I'm writing this under the impression that my experiences participating the Elder Scrolls: Online beta were not subject to any sort of non-disclosure agreement. I received an email to whit, but if I'm incorrect in my assumption, send me an email, Zenimax, and I'll put up some bullshit about sandwiches to replace this. Maybe something about how it's weird that you can't get a decent chicken parm in New York. At least, not for cheap. Or something about interpreting beta invite emails.
I'm writing this because I had an opportunity to play the Elder Scrolls: Online beta last week.
I'm not writing this because I want to critique the technical problems that occurred during the beta, but I want to mention them at the top, because they definitely colored my experience. I've been involved in betas since I should not have legally been able to, somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 years, and I've dealt with a wide array of technical issues along the way. My favorite example: while playing the Everquest beta a series of graphical issues transformed the world into a formless white landscape of nothingness, populated by erratically arrayed polygons shaded in pink. I still played the beta and, when all was said and done, liked it enough to buy the game at launch. I can see a forest through the trees, and I'm willing to endure some nasty tech bullshit to get at the gooey game inside of it all, but I also know that technical difficulties can really fuck up a gaming experience, and ES:O has troublingly serious tech issues, especially when you consider how close it is to release. I'm not talking about sync issues or drop issues or crashes or cascading server outages, all of which happened. Those are all completely fine in the context of a beta; complaining about those is like complaining about rain in Portland. The bugs that interfered with my play experience were serious ones, the kind you'd expect to see in late alpha or super early phase beta: quests not mapping or tracking correctly, objectives not spawning or not being recognized as operable objects. My personal favorite had to be the door that would never open in the Shivering Isles. Major questlines would require logging in and out of the game repeatedly in order to complete mission objectives. Sometimes, I'd have to wait hours for a hotfix to a quest objective, which, in a time-limited beta, was pretty frustrating.
All the more so because for all of its technical issues, ES:O is very pretty, and I wanted to see as much of its world as I could during my brief weekend in Stonefall. Plus, I've got oodles and oodles of affection for The Elder Scrolls as a series. I'm not OG enough to have played Daggerfall, but from Morrowind to Oblivion to Skyrim, I've savored each and every second of exploration through the visually striking open worlds that Bethesda has become so adept at crafting. There's something about The Elder Scrolls series that captures a particular, peculiar joy found in a kind of solitary exploration through landscapes that, despite their existence as pure simulation and simacrula, are wonderfully alive. The Elder Scrolls series rests on a tenet of permitting players to go anywhere and do anything, to develop their character along lines of their choosing and grow into whatever sort of hero they desire. It's about allowing narratives to digress and allowing players to develop their own stories, often through happenstance or bugs, that reverberate more potently than the crafted, stymied narratives of conventional RPGs. The Elder Scrolls is, at its forefront, a series about giving players permission and then asking them to run around, uncovering things, upturning things, and breaking things. It's a bull-in-a-china-shop simulator, a beautiful bull-in-a-china-shop simulator, that manages to take what should be a strange, isolating kind of experience and shape it into a singular, humanizing experience that makes you feel like part of a living breathing world, even as you spend all of your time alone, pushing buttons and killing faceless grunts.
The mentality behind this poetry of isolation is a terrifyingly broad freedom presented to players, a freedom that allows them to go anywhere at any time and survive. This is thoroughly at odds with the reasoning behind MMOs, where content is usually packaged by "appropriate area for level" rather than "desired game experience." MMOs, games that are ostensibly about choosing your own adventure with friends, are often quite limiting, and present players with relatively few options in terms of how they unfold. Your average MMO will open up with a starting area, which will lead into an intermediate area. Particularly boldly designed MMOs will then branch out and allow players to choose from a number of different areas to explore after that which will, in turn, lead to other areas, always pressing players towards a "level appropriate" experience. The very mechanic that The Elder Scrolls employs to prevent this phenomenon, locking enemy spawns and gear to player level, with notable exceptions as needed, is unworkable in an environment where players are sharing a world, where many levels are colliding together at once. So how does ES:O square that circle?
The answer, unfortunately, is that it doesn't. ES:O doesn't really feel like an Elder Scrolls game, at least not in its current incarnation. Sure, it opens the way every Elder Scrolls game does, by telling you you're a prisoner and then releasing you into the world through an obtuse construction that seems aimed as much at putting you in the single least appealing play-space in the game as it is at explaining why you can never die. Sure, it has all the neat little races from previous Elder Scrolls games, including Argonians and Khajit, both of whom have toned down, but still solid, versions of the racial bonuses that make them so delightfully broken in previous iterations. It has epic battles and epic scope going on all over the place, the way that Skyrim, in particular, did. You're going to wander into some battlefields, and it'll feel like a field where a battle is happening. Right on, right on. But all of these things will be happening in a rigid quest system, which in and of itself is tied to a leveling system that primarily rewards players for following and objectives and completing them.
This doesn't have to be the end of the world: The Elder Scrolls games are all about using quests as a means to encourage or incentivize particular kinds of exploration. Why the fuck would I go to the Ashlands before Morrowind's main quest prompted me to? There's no real reason! But the way the quests in ES:O unfold, and the way that leveling is essentially hard-locked to those quests, actually fights the kind of play that quests in other Elder Scrolls games encourage. Rather than prompting players to explore and have more fun, these quests are about pushing players through a scripted experience and then letting them out on the other side with a notch in their belt towards completing the next scripted experience in the sequence. You're completing quests so you can complete the next quest, normal behavior in MMOs, abhorrent behavior in an Elder Scrolls game, where you're completing quests, as often as not, to change the world in some way, major or minor.
The end result is a game at odds with itself. Whereas each location in a single player Elder Scrolls game is a space to be acquired, engaged with and incorporated into a personal narrative, each location in ES:O is a series of narrative hoops a player must jump through. Players are, in the end, asked to generate a particular kind of resolution so that they can leave the space and, more likely than not, never return. Whereas The Elder Scrolls games are often involved in creating worlds that feel alive, even without the player's presence, ES:O is something of a lifeless series of hurdles, each one moving players from setpieces to setpieces without the breathing space one might expect from the game.
The end result is an Elder Scrolls game that doesn't actually feel like an Elder Scrolls game. It has all the trappings and setpieces of an Elder Scrolls game, sure. It lets you build characters in the ways that The Elder Scrolls usually lets you build characters, mixing and matching spellcasting powers with gear (though I do have to say, the class system might be a little limiting for some die-hard fans). But it doesn't feel right: in making a world where many players can co-exist at once, Bethesda has effectively removed the spark of life from that world. Rather than making a space where I felt like I could carve out my own story, ES:O presents me with a space where I can participate in a plot set in a world I love. It's not what I expect from an Elder Scrolls title, and it's not what I come to the series for.
It would be one thing if this was an exceptionally good story, exceptionally well told, framed within a truly exceptional game system. But it's not. The central storyline is weak and generic, a readymade "save the world" story complete with a massively powerful magical man guiding your actions without ever really taking any on his own. The gameplay, likewise, is clumsy, fumbling basic things like target selection and acquisition. It's torn between being action-oriented, like Neverwinter and The Old Republic, and being stalwartly numbers based, like Everquest (the closest spiritual influence to the game that I've noticed, thus far, as a veteran MMO player). I've never gone from so excited about a game to so disappointed so quickly, and it's unfortunate: sharing a world like the one The Elder Scrolls provides should be an incredible experience. Instead, it's weak tea, at best, a game that I find myself asking "why are you here?" instead of "where are you going?"