i replayed part of the game and all i did was screenshot

The Elder Scrolls Online: my thoughts

Like everyone else, I was very apprehensive when The Elder Scrolls Online was announced. If you didn’t guess from the fancomic/parody I have been writing for the last three years, I like the Elder Scrolls games and really want to see them shine and play up their strengths. Given that the series is largely about playing however you want and being this big hero or agent who determines the fate of nations, it just didn’t strike me as compatible with the concept of a Massive Multiplayer Online game.

Like, don’t get me wrong. I have had fun playing MMOs. Back in high school, my friends and I used to dig up tons of obscure indie or Korean MMOs in search of something fun or original. Most of them fell prey to the same problem: being little more than a pretty field full of enemies that you had to kill before you could move on to a field of slightly stronger enemies. Though we found a few gems that pulled off cool premises and smooth gameplay, most of them were incredibly boring and simply couldn’t make us care about our progress long enough to stick with it. 

It was even worse when they tried to introduce a plot. “You are the chosen one and you must save the world” is pretty much the bog standard for fantasy, and that just doesn't work when you are playing alongside a thousand other people who are also the chosen one. Even normal quests lose some impact - say, when you find someone weeping about how he lost his sheep, and he’s surrounded by eight players who you know are also separately helping him find his sheep. It is just impossible to feel like your actions have any meaning, or that anything you do is actually special.

On top of all this, the Elder Scrolls setting is just incredibly unfitting for an MMO. The games are mostly set in relative peacetime and focus around attacks from indisputably evil badguys rather than the large multi-sided faction wars typical of MMOs. Ressurrection from the dead is incredibly difficult and special, rather than the meaningless repeated death that commonly defines an MMO. You would basically have to destroy the setting’s most characteristic elements to turn it into anything resembling a massive multiplayer game. You can understand why I was worried. 

And as such, imagine my surprise when I finally downloaded the beta and discovered that Zenimax had pulled the game off perfectly. And they did it using the one, perfect angle I never would have thought of:

They made a game where you play as a Daedra

Characters

I guess the first thing I should talk about are the characters, since the character designer was where I first began to realize this was not one of the generic, forgettable fantasy MMOs I was used to. 

Like I mentioned above, in Elder Scrolls Online you play as a Daedra - the otherworldly, immortal monsters that have served as summons in the previous games. Among other things, this means there is a huge amount of leeway in the character design. Rather than just giving you a generic base and letting you mess with scale sliders, we had full reign to switch out lots of different parts. Pictured above is my friend’s Storm Atronach, which he decked out with big shoulders and huge, heavily armored hands and feet. My character was this werewolf-looking thing called a “Wereling”, which I made as lithe and upright as possible, which made me look like kind of a matchstick next to my friend. 

One of the things that stood out to me most in the character designer was that there wasn’t actually any sort of discrete gender dichotomy. Like, the character presets had some options that were very clearly male or female, but they were just different part/slider/voice combinations. Even on the very humanoid races like the Golden, you could make a female character with broad/masculine shoulders, or max out the breast size slider on your giant burly fighter, and the game wouldn’t try to stop you. There were a lot of people who used this to humorous effect (my friend’s Storm Atronach, for example, had the most seductively feminine voice), but at the same time there were a lot of others who came up with some really neat character designs from it. My favorite was this very long-lashed male Dremora. I kinda wished I got a screenshot of him, because he looked badass. 

Wereling was the only race I got a chance to try, though some of the others looked pretty interesting. Not only were the races visually diverse (even with their own movement animations), but they had abilities that really changed their gameplay style. Twilights could fly and Lurkers could phase through walls. Atronachs had this neat ability where they could hold down a key to trade max health for magicka, which let them kind of switch between being tanks and spellcasters at will. It really got across this idea of playing different creatures with different powers, not just recolored humans with slightly different stats. And unlike most MMOs, it left me excited to try a different character. 

Story

As I said earlier, one of the biggest flaws in MMOs is that they often try to force a “singleplayer” storyline that only makes sense if you ignore the thousands of other players doing it. Elder Scrolls Online does an amazing job of avoiding this writing pitfall and tying the story and gameplay together. The basic premise of the “main quest” is that you (along with many other Daedra of various planes) had your memory wiped and power stolen, and you want to get it back. Because, hey, what Daedra - or MMO player - doesn’t want more power? The motivation is already there.

