshrine to reincorporate, which also doubles as a fast travel system.

That? That's stairs from the backside. Send help.
That? That’s a staircase from the backside. Send help.

That’s not to say my immersion isn’t shaken by a few glitches and broken quests. There’s one early quest that asks me to find various injured sailors and give them some potion that I also have to run around and gather. Why the potion is just lying around on the sand, I’ll never know, but that’s not the point.

When I reached the final sailor and gave her the potion, she’s supposed to finish the quest so I can get my experience points, gold, and any good loot. This lady, though, just keeps looping through the conversation, thanking me for the potion, but never actually getting up. I gave her something like seven potions, even after logging out and back in of the game, restarting it, and so on until I gave up. A quick search online told me that yes, the quest was broken. Bummer.

Some of the visual glitches can be funny; the series has spawned its fair share of Fail Blogs. Some issues, though, require I drop into the games ‘/help’ system and report them as bugs, like the time I started to run up some stone stairs, only to find myself under them instead, with no way out. I could see lords and ladies standing around on the supposedly solid landing above, and through all the walls around me, but the game insisted that these walls I could see through were solid, so why should I be able to walk out of them? That’s just crazy-talk.

I was able to get out with a “/stuck” command that basically just killed me so I could resurrect at the nearest Wayshrine.

None of this ruins the game for me, though, as I keep jumping back in to play. The visuals alone are enough to keep me busy, for now. When I run out of obvious quests, I just start running around the area, out of the city, up and down roads and hills. This is a marked contrast to other MMOS I’ve played where I tend to log out when I run out of things to do.

The moon is starting to come out in-game, now, so I’m off to explore the night side of this lush world — I hope I don’t run into too many werewolves. Wish me luck.

Be A People Person

Making friends, meeting new people. And queens.
Making friends, meeting new people. And queens.

Queen Ayrenn is a modern monarch. She’s definitely trying to do the right thing, but I can hear the weariness in her tone when she tells me about the endless rituals she must complete in order to be accepted by her subjects.

I’m not sure what happened to her during her 17-year absence, nor why she returned to the kingdom at age 28 to inherit the throne of Alinor. Honestly, I don’t much care. What I do care about is that she is tired. She knows these rituals and adventures are necessary, but she finds them tedious, if dangerous.

She’s always glad to see me. I always want to help her. I’ve bonded with Queen Ayrenn, and she’s not even real.

That’s one of the real triumphs of impressive new MMO Elder Scrolls Online: It’s a virtual world, but the individuals you meet there somehow can, at times, seem more realistic than the people you might spend your day next to on the subway.

When I travel to a new place in the real world, one of the pure joys of the experience has always been the people I meet there.

That’s probably why I like MMOs so much — they’re full of people.

There are non-player characters, or NPCs, who tend to fall into one of two categories: the folks who wander around the world to keep it from looking deserted, and the folks you talk to to get your next story quest. There are more than 10,000 of these digital folks running around in Elder Scrolls Online.

And then there are player characters, like you, who generally dash about doing what they need to be doing — finding quest items, fighting zombies, ghosts or enemy soldiers, or hanging around the cooking fire, making food that will raise their stats for a certain amount of time.

Both groups are pretty fascinating in Elder Scrolls Online.

There are cats -- and cat-people -- everywhere.
There are cats — and cat-people — everywhere.

The NPCs that you see around town usually have a line or two of fully voiced dialogue to share with you. I haven’t found the famous Nord with the arrow to the knee, but I have heard the voice actor playing other parts.

Many of the non-quest NPCs are reading or talking amongst themselves. Travel around any city, exploring side paths and the corners of patios and porches, and you’ll find folks just existing — looking at books or chatting with their friends. All of this goes a long way toward making this place seem real.

The quest-giving NPCs are also fully voiced, which can work for or against the experience of the game. Some voice actors, like Harry Potter’s Michael Gambon or funnyman John Cleese, really bring their talents to bear on their voiceovers. It’s a pleasure to listen to them, even when they’re spouting ridiculous, fantasy-themed exposition that lore-nerds will love. Queen Ayrenn is voiced by no less than Kate Beckinsale, which shows you the quality of the voice acting.

