Sneaking and stealing in Elder Scrolls Online

It’s a new month — and a new vantage point for my journey through Elder Scrolls Online! With Morrowind completely finished, I thought I’d be going through the main core game next. And in fact I did that… for about three days. Then the month ticked over and I used some of my allowance to buy another DLC pack.

A few people strongly encouraged me to get the Thieves’ Guild pack, saying that it’d be better if I was working on those skills and quests earlier rather than later. I liked the idea of building up a thief skill line, so why not? I guess in my head this was more of a side class unlock, but what it ended up being is a whole new zone and quest series (which it did advertise right there on the store, so I obviously wasn’t reading that carefully).

Thus purchased, I started in on the life of crime — and gladly so. You see, ESO’s justice system has really intrigued me ever since I bumped into it. I haven’t really seen an MMO that has gamified a crime system with heat and bounties the way that ESO does, and it is executed surprisingly well. Attacking certain NPCs, pickpocketing people, and looting certain buildings, especially in towns, will result in an increase of one’s own heat (which degrades relatively quickly) and monetary bounty (which degrades slowly and must be paid to fully clear one’s name). If the heat isn’t too high, guards will only try to extort your money, but if it’s very high, then you’ll be attacked and most likely killed.

Another neat twist is that stolen loot can’t be sold to regular merchants, but only to special fences. And if you’re caught by a guard, you’ll lose all of that stuff.

The justice system makes for interesting choices: Do I engage in a life of crime or remain virtuous? Is the risk of stealing and pickpocketing worth the potential reward? Do I pay off the guard or try to make a break for it?

While I had flirted with this system earlier, Thieves Guild really immerses you right into it. Several quests in, and I’ve been sneaking through well-patrolled estates (sneaking and hiding is another part of the criminal life), grabbing everything that’s not nailed down, and trying to perfect the art of sneaking up behind people and stealing their stuff. Or, in my case, failing miserably and having NPCs call me all sorts of names. I’m really, really bad at pickpocketing and I don’t want to admit how many times I’ve been killed by the guards.

And while I haven’t determined just how “fun” all of this is on the subjective Syp scale, it is certainly a huge change of pace from the normal questing routine. I’m really interested to see where this questline will go and to attain some of the skills that will make all of this much easier. My only quibble is that it’s a shame there isn’t a better movement system to go with this pack, since NPCs can scale and jump off walls, and all I can do is pathetically try to hop onto barrels.

Four things I love about Elder Scrolls Online — and two I hate

With minutes to spare, I managed to wrap up the entirety of the Morrowind expansion (minus Clockwork City’s DLC) before the month of January was out. Great romp for the most part, although I am eager to get off the mushroom isle and see what the rest of Tamriel holds (maybe fewer elves?).

Now that I’ve got a month under my belt and am starting to get my bearing in this game, I thought I’d make a quick list of four things I really do like about Elder Scrolls Online — and two things that don’t really do it for me.

LOVE: The graphics

I’m not always a pure eye candy gamer, but I do appreciate striking visual scenery in my MMOs. It helps prompt exploration, as the landscape can make me want to see what else is out there. ESO does wonderful in this department. I’m often caught taking screenshots of the various locales and like the fact that this looks as good (if not better) than the graphics I praised over at FFXIV.

HATE: The combat

Our guild got into a discussion of this the other night, with some long-time vets saying that they enjoyed the fast-paced action combat. Me? I’m not the biggest fan. It’s serviceable but not that fun to engage with for the most part — a lot of fast clicking and moving about and watching slippery bars dwindle from both sides (?). I’ve been experimenting with a lot of different weapons and builds, and ultimately I just picked a dual wielding setup so I could rapidly hack down enemies and move on. It’s better than some other action MMOs, but it does make me miss tab targeting setups.

LOVE: Immersive systems

I’m really impressed how ESO manages to work in some more immersive systems into its overall design, such as the justice system or pushing deeper into guilds to earn new dialogue options. It’s not quite as immersive as, say, Project Gorgon, but it is a step up from many MMOs that have settled into a combat-only atmosphere.

