Elder Scrolls Online’s SHACK OF DEATH

Here’s a general MMO adventuring pro-tip: Sooner or later, you’re going to come across the dwelling of a cannibal and/or serial killer. When this happens, don’t be surprised. Take in the view of the almost comical piles of skeletons and bones, snap a few pictures if you must, and then carefully back away while resisting the urge to grab a souvenir. Hanging out there is just begging to get added to the “collection.” And trust me, no matter how bad you think your life is right now, it’s going to get a little bit worse when someone else is wearing your skin as a human suit.

And welcome back to another fun sojourn through Elder Scrolls Online, where even your winter wonderland is plagued by cultists, killers, madmen, vampires, and a lot of drunk vikings. One of my friends said that he’s felt let down by Greymoor, which is generally seen as “fine” but “not near the insanely popular heights of Skyrim.”

Me? I’m OK with it so far. I was never as enamored with Skyrim as it seems like most all gamers are, so I guess I’m seeing Greymoor as just another solid ESO zone. I’m still in the above-ground portion of it, working on side quests and doing a fair amount of antiquing on the side.

I was really delighted to see that my old friend Rigurt returned. His quest chain in Elsweyr was among the highlights, and I’m glad that the writers brought him back for another ambassadorial adventure. The guy is such a goofball mix of dense and enthusiastic that he reminds me of Park and Recreation’s Andy. He also gets some of the best lines of any quest dialogue.

Plus, this is the only quest I’ve played in ESO where I’m frantically chasing a fish that’s high on mushrooms.

As for my new bow-wielding lifestyle, it’s functional but still not that magical rotation that will suddenly transform ESO into a normal-feeling MMO combat system. I’m killing at a nice pace, but it’s not necessarily fun or snappy enough that I run out of my way to go fight. Actually, I’ve noticed that you really don’t kill as many mobs in ESO than in most MMOs. I can appreciate that, at least.

Why Elder Scrolls Online’s story telling is so darn good

The toughest nut for me to crack to truly enjoy Elder Scrolls Online has got to be its combat system (for me, at least). I’ve been experimenting with a lot of different things, mostly moving spells around or trying out different weapons, in the hopes that I’ll get a build that offers a smooth and enjoyable rotation.

After doing a little bit of research, I figured that it might be worth giving an archery-focused build a try — or StamBowWarden or whatever abbreviation the community likes to do with these things. To assist with this switch, one of my most excellent guild mates offered not only to make me a bow but an entire outfit (with enchants) to support the build. The end result is a character that feels and plays a lot more different then my old haphazard magicka one did — and I didn’t have to reroll. That’s a plus.

So far, it’s working really well for me. Fast kills, not too much key spamming, and extra XP thanks to the armor set. I also paid to respec for the first time, which I think was long overdue because I had so many wasted points spread out over everywhere. I’m working on rebuilding her and working up skill lines that I want her to use in the end. Again, good so far. We’ll see how it goes in the long run.

And I genuinely want there to BE a long run because everything else about Elder Scrolls Online is clicking hard with me these days — especially the stories. Man, I love these quests, to the point where I’m excited if I uncover another quest giver. This game really reminds me of The Secret World in that respect, with fewer but more detailed quests and quest givers. I think ESO has a lot more emphasis on dialogue and additional scripting than TSW did, but both place a premium of making even “side” quests full stories that don’t distract the player with scads of tasks but rather one mission, one story, one quest at a time.

Why are these quests so good? While some of the tales and characters are pretty memorable in their own right, there are enough mediocre ones to encourage exploration somewhere else for this answer. I think it’s because ESO really nailed quest flow in a way that most MMOs don’t. Most MMOs front-load you with a task — go here, do this, this is the flimsy pretext why — and then there’s very little narrative development, surprises, or resolution after that. You just Do The Thing.

In ESO, there are objectives and clickies and even kill requests, but almost all of it is in service to the story of the quest. There’s enough time and space to really sell the narrative, establish the characters, and let development happen. A lot of the side quests are much like short stories, where characters are introduced, you get to know the general situation, and you’re plunged into the meat of a crisis or a mystery.

I love seeing NPCs come and go, especially inside of the little dungeons that populate this land. They keep reminding me of what’s at stake and offer up more actions and dialogue to further my understanding. Every once in a while a quest might toss in a choice — usually at the conclusion — that is appreciated, and usually there’s a scripted epilogue that takes place if you stick around.

It’s really good stuff, and I’m excited to think that there’s so many of them in the game I’ve yet to experience. That’s why I so desperately want to take combat above “functional” to “fun,” just to extend my potential interest here.

