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The Ideal Price For A Key To Tamriel

Though I built a negative first impression of The Elder Scrolls Online back in beta, the game has been out for nearly a year now, and they finally stopped fooling themselves and dropped the subscription cost.  Now, after purchasing the box, you can now play this game as long as you like, optionally choosing to spend a little more for DLC or cosmetic benefits.  The console versions of "Tamriel Unlimited" are forthcoming.

Despite my apprehension, I took the plunge, bought a collector's edition, and gave it a solid 6 hours of play.
For two solid reasons,The Elder Scrolls Online is finally free to be the game it should have been from the start:
  1. This is a single player experience, it should not have a massively multiplayer cost.   I say this because grouping up with players has a very limited role and the combat mechanic is much more like Skyrim than it is a serious MMORPG.   Zenimax shot themselves in the foot there if they were planning on having this game generate MMORPG appeal.  However, if they were looking to create a multiplayer spinoff from Skyrim, that's exactly what they have here.
  2. This game has undergone nearly a year of post-release refinement.  At release, The Elder Scrolls Online was playable, but kludgy, and more importantly it was nothing special.  Those poor suckers who put down box price plus subscription were basically signing on to an extended early access period and nothing more.  Since then, Zenimax has added several new systems to the game, and that is exactly what it needed.
Besides, subscription fees are so passe.  Even games that are well-built to be MMORPGs really cannot feasibly keep charging players $15/mo to keep playing them.  There is just too much competition!  (That means you're next, WildStar.)

So, how is The Elder Scrolls Online now?  It plays a whole lot better.  Combat feels a lot more solid, less like hitting a hitbox and more like hitting the enemy.  Granted, for the most part you are still just swinging away, Skyrim style, and it's hard for me to believe that will be good enough in the long run.  Yet, as a content exhausting mechanism, it works.  Honestly, the jury is still out; it takes a lot longer than six hours to really assess an MMORPG!  It's a much better refined game than it was towards the end of beta, I'll give it that.

I hate theme park MMORPGs but, as far as theme park games go, The Elder Scrolls Online has the benefit in feeling more open-ended.  Sure, you are technically doing quests that involve going here, killing that, activating the blinky thing in the world, ect.  However, it is usually not in a quest hub, you find things to do by exploring.  Each zone is designed for the players to run around the map in a free-form manner.  To some extent, the progression system is balanced so player level is a lot more fuzzy in what you can engage, so the player never feels pigeonholed to knock all the boxes off their to do list before proceeding to the next.
The hype.

I am actually thoroughly confused when it comes to trying to find the necessary depth to the combat mechanic to persevere for a long-term MMORPG experience.  The way you build your character is laid out in a very unusual manner:
  1. Choose one of three factions.  This mostly determines your starting point in the game and which side you will be fighting on in PvP.  This is the only simple step.
  2. Choose one of four classes.  This actually makes less difference than you might expect, choosing a class mostly just determines which three class skill sets you can invest your skill points in, and you have WAY more skill sets than that.  Further, each class has some ability to perform any role in the holy trinity of tank, healer, or DPS, although some are stronger than others at these roles.  Thus, class is mostly a thematic choice, but definitely will limit what you can and cannot do.  Confused yet?  I sure am.  How the Hell am I supposed to choose a class in these circumstances?  I basically have to treat class in the same way I would a favorite color, and that really rustles my gamer jimmies.
  3. Choose one of ten races.  This makes a bigger difference than you might expect, because each race has a choice of four unique passive abilities you can invest in that are actually pretty potent!  For example, a Breton with level 3 "gift of magnus" gets a 10% boost to their maximum magicka.  You could potentially get away with choosing a race for wholly cosmetic reasons... but why would you?
  4. While you are playing, choose one or two weapon types to specialize in: daggers, maces, swords, war axes, destruction magic staves, restoration magic staves, battleaxes, greatswords, and bows.  Using each weapon advances the related weapon skill.  That allows you to invest skill points in active and passive skills related to that weapon.  All weapons are equally viable for all classes, so you can be a greatsword-wielding mage if you want.
  5. While you are playing, choose an armor type to wear: light, medium, or heavy.   They primarily boost your effective magicka, stamina, or health respectively, but there are secondary benefits to consider as well.  The armor skills are another thing you can invest your skill points in.  All armors are equally viable for all classes, so you can be a platemail-wearing mage if you want.
  6. While you are playing, join guilds, as garnering reputation with them unlocks skill slots that, you guessed it, you can invest skill points in.  Class is not a factor, you can be a dragon knight who joins the Mage Guild and eventually learns to cast the powerful Meteor ultimate.
  7. While playing, perform crafting.  Yep, there is even more skills you can invest your skill points in here.  Yep, the same skill points you invest in any other category listed here.
  8. Become a vampire or werewolf (but not both) and you can unlock even more skill lines.  At this point, I think the trend is pretty clear.
  9. And then there's the champion system, which allows high level characters to become even more uber.  Some people would say, "Welcome to the real game." when it comes to systems like this.
So there is plenty of grinding to be done, but wow, this system is an altaholic's worst nightmare.

If I harbor persistent doubts about my class, race, or faction, there's 120 different combinations.  If I waste a lot of time using the "wrong" weapon or armor, I might be tempted to restart just to grind those earlier levels towards the "right" one instead.   Vampire, werewolf, or neither?  Which guilds should I join - is joining all of them an option?

(Hint: for an altaholic, there never is a "right" answer.)
The reality.

What have I got myself into?   I don't have time to grind in an MMORPG.  I am supposed to be shifting game development paradigms or something.  But, tell me what, I will try to at least spend 85 hours playing the game so I can say I got an hour of entertainment out of every dollar spent.   If nothing else, The Elder Scrolls Online has high production value, and I can say I am actually playing a AAA 2015 game on my PC... surprising how rarely I can say that these days, what with indies and old games stealing the thunder of the new blockbusters.

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