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Straining Quality From Casual Consolitus

This weekend, I am attempting to vindicate my shelling out $85 for Elder Scrolls Online by finding where the quality gameplay is.  So far, my search has been nearly fruitless.

There is one thing that this game seems to do very well, and that is the content.
  • The details of the world are great.  Great architecture and other world details are an Elder Scrolls signature touch, and Elder Scrolls Online represents it well.
  • The quests are very organic and only rarely resort to the standard fetch quest or "kill x number of things" clich√©.
  • The appearance of equipment is good, and can be cosmetically crafted into many variants appropriate of each of the major races of Tamriel.  
  • Even the voice acting is spot on with the Elder Scrolls franchise, with voice actors of popular characters from the mythos (such as Sheogorath) returning to reprise their roles.  
  • The lore support is extensive.  Many quests, monsters, and locations tie in wonderfully to the previous games in the series.  Although Elder Scrolls lore is a little watered down from trying to cram too many races and too many cooks into the writing, The Elder Scrolls Online has so much optional reading that it includes a book collection mechanic.  I also enjoy exploring ruins belonging to both the Dwemer and Ayleid.
Elder Scrolls Online is definitely a AAA title, they hired some of the best talent to make this game and it shows, and this is an excellent game for fans of the series who just want to get their Elder Scrolls fix on.

If only I could say the same thing for the gameplay.   It is not awful, I can see that the game designers had some talent here, but the trouble is that they set their sights very low.  They wanted this game to be casual friendly, and to these ends I can look down the skill lists and see a number of things that rub me the wrong way:
  • The active abilities are boring.  The greater majority of them simply do damage, heal damage, buff stats, or debuff stats - usually a mix of those four things.  Seeing damage-dealing on so many different effects really underscores the redundancy of them.  So scarcity of distinct effects is a problem, but so also is the lack of uniqueness: I was excited to see the Sorcerer had a mesmerization spell, then I discovered the Nightblade gets one that lasts twice as long, and finally that anyone who is sufficiently advanced in sword and shield gets a shield bash that disorients foes for as long as the Sorcerer's spells does.  This design has made class choice in Elder Scrolls Online one of the most futile tasks I have ever encountered in my life. 
  • Damage type is pointless.  As is typical in most gratuitously casual RPGs, the mechanic of resistance to specific types of damage is greatly underutilized.  I have yet to encounter a single enemy in the game for whom it matters if I am attacking them using lightning, fire, or frost, they all seem to die about as quickly regardless.  If people would rage quit because they are too stupid to figure out why their weapons are not working against the wrong monsters, I would rather let them go.  Maybe some monsters in the game do have decent resistances, but I have not found any yet.
  • Player choice in battle is greatly mitigated.  You get five hotbar abilities, plus one "ultimate" hot bar ability, for a total of six.  At level 15, you can swap to a second weapon mid-combat, and it has its own hotbar, so that's twelve.  For most people, swapping weapon mid-combat is too awkward to do.  Six, or even twelve abilities is a far cry from the thirty abilities that is typical of core gamer MMORPG.  Elder Scrolls Online's approach feels heavily like consolitus to me.  To be fair, the action mechanic (which requires manual blocking, dodging, and utilization of weaponry) does take some of the burden off of the hotbar. 
  • Challenge is sacrificed for a protracted tutorial experience.   I hear some players say that they find it difficult to advance certain builds of characters at level 40.  I certainly am not having much difficulty at level 5.  If I want a challenge, I have to try to fight mobs at least 3-5 levels higher than me at all times, but this would necessitate missing out on big chunks of content.  Without a real challenge, the majority of the game ends up feeling like a long tutorial.  I hate it when games do this, but it is casualization epiphanized.
I really should not be surprised: with Zenimax's $200m budget blown on Elder Scrolls Online, they really had no choice but to try to appeal to everyone who could carry a wallet, which means they could not afford to spook newbies.  Speaking as an experienced core gamer, I am underwhelmed by how shallow this game is, and my greatest challenge is finding how I can possibly enjoy it.  I theorize it might be possible to disregard the simplistic gameplay if I focus completely on exhausting the content, which is great.

