Thursday, December 03, 2015

Review Day: Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited (PC)

ESO is a Massively Multiplayer Online game set in the "Elder Scrolls" world (from games such as Daggerfall, Oblivion, and Skyrim). It originally launched with a monthly fee over a year ago and endured many a growing pain before being re-released in a "buy the box once for $40" form this past summer. It takes some great ideas from many recent WoW competitors (such as the telegraph system from Wildstar) and delivers a charming, yet non-addictive, gaming experience that will keep you enthralled for at least a little while.

Cost: In the absence of subscription fees, the game is supported by cosmetic and time-saving purchases in a real money store (special mounts, pets, etc.), but everything you MUST have in the game can be bought without real cash. Additionally, some traditional money sinks are missing -- for example, your mount is shared across all of your characters, and each character buys lessons to increase riding skill instead.

Graphics: The game locales look great across the board -- I could maintain a steady 30 - 40 FPS with Medium settings on an older graphics card, and can consistently hit 60 - 100 FPS on Ultra-High settings with the GTX 960. Character facial expressions have that "uncanny valley" Skyrim look to them, but make up for it with plenty of emotes and animations. Sadly, there is no /train emote.

Music & Sound: The music is pleasant, with the occasional Skyrim motive thrown in for nostalgia. Sound is passable, although you'll get tired of your character's combat yelps after a while. ESO differs from other MMOs by providing voice-acting for every single NPC and quest line in the game (probably why it took 6 hours to install), and this helps to give each quest more weight.

Questing & Leveling: Quests are multi-stage, well-polished affairs that build up the story over a particular locale, rather than the typical "kill 50 boars" WoW throwaway. I was impressed with the variety in the early going, but found that the themes of the quests started to repeat around level 20 or so. The quests also bring back many recurring characters, but by the time they reappear, you've probably forgotten why they were important.

Classes & Stats: With nine races across three factions, it's surprising that there's only 4 classes to choose from: Dragonknight, Nightblade, Sorcerer, Templar. However, I found this to be one of the game's strengths -- each class has great flexibility and there is no one "best" way to define your character. Every character can use every weapon, cast spells, or sneak and sprint, and the way you allocate your stats between magicka and stamina determine how much or little of each you can do. I currently have a Level 41 Magicka-based Templar which plays like a WoW Retribution Paladin, and a Level 12 Stamina-based Nightblade which plays like a Skyrim thief.

Abilities: Figuring out how to level up your abilities is not very intuitive, but it's not a big deal. I like that you can only have 5 abilities plus an Ultimate on your skillbar, but don't like that an ability must be on your bar to get better. Often times, I found myself with skills I didn't particularly like on the bar, simply so I could level them up in case I wanted to use them "someday". The abilities are fun to use, and combat is kept lively by real-time counterattack / dodge options, as well as the telegraph system which gives you a few seconds warning when an area spell is about to land somewhere.

Crafting: Is crafting ever fun? It's here, but not much more than the usual time sink you'd expect it to be.

Overall: This is a peaceful, pleasant MMO experience, full of helpful players (the world is bursting with activity) but without any pressure to group up. The journey up to level 50 is very fun and soloable, and I never feel pressure to hit the end-game. I find exploration to be very rewarding, with hidden chests or vistas all over. I play it like an MMO version of Skyrim (a game I've sunk over 300 hours into over the years), and though it's decidedly NOT an "open world" game, it's exactly what I'm in the mood for some days. It's not as addicting as Skyrim, but will tide me over until I'm in the mood for Rise of the Tomb Raider or Fallout 4.

Final Grade: B+

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