Elder Scrolls Online: Why is this combat so unsatisfying?

With LOTRO on pause until mid-February (due to no content releases/unlocks), my attention and time has turned back to Elder Scrolls Online as a main MMO game of choice. It’s been a good decision, all in all, due to the rise in excitement over the upcoming expansion and my general desire to want to return. I’m continuing to make my way through Elsweyr with my Warden, generally enjoying the quests and sights as much as anything else.

But one thing I’m not enjoying, one thing I’ve never really enjoyed in this game, is its combat. I know that ESO’s combat is a common criticism, although I haven’t read up much on it. Instead, I’ve tried to formulate in my own head why fighting in this game seems so… unsatisfying.

I suppose I can point to a limited skill bar and rather dull weapon choices for starters, but I don’t think that’s it. It’s not even the action combat angle, although I think that this is much more dull than tab-targeting combat in MMORPGs. It’s certainly not the time-to-kill; I can jump into a small pack of mobs, throw on ice armor, throw down some AOEs, and hack everyone down with my trusty bear in about 20 seconds or less. That’s pretty decent. So it’s not that combat is lengthy, it’s just unfulfilling.

What makes the combat experience fulfilling, then? There are a lot of factors that devs have to get just right — to fine-tune — but perhaps the greatest among these and the least talked about is feedback. No, not “players whining on the forums,” but the audio and visual feedback from combat actions.

Early MMOs had rather lousy feedback. What you would see and hear visually would almost always be disconnected to what was actually happening in the combat log; it was more of a vague visual representation than an accurate reflection of reality. It always felt loose and encouraged you to look at the log more than the visuals.

ESO is better than this, but there are some of the same problems at play here. It feels loose… that’s the only way I can put it. Hits and attacks don’t have strong audio sounds to go with them. Enemies don’t react to most individual blows. And the health meter of both the player and the enemy is downright weird: It grows shorter from the outsides to the middle in a loose way that doesn’t seem to register what’s happening at that very microsecond but rather just in general. I’m used to MMO health bars depleting in more definitive and noticeable ways.

The end result is smacking bad guys around doesn’t have that feedback that draws me in. I don’t slam a mace against a head, hear a crack, and see a chunk of life instantly disappear. I’m just spamming a few special abilities and a lot of mouse clicks while moving to reposition to avoid attacks or aim certain cone abilities just so.

As we look ahead to a year of vikings and vampires, I hope that ZeniMax looks for ways to improve the combat feedback in ESO to make it much more satisfying to all of us.

5 thoughts on “Elder Scrolls Online: Why is this combat so unsatisfying?

  1. Sylow January 24, 2020 / 12:24 pm

    Hmm. That’s an interesting analysis, why combat seems wrong for you.

    I do actively play ESO. And plenty of people also say that combat is all the same, no matter which class and weapon: just drop all your damage over time effects on a target, watch it go down. That’s an observation i also share, although the last big patch with the nerf to damage over time effects made things a bit better. They still are strong, but not the only viable way of approaching combat any more.

    On the bars not going down instantly and the lack of sound and effects, that’s an interesting angle, though. I mean i do see that my own health bar sometimes acts a bit “soft”. But my targets health bars react quite fine and quickly. The same is true for my groups health bars on the group window.

    One can suspect latency issues, server load and plenty of other things. But now that i think about it, that my own health does have the delay, while my targets health does not, i suspect something else: the user interface. My UI is heavily modified. And while my modification moves the location of the own health bars, they still use the original ESO code for filling and controlling the bars. My targets health bar, as well as my groups health bars, on the other hand, are a full replacement of the originals. They move much more rapidly.

    So actually i think the core of the problem here is that the standard UI animates the bars going up and down, which does take a second or two. So unless you completely oppose addons for your MMOs, you might want to try one which gives you different bars. (E.g. Bandit UI, although that one comes with a lot of additional features which you might not ever use. )

    On sound and animation, that’s a harder thing. Of course an enemy can flinch after being hit in many older MMOs. It doesn’t matter that their attack animation is lost. The white damage comes in at a timer, nothing is lost. The style of combat in ESO can’t afford to not show an attack animation. Good players often just block for half a second or less, at the right time, then attack again. An attack animation being hidden by a flinching animation would break that. And if flinching would completely prevent the attack, people would figure out to flinch-lock an enemy, preventing him from ever doing damage.