There are a few clunkers, of course, like when any tortuous exposition is fully spoken aloud. That’s something you can skip over in a text-based game like World of Warcraft, but it leads to some disconnecting moments as you click through the voiceovers in Elder Scrolls Online, just wanting to get on with your quest.

The game also boasts plenty of computer-controlled enemies. When you enter an area required by your quest or mission, the cannon fodder will attack you and try to make things difficult. A nice contrast to other MMOs, however, is the general lack of aggressive beasts in the world. This means you can spend more time looking at the scenery and getting lost in the visuals as a welcome respite from all the fighting.

Shiny, happy people on their quests.
Shiny, happy people on their quests.

Finally, there are the other players on the server. In many MMO games, you need to choose a server to play on, usually one that’s located close to you on the globe, and you’ll only play with other gamers on that server.

Elder Scrolls Online, though, has one big “megaserver” in the United States and one in Europe. This lets everyone play along together, with some fancy backend voodoo to make sure the load never gets too high. A consequence of this is that you’ll be playing along with a huge number of folks. You’d think that the rate of “griefers” — players who intentionally try to hurt or steal from characters in-game — would be high, but I haven’t noticed much of that.

In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that the folks playing in Elder Scrolls Online tend to be a very helpful lot. I’m often helped along in my battles by passing strangers who lend a hand to the combative proceedings, only to continue along their way after the opponents are lying dead on the grass.

One factor that lends itself to this type of behavior is the game’s looting system. When you kill a foe, you’ll usually see that enemy outlined in a yellowish glow. That means they have stuff for you to take, typically a gold piece or two, but sometimes you’ll find items that will go into a nice recipe or potion, and even (rarely) high-value weapons or armor. If anyone makes a hit or two on any enemy, they’ll have a chance to loot the body. That lets everyone share in the loot, whether they’re in a cooperative party of adventurers or not.

We’re all in this together, the game seems to say, so you might as well help each other along the way.

That's a lot of options.
That’s a lot of options.

And what a diverse lot we are, here, with three factions to choose from when creating a character. Each faction contains three different races, with Breton, Redguard and Orsimer (orcs) in the Daggerfall Covenant faction; Nord, Dunmer (dark elves) and Argonian (lizard folk) in the Ebonheart Pact; and Altmer (high elves), Bosmer (wood elves) and Kajiit (cat people) in the Aldmeri Dominion.

These factions play a relatively minor role in the first several hours of Elder Scrolls Online; the only impact they have is only allowing you to group with the two other races in your faction. Wars and all sorts of fun stuff are promised as the game progresses.

There are plenty of heroes in this world, an artifact of the story-based quest system. You’ll listen to your quest-giver, gambol off to find the spot they spoke of and end up either killing enemies, destroying mysterious crystals, pulling levers or all of the above. If you’ve played other MMOs, you’ll be comfortable with the four or five or 10 other player characters standing around near the quest-givers; it’s just the nature of the game type. We all know that we’re the hero that matters. Or doesn’t matter, as the case may be.

So take some time, if you decide to jump into this teeming MMO world, to get to know the folks around you. Chances are, they have something you need.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the higher-level activities, like four- and 12-person action events that you can participate in, fighting incredibly tough monsters and environmental hazards.

If nothing else, maybe I’ll get in good with the Queen. I hear she needs a hero.

What To Do? Everything!

Commander Karinth

I had just finished a long assignment from the elven ambassador in the province of Elsweyr. I was tired from running to and fro, tangling with spies and fighting the Sea Elves at every turn.

Suddenly, Commander Karinth stopped me in my path and pressed me into duty fighting these ocean foes. I had to run into the fabled Wind Tunnels, looking to destroy the foul Storm Totems. Enemies at every turn of the weaving passages forced me to dodge back and forth to avoid vicious attacks while retaliating with my own spells and sword blows.

