Summary: The Elder Scrolls Online, long rumored to be in development, was officially announced yesterday. Still in development at Zenimax Online Studios, this MMO aims to combine traditional genre mechanics with the spirit and sensibilities, not to mention setting and lore, of the immensely popular series of single-player RPGs. Though the game is set for a full unveiling in the next issue of Game Informer magazine, what appears to be the entire cover story article has been leaked to the interwebs already. In today's article, you'll find summary and analysis of all the alleged details, as well as feast your eyes on the very first screenshots and concept art from the game. Of course, the burning question now is, should you be excited?
War has raged across the continent of Tamriel since time immemorial. We’ve experienced epochal conflicts from several perspectives: the Nerevarine’s fierce battles against Dagoth Ur in Morrowind, fractious lords desperately fighting against an otherworldly invasion from Oblivion, and a bloody civil war in Skyrim. The Elder Scrolls Online unifies Tamriel’s many provinces and sets players loose to experience the story of their own faction’s struggle for dominance. This time, saving the world from the awakening of ancient evil is only the beginning. What happens when hundreds or thousands of prophesied heroes all think that they should be Emperor?
So begins the allegedly leaked Game Informer cover story on the next MMO to get all hyped up about, TES Online. The prospect of a massively multiplayer online game based on this franchise has always been a divisive issue for its fans. One group firmly believes the core of the experience is to be the single most powerful being on the planet, the lone hero that travels the land and makes his own adventure, perhaps solving whatever major or minor crises happen to find him -- having other Nerevarines or Dovahkiin wandering around would ruin everything. The other group thinks that traditional Elder Scrolls style of open-world gameplay would translate perfectly to an MMORPG, and that having others running around to team up or duke it out with would add to the experience. Then somewhere in the middle, you have those that just want small-scale cooperative options, but that’s neither here nor there.
Regardless of which side you support, though, it’s very important to note that the fans’ general idea of what The Elder Scrolls Online should be is NOT what is being developed over at Zenimax Online Studios. This will not be a game where you run around in a first person view, engage in hard-hitting real-time combat, cast all manner of spells, or dual-wield anything in either hand. By all accounts, this will be more of a standard MMORPG template applied to the world and lore of TES.
For starters, it’s built on the HeroEngine, a new generic base being employed for a variety of online games which has been suffering increased scrutiny as of late due to its [mis]use by EA/BioWare in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Let’s face it: if the most expensive MMO of all time, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, can’t implement a game using this engine in a way that doesn’t exhibit a myriad of glitches, bugs, and performance issues, it doesn’t bode well for anyone else who tries it. As you can see from the screenshots, The Elder Scrolls Online even looks somewhat similar to SWTOR, a result of the shared engine and philosophy of utilizing a lowest-common-denominator art style.
The trick for Zenimax Online is finding a balance between Elder Scrolls fans’ expectations and the constraints of MMO development in some areas, and deploying innovative solutions that push the genre’s boundaries in others. “We’ve really got to create a compelling game first,” says creative director Paul Sage. “It needs to be comfortable for people who are coming in from a typical massively multiplayer game that has the same control mechanisms, but it also has to appeal to Skyrim players. You want to hit those touchstones, but more important than that, you’ve got to create an experience that’s unique and fun.”
The article goes on to explain how they’re trying to translate the free-roaming adventure spirit of The Elder Scrolls to an online game, explicitly stating “you may be doing it from a third-person perspective and using a hotbar to activate skills, but the basic idea is the same.” We’ll have to see about that… In the meantime, read on for more details and screenshots gleaned from this purported Game Informer leak, so that we may address the question -- should we be excited?
Unfortunately, the constraints inherent to online gaming preclude some designs that put Elder Scrolls on the map. Players can’t master every discipline or own every mansion, though you absolutely can join every guild and build a pool of skills far broader than ever before. Almost anything you see off in the distance can be explored, but you may have to level up a bit before you can survive the dangers that live there. The sheer size of the game world, though, dwarfs the single province of Skyrim that we know and love.
It sounds like they may be trying to put together a truly open world in an MMO setting, which would be great, but only if they can do it justice. The reason exploration is so fulfilling in traditional TES games is the high amount of detail and interactivity crafted into the landscape. Can they pack that much stuff to see and do into an environment meant to be tread by hundreds or thousands of people daily? Especially if they’re going to be presenting a game world as ambitious as the entire continent of Tamriel, including Skyrim, Morrowind, the Summerset Isles, Elsweyr, Cyrodiil, etc.
It won’t be completely fleshed out at launch -- the example they give for the Skyrim province is that the central stronghold of Windhelm will be there, while Winterhold and its mages’ college will be added later -- but that’s still a whole lot of ground to cover. Especially if everything is presented on a giant map that could conceivably be tread from corner to corner without loading screens, which seems like it would be pretty tough to do.