I put a lot of stock in opening scenes, and Elder Scrolls Online has one of the best I have ever seen. There are apparently a few variations of it to add replay value, but the one I got involved helping this human conjurer and his brother as they try to escape a prison (kind of a homage to how every Elder Scrolls game begins with incarceration). The writing is immediately a cut above anything I have seen in the series: the brothers had this back-and-forth banter that smoothly established tons of important stuff about yourself and the setting, from your amnesia (“What is wrong with the daedra? It doesn’t look like it knows what it’s doing…”) all the way to your immortality (“Don’t worry about the daedra! If it dies, it just goes back to wherever. Worry about us”).

As you help them out of this dungeon, smashing locks and occasionally putting down a guard dog, the three of you eventually exit into this big, open plaza with like a hundred Akaviri snakemen pointing bows at you and hissing in broken english for you to come out and face your death. The brothers huddle and discuss this plan to charge across the plaza, with you on the outside, in the hopes that you will soak up the arrows and they will make it out safely. On the count of three, they exchange a pre-emptive goodbye with one another and charge. I'm assuming there is no way to save them, because when I played the three of us got riddled with arrows and died, teleporting me back to the foresty plane my race started on. But holy shit that scene made me feel responsible for their death. You never hear about them again, and the first NPC you meet after the opening just brushes it off as “mortals succumbing to the inevitable”, but it kind of drives home the idea that you are a creature summoned by people in tight situations. 

When you’re not out exploring daedric planes, most of the gameplay revolves around accepting summoning calls. The “main quest” kicks in when you are summoned by this sorceress who claims to know you from before your memory was erased. She says you betrayed your Daedric Prince (or princes, when I was with my group) to serve her, and promises she can help you get your stolen power/memories back. Unlike the normal summoning calls, this enigmatic sorceress keeps calling you up with requests for you to explore areas or retrieve artifacts in your own home plane. The very cities you started in essentially become dungeons. 

What makes the story especially great, however, is if you get caught working for her. The Daedric Prince of your home plane talks to you personally, tells you the sorceress is this bad-news mortal named “Arden Sul”, and asks you to doublecross her.

My group stuck with Arden the whole time, but apparently if you agree to help one of the Daedric Princes you get these assassination quests to hunt down and attack players who are helping Arden, and you get rewarded with small bits of your old power each time. Arden, on the other hand, would give us potions and stuff whenever we helped her, and we eventually ended up fighting each of our Daedric Princes and stealing these soul gems with our old power. I don’t want to give too much away about Arden’s goal or why the Daedric Princes wanted to stop her, but the story gave us lots of opportunities to flip-flop whose side we were on, which was a really neat touch. 

I think the main draw of the game, though, was still the regular little “summon” quests. They were basically the game’s answer to instanced dungeons, and ranged from helping adventurer parties through ruins to completely silly things like helping a wizard find his lost monocle. The developers put a lot of effort into making sure the quests didn’t get redundant, with stuff like randomized dungeons. And even when it does get redundant, the game isn’t afraid to poke fun at it - my whole group broke out laughing over Skype when we got the monocle quest a second time and the wizard actually said “oh… oh dear, you’re the same ones that helped me last time, aren’t you?”. It was just really cute. 

Along with the funny quests and the regular adventure ones, there were a few summon quests that were actually really touching. I don’t really want to spoil them, though. The whole idea of being a character who is summoned to people in need ended up working amazingly well. It’s ironic that a game about being an amoral, immortal monster often left me feeling more heroic than any game about being a “hero” ever did.

Gameplay

One of my personal pet peeves in MMOs is when leveling seems to only exist as a barrier to exploration. In most Elder Scrolls games, if you see a mountain in the distance you can just walk there and explore it, facing enemies at about your level. In an MMO, that mountain is usually going to have monsters way over your level that will rip you apart. 

Elder Scrolls Online actually had a pretty interesting solution to this: leveling doesn’t make you stronger. Rather than having enemies and players increment in strength at about the same speed, the game is essentially just built around everyone being the same level. There were still a few areas where we got our asses kicked, but it was either because we played poorly or because we needed a specific item (e.g. exploring the Badlands without fire resistance turned out to be a bad idea). When one of our party members decided to make a new character to try a different race, she was still pretty much on par with the rest of us in combat. There was no nominal amount of rats she had to kill to get to the fun stuff; less than half an hour after making her new character she was running a summon job right alongside us.

