Saturday, May 17, 2014

Letters from Tamriel, Part II - The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

TESO has now been out for over a month, and I thought this would be an opportune time for me to add my own personal thoughts to the pool of opinions wallowing around on the Internet. My avatar is now Veteran Rank 1 (level 50), I have completed the main quest and spent more than 20+ hours in Cyrodiil. I have devoted enough time to the game to give it a fair shake. Prior to release I adopted a cheerfully optimistic view of TESO, disregarding a number of blogs and early reviews as being hasty, based on limited play time and beta experiences only. TESO also had to battle against the move away from the theme park zeitgeist, which meant that they were releasing into a critical environment which was growing hostile to this paradigm of MMO design (at least in the world of blogging). None of this deterred me in the least – for me the open world PvP of Cyrodiil was the clincher which would ensure that I would at least try the game. I'd actually unsubscribed from WoW to give myself more time to play TESO. I've sampled other MMOs in the past (EVE, Warhammer Online, Rift, The Secret World and SWTOR), but this is the first time I have actually unsubscribed from WoW in order to play another MMO. Now a month onwards, it is time to see whether my optimism was warranted, or whether I was just being wilfully naïve.

Trapped in the clutches of Molag Bal, can our heroine prevail? Pfft, of course she can.


THE GOOD

The Best Single Player PvE MMO Ever

TESO is the best iteration of the single player MMO to date, which is a back-handed compliment of sorts, given that one of the most pervasive criticisms of recent MMOs is their emphasis on soloing and convenience at the expense of social interaction and true multiplayer gameplay. If you like theme park single player MMOs however, TESO sports the best realised implementation of this paradigm to date. So much so, in fact, that it almost seems to discourage grouping at times. The main quest, the Fighters Guild and the Mages Guild quest lines can only be done on your lonesome, and phasing frequently renders group members invisible to each other. There have been a few instances in where I have tried to render assistance to someone but was unable to help them because the mob in question was invisible to me or the other player was in an instanced space inaccessible to me. Taken as a single player game, however, TESO has high enough production values to stand on its own two feet, which makes questing interesting and engaging. Graphics, sound, music, ambience and voice acting are reminiscent of single player RPG titles. The game itself is breathtakingly beautiful. It puts many single player games to shame, and I have many “Oooo, look at that” moments where I simply stop and stare. In gameplay terms, I actually prefer the solo play in TESO to The Witcher, which I had begun prior to launch as a time filler – I find the combat, the crafting, the questing and the environments all superior to the single player title. I'd also rate TESO over Dragon Age 2, but place it well behind Dragon Age 1. TESO is very reminiscent of Dragon Age in terms of lore – the separation of worlds (the Fade in Dragon Age, and Oblivion in TESO) and the theme of mortals living in a world constantly meddled with by terrifying supernatural beings (the Daedric Princes and their ilk) are very similar.


Wow. This game is preeeetty.
The fact that I am comparing TESO to single player titles at all is a testament to the quality of its solo gameplay. It is the best single player MMO so far, surpassing the attempts by SWTOR to establish the “fourth pillar” of story within MMOs, and its approach to storytelling encompasses the use of extraneous details which add depth. You can zerg through the quests in a single-minded A to B fashion, or you can take a more lackadaisical approach by reading journals, letters, and exploring optional side quests which add further layers to the story. Furthermore, it is a nice touch to see NPCs you have interacted with appear in other zones, and they remember you based on the decisions you have taken. Regardless of the merits of its single player gameplay, if theme parks represents the ultimate evil of MMO design for you then TESO has nothing new to offer. If theme parks still divert and amuse, however, you will find that TESO has some of the best rides around.