ESO: Greymoor hors d’oeuvres

In the weeks leading up to Greymoor, my main priority in Elder Scrolls Online was just positioning my Warden to be ready to jump in the moment it went live. One thing that I could do in advance was the Greymoor prologue quest, which ESO handed out for free through the store (which is a smart marketing move, by the way).

The quest was rather more lengthy than I anticipated and involved tracking down a cult by hopping around the world with a Nord half-giant. There was a sewer crawl, a preview of the enormous underground realm that Greymoor will boast, and lots and lots of fighting. The only thing that disappointed me was the voice acting for the Nord king, who handled his lines in a really weird and stilted way. It really stuck out, since most of ESO’s voice acting is rather excellent.

Happily, Greymoor proper was hot on its trail. The expansion released last week, and I have to say that it was a gaming highlight for me. I kind of needed a pick-me-up, although a few bouts of insomnia meant that I was cutting gaming time on the next nights to make up that sleep. So I didn’t get in as much as I wanted to, but my pace is going to be pretty leisurely anyway.

I was never a huge Skyrim fan — I think I played it for a few days back when Elder Scrolls 5 launched — but I’m all for winter zones with mountains, conifers, and the northern lights. Plus, grouchy vikings. That’s always a plus. My current plan is to mostly concentrate on the main storyline and just save up all of the side quests for afterward — or when I need a break. So far, the story has a good flow as Titanborn and I investigate weird vampiric/cultist rituals in the far north.

I did take a break to start in on the expansion’s main feature addition, which is the antiquities system. It’s basically archaeology-slash-treasure hunting that spans every zone the game’s made to date. I really love the idea of that, of repurposing older zones as well as including newer ones, and the system itself is kind of fun.

It’s built around a couple of minigames and some landscape sleuthing, but so far nothing too frustrating. I think that setting the goal of doing two or three antiquities hunts at the start of a gaming session every night might be a good one in progressing me through these skill lines and in the acquisition of better fun stuff. I bought an apartment in the Solitude city tavern to decorate with whatever I find, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this will pay off handsomely down the road.

Here’s something you don’t see every day in a fantasy MMO: a disabled NPC in a wheelchair. So sorry about my bear’s butt in your face, ma’am. He has no manners. You kind of look like you’re writing him up for this transgression, though.

I’m just happy that every session I have in ESO is pretty relaxed and calming. I have a bevy of options and can simply enjoy romping around the landscape and looking for new areas to unlock, or I can get into questing, or I can become an amateur archaeologist. The zone itself doesn’t look that terribly big, but ESO does a lot with smaller plots of land — and I keep reminding myself that there’s a whole underground realm here too.

Elder Scrolls Online: The Warden rides again

Out of all of the ways to be drawn back into an MMO, I wouldn’t have expected a trivia contest to do it.

So here’s the weird story. Every night I sit down and cycle through several MMOs to grab daily rewards for if and when I might come back to the game. When I did so in Elder Scrolls Online, I noticed that my guild (which is, of course, squid-themed) was four questions into a trivia contest. Well, I couldn’t let that go by, so I sat there and dominated the rest of the game (I may not be smart, but your boy can do trivia like no one else). We were laughing and chatting, and since I was sticking around, I also started questing.

Well, that led to actual play engagement — which led to actually wanting to play. Nightly. Regularly. So there you go — daily rewards don’t get me to play, but a silly guild trivia contest? That’s the ticket.

Anyway, it’s actually been really great to slide back into ESO. With the new(ish) zone guide feature, I’m able to see how many quests that are left in any given region, so I’ve been puttering around Northern Elsweyr working on finding the few that I overlooked and chomping through them.

I have to say that I’ve really come to appreciate ESO’s storytelling on many levels. Not only are these usually self-contained tales (rather than enormous, sprawling ones), but the voice acting, the scripting, the variety, and the resolutions offer me a lot more than I usually see in MMOs. And I actually *care* about the stories, which makes a difference. FFXIV might have great storytelling, but when you don’t really care about the world or the tale being told, then it doesn’t matter how well it’s packaged.

So really, the only obstacle to full enjoyment and engagement in ESO is and continues to be combat. I can keep wishing in vain for things like auto-attacks and more visceral blows, but there are things I can control. One thing was turning on damage numbers, which were off for some reason. I like seeing that feedback, especially for AOE attacks. Another thing is that I’m trying to build my Warden to being a 100% spellcaster, rather than a spellcaster/melee hybrid. I don’t like smacking things around in this game, but I am finding enjoyment in just throwing down AOE fields and DOTs. So I’m going to stick to that.

I think it’s a really good time to be getting back into this game, what with Greymoor coming out today. Even though I have just tons and tons of other zones and content to do, I pre-ordered the expansion because I knew it would kill me not to be adventuring there with everyone else in the summer. I’ve also done the prologue quests, which at least start to get the player in the mindset of heading to Skyrim to fight vampires.

