One Night In Daggerfall

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Roar of the daedric plane of Coldharbour still ringing in my ears, I awoke from my trip to the afterlife. Vital instructions spoken to me just moments before all but vanished from my mind as I stepped outside into the cobbled streets of the coastal city of Daggerfall. With little memory of who I was or my life before that moment, I still somehow knew this was home.

Welcome to Tamriel. Bethesda & Zenimax Online spared no detail in recreating the well-established world of The Elder Scrolls, and the efforts paid off. Elder Scrolls Online was first announced at E3 in 2012, and fans were skeptical of an effort to bring the extremely single player Elder Scrolls universe into the online space. No other MMO fiction boasted the depth of lore and established fiction, nor the renown for freedom of character development, dynamic story and open world exploration. Given an atmosphere of growing malcontent with the popular titles at the time, comparisons were unavoidable. How would they solve these problems, and can they do it without shattering the fiction that made Elder Scrolls such a popular single player title? They succeeded, and they did it by making a game unlike any other MMO title.

Following impressions from the final beta weekend ahead of the April 4 Launch, here are ten reasons to love Elder Scrolls Online.

1 – Character customization.

From go, ESO aims to impress. Gone are the limited face, hair and accessory pallets of yesteryear when creating an MMO character. Modify each part of the body and face in unprecedented detail that even exceeds the customization options available in the single player ES titles. Adjust the skin tone or hair hue, select from various body paint, tattoos, piercings, scars, horns and hair styles. Choose, per body part down to the hands and feet, how slender, angular or muscular the body style is. Adjust the angle or height of the corners of your mouth, eyes, or even brow to create an expression or permanent scowl. Every portion of the face can be customized in the same manner. Or, press “randomize” at your leisure and select from countless unique combinations.  The level of detail available for making your character your own is staggering.

The result is a huge variety in the appearances and faces of both player characters and NPCs you meet. Some are humorous, others heroic but none are plain or worse – the same.

2 – Skill trees your way: Class, Weapon, Armor, Guild, more.

Although introduction of the four class system is new to the Elder Scrolls series, with one glance in the skill tree you’ll find the depth and freedom of character development the series is known for. This game was built to “play your own way”. You could arguably create a healing rogue, a warrior who also carries a fire staff, a wizard archer, or opt to adhere to an archetype at your whim. The base class skill tree does make a good framework for what you’d like to create but does not limit you to any sort of armor or weapon including those usually reserved for a specific role. My first was a Sorcerer proficient in both healing and destructive staves as well as storm magic. All weekend in beta I did not run into a single character like mine. Even amongst the other healers I encountered, they were as unique in style and execution. You’ll never, ever, spot a class by its pauldrons again.

3 – Crafting.

Want it? Need it improved? DIY or find someone who can. Between raw materials trading, and synergy between crafted material types, items and class roles, market square is alive with players bringing gathered materials back to be furnished into every kind of item available. The well though out crafting system encourages players to work together and trade resources and skill to craft items that are often better than those found in the wild. The level of detail available is sure to please even the most diehard crafters. As an example, the same item or weapon can also be crafted in many different styles based on region. Do you want your Maple Long Bow in the Bosmer style, Breton, or Nord? For which level, and with what extra traits?

4 – Enchanting depth, research, complexity.

Not to be confused with crafting, enchanting in Elder Scrolls has always been a full leap beyond merely creating your own items. In Elder Scrolls Online enchanting is deeper than ever, on an order of magnitude more complex than the prior ES titles. Unlike Skyrim, where hauling a ruck full of trash magic items back to an enchanting table was sufficient to quickly learn a dozen powerful enchantments for future use, in ESO prepare to research the enchantments individually at a base cost of six hours each. Like prior titles, this process destroys the source item and discourages easily farming items with desirable enchantments for quick skill gains. Furthermore, each base enchantment is actually the sum of three runes or power words. These runes can be found by exploring, but you likely wont know what a specific rune can be used for until you experiment with it. Runes can also be learned by breaking source enchantments. As before, charged soul crystals are also required to create or recharge magic items. The time and dedication required to advance enchanting will reward those with the patience to pursue it, making their skill very valuable to other players.

5 – A busy market square is a happy market square.

The value of social aspect created by crafting, enchanting and repairing gear cannot be understated. One of the greatest sights of many players working together was not just on the battlefield, but back in the city as well. Rather than clamoring around Auctioneers impersonally while armor shops stood empty, you’ll find them at the forge, at the wood working table, or associated guild houses. Of course, zone discussion follows what players have come to expect from a common meeting ground: quests, recruiting, looking for groups, buying and selling, and all of the banter zone wide chat can be famous for. You’ll also hear about dynamic in-game events as they occur here. Don’t care for all of the noise? It’s easy to turn off zone-wide chat.

6 – TES signature freedom to do what you want, not what you must.

One of my favorite things about The Elder Scrolls is the ability to get myself lost in side quests and distractions without a nagging main story rail to dictate where I should be or cannot go. In ESO, no sooner did I wake from Coldharbour than I ran off on my own agenda. Armed with only my selected starting skills and a meager choice of cast-off weapons and rags for clothes I immediately left Daggerfall out the nearest exit into the wilderness and still succeeded in making a viable character, finding adventure and never cared what quest was back in town or feeling I was skirting the advancement rails. In fact, not only did I find things to do, learned where to gather crafting materials and gained plenty of experience, I even helped rescue a village on fire. All without any glowing arrow, minimap icon, or supernatural beacon in the sky pointing the way I should be going. And I kept going. At one point in the weekend I stopped after finishing a lengthy series of quests and looked at the map, and wondered abstractly what might be “over yonder” in an unmarked region of the map between two places I had been – so I went there, and found another series of quests that had no “sign in the road” pointing to them. I even managed to get an achievement while I was there, along with a new tie to a character I had previously met. By the time I returned to town, finding an abundance of quests and story here too was just icing on the cake, rather than a forced new player advancement path.

