[Edit: You can find a slightly updated version of this review, here, including screenshots]
You can't criticize something without playing, so I got myself a key for the last Beta-testing session. Of course, I could only share my impressions with friends who also beta-tested and agreed to the NDA. What does NDA stand for? Non-Disclosure Agreement. Something quite familiar when you work in an industry such as that of game development, as it is what forbids you to share anything related to the project being created (screenshots, story, gameplay mechanics, technology being used, etc, etc) until the game is released ...or the NDA is lifted for you. Well it was lifted for beta-testers!
For those who didn't test ESO, I'll already answer a few questions I'm thinking of, and if you have more, I'll answer them too.
Would I recommend you ESO?
- If you like TES for its deep lore: NO.
- If you like MMOs: NO. It's not worth the price, nothing here that a free MMO doesn't offer.
Todd Howard said "We can do anything, we can't do everything".
ESO aimed to please everybody: both TES fans and MMO fans, and is likely to end up pleasing nobody.
In which case would I recommend ESO?
Only if you really want to play an MMO that looks pretty, though a bit dull, but has
Skyrim Tamrielic playable races and locations reminiscent of TES games more by their name than a real "feel" of them. You might also not care a second about character naming for immersion, and meet Nyanknight, LastDragonborn, Lmao Twoplate or D'aeros Csha'alan. Some players might argue that ESO is such a rip-off of Skairym.
How is the gameplay?
The gameplay of ESO isn't bad in itself, but it has absolutely nothing in common with any TES game you've played.
After a little introduction scene, you get to create your character. You choose your race, your class, and you start modifying the appearance of your character to make it more unique. Actually, the sliders in this system reminded me of a mix between Oblivion's character generator and the Sim's, but without potato faces. If you want an ugly character, you must really want it hard, because everything aims to the pretty and cool. Note that elves lost their eyebrow ridges and sharp facial features, and Bosmer, for some reason we don't understand, can have horns. Yes. I said horns. Dunmers are not limited to red eye colors (Daedric curse isn't a big deal), and Redguards can be fair skinned.
There are 4 classes: Knight, Sorcerer, Templar and Nightblade. They all have magic and specific abilities, such as growing spikes on your body, grabbing your enemy with a big magic chain, plundering it with magic spears, etc. In fact, the only skill that seemed lorefriendly to me, was the conjuration of a Scamp familiar, for the Sorcerer class, that you can later morph into a Clannfear conjuration spell.
The class system is a total casualization of the gameplay, so MMO players can feel more at home, but for TES players it's very disturbing. Like Magnus and Julianos disappeared and were suddenly replaced by a honeycomb and a guar. Like, wtf?
The crafting system is both simple and complex. Simple, because obviously it was designed to be easy to use. Complex because so long as you don't understand, you don't understand, because you need items that you have no idea how to get!
To make food you need to find recipes, and use them to learn them (like spell tomes in Skyrim) and then, if you have the ingredients, you can cook. Pretty simple. However, for some reason, you have to create meals only one by one, and it can take very long to make a full batch, given that the creation process takes a few seconds. Click. Click. Click. ...I don't really see the point, honestly.
- Smithing, tayloring, woodworking...
To make weapons, armors and clothes, you need materials that you must refine (like ore into ingots, jute into linen, wood into wood). Once you understand this, it's pretty cool. At higher level you can access more styles (Altmeri, Breton, Orcish, etc) and it requires components that you can find randomly all the time, or buy. However, to improve an item (which is more interesting at low level since you can't access styles) you need items that might pop up randomly when refining materials or extracting them from existing items. Honestly, I got only one of those items and it wasn't even the one I needed to make the first basic improvement. Useless.
You need waters and plants to mix into a brew. Given how rare plants are, and given that you can't buy them, I managed to brew 4 potions during the whole beta, and only one was successful. I mixed things completely randomly since I found no recipe or whatsoever to help me out at that. Very waste of place in inventory.
Combat is rather easy when you don't have too many opponents. Targets are auto-detected and locked, so with multiple enemies it can become a bit messy at times. Using your class's skill is done through the use of number keys, so you need to remember what you mapped to which key. Personally, I'm not much used to this so I ended using the same skills most time.
Enemies have different types of attacks based on their race and type: humanoids come as warrior, mage or archer types, and animals have various powers. In example, some wolves can howl to call more of their kind.
Note that sometimes, if you are not extremely focused, you might end up being killed by low level enemies very quickly like wtf? Using potions in combat seemed ridiculously complicated to me, and after using one, I couldn't use any other. Running away is not an option either because once wounded everything feels slower.
Your skills level up as you use them (or not, it didn't seem completely logical to me), and sometimes you level up, but as completing quests is what gives you the most experience, I would consider level up to be quest-bound (which is ridiculous). When this happens, you can increase either your Magicka, health or stamina, and get a skill point. The skill point allows you to either activate a new skill or enhance one you already have to make it more powerful. Sometimes, you can also use this skill point to morph a skill: you can, in example, choose to make the skill affect multiple targets or to keep a single target version with a bonus effect. This is how you make your character more unique, and, personally, I find it seriously restrictive.