Customised for Small Group Play

Despite its insistence on forcing the player on some solo paths, TESO on the whole is very friendly to small group play. There are public dungeons, world bosses and dark anchors to encourage grouping, and dungeons are tuned for four players. Travel to each other is fast and easy, and phasing issues can be sidestepped by keeping in careful step with each other. Zenimax are also planning to directly address the phasing issue in their upcoming patch to allow party members to “see” across different phases. The planned Adventure Zone of Craglorn is designed for four people, as are Arenas, which will be TESO's four person version of 12 person Trials. All in all TESO is a good fit for my regular gaming group, which consists of 5-6 people at most.

Meaningful Crafting

Crafting is engaging and meaningful. Crafted gear is supposedly the best gear in the game, which means there is ample motivation to spend time developing it.

Action Based, Non GCD Combat

Combat is fast and dynamic. Some commentators have argued that it has no weight, and I find that this is not true at all. My tank's charges hit home with force, the controls are responsive (I click, it happens), my shield bashes are suitably meaty, and collision detection in PvE puts a wrinkle in combat which I'm not used to. Sometimes you want to charge that healer in the back and you just can't, because his buddies are blocking your way. Non-GCD based combat also took some time getting used to as well, and I find that you can actually weave in your abilities between your weapon swings to increase your dps. My fingers are still learning to keep a beat with my light attacks, while interspersing abilities between the gaps. I did miss the floating numbers in the UI, which I artificially added by downloading the Foundry Tactical Combat add-on. TESO is more FPS than WoW, but that's not a bad thing for me personally. For me WoW has the best and most responsive GCD based combat, and Warhammer, Rift and SWTOR all suffered because they were pale imitations of WoW's e-sport tested system. For TESO to go down a different action-orientated route sets it apart from WoW, and makes it its own game, although I could see why this would be a turn-off for some.

Faction Based PvP

I find PvP in TESO to be fun and engaging WHEN IT WORKS. It's a paradigm shift from WoW and requires a different approach to meta-gaming, grouping and playstyle, but once I made the leap in my mind I was hooked. Unfortunately it is spoiled greatly by client instability on my Mac platform, which I will go into further detail below. TESO PvP and its meta requires its own post in the future, but for now I will just say that I am a fan of the old-fashioned factional PvP implemented in this game, which is unashamedly derivative of the realm versus realm model made famous by Dark Age of Camelot (DAOC). If the single-player PvE experience is resolutely theme park in its approach, then its world PvP is akin to a watered-down version of Darkfall and EVE, meaning that is more sandbox and player orientated, but without the hefty death penalties and losses associated with these other titles. The landscape of Cyrodiil is completely player-driven and constantly shifting, and it is interesting to see the emergence of the meta-game in its embryonic stages. I am in the Wabbajack campaign, and while it was dominated early by the Daggerfall Covenant (DC), meta-gaming developments have ensured that both the Ebonheart Pact (EP) and the Aldmeri Dominion (AD) are now major forces to be reckoned with. EP took the lead sometime last week thanks to the migration of a few large guilds, followed by a massive influx of rank and file EP who appeared to be influenced by a large call to arms on the Zenimax forums. AD, on the other hand, seem to have the support of a few V10 guilds who occasionally guest in from their AD dominated campaign on Auriel's Bow and sow carnage wherever they go. This is when the game becomes more than just shooting or stabbing random strangers in the wilderness for me. Once personalities begin to emerge from the background and bonds begin to form between once-wary guild members, the seeds of a healthy and thriving PvP community are sown. People are starting to know the name of the Emperors and the leaders of the more prominent guilds, and as more and more people hit 50 and join the war the player base is starting to collectively weave the story of Cyrodiil. I've been out on a few roams (to use EVE parlance) with the guilds I 've joined, and the mandatory sizing-up period is slowly giving way to familiarity, camaraderie and team work. Some commentators have cited the lack of community as a reason for quitting TESO, and I had to laugh at this. I guess they were expecting a fully formed community, complete with heroes, villains, friends, enemies and notable personalities, in the first month of the game. I think it is grossly hypocritical for commentators to attack the lack of community in MMOs but at the same time fail to make any effort to engage, build or otherwise interact with fledgling communities within the game. Community is bottom-up - it is built by players, and the more time I spend in Cyrodiil the more I see a meta start to emerge, and it bodes well for open world PvP in this game.

