Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Letters from Tamriel, Part VI - All Quiet on the Western Front

One year ago the Imperial province of Cyrodiil was home to three massive factions engaged in a titanic clash of arms. The Altmeri Dominion, the Daggerfall Covenant and the Ebonheart Pact battled each other in the best rendition of virtual fantasy warfare I have ever had the good fortune of being part of. The Wabbajack campaign was waged over three months, and involved hundreds of players on each faction. Nothing I have ever played has come close to emulating the ebb and flow of that fantasy war - at one point or another each of the combatants held the overall lead, and the final victory by the Pact was almost undone by a desperate, last ditch gambit by the Covenant which ultimately fell short. EVE Online has the record for the biggest number of players in a single battle, but the battles which characterised Wabbajack were the biggest fantasy land battles of their kind I have seen. While TESO can never claim to always have been a smooth, lag free experience, I still clearly remember the massive encirclements, the desperate last stands, and bloody arm wrestles that characterized those early days of TESO PvP. Zenimax made good on their promise of having 2,000 people in Cyrodiil at any one time, and their pre-release boast of being able to render 200 people on screen at anytime was fulfilled on my computer at least half a dozen times during that campaign. I remember the names of all the prominent guilds in my faction, and had the good fortune of fighting with most of them. I learned the names of our bitter enemies through repeated clashes, and grew to respect the most intransigent of them. Together we created a narrative, an emergent story of us written by hundreds of player-authors, which ranks up there with my best memories of gaming.


Yuri Hatakeyama, back in the lands of Tamriel.

That was Cyrodiil then. If you go back to Cyrodiil now, all you will find are a handful of players roaming the empty expanse of this massive battlefield. The province, once full of armies clashing by day and night, is now eerily deserted, and the keeps stand still, manned by automata following the rote instructions of their creators. Now that the lifeblood of the game has deserted it, the very size of Cyrodiil - the attribute which gave it heft and status - now works against it. Nothing is sadder than a space bereft of the thing which gives it purpose. Like empty schools without the laughter of children, Cyrodiil without players bickering, fighting or cooperating takes on a haunted hue. Where guilds once stood together back to back, where armies once stood on opposing sides of a breached wall, and where dozens of siege engines once thundered together in unison, all that is left is silence, and the ghosts of those who once passed through these spaces.


Current scoreboard of the campaign in Thornblade at the top. The history of the Thornblade campaign since its inception in August 2014 at the bottom. The blue line represents the Daggerfall Covenant, and as evidenced by the graph, DC have come so close to winning on a number of occasions, and there have been some very close campaigns. Nonetheless DC has never won the campaign in Thornblade, which is something the graph doesn't make clear.

My Redguard is back in TESO as of two weeks ago, brought back by a massive influx of hits on a post I wrote almost a year ago. My recollections on Wabbajack are being used by DC diehards to rally support to the Covenant cause, and I as a loyalist feel compelled to pick up my bow and healing staff and return to the fray to help my faction. My avatar is still only VR6 out of a possible 14 - I still have eight more Veteran ranks to grind. This is not WoW, or Archeage - in both these games it is possible to grind out 2-3 levels an evening, even more with bloody minded determination. TESO is an altogether different beast - since I've returned I have been able to advance to VR8 after two weeks of on and off gaming, at about an hour or two per night. I believe the VR system is one of TESO's most notable failures - the grind to endgame is an onerous one at best, but TESO takes an archaic system and makes it even more taxing and time-consuming. I am chiefly interested in the war in Cyrodiil, which means I grind for the sole purpose of gaining access to VR14 weapons and armour just to put me on par with the opposition. At this rate it will take me a further six weeks of on and off playing to attain this goal. I will not devote any more time than that, and it is still undetermined whether I will see this through to the bitter end, or just throw my hands up in disgust and walk away.

If I fixate on the VR14 goal I am going to go insane, but luckily TESO has thrown me a few bones to help ease the pain. You can earn veteran points via the staple tropes of MMO gameplay - questing, dungeons, raids and also PvP. Questing in TESO is horribly tedious - the quests themselves are better than your standard MMO fare, but what stuck in my craw was the realisation that once I completed the main quest I would be required to complete the Altmeri and Ebonheart quests in linear sequence in order to progress further along the questing track. It didn't have to be this way. They could have just opened the world to me, and let me go wherever I wanted. As it stands, I must complete all the Altmeri quests before I am given access to the Ebonheart ones. Furthermore, the Altmeri and Ebonheart zones are instanced zones which are shared only by members of my own faction. How bizarre and counter-intuitive it is to travel in the lands of my enemy, yet never see a single human player of that faction. In Archeage I knew where I was by the number of reds and greens and purples around me, and it gave meaning to the world, rendering it safe and dangerous in equal parts. Even in their absence I could see their presence in the fields and houses they made, in the trees and crops they left in the wild, in the juvenile and occasionally amusing sparring on chat, and in the corpses and bloodstains they left in the wake of battles, skirmishes and ambushes. In TESO we stumble along in an illusion of a world, whose hollow beauty is stripped bare as people outlevel and abandon these zones. It is other people that give MMOs life - no amount of artifice can change this fact.