Communication and groups
It's an MMO so you can talk with other players in a chat box. Nothing revolutionary here, and honestly, I found this feature disastrous. You can address privately to someone in the chat by clicking their names, but if you want to talk to more than one person at once, it quickly becomes a hell of scrolling up the log to select the names. You can also send messages, but I was never sure it worked because I never got any reply. Also, chatting isn't a real action, and if you stay "inactive" for more than ~10~15? minutes, the connection is lost and you're good to reload the game. Chance is you'll never meet the people you were talking to again if you didn't add them to your contacts.
The interest of MMO is also to play with your friends, whom you can add as contacts, and create a group with. I managed to meet one friend after a lot of efforts to figure out how to see each other (required to "travel" to other player). We had some fun doing stupid things like jumping uselessly on tables, but questing in town without fights was certainly not much interesting.
Like in other MMOs it's possible to use emotes to make your character play a little animation. It's probably the feature I enjoyed most during this second beta session.
There's a lockpicking mini-game reminding of that of Oblivion, but completely hardcore. I never managed to lockpick even the easiest lock. There's obviously something to balance there. I don't get why they didn't take the Skyrim lockpicking system back, it is the best!
Oh, and you can't freely go from one area to the other within your faction, this is plot-driven, so you'd better do some quests before moving on, especially since leveling is quest-bound too (and you don't want to end up being stuck as low-level vs much stronger enemies). I wish there was more freedom to move around. I understand the limitations related to level but I really think there were other ways to deal with this otherwise, like having low-level enemies near settlements, and higher levels in the wilderness.
What does it look like
Let's face it: it's pretty but very casual. The artists were not just lazy and uninspired as hell, they also had no understanding of the universe whatsoever. This quote from an interview sums it all:
"The buildings of Alinor are said to look like they are "made from glass or insect wings". If the Summerset Isles are traverseable, will we see a design reminiscent of this?
The architecture of the High Elves is fanciful, certainly, but also practical, constructed of real-world materials. Architects can't make buildings out of poetry!"
Morrowind doesn't has Morrowind feels at all. It has netches, Red Mountain, Emperor Tree Mushrooms, but... it's not Morrowind. It's alien.
Skyrim has sorts of barrows, it has lots of snow, Nordic architecture, and it still doesn't feel like Skyrim.
Elsweyr is... pretty. But nothing crazy here, really.
Alinor is closer to what Cyrodiil looked like in Oblivion, it's just epic fail, epic lack of creativity, it's Bad And Therefore Wrong. Why are there Ayleid ruins?
Stros'M'kai is the best area, and I think it's because the art is close to the game originally set there, Redguard.
The Breton island of Betnikh is flat. Nothing amazing to see nor feel here. The only interesting place is the Ayleid ruin. It's pretty, but very small.
Coldharbour does not look like it should a second. It has nothing in common with Tamriel, when it should be a corrupted version of it. And it's full of Daedric typos.
In fact, everything is very small, tiny, even, and nothing seems alive. Even the places with NPC talking to the crowd or what are just... dead boring. It's lifeless. This is probably partly due to the contrast between AI-controlled NPCs and human-controlled PCs.
What's the story?
The story? Well, nothing amazing here again. Some months ago, I told some people that, given that the prisoner start is getting worse and worse (Morrowind: you're freed, Oblivion: you were left to rot in a cell, Skyrim: you nearly go executed) the next TES game would start by the prisoner being executed, going to Aetherius, and then being resurrected by a Necromancer or something. I didn't have ESO in mind, but turns out I was right:
As the game starts, you stand in a line with hundreds of other people, who are being sacrificed by Mannimarco one after the other. Your turn comes and you end up in the Wailing Prison, in Coldharbour. So far, if we forget that Mannimarco is being OOC by dealing with Bal, well it's ok, we have an explanation to the MMO part: you're one out of many others. And then, it gets all ruined as a Prophet appears to you and starts to act like you're special. So every player is the one. Fantastic. Ensues the tutorial part of the game, which would be nice if you could skip it for your next characters.
Then you end up in an alliance-related area, and you can start doing some quests.
How are the quests?
Boring for most of them. Everybody assumes you're a good lad who's gonna help them, and you rarely have the occasion to be an ass. Not that I want to be an ass, but I'm sick of being given dumb answer choices. It already annoyed the sixteen realms of Oblivion out of my skin in Skyrim, and really shows who the games are targeted to: people who never played TES games. Wtf. Is it so hard to include a wise answer in the dialog tree?
For some strange reason, although NPCs told what they wanted me to do, it was done in such a way that even though they mentioned the place, the thing to do, etc, by the end of the discussion I wasn't sure what I had to do, because I just didn't give a damn. So I just followed the arrows. The quests were both over-guided and completely obscure to me. I had no reason to do anything I did, aside from breaking boredom.
And what about NPC?