LOVE: Questing

With loads of voice acting, scripting, and multi-stage events, ESO’s quests feel more significant and engaging than I’ve seen elsewhere. I generally have enjoyed the dialogue, found a few quests hilarious or memorable, and think that the fewer-but-better approach works very well here.

HATE: Housing limitations

I was super-excited to get my Elder Scrolls house and start decorating, only to find out very quickly that I had hit some sort of arbitrary “traditional furnishings” limit. Hey, if I paid $20 for an instanced house, I should get to put whatever I want to in there!

LOVE: Freedom of travel and direction

While there is a main storyline path to follow, ESO really excels in allowing players to go wherever they like and do whatever, thanks to the level scaling tech. As a result, I’m never worried about whether I’m of an appropriate level for a zone — I just travel, quest, explore, and unwind!

ESO: Steamy elves, secret avengers, and inventory management

This has been a really weird month for me, especially in regards to gaming and blogging, and my output here on Bio Break hasn’t accurately conveyed how much I’ve been playing certain titles. In specific, I’ve been dumping in loads of time into Elder Scrolls Online, but I think this is only my third or fourth post on the subject. Rest assured, it’s quickly become a Mainstay MMO for me, and every day I’m logging in and learning more about this quirky (and beautiful) title.

What continues to delight is the richness of the storytelling that goes on here. I never know when I take a quest if it’ll be a one-shot thing or if it’s going to kick off this monster 15-parter that involves assassins, betrayal, house politics, and Game of Thrones-style showdowns. In regards to the latter, there were at least two times that my eyebrows shot up when then game pulled no punches and left me wondering how it was all going to turn out. With pretty much everyone dead, naturally.

Morrowind is, if I haven’t mentioned it, Dark Elf Country. Pretty much 95% of the NPCs I encounter are these dusky skinned, red eyed people. It’s not an attractive look, that’s for sure, but the weird thing is that these elves have actually ended up being far less annoying than your average brand of snobby, arrogant elf. I guess that’s mostly because they’re portrayed as just people rather than Mary Sues.

So many gorgeous vistas in Morrowind, even though it can be a really strange island that shifts biomes in a heartbeat.

Of course, it wasn’t until I was about three weeks into the game that I finally broke down and asked for help regarding my inventory. I kept filling up my bags way too quickly and wasn’t really sure how to get more spots. With some advice and research I realized that I could actually purchase bank/inventory space — and that the stable master would allow me to add on a new slot every 20 hours for a minimal price (up to 60 extra slots). So I should’ve been doing that WEEKS ago, but oh well. At least now I know.

I do like how some quest chains end up rewarding me with special stances and facial markings. I liked these punk goth eyes, so I’m going with that as I try to figure out how best to build up my Warden. The above there might be my new Facebook profile picture, by the way.

I may not be the biggest fan of ESO’s combat and some of its more limiting systems (I’m going to talk about housing some other time), but the world exploration keeps amazing me and makes up for a lot of that. It’s just a pretty game in a more natural way than FFXIV was, and it does give my LOTRO side some envy that these aren’t the sort of visuals SSG can deliver.

Oh yeah, I liked this quest with the magically frozen Nord who wasn’t wearing shirt nor pants. He has no hope of getting service in any major restaurant in the world. There’s a great variety of tone in these quests, and I always like the ones that have a sense of humor or are telling an interesting story. This one resolves in a way that made me snort loudly for a few seconds, so I guess that’s an official LOL from Syp.

The above marked the first time I ventured into a public dungeon. Wasn’t really sure how soloable these were — some guildies said that they were quite doable as a single person, but considering that they were raid geared and I wiped on the first pull here, I think that this might be a perspective issue.

In any case, the next night my guild got together to run about six or so public dungeons together to down all the bosses and get more loot than our bags could ever hold. It was a pretty fun time, in a slightly chaotic way, and it made me look forward to other social activities in the game. Plus, I got to see Braxwolf and Chaos Constant in the virtual flesh, and let me tell you, they were every inch as heroic as you might imagine.

Too many screenshots to share, so I’m going to call it quits with this one today — another favorite quest chain, this one featuring a fantasy version of a superhero who calls himself The Scarlet Judge. And yes, he has a secret lair. It’s stunning.