Rather than getting stronger though leveling, most of the progression in the game seemed to revolve around getting new items. With maybe the exception of holsters (which let you have more than one equipped weapon when going into dungeons), each item had a balance of strengths and weaknesses. At one point I had a powerful long-range bow that did 10% its usual damage at close range, and at another point I had a crossbow that fired a shotgun-esque volley of bolts, making it deadly at  medium range and useless over distances. It was fun stuff like that, and as you got more items from quests and exploration you had more different ways you could set up your character. The weapon I used most of the time was this weaker bow that let me move around at full speed when it was drawn. 

It was a refreshing change to most MMOs, where you spend a majority of the game using weapons that feel exactly the same but have progressively better stats. The closest things you had to stat increases here were buff potions and the end-of-main-quest power buff (which doubled your health, stamina, and magicka). There were crafting stations you could use to tweak weapons, but the effects were pretty small and retained that rule of mixing benefits with drawbacks. It was still a lot of fun, though, and ran with that core Elder Scrolls tenant of “play how you want”.

I was also pretty impressed that they kept in the crime system, given how often MMOs (or RPGs in general) just do that thing where you can only hurt badguys and only pick up things that belong to you. In The Elder Scrolls Online you were free to steal and murder - even other players - but it was an extremely, extremely bad idea. The NPC guards on every daedric plane were downright vicious, players could get money for reporting crimes, and (as my friend learned) if you accrued too high a bounty on one of the planes, other players would actually be recruited to hunt you down and bring you in. I guess in retrospect it explained why I kept seeing these guys in masks jumping down from rooftops and killing people in public without being arrested. 

If you were caught or arrested, it was also pretty neat that the punishment differed plane-to-plane. I got arrested in Moonshadow at one point and basically had Azura scold me, one-on-one, while asking me why I did it. It was kind of cute, but she made it clear that I shouldn’t do it again or I may be banished. When I got arrested for stealing in the Deadlands, I actually got loaded into a torture device and a bunch of my equipped items lost durability. The variety was really neat, and there was a sort of “realness” to it that acknowledged you were playing alongside other people - for example, I actually had to wait before I could meet Azura because someone else was doing it. 

Regarding gameplay, the racial abilities are also worth noting. Like I mentioned up in the characters section, my friend’s central ability as an Atronach was that he could sacrifice health for magicka, which had this pretty neat visual effect where the lightning inside him dimmed as his hands glowed. As a Wereling, my central ability was these finishing moves that worked on creatures below a certain health where I would literally just throw down my weapons and rip them apart. I’ve heard they were one of the better races for bounty hunters, which from a lore perspective works really well with them being from Hircine’s daedric realm. The whole thing was just very thematic; every race had a definitive feel to it that matched with their home plane. 

We focused on the main questline and as such did not get a chance to try the player-versus-player parts of the game, but from what I understand they take place on “neutral” daedric planes where you can fight for control in the name of a Daedric Prince. As long as you hold it, it will affect the items and prices available to your race in their home plane (holding the Soul Cairn, for example, gives access to a bunch of necromancy staves). 

Overall, the game just struck a really nice balance between exploring the bizarre daedric planes and delving into the neat little summoning jobs. It captured this idea of being a powerful creature without trying to hide the fact that there were thousands of other powerful creatures playing too. The other players were a part of the actual game, rather than just an unfortunate consequence it tried to ignore.

Final Thoughts

I don’t know if I can express how much The Elder Scrolls Online defied my expectations. I was anticipating something that really wrecked the Elder Scrolls lore I had come to know and love, or at best a mediocre fantasy romp that would go free-to-play within a year. I did not expect them to make something so original which integrated a brilliantly written story and heavily polished gameplay together so well. 

After seeing so many game companies lose money making sub-par World of Warcraft clones in an attempt to capitalize off that game’s popularity, it feels really good to see one that plays the strengths of its source material and improves on the flaws plaguing most games in the genre. It’s nice to have some reassurance that companies are still interested in making fun and original experiences that we can enjoy with friends, and that the Elder Scrolls series can still produce something complex and thought-provoking. This is the sort of game we need more of - something that really plays up all of the neat stuff that only games can do. Something that makes us excited to explore and interact with a new world.

In the end, I only have one criticism of The Elder Scrolls Online: that this entire review is bullshit and it is actually a disappointingly forgettable cookie-cutter fantasy MMO. 

10

Anonymous said: What are your favorite screenshots of 2015?

-Here’s the second part of the answer to that question. These are all the 3:4 ratio shots that i really liked.