Recreating the freedom Elder Scrolls players expect within the World of Warcraft-style mechanics Zenimax Online is using for this MMO would be impossible without changing the way that players interact with the world. The studio came up with something it calls “hubless” design to combat this problem. Instead of the typical questing design that MMO players intuitively recognize – go to town, pick up quests, complete quests, return to town for reward – The Elder Scrolls Online aims to allow players to enjoy whatever piques their interest as they wander the world, so long as you are appropriately leveled.
That is the crux of it, then. To encourage exploration, they’re going to decentralize questing, which sounds like it could be a breath of fresh air in the MMO space. Apparently, points of interests such as dungeons and caves will comprise self-contained “modules,” which the article compares to Dungeons & Dragons-style adventures. While you may end up stumbling upon a location by chance and have no quest associated with it, you are going to be rewarded for taking it upon yourself to clear it out. (Hopefully they won’t be relying on randomized, leveled lists for loot!) Of course you will still have quests to undertake, or NPCs you meet along the way will point you to certain places or side quests, but it’s made clear there are several spots that are hidden to you unless discovered via exploration.
In addition to the instanced dungeons that have become the norm in today’s MMOs, Zenimax Online is also bringing back the idea of public dungeons, where people can work together with other passers-by to accomplish something they may not be capable of on their own. This is supposed to encourage meeting and mingling with strangers, as opposed to being isolated in your own separate world. Naturally, that opens things up to people being assholes or just plain stupid, both of which can quickly ruin your day. They seem confident that this will work out for the better, though, as they claim it did in older games like EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot.
The main storyline in The Elder Scrolls Online deals with a vacuum of power in the Imperial City sometime in the Second Era of the franchise’s lore, and the devious plot by one noble house that makes a pact with a famous necromancer and evil Daedric lord to further their goals. This is before the Septim dynasty takes hold, leaving room for huge armies to wage war as they vie for territory. Along with the Imperials (who seem to be an NPC faction that everyone battles with), there are three separate factions that all players are required to divide themselves into.
In this case, each of the nine playable races are split geographically by their homeland into three alliances -- Ebonheart Pact (nords, dunmer, argonians) to the north and east, Aldmeri Dominion (altmer, bosmer, khajiit) south and southwest, and Daggerfall Covenant (bretons, redguard, orcs) in the northwest. These opposing powers serve as the basis for the game’s player-versus-player interactions, as well as offer three distinct areas in which to spend your time questing and leveling up.
Though we don’t know what the level cap is yet (if it’s even been determined), Zenimax Online claims that it would take the average player about 120 hours to reach it with a single character. After that, they plan to keep you busy with end-game content including the usual high-level group instances, PVE raids, and PVP arena combat, as well as faction-versus-faction open-world PVP. With Tamriel’s power structure in tatters, the entire province of Cyrodiil will serve as a battleground for the three alliances trying to claim the crown.
They’re using the same map layout from TES IV: Oblivion for the basis of this region, though the playable area has been shrunk down a bit, and it will be filled with forts, mines, farms, castles, and other locations to capture. The largest and most important strongholds will support battles with up to 100 players on each side, while the smaller points may only be guarded by a handful of NPCs loyal to whoever currently controls them. The ultimate goal of this PVP mode will be to conquer the Imperial City itself and proclaim one player from the faction to be the new emperor, which actually sounds pretty awesome.
“It has this interesting dynamic where one side can go into ascendancy, but they’re always going to be pushed back by the other ones,” Firor says. “When there are three sides, there’s always something happening. I always know there’s a battle somewhere. I can always jump in and fight, because I know that somewhere, someone is weak.” Allying with another faction – temporarily and locally, of course – to bring down the currently ascendant alliance is a simple thing, but it leads to political intrigue and a fascinating endgame more often than not. What happens when a prominent guild in your faction promises to show up in support of a Daggerfall assault, only to leave an allied keep undefended from Aldmeri retaliation? Is the mutual irritation from months of small-scale raids between the Covenant and the Dominion too much to overcome a proposed joint attack on a ripe target?
The reality of network latency and massively multiplayer games prevents The Elder Scrolls Online from following the real-time combat model that has driven the series since its inception, but the developers are trying to bring over a few of the concepts that define the franchise’s combat. The stamina bar is the fulcrum around which the entire combat design revolves.
I imagine this tidbit of information is the deal-breaker for many of you. No matter what fancy new twist they put on it, combat in The Elder Scrolls Online will be very similar to standard MMO conventions. There is a certain element of dynamism and flexibility in managing a stamina resource to sprint, block, interrupt, or break free of an incapacitation at any time, but you’re still putting skills on a hotbar and locking on to the enemy you want to deploy them against.
They’re taking a sort of Guild Wars approach to assigning skills, however, as you’ll only have a small number of them active and available for use at any one time. Zenimax Online says this gives them more freedom in designing “really cool abilities,” since there is less work to be done balancing them against a handful of other possibilities versus giving players access to a full range of 20+ that can be used at any time. That adds an extra layer of strategy, as you have to choose very carefully which abilities you want to use, though you will be able to arrange them freely outside of combat.