Open world PvP in this game is dynamic, fast-paced and fun.



THE BAD

The things which I didn't like about TESO:

Average Soundtrack

The soundtrack is average, but to be fair, it is competing with Jeremy Soule's amazing Morrowind theme, as well as the rousing Dovakhin score that came with Skyrim. There are moments when I hear that familiar refrain in pieces of music, but overall there is nothing memorable here for my own tastes.

Inventory Management

Inventory management is a bit of a nightmare in TESO. You will need to implement a system to sort out your stuff, or otherwise you will end up throwing away or vendoring crafting materials which might prove valuable later on. I ended up creating six bank alts to manage inventory bloat, but I still have to devote a good amount of time sorting my gear instead of questing or PvPing.

Guild Store UI

I support Zenimax's decision not to implement a global Auction House, but I find their guild auction house UI somewhat clunky. When you sell something in TESO the gold just arrives in your mail without a notification as to what item had just been sold. Seems like a small oversight, but it adds more work for the player, as I have to check my listings in order to work out what I have sold. The fact that you can also join five guilds is a good thing, but the fact that you have to individually search each guild's auction house is a pain in the ass. I can understand why selling has to be done on a per guild basis, but if you were buying would it not be a good quality of life change to consolidate purchases under one search engine? That way if you bought something the relevant guild and guildie still got the gold, but it would save each individual player the time they spend loading and searching each guild's separate auction house. Just a small quibble.

THE UGLY

As you can see, I am struggling to list anything which I think is really bad about TESO, and overall I think the core game is something I enjoy playing. Unfortunately, there are fundamental issues which go beyond the game itself, and they are all basically rooted in the fact that the game wasn't ready for release in April, especially on the Mac client.

Bugs

The bugs. For God's sake, the bugs. Some of them have been addressed, but the number of bugs I have personally encountered on my playthrough to Veteran Rank 1 (level 50) is quite significant. There have been a number of issues with the voice acting in TESO, ranging from NPCs that change voices, speak in German, or don't speak all. I've personally experienced about 15-20 of these instances in my playthrough to 50. I've also encountered NPCs in strange poses. These are relatively infrequent (I experienced less than 4-5 of these) but the most alarming was when King Emeric spoke to me with his head tilted back in a neck breaking Exorcist-style pose. This was repeated when I spoke to another NPC called Stibbons, and the screenshot is included below.


Yeah, OK, what's up with this?

The more jarring bugs have to do with broken quests which stop progression. There are actually several of these, and I estimate that I have encountered at least ten quests which I couldn't complete due to bugs. Luckily the nature of TESO is such that you could just skip the quest and do something else. There are soooo many bugs in this game that when something doesn't work or isn't clearly obvious I almost immediately assume that it is a bug. Broken quests I can cite off the top of my head include the assassins in Daggerfall, the non-dropping essences in Bethnik, the non-responsive bonfire in Pariah Abbey in Stormhaven, and the non-existent sailors in Al'akir (which meant you had to spec into Intimidating Presence to finish the quest). Most of these have been fixed now, but there are still broken quests here and there especially in the later zones. At the moment I am in Coldharbour where I have killed the world boss at the Daedroth's Larder three times, and still have not been awarded credit for it. There's also a quest just outside of Wayrest which requires you to break open droughr (?) cocoons with your fists. The funny thing is that once you break open a cocoon your avatar keeps swinging away with his fists, so you end up doing a Rocky impression as you roam the world shadow boxing at all and sundry. This is a more extreme version of another common bug I encountered, in which my toon would sometimes get stuck in a combat pose and roam the world with her blade raised in a threatening manner at everyone she met.

