E3 2012: The Elder Scrolls Online looks big and beautiful. It also looks like games we've seen countless times already.
GameSpot editors Kevin VanOrd and Jonathan Toyad both got to enjoy an E3 2012 presentation of Zenimax Online's upcoming online role-playing game, The Elder Scrolls Online. And they came away with many of the same impressions. Here, they share their thoughts on the first online game in the renowned fantasy series.
Kevin: Zenimax Online might be a new studio, but the creative minds in that studio aren't newcomers. The development team is made up of talents from Mythic Entertainment, NetDevil, and Sony Online Entertainment--this is a studio that knows what it's doing. We've played their games, and enjoyed them. Which may explain why their upcoming game--The Elder Scrolls Online--is a whole lot like those games that came before.
Studio president Matt Firor presented the upcoming MMOG behind closed doors at E3 2012. He impressed upon us part of the team's vision for The Elder Scrolls Online. Social systems are important, for instance: MMOGs are meant to be played with others. Game systems, varied races, and interesting environments are important too, and to prove the point, he presented a reel of the game's regions and monsters.
Jonathan: The developers seem to know what to give to the Elder Scrolls lore buffs. The vast deserts of Hammerfell? They're there. The land of the cat race Khajiit? It's in there too. The art direction of the game, while just as bright and saturated like a certain juggernaut MMO game from Blizzard, has that distinct "serious Elder Scrolls" feel, only without the deformed facial features from Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
The development team also focused on making sure any gamer can jump into the game without having too much information being dumped onto their monitors. The health, stamina, and magicka bars pop up only when they need to (that is, when you're getting hit or casting a spell), and the hotkey tabs show up only when your cursor hovers around it. Zenimax Online sure hates this interface clutter and definitely nailed this aspect so that the main focus is on the steel-on-flesh action and pretty fantasy fireworks.
Kevin: Speaking of steel on flesh, the studio spent much of its time talking about real-time combat. You can block at any time and can charge up standard attacks to make them land more powerfully. In addition, your main combat limitations are your stamina and magicka reserves, as opposed to arbitrary spell cooldowns.
Another nice touch is that if you join another player, your skills might complement each other so that you can do more damage by combining your attacks. You don't even need to be teamed up to land that extra damage, or to reap the rewards. That said, what we saw onscreen didn't look much more energetic than standard MMOG action. Some of the details may have changed, but the overall effect wasn't much different from the combat of the typical fantasy MMOG.
Jonathan: I do hope the team attacks Kevin mentioned become more than just damage-dealing tools. Imagine a Bretonian spellcaster using Healing Hands and a Nord swordwielder performing a ground pound sword attack that results in an area-of-effect aura blast that heals party members and destroys the undead within the vicinity.
Firor also gave us a tour of one of the quests one can partake in. The way it was handled, however, seemed by-the-numbers. Yes, we were told that the decisions we make would have future ramifications, but the result of the demo's quest was just an extra mission at best.
To sum it up, the warrior in the demo had to go back in time to kill a rogue traitor general who turned out to be a werewolf. Halfway through, you have the choice to rescue a friend of the quest giver; saving her will make her pop up at the present time to give you an additional special quest for more loot and more fauna-killing. It is still a nice incentive to keep players busier than usual, but it doesn't seem like the revelation Firor is making it out to be.
Kevin: And that was the presentation's weak spot: the discrepancies between the promises and the examples. Firor impressed upon us that The Elder Scrolls Online will feature the same kind of free-form adventuring we've seen in the single-player games. His example: when heading toward your quest destination, you might choose to go off and explore, and perhaps bump into another character with another quest to give. Yet that's not a particularly compelling argument that The Elder Scrolls Online brings that giddy Elder Scrolls adventuring into the MMOG space: what Firor described is a basic feature of almost every similar game.
Don't take that to mean that we came away feeling overly negative toward The Elder Scrolls Online. The game looks huge and attractive. It features the races you'd expect, and the regions you want to explore in an Elder Scrolls game. A vast array of features is planned: large-scale PVP battles, puzzle rooms, and public dungeons. Yet at this stage, it's hard to see what sets this upcoming MMOG apart in a big way, apart from "it's an online RPG in the Elder Scrolls universe." Of course, that might be enough, and with a game this big, and at a stage this early, the sparks of creativity may not yet be bright enough to notice at first glance. Here's hoping that The Elder Scrolls Online isn't just checking off the boxes, but shines brightly as a unique entry in a crowded genre.