Saturday, March 01, 2014

Age Brings Out a Scroll's Flavour

After around twelve hours downloading and installing yesterday I've so far spent most of this morning playing in The Elder Scrolls Online beta. I have some complex feelings about it but, if I were asked to give a thumbs up or a thumbs down, so far I'd go with a thumbs up.

First of all, it has, hands down, the best character creation mode I've seen in an MMORPG. Guild Wars 2 made a great stride in allowing a selection of multiple prefab body types but Elder Scrolls Online goes a big step further by offering sliders first for the body type and then for individual body parts.

I gave my character just a little bit of a belly. Her name is Pijandura, which is the nickname of a character from the Serbian film Charleston for Ognjenka--Google translates the word as "drunkards" and I was glad to see later that the game has alcoholic beverages in its crafting system, with a "brewer" sub skill. I haven't really explored it, though.

You'll notice the character is in some very modern looking bra and panties. In the second Elder Scrolls game, Daggerfall, your character was naked when you took his or her clothes off. It's a shame the controversy this stirred has left Bethesda gun-shy on the point ever since, especially given the fact that Elder Scrolls Online will be subscription based when released. It was also disappointing to see "boob plate" chest armour for the women.

This has been something of a hot topic on several forums and opinion sites lately though it's something I've been aware of for many years--when I was drawing my mediaeval fantasy comic Venia's Travels I wanted the women wearing plate armour to be as credibly bad ass as possible and reading just a little bit about the reason plate armour was shaped the way it was quickly revealed the cavity at the centre of the "boob plate" creates a lethal liability. The chest plate was normally rounded or with a ridge down the centre to make it more likely for a blade strike to slide away.

But I play Guild Wars 2 where characters basically run around in lingerie--I understand fantasy means sometimes bending the rules of reality a bit for aesthetics. The reason it bothers me with the Elder Scrolls games is that their chief virtue is the solidity of the fantasy world. Bethesda's Elder Scrolls games have always conveyed the feeling of a world that's living on its own in ways no other game has. Elder Scrolls Online has some of the intricate detail in the environment I've loved in the previous games.

Though so far it's not possible to interact with random objects--apples, candles, spoons, etc--in a realistic way supported by a physics system but it's not hard to see why Bethesda would feel the need to compromise for an MMORPG. With such physics, just a few assholes would quickly make a mess with all the props, spoiling things for people who want to play the game in its normal state.

But back to character creation--the default faces look a hell of a lot better than any of the previous games, especially as regards the elves who no longer look universally like Lurch. But I made a human, a Breton.

The face has about the same degree of customisation as the face in Guild Wars 2--which is to say a lot. There are sliders for cheekbones and jaw and nose, though the Breton only had one default nose type as of the Beta. There are a lot more hair options, though some of them have the bad rubbery look familiar from Skyrim.

The starting area is a realm of Oblivion--the Elder Scrolls version of Hell--that honestly didn't look very interesting. It has a lot of dull, oversaturated colour lighting that brought back memories of Quake 2. You do get out eventually--there is a plot but it's not worth explaining. The story part has never been one of the Elder Scrolls strong suits though the detail in the lore is nice in terms of fleshing out the world. Sometimes the dialogue is interesting if there's a good voice actor and I did run into a madman voiced by John Cleese. The cast also includes, according to Wikipedia, Bill Nighy, Kate Beckinsale, Lynda Carter, Alfred Molina, Michael Gambon, Jennifer Hale, Malcolm McDowell, and Peter Stormare. So far I haven't run into one voice who's really transported the game the way Max von Sydow's did in Skyrim or Patrick Stewart's did in Oblivion.

I ran into a graphics problem in the starting area I maybe ought to report as part of my duty as beta tester--the first time I entered an area where other player characters were present my graphics started looking like this:

I managed to play basically blind for a while before, after a lot of trial and error, I discovered the visible world settled down when I turned off "Grass" in the settings. Which is too bad because I like grass.

I think where you end up after Oblivion is determined by other choices you make beforehand. I ended up on a Middle Eastern looking island in, I think, Hammerfell. The architecture is nice and there are a couple of fun pirate quests.

So far the thing I've liked best is the gameplay. I'm able to use my bow and arrow pretty much like I can in Oblivion and Skyrim, sneaking around and firing at my targets from a distance, dodging their projectiles. I felt more at home playing this than I have any MMORPG because it is a bit closer to a first person shooter. It's just the kind of player I am--I've never really connected with the normal strategy style gameplay descended from Warcraft and Diablo where pretty much everything is determined by stats. They're games of numbers versus numbers where the creativity comes in putting your character together before the battle through spending ability points earned through repeating certain tasks. There's some of that in the Elder Scrolls games too but there's also the element of the player's real life dexterity. It's a physical game you can play instead of a system you put together to pit against other systems.

Anyway, the beta lasts until Monday I think, I'm sure I'll have more to say to-morrow.

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