Regarding quests and NPCs, I found them much better in Stros M'Kai, the characters were nicer. I shouldn't go as far as to say they were deep because that would be too much, but in comparison to the rest...? They were. You know this feeling when everything is shitty and suddenly you find something less shitty and it looks AWESOME? That was my feeling. "Omg, a womanizer thief who's totally trying to be a badass jerk! Wow!" "A nice Altmer scholar who can repair a Dwemer spider but unable to pull a lever, so cute!" "A sneaky pirate who love disguises and has a monkey pet! Such kickass!" ...I feel bad for liking them! They are mainstream as hell!
How lore-friendly is it?
Well, very little, very basic, and without any sign of actual cleverness and understanding of lore, with the depth a TES game requires.
Here are a few facts:
- The magic has nothing in common with Tamriel magic, and that everybody can do it --in a time when magic was something obscure, mastered by lonely wizards, Psijiics and witches mostly. Vanus Galerion created the Mages Guild circa 2E230 but it was only made truly official in 2E321 by the Guild Act. Even after +250 years, I doubt that suddenly all of Tamriel would grow skills in magic, especially skills that have NOTHING in common with the SCHOOLS of magic. Plain ridiculous.
- Why in Oblivion would Mannimarco serve Molag Bal? He's a fricking ex-Psijic Altmer aiming to become a god. If he were to have any deal with a Daedra, he would be using it, not serving it. But why would he even deal with a Daedra? He's a Necromancer versed in lichcraft, and he doesn't need to ally himself to anyone to get the bodies or souls he might ever need.
- The very idea of Molag Bal trying to pull Nirn into Coldharbour is just gross. Nirn is what keeps Aedra and Daedra away from boredom, if one kid in the playground claims the only toy as his own, don't you think the others will be angry, and, for some *cough* Dagon *cough* beat the shit out of him? What's even the point in doing this?
- There's a Maormer necromancer who is vulnerable to water (Maormer are totally not known for riding sea snakes) and sealed in a temple in Elsweyr. Why? We don't know. But there's also an Orc warlord resting in an Ayleid ruin, so go figure... Peace and love, whatever.
- Bosmer recipes include plants. Very traditional for religiously carnivorous folk. I know the Green Pact only applies to Valenwood, but, please, an effort.
- As I said, the designs of places such as Coldharbour and Summerset Isle are screwed.
- Did I say Bosmer can have horns? I need to say it again.
- Argonians are not immune to poison, and seem to have a strange worship of Sithis. Probably a confusion with Shadowscales.
- The whole concept of Ayrenn is ridiculous of course: an adventurous Altmer queen traveling all over Tamriel and being such a friendly Mary-Sue. Well, if you like her, you'll be pleased to know you can meet her as soon as you set foot in Firsthold. She's very unprofessionally scolding one of her men in public, but Ayrenn goes wherever she wants and does whatever she wants, right? If you don't like her, sorry, you can't beat her right away.
- Not exactly lore-breaking, but cute: there are tigers in Elsweyr. Not Senche-Tigers. Just normal tigers. I think they are supposed to be Senches, but artists forgot how big and tall they are supposed to be then. Let's say they are kittens.
- For some weird reason, most books I found were about the Dwemer. And it wasn't stuff like Marobar Sul's Ancient Tales of the Dwemer, no, it was scholar stuff like Hanging Gardens of The Ruins of Kemel-Ze. Who would read that in the middle of a tri-faction war? Very strange.
Not to talk about the grudge between Dunmer and Nords, the fact that Argonians should be enslaved by Dunmer and certainly not considered any sort of equals, that Khajiit and Bosmer always hated each other, and Breton and Orcs didn't get along good either (remember that in Daggerfall, Orcs were considered to be mere pests like any gob). Those alliances are doomed from the start, I say. Some comments and texts are included ingame to show that some citizens are not very happy with them, but it's just cute.
To me, ESO is a made suited for pre-teens. It's rather pretty, colorful, very straight-forward, and doesn't contain anything a 10-year old couldn't understand. Just follow the quest arrows and beat the things standing on your way, and you're pretty much done with it. The only word I can use to describe this game in a positive manner is "cute". They tried. They tried hard. But they didn't make it.
What are the best features imo?
Todd Howard told in a speech that Skyrim had been designed not in matter of features, but in matter of experience. It's hard to say the same for ESO, and in fact, I don't even know what were the guidelines of the developers aside from making confused compromises. So I would say the best features are:
- Food and beverages are actually useful, with interesting effects (much more than in Skyrim)
- You can have a Clannfear familiar if you're a Sorcerer, which makes it the best class
- There is a Dwemer and an Ayleid ruin in the Daggerfall Covenant area (which is the prettiest and best rendered)
- There are bards singing songs in some cities, it was an ambient sound, no lip synch or what, but the songs were rather nice.
- You can use emotes to dance and play music (but sadly each instrument has a different melody so you can't be a band with other people)
You can be rightfully alarmed that I'm mostly excited over the food crafting system. But if there was only one thing to keep, I would keep on this. And the emotes.