The status of Thornblade as of 23 June 2015 - completely dominated by the Dominion. The Covenant don't have a single keep to their name, save for the starter keeps which cannot be taken.

Levelling up in PvP would be ideal - I would be doing something I like anyway. Despite my concerns about not being at the VR cap, you can PvP without being at max level at a fairly high degree of effectiveness. You will still be handicapped by the inferiority of your gear in one on one encounters, but you are far from useless - one avatar can still man two siege engines at the same time, freeing others to fight or heal or support. One avatar can still repair the damage done to a wall. One avatar can still act as the eyes and ears of a larger force, relaying enemy troop movements on Teamspeak and on general chat. One avatar can still heal or play support away from the front lines, acting as force multipliers for your team mates by healing or placing siege shields over trebuchets and ballista. And if nothing else, one avatar can act as cannon fodder, acting as a meat shield while your higher level brethren do all the heavy lifting. That's the good thing and bad thing about open world PvP - quantity has a quality all of its own.

These are the roles I took for myself when my avatar fought in the war in Wabbajack last year, and I came back to TESO hoping to join the great guilds of the Covenant in helping them win the new war in Thornblade. Wabbajack is gone now, consigned to the dustbin of gaming history. Ninety day campaigns no longer exist - the longest campaigns only last thirty days now, a change which was wrought from player feedback no doubt, but something which is not to my own tastes. I like my virtual wars long and epic, and with consequences. Upon reviewing the history of Thornblade on ESOStats one thing struck me which appealed to my underdog inclinations - despite having come painfully close on many occasions, the Covenant has never won the campaign since its inception in August 2014. This month a Covenant victory appeared on the cards, but these hopes were dashed last week when the Dominion, led by their Emperor Mojican, seized the whole of the province and maintained control up to the time of writing. Only a late rush by the Covenant can salvage the campaign now, but it appears unlikely. Everytime I log on in the evenings (Oceanic time) there have been a handful of DC online at any given time, barely enough to fill a dungeon group. Every time I entered Cyrodiil I would ask "Any groups?", and in 7 out of 10 occasions my question would be met with resounding silence. Last night I logged on and saw Fort Rayles under attack. Eager to join a Covenant pushback I rode to the keep and found the attacking force - a single Dragonknight with a lonely siege engine slowly and painfully chipping away at the walls. In the spirit of factional brotherhood I set up two trebuchets and helped him bring down the wall - he clearly didn't know how to man two siege engines at once, a standard trick learned by all of us who fought together back in the day. Together we were able to bring down the outer and inner wall against no resistance, but that would be the extent of our fightback. The NPCs guarding the castle would require more than the two of us could hope to overcome.


Reduced to a handful of siege engines, two lonely Covenant lay siege to a keep defended by AI and are unable to take it. This is what TESO PvP has been reduced to on Thornblade.

This description may not be typical of the TESO experience. I can only speak for the campaign I am currently part of - Thornblade - and the status of the rest may be polar opposites of the desolation of Cyrodiil I am currently experiencing. I know that it was luck that made me join Wabbajack and let me take part of that great inaugural war. There were so many campaigns to choose from in the early days of TESO, and most of them were so one-sided that the losers eventually left, leaving an empty husk behind. This phenomenon is not new and is a recurring problem for games such as these - perhaps I am just seeing the other side of the coin for the first time. But it's not in my nature to abandon things at the first sight of trouble, and if Hatakeyama is going to stay and fight she will do it here in Thornblade, even if it condemns her to a furtive existence beneath the heels of the Dominion. I am envious of the console players entering the Alliance War for the first time - for them the experience will be shiny and new and all the more memorable for it. For the remainder of us on our PCs and Macs the world has moved on, and Zenimax's attempt at simulating fantasy world conflict will soon be made obsolete by the next generation of open world PvP games such as Albion Online, Camelot Unchained and Crowfall. Nonetheless it doesn't invalidate the early glory days of TESO PvP, and for a brief period in its inception it had its day in the sun. 

2 comments:

  1. hi :)

    in the next major update (no idea when that is) there will be a revamp to pvp which will hopefully revitalise the campaigns. They are also reducing the xp needed for each veteran rank and increasing xp in certain areas (I can dig out links if you need, but they're on the ESO forums somewhere :))

    in case you weren't aware. enjoyed reading your post :)

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  2. Hello, and thanks for commenting.

    One thing that would definitely revitalize the campaigns is the Imperial City, but who knows when that will drop - I remember reading about that in August last year and it's still pending. But it's good news to hear of the revamp, because they need to do something to give the campaigns a shot in the arm. As for the changes to the amount of xp needed that's also good news, but I can see that change being implemented just in time for me to finish the grind to VR14.

    So typical. ><

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