Number one is from Bioshock Infinite. I’m very fond of this screenshot. In fact, if i was making a coffee table book full of pictures about Columbia (I’m ready 2k. Let’s make it happen!), I’d probably put this as the front cover (if you’re curious, I’d use something like this as the back cover). I think this shot represents a few of the most important things about the city. The grand neoclassical architecture, the overwhelming and always vigilant statues, and of course, being high up in the sky. The way Comstock house is obscured by the clouds adds mystery to the picture and you cant help but feeling a bit of wonder and awe at the imposing building shooting up towards the heavens. You wouldn’t normally see this exact scene during gameplay though. This area is actually a few buildings and things put together in the distance, made to look like Emporia. If you look very carefully when Songbird flips your airship over, you can see some of this stuff right before it crashes. To get this, I just exited the airship the moment before he attacks it, paused time, and flew in much closer than you’re normally allowed.

Second up is from Batman Arkham Knight. It almost always evokes strong feelings (for the player and the person they’re playing as) when a main characters’ decisions negatively affects another character they care for, so i wanted to try and capture that in a screenshot. The overturned wheelchair is a strong image by itself, but by placing Batman in the center of the picture and more importantly, the clock, it visually represents that everything revolves around him and his choices. I used the in-game color filter to make the image red, to add more tension and dread.

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David Madsen’s role

I’ve already talked about the character, but his role is rather difficult to predict since he is so aggressive. The game also doesn’t pull any punches when every character has had problems with him. I know that has the opposite connotation of what I said in my previous post about him, what I mean is that he is aggressive to everyone but the game also tells you it’s not his fault. It’s kind of weird to explain, hopefully you understood it from your own experience.

I could make a wallpaper for my room with all the scenes with characters talking smack about the guy, but I will only focus on the things that really bother me. I don’t mind that he is a bit “paranoid”, he could have good reasons for it besides the ones we already know, or that he likes things to have a certain order/rules and that when they aren’t followed he gets upset. Those are understandable, but I hate how he gets physical with girls, especially shy ones. Why won’t he get on Victoria’s face like he gets on Max’s or Kate’s?

And don’t forget the back hand slap on Chloe. She is not his daughter, that alone doesn’t give him the right to even enter her room when she doesn’t want him there, much less hit her.

So why is the game constantly presenting scenes in which we wouldn’t empathize with him? Seems like it’s on purpose. Many think that Mark Jefferson is a red herring type of character, David fits that role even more.

There’s a theory going around that he saw something with Rachel Amber that he couldn’t explain. Of course for that theory to be right the other needs to be proven, the other being Rachel Amber having powers too. Many things in the game point to that being true, that’s why it’s so widely popular even when some of us would prefer if it wasn’t the case. I know an ex soldier who also has security cameras around the house. But none inside, it’s not the cameras outside that seem out of place, it’s the ones he has hidden all over the house. They don’t make sense unless he was trying to capture something, or someone doing something. (or he is a huge perv but I doubt that’s the case)

So OK, maybe there is no real reason for the surveillance cameras other than protection as he claims. Let’s go with that since there’s no evidence to the contrary. (yet) His treatment of Chloe is kind of weird, even in Chrysalis alone. There are 4 ways the scene in her room can play out and some of the things he says are more hurtful than the slap he gave her. Others, sound like he is protecting Chloe, so which is it?

I’ve said that everything “bad” Chloe does is for Rachel, and I’ve replayed the game enough times to see the connection. Every single time Chloe does something really bad, she has Rachel in mind. That means the money she borrowed from Frank, wanting to steal the handicap fund etc. But still my question is, did Rachel corrupt Chloe in order to use her to get the money she needed to get out of Arcadia Bay? From what Chloe says in Chaos Theory, both when they read the file that says that Nathan and David were teaming up about Rachel being a “drug mule” because she was a bad influence on Chloe, and what Chloe is saying in the screenshot above, AND what he says if you intervene in Chrysalis when you are at their house… it does sound like he is trying to protect Chloe from people like Rachel.

The conflicted nature and presentation of the character makes the decision to side with Chloe easy to pick but feels like the wrong one. At least it does to me, nothing is absolute in this game. I personally think everybody is guilty, of what, well some characters we know what they’re guilty of, others are too tied to Rachel to get the full picture without knowing her fate. However, no matter what, I keep siding with Chloe in most of my playthroughs.

The post above was started a week or two before Dark Room was released, I didn’t publish it because it was too similar to the character analysis I had posted already. However I didn’t want to scratch the post because I knew his role is more important than his personality. So, having played Dark Room I will continue the post with the new details, hit Keep Reading if you have finished episode 4.

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