Maintenance

There have been a lots of maintenance periods, so much so that TESO has given early subscribers five extra days of game time as acknowledgement of the disruption. Maintenance on the megaserver used to occur during Tuesday and Friday morning US time, which translated to peak Tuesday and Friday Oceanic time. Furthermore, any additional maintenance (of which there has been many) were scheduled during the early hours of American time, which again, left many Australian, New Zealander and Pacific players with nothing to do in their evenings. You can imagine how this went over on the Oceanic crowd, who have begun dubbing the game “Elder Scrolls Offline” (at least in the Oceanic guilds I am in). To Zenimax's credit, they have moved their maintenance times to Monday and Thursday mornings, which means Oceanic players can now enjoy TESO on Friday nights. So despite the appalling state of the game, the developers are apparently listening. They're just moving at the speed of constipated tortoises.

Gold Sellers

Gold spammers. ZOMG. I don't know how many gold spammers I reported in the first two weeks of release, but it would have almost been close to 100. I don't know if Zenimax was ready for the scale in which gold sellers would infiltrate their game, but they descended on TESO like a pack of vultures, spamming zone chat, creating pseudo guilds and issuing ginvites, sending whispers and writing personal mail to players. It was blitzkrieg assault of unprecedented proportions, at least in my experience. There were packs of bots running around everywhere, with names like “adsdsdfd” and “sdfette” mindlessly farming mobs and materials in all the zones, and especially inside the public dungeons where they would wait for bosses to respawn before descending upon them like ravenous zombies in search of living flesh. Zenimax's countermeasures seem to be working, as the frequency of spam on all levels has noticeably dropped since those initial weeks. The scale of the assault was such that Zenimax stated that they spent almost 80% of their customer service time fighting bots, and they had to resort to arming Gamemasters and sending them into the world to ban bots on the spot. Wildstar developer's should take note, and have their own anti-gold seller measures ready, because if gold spammers hit Wildstar the same way they hit TESO they will be in for a similar experience.

Vampires

Vampires. Another running joke is the phrase “Elder Vampires Online”, because of the popularity and the dominance of vampires in PvP at the moment. Vampire were hit with a nerf bat in patch 1.07, but up to that point there were packs of vampires running around Cyrodiil spamming the Batswarm ability and wiping out groups. The most vicious combo were Dragon Knight vampires who would charge into the middle of enemy groups, spam Dragon Claw to root the group into place, drop their banner, then spam Bat Swarm until everyone died. The current meta employed by “successful” guilds appears to be the use of numerous DK suicide bombers spamming roots and AOE supported by healers behind. AOE is grossly overpowered in TESO, and I support Zenimax's decision to limit the number of targets affected to six (that's plenty enough to keep the current meta viable). When the pinnacle of your PvP gameplay becomes running mindlessly into a crowd and spamming one ability then it's time for a change in mechanics. I have to say that I don't understand the argument used by some people in the Tamriel Foundry which states that spamming AOE equals skill, especially coming from a Rated BG background where single target focus and coordination were the hallmarks of a successful team.

Glitches

My main is a Nightblade, and her passive abilities sometimes don't work for some reason. I can't nail down when and where this occurs, but sometimes I look at my character screen and my crit chance, which is nominally at around 30% due to my passives, drops back to 0% on occasion. I don't know if this is a display issue or whether it actually reflects my passives not working, but who the hell knows, at this point anything is possible. I hear other Nightblades bitching bitterly about this in zone chat in Cyrodiil, so I know I am not alone in this.

Another glitch occurs when I enter and leave Cyrodiil. When in combat and looking at your menus the edges of the screen flash red to warn you that your avatar is in danger. Unfortunately after leaving Cyrodiil the edges of the screen randomly flash red for no reason, regardless of whether or not you are in combat. It is remedied by logging out and logging back in, but it is becoming a bit of a joke how relogging and reloading one's UI has become a necessary element of questing in TESO. Quest not working? Relog. Mobs not dropping loot? Relog. Can't see an NPC? Relog. Passives not working? Relog. Animations getting stuck? Relog. They should add a relog button in the abilities bar, so you can weave it in as part of your rotation while you play the game.

