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[personal profile] bellinghman
This last weekend, while the better half was away on a Worldcon staff weekend, I was off in Tamriel.

To clarify, I was playing Elder Scrolls Online, the MMO game set in the same world as Skyrim.

It's still in beta, not being released for another month, and it's got some glitches, but oh my it's beautiful. There are occasions when, wandering along a bit of sea shore, when I could taste the salt in the air. Or I could feel the welcome coolness in the air as a thunderstorm broke and the rain started to fall. That's immersion, and the sheer quality of the graphics really helps.

The previous MMO I played, for a number of years, was World of Warcraft. Now WoW was designed for lower specification machines, and they took a decision to go for a graphic style that was deliberately unrealistic. It was probably a good decision, as it avoids the Uncanny Valley problem, but it did leave it looking like the game it is. ESO in comparison feels like being in a world. They've taken a different route, and while the result isn't as realistic as the Final Fantasy film a number of years ago, the characters that you interact with move and look at you or glance around, their lips move as they're talking, they're bobbing their heads and gesturing and so on. In short, they're animated, in both senses. Zenimax/Bethesda have spent a lot of time on voice and motion-capture, and the result shows — interacting with High Elf Queen Ayrenn, you're in a film opposite Kate Beckinsale. (Yes, they spent money too — we're talking one heck of a cast, from Cleese and Gambon to McDowell, Lynda Carter and Alfred Molina, and others. Definite plaudits for the casting there.) The result is more emotional investment — I care about what Ayrenn thinks, or Razum-dar the catman.

The landscape is a lot larger than the regions in WoW. The zone I've been in — Auridon — feels as large as one of WoW's 'continents'. Getting long distances quickly is aided by a network of 'waystations' — shrines that look a tiny bit like the Albert Memorial, but missing the seated Albert. Once you're at one of these places, you can nearly instantly travel to any other that you have discovered, in the same zone or across zones. This works for me better than the WoW system of free instant intercontinental ships and slow short distance pay-for flights, a system that meant for some destinations it's best to bounce off the other continent.

And to travel between those waystations is free. You only get charged if you're going from an arbitrary point to a waystation.

(This being the beta, I have three different routes off Auridon, but none of them are currently enabled)

Levelling is more open. There are character levels, but while those are important (it's how you get the extra point for magicka, stamina or health), you're also developing multiple skills. My character is a Bosmer — a wood elf — and she's sneaky and an archer. Her level with a bow is much higher than her character level, but she's also not too bad with dual wield. She just about knows which end of a staff to point at the enemy, but needs a lot more practice if she really wants to switch. She could move more towards being a mage type, but I prefer the sniper style.

Questing has a different feel from WoW, in that (at least so far for me), many of the quests are part of one big story. There is much less 'go find x foos' or 'go kill y mobs' than in WoW. When quests do require multiple objectives, they're usually in specific places ('go burn the N, W and SE catapults please'). While WoW did do some quests like that, and ESO does have a few 'rescue 5 people' ones, the overall balance feels better than I remember from WoW.

(Disclaimer: I've not paid played WoW for quite a long time)

And yes, that overall story, it's somewhat more nuanced than I was getting from WoW. Playing a Bosmer, I'm part of the Aldmeri Dominion, a confederation of the High Elves (Altmer), the Wood Elves (Bosmer) and the cat people (Khajit). This confederation is new, and there are, to say the least, teething pains, mostly due to those Altmer who do not want to admit their confederates as equals. So there's an undeclared civil war smouldering. Ayrenn though is young (well, for an Altmer, she is) and idealistic, and tends to think the best of people. I'm a little more cynical and had guessed just who the Veiled Queen was before the reveal.

In combat, you can sensibly thrust and block and get it all to work. At one point I was in Firsthold, a town taken by rebels, and rather than my normal zap-pull-stab combo, I was doing close quarters combat. I was blocking their attack, and then quickly lashing out while their big two-handed sword was still waving. And then blocking again when their sword came back at me. It worked for me, and it's probably the first time that has in any game.

Enchanting is fun. You collect 'runes' that you spot hanging round the landscape (yes, silly and with no justification, but that's gameplay). You then combine one of each of three types, and get a glyph, which is one of three types (for weaponry, jewelry or armour). And you apply that glyph to an item of the appropriate type, and it's improved (unless you've just replaced a previous and better glyph). You can start low and up the enchantment on something over time (though usually you'll be getting something better, and enchanting that).

The most useful crafting is clothing, woodwork or blacksmithery. In each case, you start off with basic abilities, able to make the appropriate item type for your race, but you can research attributes, such as sturdiness or precision. To research bow precision, for example, you first need a precise bow. That gets destroyed by the research, but a while later (6 hours to 2 days, for me so far, and the time is known in advance) you get to know how, when making a new bow, you can make it precise. You can only apply one attribute per item made, and it takes a specific gem (on sale from a convenient vendor if needed), and being able to make a precise bow doesn't make you able to make a precise staff, that's a different item type. But it's worth it, in that the attribute you learnt from a cheap bow for a level 1 character, you can now apply to one suitable for a level 14 character.

(Fishing, now, I've yet to see the point of fishing, but that may be because I have not invested much time in it at all. In WoW, a number of cooking recipes were for fish, but I've not seen any here for that.)

In WoW, one of the annoying things was tagging — the first character to attack an opponent, they and their group 'owned' it. That's not the case here. You get ad-hoc groups rushing some mobs — if an opponent needs killing for a quest, and you were in the fight, it counts. I suspect it may be counting if you were within combat range and at least aiming.

This isn't Skyrim. Partly, if you think it is, you will trip up a bit to start with. On the other hand, it is at least missing that awful broken doll death animation. Death here is a pain, but while your gear suffers damage, and if you want to resurrect where you died it will cost you a Soul Gem, it's not too painful.

The one part I don't get on with is the so-called quick slots. I think I must be missing something there, since they seem clunky. That's possibly because they're designed for the console versions.

This is still the beta. Some of the quests are buggy, which is not surprising — that's one reason for doing a beta. One of the favourite player hangouts was Malanie's Forge, where Malanie herself was supposed to be. Sadly, she wasn't, ever, which made completing that quest more than a little tricky. At least one of the other 'missing mobs' was now around, not having been there for the previous beta.

The most useful actual command is '/reloadui' — interacting with a vendor or a crafting station would frequently leave you 'stuck', unable to get back to normal mode. (This solution was also useful in WoW — not bug-compatible, bug workaround-compatible) However, it's actually quicker to pop up the Add Ons menu and press 'R' than to type the full '/reloadui'.

And occasionally you find yourself unable to interact with something, and logging out and back in fixes it.

But it's definitely much closer to prime time than the previous two betas.

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