    Some more “impactful” sound when hitting a target might be easier to do. It would not break the animation, after all. In the end, it’s a matter of taste, though. I find that for several MMOs out there, the sound is only fine due to the game graphics also being cartoony and over the top. For the more subdued style of ESO i would not like them too much.

    Of course that can also be me. I also didn’t really fee the “not impactful” for a long time in TSW. Until i went to another processor on which the game ran sluggishly (although the processor was actually better, but the game was unable to use it well) and stuff reacted too slow in game. As long as the enemies health bar reacts on time, i am kind of fine. 🙂

  2. Tyler F.M. Edwards January 24, 2020 / 12:35 pm

    I think you may have a point about the lack of feedback, but I think the biggest issue is the lack of synergy between the skills. All your abilities are generally fine on their own, but each feels like it was designed in a vacuum. There’s no real support for rotations or combos, so no matter what your build is you end up spending most of your time just spamming whatever your highest damage skill is until the enemy stops moving. It’s a tad mindless.

  3. Sylow January 26, 2020 / 9:46 am

    Hmm. What do you mean that it does not exist?

    Things like this: “While slotted, whenever you activate a different Ardent Flame ability, you gain a stack of Seething Fury, which increases the damage of your next Molten Whip by 33% and your Weapon and Spell Damage by 60 for 5 seconds. This effect can stack up to 3 times.”

    These things are in there.The one i just quoted if a good example even. You slot it. Do you use it for +33% on the next attack, or do you save it for 180 extra weapon and spell damage? Either is valid, depending on the situation. It’s true that many people ignore them, it’s true that they are not omnipresent and do not dominate the metagame. But they do exist.

    All in all, i even think that the game and rotations are getting better. Up to half a year ago, the game was all about “put all your damage over time effect on the target, then spam one attack”. What i just quoted was added in the last half a year and there are other examples for it.

    So i guess the developers also saw the problem and are on way of fixing it. Of course, there was much moaning and crying when the “all DoT” metagame was reduced, so the change won’t be done at once. But things are getting better.

    This is basically the one thing i mostly praise them for. ESO was an utter wreck at launch. I tried it, considered it to be worthless and left. A year later, due to a free week, i looked it again. It again was terrible and i considered it a hopeless case. Luckily for the game, my wife again years later during another free week managed to persuade me to give it a try again. I really didn’t want to, my mind was set on the game. And then i had to find out that how much they changed and fixed and that they actually turned it from an utter trainwreck into an actually enjoyable game. And in the two years or so which i am now playing, i found that they continue improving the game.

    There’s still plenty wrong. But several other developers would’ve closed it down after the launch and first year it had. They instead are fixing and upgrading it.

    Also as a sidenote: the world “synergy” even describes an in-game mechanic. The game has a very good inter-player synergy system. For the solo player it indeed does not matter at all, but when playing in dungeons or trials it becomes very important that players provide the right synergies for the others, be it to replenish their resources, provide the possibility to cleanse off debuffs, increase your defense or several other useful things.

    I know that it’s not what you mean, but for me it makes a difference. I regularily do play in group content of higher difficulty, i did that in many other MMOs. And there i can say that while the “core” of buff and heal is similar to other MMOs (although ESOs combat system adds another layer due to how you have to target them), these synergies are an interesting additional component. Not utterly complex to use, but very powerful when used correctly.

  4. Joe Ursic January 27, 2020 / 8:55 am

    ESO’s combat is ~90% the same as it was at launch, so I doubt it is going to ever be something you enjoy. You might be better off trying to fight less. Just activate some of that free crown food you get in the monthly rewards and then run or ride to your goal markers. Enemies only chase you for so long and you should be able to handle all of the ones that do hang with you to your destination. That way you fight less and experience the quest dialog more often, which is where the game excels.

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