So, I logged in, fell through the world, landed above it, and died. Awesome.

These are by no means the only glitches I have encountered in this game. There is also the falling through the world glitch, where you log in and promptly fall through the world and die (see above). This has only happened to me twice, but comments in zone chat tell me that I'm not alone in experiencing this unique form of avatar death. There is the “stuck on the steps” glitch in Cyrodiil, where horses inexplicably hit an unseen barrier while running up the steps. Move your horse off the steps onto the hill itself and suddenly the wall disappears. I have a shield in my inventory which doesn't know what it looks like (see below) and I also have a weapon with an incomplete description on its tool tip (again, see below).

Not game breaking, not even that much of a big deal really, but if only these were the only problems. Alas, they are just the tip of the iceberg.

There are also some connectivity issues in Cyrodiil where adding party members leads to temporary lag spikes and even disconnects within the whole party or raid. Leaving a raid is also fraught with danger, because you might never be able to rejoin it again (you become stuck in a loading screen). This was the maddening fate of several of our raid members last Saturday when they tried to swap toons during a guild PvP session. These poor bastards ended up having to stay outside the raid in order to play, although they were still able to communicate via Teamspeak. Taken individually these glitches are just a minor annoyance – when taken as a whole it reflects poorly on the state of the game because there are so many of them.

Crashes

Crashes. Especially on the Mac client. Rykester and I both play on Macs and we have the same issue in that we basically cannot play PvP consistently because the Mac client crashes every 10-15 minutes in Cyrodiil. This is a known issue with a thread devoted to it – someone much more clever than I has pinpointed it as a “memory leak” problem, and given us poor Mac users a work around of sorts which requires us to restart the game once our virtual memory starts approaching the “crash” threshold. Luckily for TESO I was more interested in levelling and taking my time in the game, because otherwise this would be game-breaking for me. I am now VR1, and my client still crashes, which means this is now a serious problem for TESO. I started writing a diary of the Wabbajack campaign early in April, and instead of producing a player-driven account of the war in Cyrodiil what Zenimax might get is a piece entitled “The History of Bugs in TESO”, “The Buggiest MMO of All Time” or “How I Didn't PvP in TESO Because I Have a Mac.” My PvP sessions basically consist of me logging into Cyrodiil, setting a timer for 10 minutes, then logging out and logging back in to reset my virtual memory. If I don't do this the game cheerfully reminds me by crashing soon afterwards. This can be ameliorated by not grouping at all, which is just pouring salt into the wound. Go into Cyrodiil by yourself, don't group with anyone, and the crash threshold increases dramatically to about 30 minutes to an hour. Of course you can't see where your team mates are, you don't engage in any kind of meaningful team play, nor do you share in the kills the group scores while they are together. I told you TESO encouraged solo play, didn't I?

FINAL THOUGHTS

My sister unsubbed from TESO in a fit of disgust two weeks ago after a frustrating Sunday play session. We played PvP with our usual MMO foursome, and we started in Cyrodiil with high hopes – a patch had just been implemented, and perhaps the long awaited for Mac fix was in. They were soon dashed when my Mac started doing its crashing routine every 10-15 minutes. This was compounded by my inability to log back into my main character in Cyrodiil (the “stuck in loading screen” issue), but rather than ruin the fun for everyone I told them just to PvP without me while I pottered around on an alt. Once I was able to log back into my main we decided just to do some dungeons, but then we hit the “no experience” and “no loot” bug for my sister (she was level 39 in Blackheart Cove, which is level 40-43). No problem, we thought – she simply reloaded her game, and amazingly, the mobs started dropping loot for her. We went into Blackheart Cove with a 47, a 43, a 39 and a 34, so we were slightly underpowered. We persevered, however, finally getting to the last boss and downing him after several wipes. The straw that broke the camel's back, however, was that neither my sister or her husband were given credit, loot or the achievement for the kill, while Rykester and I were. She logged off and unsubbed that very instant. She has since resumed her subscription, but made it categorically plain that she was only doing it to hang out with our crew.