After what seemed a lifetime of combat and destruction, I returned a hero. Then I took some time out for me, finding a crafting table to put together some ingredients I’d gathered to make something useful. A restorative meal got me feeling better than usual.

As in many MMO games, Elder Scrolls Online offers many activities to engage in, including questing, crafting, cooking, combat (both player versus player and player versus environment) and traveling through dungeons with a few close friends. Even marriage — if you bought the digital Collector’s Edition.

There’s a reason people get addicted to games like Elder Scrolls Online: There’s so much to do that it’s incredibly easy to get sucked into these deep virtual worlds.

Meat...beer? Ick.
Meat…beer? Ick.

The crafting systems in Elder Scrolls Online will keep you engaged in both the world and the process of making your character better. It’s not only fun to gather materials and recipes; it’s beneficial — meals you make will grant your character special effects, or buffs, for specific amounts of time, like extra health or better defense stats (helpful in combat!).

Materials are gathered from around the countryside and towns, and can be found in barrels, crates and on dead enemies. You end up carrying around a bunch of items like “aged pork meat” or “untainted water” at the lower levels, ingredients that will go into some recipe in the future. You can craft potions, create weaponry and armor, and even brew various libations to help you along your path to leveling up.

The crafting here is super-easy to manage when compared to other MMOs I’ve played (I’m looking at you, Guild Wars 2). And while Elder Scrolls Online has its own complexity and depth, newcomers will figure out fairly quickly how to make a recipe, which itself can be found or purchased in-game.

The various crafting skills — Alchemy, Provisioning, Woodworking, Blacksmithing, Clothing, Enchanting — are skills you must learn and level up as well, making player-created items a potentially large chunk of the gameplay, if you decide to pursue it.

Might want to have a doctor look at that.
Might want to have a doctor look at that.

The bulk of your time, at least before level 10 (when you can start player-versus-player combat) and level 12 (when you can jump into four-player dungeon instances), will be spent questing. You’ll engage in several quests given to you when you start the game.

They range from the interesting (see Queen Ayrenn in Part 2 of this series) to the average to the fairly ridiculous (see the image above). Some, like a quest I discovered while swooshing around the sandy dunes outside of Stros M’Kai, are downright hilarious: There’s an orc there who would like to become a tradesman, but his mother wants him to be a fierce warrior. The poor would-be merchant needs help fighting a nearby beast, but he loses his sword repeatedly, and you have to keep finding it. The quest culminates with you defeating the monstrous creature, and then deciding whether to tell the orc to follow his heart or listen to his mother.

I told him to follow his heart.

The end result of combat will hopefully look like this.
With luck, the end result of combat will look like this.

In many quests, you’ll be engaging in combat — a lot of combat. You’ll click your left mouse button to attack, hold it down for a slower yet stronger attack, and click the right button to block. If you hold the right mouse button down to block, then click the left mouse button, you’ll block and smack your opponent, possibly interrupting whatever attack they were preparing.

Every melee action you take uses up stamina points. The heavier the weapon you swing, the more stamina you lose, which refill over time. Magic spells — accessed with a keyboard shortcut — take up Magicka points, with a similar recharging delay.

If it all sounds terribly complicated, it is. However, after a little bit of thoughtful practice, everything becomes second nature. The action is fast-paced without feeling overwhelming, and the enemies you face in the lower levels are — usually — only as tough as you can handle.

This should give you just a taste of all the things there are to do in Elder Scrolls Online; as you spend time in the world of Tamriel, you’ll immerse yourself in the kinds of activities you most enjoy, unless you’re some sort of completionist gamer who must do it all.

In the final call, Elder Scrolls Online is an engaging, immersive world that I’m having a ton of fun playing around in. The amount of time it would take to fully take advantage of all it has to offer is far more than I typically have at my disposal, but it’s completely fun to mess around with the different systems and activities while I’m there.