There will be a class system in TES Online, which is a departure from the free-form character progression introduced with Skyrim. The stamina bar is important for all classes, while there is also a “finesse” bar that is built up by pulling off advanced maneuvers in combat such as interrupting an enemy spell or blocking a dangerous attack. One of your skill slots will always be occupied by a powerful ability that can only be activated once you’ve filled the finesse bar.
Coordinating combo attacks with other players is the most effective way to build finesse; examples given of this include a mage using fire magic to set a rogue’s oil slick ablaze or a fighter using a spinning attack inside a mage’s firestorm to send fireballs flying in every direction. This opens up the opportunity for advanced tactics in PVP, as not only will you be trying to pull off such combos yourself, you’ll be worried about avoiding those being coordinated by your rivals. As for PVE encounters versus AI enemies, Zenimax Online claims they will be just as smart.
“The first and foremost important thing about creatures is that they are not speedbumps,” says gameplay designer Maria Aliprando. “You will encounter the same mechanics from monsters that you will from players.” Enemies work together with general behaviors, like fighters trying to tie foes up in melee while mages shoot from a distance. They also combo their abilities when the opportunity presents itself; the fire mage is only too happy to turn an oil patch his rogue buddy dropped into a deadly blaze.
A big deal here is the fact that they’re trying to avoid the tired MMO convention of ‘aggro’ in PVE combat. In trying to break free from the ‘holy trinity’ of tank/healer/DPS roles in a group, the developers’ goal is to make it possible for any competent group of players to handle most situations. This will have the side effect of placing a higher burden of self-preservation on each player in the absence of a healer, but the idea is to make combat play out in a more natural way, as opposed to “tank pulls agro, healer keeps him alive, everyone else pile on one enemy at a time.”
In the same vein, NPC baddies in dungeons aren’t going to stand around waiting for you to come over at your leisure. Every room is a cohesive encounter, and you will have to simultaneously manage every enemy in the area. Even Game Informer seems skeptical of this notion, remarking that “every MMO developer out there would love to have their monsters do something other than stand around and watch players slaughter their friends 20 yards away.” It is indeed a lofty goal, but considering how far along they are in development, maybe they’re on to something if they feel confident enough to talk about it.
Other so-called ‘touchstones’ from the Elder Scrolls universe making it into the MMO include the Fighters’, Mages’, and Thieves’ guilds, as well as the Dark Brotherhood. Gaining reputation and/or joining up with these organizations will reward you with perks including extra abilities to add to your repertoire. Constellations and birthsigns will exist similarly to how they do in Skyrim, allowing you to seek out their shrines and choose to accept a permanent buff to complement your play style. Fast travel will be made possible via wayshrines that also serve as locations where you will be resurrected after dying.
Stealth, mounts, pets, alchemy, soul stones, and crafting are all in there, too, though details on them are being kept secret for now. Some aspects of gameplay we’re familiar with that will NOT be making an appearance include radiant AI for NPCs, the ability to contract vampirism or lycanthropy, player-owned housing, NPC romances, and dragons (probably). It’s also mentioned in the article that every inhabitant of Tamriel in The Elder Scrolls Online is completely voiced, but I imagine we’re talking more along the lines of Oblivion than Star Wars: The Old Republic in terms of scope there.
So to answer our original question -- should fans of the franchise be excited about The Elder Scrolls: Online? Eh, yes and no. I realize that’s not the clear answer some of you lemmings out there were probably looking for, but it really does depend on how you feel about MMORPGs in general and whether or not you’re interested enough in this setting and lore to play one that is heavily influenced by it. There are sure to be a lot of you that are turned off by the idea of an Elder Scrolls MMO that combines mechanics from World of Warcraft and Guild Wars with a few new ideas meant to convey the spirit of Oblivion and Skyrim, while others feel that’s just enough of a fresh spin to get them interested in a style of game they already enjoy.
One thing is for certain: Zenimax Online Studios has missed out on an enormous opportunity here. Rather than create a traditional MMO that is merely inspired by The Elder Scrolls, they could have tried to make an actual Bethesda-quality sandbox game that is playable by a whole bunch of people online. Development hurdles and “impossibilities” be damned, something like ‘Skyrim the MMO would be revolutionary, a first of its kind that would be respected by RPG fans everywhere, regardless of whether or not they have a preference for offline solo play.
As it is now, the burden of proof is on them to prove to us fans that The Elder Scrolls Online is more than just another in a long line of MMORPGs cut from the same cloth as its predecessors in the name of “genre limitations.” I’ll admit that some of the ideas they’re floating sound pretty cool, like hub-less questing, stamina-based reflexive combat, and mobs that ignore aggro conventions, but I’d have to see these elements in action before judging whether they’re enough to make the game stand out from the crowd. Because with a genre that really hasn’t changed much in the past decade, the last thing you want is more of the same-old, same-old.
You can view all of the screenshots embedded in this article, along with some actually quite pretty concept art, at their full resolution by visiting this gallery. If you want to check out the allegedly leaked Game Informer article for yourself, you can try here (.PDF) or here (images).
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