I also can’t wait to try out the new Antiquities system. That seems like a really great way to repurpose zones and add non-combat activities into the game, and I’m down with that. I should also work more on my house, since I haven’t done much with that since I initially set it up.

Anyway, great to be back in Elder Scrolls Online, particularly this month!

Finishing up Elsweyr in Elder Scrolls Online

I’m doing a bit of personal facepalming here today, because I just now realized that I never actually finished writing a post sharing my accomplishment of finishing up the core Elsweyr expansion in Elder Scrolls Online. Oh, I had started a post and put pictures in it and everything, and then it got bumped off the front page of my drafts and drowned in a sea of forgetfulness.

Anyway, I finished it. Probably not the whole Elsweyr; I hear there’s another zone? I’m not quite up on ESO releases except to know that I’m way, way behind (which is the usual story). But I finished the main storyline and the sidequests to Northern Elsweyr, a feat that took me into some sort of bizarre alternate dimension where I had to fight two angry dragons in a long and boring boss battle.

Again, if ESO’s combat was practically anything but what it is now, I swear I’d make this game a mainstay in my household. The world building, the voice acting, the quest design, the housing — it’s all pretty great. But the combat is a canker sore in the middle of it all, robbing me of any enjoyment and replacing it with annoyance. I play despite the combat, not because of it.

Even though I felt that the story went off the rails of my comprehension toward the end there, it was suitably involving and nice in the eye candy department. I didn’t mind the land of the cat people at all, as they ended up being way more endearing than Morrowind’s dour elves.

I’m going to be stepping away from ESO for a while, in any case. There are other things that are interesting me more, but the siren call of the expansion might be what I need to come back some day. Not really for the vampires (ugh), but the northern climes of Skyrim are a big draw — and I’m hearing good things from testers right now.

Anyway, big applause for the world designers of Elsweyr. It’s probably my favorite desert region in an MMO, and that’s not praise that I dole out lightly. I guess it’s more savannah than pure desert, but it definitely has that Egyptian feel. Kind of expect Indiana Jones to run through on a cameo here and there.

Elder Scrolls Online: Floating heads make the best enemies

I swear, wherever I go in Elder Scrolls Online, I feel like I’m on the set of Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones. The environmental artists in this game don’t get enough credit for how amazing they make this world look. I’d gladly use these visuals for most every other fantasy MMO if I could, just transplant in their quests, classes, and features.

Anyway, more gradual questing through Elsweyr. I think I’ve done most of the side quests that I’ve found (apart from dailies) and am focusing more on the main quest line that involves dragons and necromancy and more dragons and more necromancy. If only there was a floating, talking head to round things out…

Whew! That makes a bingo for me!

At this point, I want to be done with Elsweyr, not because the land is unenjoyable, but because I want the sense of progression and progress. You can’t quite get that until you can check off an expansion or region, and I know that there is so much else that’s out there in the world.

My Warden is nearing level 30 — levels are coming quite slowly now, especially since I don’t play as often. I probably should be popping experience potions more. I kind of forget all of the pots I have in my bag, but let me tell you, those daily rewards really fill you up. “Here,” they say, “have another 50 poison potions. Wait, did I say 50? I meant 100.”

Speaking of daily rewards, February’s been a profitable month for that calendar. Usually you have to log in for 21 days to get the One Big Reward (lots of gold, a costume, a pet), but in February, it’s three decent rewards, one per week. I think there’s a hat, then tattoos, and then a pet. That’s pretty nice. With update 25, they’re going to make us re-download the client (so sorry for the data capped folks) but give us a nice torchbug pet as a present.

One of my favorite quests that I ran last week involved navigating a not-too-tricky labyrinth that was dotted with tons of traps but few enemies. I liked how showy the traps were and how you could avoid them if you paid close attention to the environment. Sometimes I triggered the flame traps just to have fun running through them all. Whee! It’s like a very hot sprinkler!

So far I haven’t pre-ordered Greymoor yet. Probably won’t buy it for a while, at least not with all of the other zones that have to be explored. I do want to see the icy lands of Skyrim by the year’s end, however.

Elder Scrolls Online makes me laugh, and that goes a long way

I’m setting the world on fire, one cart at a time. Viva la revolucion!

I know that last week I started in on Elder Scrolls Online’s combat system, and more specifically, why I am so unsatisfied with it. It’s not horrible, but I feel fairly safe in saying that the general consensus among players is that it could be so much better.