My regular gaming crew. On the mandolin is my sister, Sally Mander. My Redguard Nightblade is on the drums, Rykester is on the lute, and dancing and singing is Taranakii.

If you haven't bought TESO yet, I would actually recommend it with the following caveat. Buy it in a few month's time, when all these issues have been resolved. This game was not ready for release, and Sunday was the first day I changed from being a “true believer” to a “burned consumer.” There are many things I like about TESO – it's a pity that there are so many jarring issues which ruin the experience for everyone. I was such a big fan of the TESO IP and the promise of their open world PvP that I was quite willing to tolerate literally a litany of bugs, and it took the poor opinion of my sibling to shake me out of this blinkered infatuation with the title. Once I started listing what issues I encountered in this game the flood gates literally opened, and I'm seeing the game for what it is instead of what I was hoping it would be.

72, which is less than the 80 I predicted prior to release.

In the first post of this series I predicted that TESO would score over 80 on the Metacritic scale. As of 17 May 2014 TESO currently hovers at a score of 72, which makes my first prediction well short of the mark. My other predictions still stand however, but my confidence in them has been shaken somewhat given my own experiences. Free-to-play is now a definite possibility, but I'll stand by my prediction that this game will still be sub based by April next year. The one good thing going for TESO is that Zenimax is responding and patching as often as they can. I've been impressed by their responsiveness – they added collision detection based on player feedback in the beta, actual GMs are now in the game patrolling for bots and gold farmers, and they moved maintenance from Friday to Thursday to accommodate disgruntled Oceanic players. Unfortunately, they're like a bunch of oarsmen frantically bailing out a sinking boat with numerous holes in it, and the question becomes whether they'll be able to salvage the ship before the passengers decide its time to cut their losses and swim for other lifeboats. Wildstar is less than two weeks away, and this is a critical time for a significant number of subscribers who might be on the fence about both games.

In further news Zenimax has delayed the release of the console version of the game for six months, moving it from June to sometime in December. This comes as no surprise at all, given the extremely rough state of the game as it stands at this point. Despite my disappointment at the state of the game I am still foolishly optimistic that all these issues will eventually be ironed out, and the game can live up to the potential I saw in it. If my sister unsubs again, however, our foursome will join her. Our team of players has always migrated together from MMO to MMO, and if one is out, we are all out. Zenimax doesn't have to impress me, because I'm an idiotic sucker who just likes the idea of playing a PvP MMO in the Elder Scrolls universe. TESO has to impress the more rational people out there who like getting what they paid for, and who have become accustomed to the level of polish Blizzard has displayed as a standard in all of their games. A number of people have told me that WoW was equally buggy at launch, but since I wasn't around for that, I can only compare my experiences with the launches of Warhammer Online, Rift, SWTOR and The Secret World, for which I was present. I can say categorically that while these other titles had their own issues at launch, none have had as many and as game-breakingly damaging as TESO has had. I still can't play PvP consistently for fuck's sake, which is the main reason why I bought the game. Yet, I'm still here, I'm still foolishly hoping, and who knows, maybe my faith will be vindicated further down the track. Hopefully there will still be players around when that happens.


2 comments:

  1. Fantastic write up! It sounds like more than I expected in a good way. Hopefully they are prepared to weather oit the next few months of bug squashing, because the potential seems enormous - especially given the daoc-like pvp.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm thinking the bugs are even worse on TESO than they were on Age of Conan when it launched, which on the face of it, sounds better than bloggers were giving it credit for prior to launch.

    ReplyDelete