March 10, 2014

The Elder Scrolls Online Beta Impressions: Story & Quests

While not everyone will agree that story is of primary concern in an online game, a convincing setting and a sense of purpose is often necessary to draw players in. We all want to get out there and fight, gain levels, and win epic loot, but these things need context in order to feel relevant.

The Elder Scrolls Online's opening puts the player in isolation, a prisoner in the daedric realm of Coldharbour. Naturally, it's not long until a mysterious character breaks you out of your cell, and you learn the basics of movement, item acquisition and equipment, and basic combat. It's not exactly the tense escape sequence the game makes it out to be, though -- a lot of the time you're talking to some rather chatty NPCs. An impressive voice cast including Michael Gambon, John Cleese, and Jennifer Hale excuses this somewhat, though their characters essentially disappear after the tutorial is over and you enter the open world.

Beginning the game proper can be a bit disorienting, as you're just sort of dumped somewhere you don't belong -- one of three different starting zones, depending on your race's alliance. The main storyline objective involves finding and meeting up with Gambon's character, "the prophet," who helped you escape from Coldharbour. Pursuing this isn't possible for quite some time, however, so in the mean time you're stuck helping out strangers with their troubles until an opportunity to travel further becomes available. A real sense of direction is difficult to grasp, with the player mainly advancing the quests they are given out of sheer habit more than anything.

Thankfully, completing quests, talking to NPCs, and exploring are plenty interesting enough in their own right. Dialogue is well written, with characters exhibiting the dialects, accents, and vocabulary one would expect from the cultures of an Elder Scrolls setting. For example, choosing to side with the Aldmeri dominion starts you in an area covered in khajit-run moon-sugar plantations, and NPC chit-chat is peppered with references to its abuse in the production of skooma (an addictive narcotic), and the black market surrounding it.

Quests themselves are more like traditional Elder Scrolls story chains than the typical "kill 15 boars" MMO fare. They are fewer and farther between, but as a result they are also more interesting and sometimes involve the player making decisions about how to mete out justice in morally-grey situations. Sometimes, this is even a matter of life or death.

The questing structure can sometimes be its own downfall, however, as there is literally no way to progress further into the next zone unless you have completed all the quests first and are at the step where you gain access to a ship or some other gateway to a new area. This caused a major issue for a number of players during the beta, when a bug prevented necessary enemies from spawning, thus completely closing off all progress from that point onward. Logging out and logging back in sometimes granted another chance at making the enemy appear, but this didn't seem to work for all instances and I was forced to start the game over in another faction just for something to do. Hopefully these sorts of errors will be smoothed over well before the game releases, but it underlines how guided an experience ESO is, and how crucial it will be for ZeniMax to work out all the kinks for their game to even function.

Setbacks aside, when the quests work they work great, and feel a lot like advancing an engrossing chain of events in Skyrim. In my time with the beta, I infiltrated a bandit hideaway in disguise, explored an undead-ridden temple, solved a murder and exposed its connection to a conspiracy involving an invasion of territorial sea elves. With each event, the world shifts and changes to suit current circumstances unique to your own progress. This is no doubt going to cause some conflicts between what one player and another each see in the game world, and what "version" of a given area you're inhabiting. This became a little confusing when I joined a friend who had already completed the quest I was working on, and I was seemingly reacting to things that weren't apparent to her. In this regard, most of the quests seem to be geared as single-player experiences, with little reason to need (or even want) other party members joining you.

In the end, The Elder Scrolls Online is essentially The Elder Scrolls, online. At least as far as the story is concerned, it feels very much like a traditional single-player RPG, but with other players running around as you explore -- which I think is basically what Skyrim fans all wanted from this game in the first place. As long as ESO can smooth out the bugs and keep up the plot pacing, it's certainly going to at least have a main story campaign that's worth enjoying.

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