Altaholicism is a great enemy here, as playing over the same content again and again with other characters is sure to make that content tired in no time.  Yet, I find myself restarting my characters anyway because I am desperately grasping to find some actual depth to this gameplay mechanic.
The videos from Deltia's Gaming are among the better sources I have found about
the current state of Elder Scrolls Online and how to play the game well. 
I have, at least, built a better understanding of how to build your classes in this game.
  • Start by focusing health (for tanking), stamina (for weapon abilities and some class abilities, running, sneaking, blocking), or magicka (for class abilities and staff abilities).  Many abilities are more potent depending on if you stack stamina (for physical attacks) or magicka (for magical attacks), so many players stack one or the other accordingly, with health being saved for those who plan to play more defense.
  • If you are going health, heavy armor is best.  Stamina, medium armor.  Magicka, light armor.  This is because the related abilities to these armor skills essentially multiply the effectiveness of these stats.
  • Although all classes can do anything, you will find the appropriate classes have the most tools to get the job done.  Dragon Knights (warriors) have access to the most abilities to tank with, and plenty of melee-ranged fighting attacks too.  Nightblades (thieves) have the most abilities for sneakier attacks.  Sorcerors (wizards) have the most abilities to level great barrages of ranged magicka-based damage.  Templars (clerics) have the most abilities to heal.  Note how I am phrasing this: tools, not potency.  You can actually pull excellent numbers at any roles outside of what you have the most tools for in this game, partly due to the limitations of how many abilities you can slot anyway.
  • Although all characters can (and perhaps should) max out their weapon skills, weapon choice could not be more obvious.  Tanking?  Sword and shield.  Physical DPS at melee range?  Two-handed or dual wield.  Ranged physical damage?  Bow.  Ranged magic damage?  Destruction staff.  Healing?  Restoration staff.  It all comes down to what you expect to be doing.
  • An interesting thing about this game is you are welcome to buck the trends.  You can be sorcerer who wears platemail, dumps all their points into stamina, primarily uses the restoration staff, and barely uses any sorcerer skills.  Such a character would work, but it obviously cannot be quite as effective at any one thing as a specialist.
At the moment, I find it rather hard not to want to play a Nightblade because the recent addition of the justice system adds a whole side activity of robbing NPCs blind and selling their stuff to fences.   The funny thing is, all the classes can do this just fine and at roughly equal proficiency, but it just makes more sense to have a Nightblade do it than a burly Dragon Knight, pious Templar, or gimpy Sorcerer.

At the same time, I have a lot of respect for wizards in fantasy settings, and it strokes my ego to fancy myself one of those sage types.  I would love to have my primary character be a wizard.  Only problem is, Elder Scrolls Online treats magic like a bludgeon; you hit enemies with magic until they fall over.  Some spells are literally just weapons that pop into your hand, hit the enemy once, and disappear!  Sorcerors don't feel like wisened magi, they feel like brutes; this game has some of the least-magical-feeling magic I have ever had the displeasure to roleplay the utilization of.
The forces of creation at your fingertips, and the best thing you can think to do with it is
obnoxiously discharge electricity between your palms?  What a waste.
So I basically have a choice between a Nightblade (with slightly better degree of utility abilities and actual bonuses when using the stealth mechanic) or a Sorcerer (with a more egocentric magical theme but a lousy treatment of it).  Neither the Dragon Knight nor the Templar play subtly enough for my personal preferences.  There is no right answer here, but I wonder if I might as well just give up on finding gameplay depth and play Sorcerer wielding a Destruction staff just to quickly melt away enemies and exhaust the content quicker.

Overall, The Elder Scrolls Online is almost everything I have come to hate about the casualization of mainstream gaming.  I say "almost" because they started with an excellent treatment of the lore and the world, even the questing is a cut above the usual, but then they made the RPG mechanic so bland that I can barely bring myself to partake, and that latter bit is how casual-centric designs do horrible things to perfectly good games.  Surely, not even casual players can endure something so lacking in long-term appeal? 

Spending my time trying to vindicate the $85 I invested in this game feels as ill-conceived as the developers' trying to pay back their $200m development costs by scaling the game to as low of denominator as they dared.  Ill-conceived or not, I will persevere for awhile longer yet, thanks largely to the sprinklings of quality lore here and there.

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