ESO: Short stories, big experiences

As I may have mentioned before, short stories that present a cohesive, powerful narrative can hold more worth to me than long, meandering, so-called “epic” storylines in MMOs and other games. I suppose that’s because it’s how video games present themselves. RPGs and their offshoots rarely go through a single huge story in one go like a novel would but instead break it up with side quests and other various activities. It diverts attention from the overarching narrative and eventually weakens my interest in it.

In other words, if a main storyline takes me the better part of a month to get through and during that time I’m doing all of these side quests and taking breaks to play other games, I’m probably not going to track that storyline as well or care about it when it resolves.

Whereas short stories — shorter quest arcs — have a much better shot at being consumable in one or two sessions and retaining my interest. Plus, I think that developers and writers engage in far too much padding out of these “epics” in order to get as much content and time wasting as possible.

Anyway, this is just to say that I’ve been increasingly drawn to games that place a stronger emphasis on fewer quests that are told with more detail and involve more twists and turns. Secret World had that, and Elder Scrolls Online does in its own way. Some of these quests I’ve gone through in Morrowind have pulled off the accomplishment of being memorable and involving.

One example that I encountered the other day was when my kids were all hovering around the computer as I played on a Saturday afternoon. This seemingly normal fetch quest had me going around to retrieve memory stones in the area. That sounded boring until we saw that all of the stones triggered little scripted scenes showing a back story of this family that was currently isolated and fractured. Finding out how this came about to be and that the father was not a disinterested figure but was in fact making a significant sacrifice for his children was a pretty strong revelation.

My kids were just as swept up in this as we went along, and they were crushed when he died before getting to talk to his kids (they kept urging me to hurry up in case he died before the end and so I got blamed for going too slow). I suppose the fact that there is some resolution with the memory stones helped, but it definitely elicited a very emotional reaction in them and in me.

One Bio Break reader pointed out that often in ESO there’s little flavor post-scripts to these quests if you go back and get near or talk to the NPC. You can find out what happened next or what their thoughts were, and we experienced this as we chatted with the man’s children. That’s not something a lot of MMOs would do, especially in our era of “gather up and go go go” questing.

ESO: Shoving elves down wells

Really, whenever an MMO gives you the opportunity to shove an annoying elf — and, let’s be honest, they’re all annoying — down a well and then leave him to his doom, you take it. You don’t hesitate, you don’t mull over the moral ramifications, you just thank your lucky stars that you’ve been given such a golden opportunity and… shove.

Thank you, Elder Scrolls Online, for a truly cathartic moment.

In other ESO news, ZeniMax officially announced that the next expansion-slash-chapter will indeed be Elsweyr. I’m not up on Elder Scrolls history and lore, so you’ll excuse me if I don’t understand why that’s a Big Thing, but apparently it has a lot of folks excited.

And I’m excited too, although mostly for more content incoming. I mean, I’m pretty much still at the beginning of my feast on this game with the core game and two expansions piled on top of a table, but sure, add another chapter to the mix! Won’t bother me none.

The studio was far too excited for dragons and desert biomes, as if it invented them or something. Me? I just like the look of the expansion (of what we’ve seen), the name (which is so ’90s it hurts), and the fact that the Necromancer class is incoming. As much as I love my Warden, I have a famous soft spot for necros and know that I’ll have to play one. I applaud the decision by the team to have necros practice their dark arts on the down low, lest the long arm of justice reach out to deliver a blow. Man, that was a lyrical sentence.

Another part of the reveal stream that interested me is the shortly upcoming zone guide feature to help new or unfamiliar players (like myself) figure out where to go and what to do in any given place. I anticipate that being a very helpful feature indeed!

The 2019 Syp ESO Tour

With my interest in FFXIV quickly waning across the month of December, I knew that I wanted to find another MMO to fill the alternate slot come the new year. Instead of going back to old favorites, I returned to a title that I had merely flirted with in the past and felt compelled to give it a stronger chance.

And so it was that shortly after Christmas, Sypsonic was born in Elder Scrolls Online. Mother died at childbirth, considering that she delivered a 120-pound fully grown adult, but such are the sacrifices of parenthood.

