I was back in Tamriel again, last weekend, for the second beta test of the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO). this time (unlike last), I managed to spend a lot of time 'on world' rather than in the downloader or the character creation screen. And I really enjoyed it. The quests were engaging, the difficulty level was sufficient to make it a dangerous place, and most quests didn't involve killing things, which is always a nice change in an MMO. Plenty of bugs; but the worst bug - being unable to exit a screen (for instance being unable to leave a conversation with a questgiver and return to controlling your character) could be got round with the magic mantra of /reloadui
The game plays similarly to Skyrim, but with a few changes for the better. For instance, a small action bar appears during, so you can see what keys are bound to what special attacks. Like in GW2, there are not many such bindings - Q, 1-5 and R. Which means one of your jobs is to select the subset of your abilities that you actually want to use. Contrast that with WoW wherein virtually all your abilities are bound to some button or other.
As in other Elder Scrolls games, you still move around by moving the mouse around on your screen to orient your viewpoint, and then you character runs to the centre of your screen when you press 'W'. Like in many First Person Shooter (FPS) games. Combat is also about making sure the enemy is in the centre of your screen which is where your attacks hit (again like an FPS). This means that your character's skill in killing enemies is a combination of your character's abilities (special attacks, stamina, and so on) and your own hand/eye co-ordination.
I imagine there'll be some sort of trading post or auction house, but if it was in the beta, I didn't find it.
Crafting is what you would expect from an Elder Scrolls game. You must go to a crafting station (for instance, a forge) with the ingredients you need, and if you have learnt the recipe and have sufficient skill to make it, you can make the base item, and you can add improvements (which you learn in the first place by "extracting" it from an item that already has the improvement, in the process destroying the item). Because there's also a time element to learning, I imagine it will take a long time to reach perfection!
So all in all, I liked the game. But here's the thing. Is it beautiful? That's the secret sauce that WoW has, that GW2 has, that Eve has, that many other games don't have. Their beauty. I'll be seeing these characters , these settings, these zones for months. Are they pleasing to look at? Skyrim is beautiful. WoW is beautiful in its cartoony way (though of course there are ugly zones we all can name and to which we will never return (Tol Barad, Isle of Thunder, Dread Wastes, Blade's Edge, I'm looking at you)). GW2 is beautiful. Rift? Attractive gear, attractive character models and attractive scenery are important in making us want to return day after day, week after week, year after year. The bits of ESO that I've seen so far have pleasant-looking surroundings, but I'm having a problem liking the character models in ESO. Some of the NPCs look like they were smashed in the face by with a frying pan. Of course, they can make the baddies as ugly as they like, since we're going to kill them. but you can't kill the "friendly" NPCs, so you've gotta put up with them (tell me again why anybody wants to be undead or an orc in WoW? I just don't get it).
That reminds me. In Skyrim, you could kill almost everyone (except the children), and live as an outlaw. Not so in ESO. I guess that would be too much like an invitation to grief. Shame. Some of those NPCs would look better with an axe through their skulls.
When to balance a game - On Google+, Paul Gestwicki suggested a topic: "How about a post on the relative merits of different balancing schedules during incremental development: bal...
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