However, we gamers are always evaluating the merits of a game as a series of trade-offs. It’s bad over here, but it’s really good over there, so does that balance it out or tip the scales in the game’s favor? I can put up with some measure of disappointment if other aspects of an MMO exceed expectations. And I think that’s the case with ESO; it’s never going to be my mainline game, but it’s a very, very good game because its world, its stories, and its humor make up for having to slog through dull combat encounters.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve resumed my journeys through Elsewyr and haven’t been disappointed by a quest yet. I keep forgetting that John Cleese is in this game no matter how many times I encounter his character Cadwell, and I’m always filled with glee when he gets a minute or two of screen time.

There’s also something about the pace of this game that sits right with me. Unlike most other MMOs I play, I’m not scrambling to do a dozen or so smaller tasks in the same questing zone. Instead, I get the luxury of starting a quest and playing it all the way through its twists and turns. Elsweyr has a lot of good ones, ones that aren’t “let’s fight dragons and save the world entire!”

Probably my favorite quest bestowal — ever — came when I was running through a town and this NPC crashed through a second-story window and onto the cobblestones below. He snapped up, briefly introduced himself, and invited me to join him on a treasure hunt. I was hooked on that questline from then on, which had undertones of Indiana Jones without getting blatant about it.

Another absolutely hilarious questline involved helping a clueless but rather upbeat Nord ambassador try to charm the locals with various gifts and efforts. All of them go spectacularly bad, although the one where he gave the Khajiit a bunch of cat skins had me laughing out loud for more than one reason.

So yeah… good times. I find that logging in to do one full quest a night hits the spot for me, and while that’s not exactly racing through this expansion, I’m not in any particular rush to be anywhere else. Might as well enjoy what I purchased, yes?

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.

Battle Bards Episode 153: Elder Scrolls Online Summerset

Gryphons, Elves, and gobs and gobs of singing people — that’s Elder Scrolls Online: Summerset for ya! The Battle Bards return to Tamriel to rate and review the second expansion soundtrack from ESO. Aside from practically non-stop choral contributions, the Bards quite enjoy this trip to a high fantasy land full of wonder and power.

Episode 153 show notes (show pagedirect download)

  • Intro (feat. “Even Paradise Has Shadows,”  “Here Be Wonders,” and “Interlude”)
  • “From the Abysses Below and Beyond”
  • “Past Defines Future”
  • “Gryphons Soar in the Sun”
  • “Dusk Song of the High Elves”
  • “Sun-Blessed Alinor”
  • “Masque of Reveries”
  • “Three Hearts Afire”
  • Which one did we like most?
  • Listener notes: Castegere and Bhagpuss
  • Jukebox Picks: “Main Theme” from Gears of War 5, “Outer Wilds” from Outer Wilds, and “The Wind Sings of a Journey” from Legend of Mana
  • Outro (feat. “The Lullaby of Praxis”)
  • Stinger:

Elder Scrolls Online: Dragons are just overdressed lizards

Elder Scrolls Online is one of those games, I’m finding, that never strongly compels me to log into it, yet when I do, I’m often satisfied with the experience that ensues. I have to kick myself a little to get into gear and play it, knowing that once I do, it’ll be worth my while.

There’s certainly plenty left for me to explore and do, since I’m still just in the early stages of Elsweyr. There are dragons and necromancy and more dragons and cat-people and necromancy. This expansion knows the beats that it wants to hit, and it hits them very often. I’m not that thrilled (or awed) at the dragons here, even though they are animated and voiced rather well. It’s just that I’ve seen them too many times in fantasy games, you know? I don’t even hate dragons the way I do elves; I’m just tired of how they’re all samey and uninteresting.

I feel as though my character concept is finally starting to gel after a lot of experimentation. I know that I’m going to be sticking with heavy armor and a weapon-and-shield set up, so it’s nice to start bending my skill points and gear collecting to that aim. I like the added protection and don’t feel as though I need a lot of magick after winging a few early spells in a fight. There’s something relaxing in the simple art of swinging away until something is dead. Thwack, thwack, thwack.

So if dragons don’t thrill me, what does about Elsweyr? As I’ve said before, the African-inspired landscape is really cool to explore and photograph. The warm, bright lighting helps from making this place seem desolate, which is a real danger when you get into craggy canyons and go for a while between seeing trees.

In one quest, I met a cursed NPC who had the most meta explanation for why he never moves. Maybe that’s why all NPCs are nailed to one spot? That’s some sort of horror I don’t want to contemplate, right there.

I’ll be happy to see this expansion through, I think, but I need to be diligent in keeping up a regular habit of logging in. My new gaming system certainly helps in this regard, as it doesn’t let me neglect any one game on my list for too long. And at least I can remind myself that, unlike some other MMOs I play, ESO is a title that I haven’t rehashed to death. Everything in front of me is brand-new to me, and there’s enough to keep me going for well over a year even if this was my only game.