But seriously, I did want to give ESO another try — and a much more serious, in-depth one than before. On paper it has so many of the features that I’m always seeking in MMOs, but I felt disheartened that it didn’t click with me in the week or so that I put into it a year or so back.

Since I didn’t get very far last time, starting completely over made a lot more sense than it usually does when I’m returning to titles. I did go with a Warden again (because pet bear), but past that, I became determined to learn the systems and get into the flow of the game.

Maybe it was just the time spent this past year, maybe I’m a little older and wiser, but almost immediately I was sucked into ESO in a way that I most certainly was not last time. While I’m no fan of the action combat, almost everything else is perfect for a more relaxed questing experience. With the auto-scaling, I don’t have to worry about progressing in a certain order, but rather I kept following quests and picked up any new ones that I saw along the way to go back to later.

And the questing and storytelling is good — really, really good. Coming off of FFXIV, where there’s gobs of story but it’s told in a stiff and personally unrelatable way, ESO feels more down-to-earth and interesting. I absolutely love that the quests are long and involve a lot of stages with story developments and dialogue along the way rather than a huge info dump at the beginning and a “thank you, take these, don’t come back” reward at the end.

I do want to give praise to ESO for another small detail. Even though I deleted my old character to make a new one, the game still remembered and kept my house, all of the (three) decorations, my mounts, and my pets. I really didn’t expect any of that to carry over, but huzzah that it did. Made me feel like the game was welcoming me back, in a way.

It’s an exhilarating and stressful experience to be diving into a rather new MMO to you. The process of discovery can be really fun, but any veteran of the genre knows that there’s always all these things we will learn about playing more efficiently in the future. Those knowledge gaps are only filled in by time, experience, reading guides, and asking guildies lots of questions (fortunately, most people in MMOs love to sound smart about their game and don’t mind dispensing advice).

Well that’s an image that’ll haunt my dreams tonight. Projecto-Elves. And oh yeah, if I had any illusions that ESO would be elf-free, they got completely erased by the end of the first night. It’s like flippin’ elf nation around here, including a community of powerful mage elves who don’t mind enslaving “lesser” races and being even more arrogant than elves normally are. Suffice to say, any opportunity to kill, betray, belittle, or steal from an elf, I took it.

Speaking of the whole elf/slaves thing, I got embroiled in a quest line that started really innocuously. There was a couple of Argonian slaves who wanted freedom and to be together, and I thought, aw, I should help ’em out. But what I thought was going to be a one-and-done quest turned into this massive epic storyline involving one slave rising into power (and engaging in dubious moral machinations) and the other slave plotting an escape plan. Just quest after quest of all of this, sending me every which way, and let me tell you, I was hooked. It was like being part of a fantasy novella where I wanted to see how it all turned out and was constantly surprised that there was still another quest and another and another to it all.

Finally, it did come to an end, after assassinations, tough choices, stealth missions, and plenty of dead elves. I was nodding in happy approval, feeling like I might have found a solid mainstay for this year after all.

Battle Bards Episode 129: Elder Scrolls Online Morrowind

In today’s episode, the Battle Bards crew row their dinghy to the island of Vvardenfell, where there is a rumor of the legend of the return of Morrowind. Yes, it’s a tour through Elder Scrolls Online’s first expansion soundtrack. Will it be enough to reverse a few negative opinions of the base MMO’s score? (spoiler: yes indeedy!)

Episode 129 show notes (show pagedirect download)

  • Intro (feat. “Ascadian Idyll,” “Omens Prophecy,” and “Telvanni Towers”)
  • “Shadow of Baar Dau”
  • “A Land of War and Poetry”
  • “Grazelands Dawn”
  • “Currents of the Odai”
  • “Reverie of the Netchimen”
  • “Magnus Smiles on Suran”
  • “Azura’s Coast”
  • Which one did we like best?
  • Listener notes: Deekay_zero
  • Jukebox Picks: “Main Theme” from Crash Bandicoot, “Darkness Rises” from The Banner Saga 3, “Traps” from Turrican II
  • Outro (feat. “Vvardenfell Vista”)