7 – A huge, huge world

In a measure that used to be counted by hours it would take to walk from one side of the map to another, it’s tough today to compare property lines between franchises in terms of actual size. However, in terms of zone size I can attest to the extreme expanse contained in just the first starting zones. If you consider that each of the prior ES titles like Morrowind, Skyrim and Oblivion each covered a single, giant subsection of Tamriel, consider their combined size with the addition of lands only mentioned in prior titles. Some have not seen the bright side of a monitor in over a decade, or real 3d terrain. The first time I saw the re-imagined lava flows of Morrowind brought to vibrant new life in ESO, I got chills.

Add to the size of the world the task of actually seeing it all, as exploration is dangerous and requires a thorough, cautious, deliberate hand. Nevermind that unfriendly natives are hardly walked by (go ahead, try it) – my hat is off to the first to uncover the whole map as you are in enemy territory in more than three quarters of it! Remember, there are no “PvE” only servers in ESO. There is just one server, and realm vs realm PVP is always on.

8 – Megaserver

One new technology in this next-gen MMORPG is the Megaserver. By using dynamic load balanced cloud servers to host the game instead of dozens or hundreds of static, named servers, players are spared the process of selecting a server before creating a character or needing to change servers later to play with other friends. The game automatically places you in the same game instance as friends and guildmates, leading for a player population that is almost always “just right”, and not too crowded or vacant. Like any new technology, it will be interesting to see how they solve problems that could arise, but I’m certain even with problems it will still out-benefit the decades old concept of fixed servers.

9 – Combat: Goodbye auto attack.

Combat in ESO is a daring leap forward from prior generations of MMO. There is no auto-attack, nor automatic dodge or block. If you want to swing your sword, you control how you swing, at what, where you were standing, and how hard. Same goes for the shield, which must be actively held against an attack to deflect a blow. There is no global cooldown on moves, just the three resource pools ES players have come to know. Heavy attacks, roll-dodge, sprint and interrupts drain stamina, as does sneaking and other activity. Spells and other class abilities drain magicka, and health.. you try not to run out of. Your concept of target selection and positional fighting will be quickly re-learned. Even the most basic of opponents employ both position and a rich mix of attacks, power attacks and maneuvers that make combat a highly engaging, active process. The inclusion of interrupts and importance of well timed blocks creates opportunities for attacks to inflict additional damage, cause a stun or even a knock-down. Button mash at your own peril – unless you grossly overpower your opponents few fights are won by rushing in swinging. Learn your opponents, which moves to avoid, and how to interrupt or block them in a way to create attacks of opportunity.
 

10 – Lore lore everywhere , yet safely out of sight

Be it a song sung in a tavern in the frigid north celebrating the birth of the Ebonheart Pact, a cursed riddle spelled in runes on a statue, or an odd note found adjacent to an apple and arrow-pierced skull, there is lore everywhere. Yet none of it is forced on the player, instead is laying waiting to be found by the curious. On a scale from 1 to 10 for level of detail of fiction, Elder Scrolls Online gets an 11. Yet even past all readable tomes, scrolls, notes and songs lay other clever nuances and hidden surprises to paint a peerless picture that reaffirms this is indeed Tamriel that fans have come to love, online.

Top Ten Favorite Games, plus five I can’t wait to try

Like fake news of a celebrity death on social media, console gaming did not die – showing you can’t believe everything you read on CNN. Following E3, Gamescon and PAX 2013 the next generation of game consoles were revealed, setting the stage for a huge holiday season for both Sony and Microsoft. Along with the highly-anticipated super gaming consoles come a dragons hoard of new games – many of which are being released just weeks apart. So many, you might have a hard time picking which to play first.

While pondering this geeky dilemma  (oh the agony) , I found myself recalling fondly the best titles of decades past. I wondered if I could pick a favorite – or even my top five. I kicked a list around and managed to make it in ten, leaving out dozens of awesome titles for the few I felt stood out above 20+ years of amazing games. Following that, I include five more I can’t wait to play over the next six months.

1) The Legend Of Zelda: Wind Waker

This first spot could read “the entire Zelda series”, but I really feel Wind Waker stood out, even surpassing the epic original NES title. With compelling original gameplay, numerous twists to classic puzzle style, eye-popping dynamic cell shaded animation and hours upon hours of exploration, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker was nothing less than a Masterpiece. I look forward to the HD release on Wii U.

2) Super Mario 64

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Everyone loves Mario – I grew up on Super Mario Bros. Throughout more than a dozen fantastic puzzle jumpers, I felt that Super Mario 64 was by far the best Mario title. Not only was it a stunning launch title at the time, it still holds up to its more recent descendants as a rock-solid, timeless game. It’s no surprise it saw re-release on current handheld gaming systems.

3) Super Mario Kart

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Yes, Mario lands two spots on my top ten list. I love racing games, and it is tough to pick a favorite (I am very fond of Forza), but my all-time favorite racing game was the original Super Mario Kart. Like Mario 64 – it’s no less relevant than it’s seventh sequel, but holds its place as a classic megahit.

4) Final Fantasy 7

Sony owes its foothold in our house as a gaming platform to Squaresoft and Final Fantasy 7. I was a big fan of the US versions of Final Fantasy 1-3 on the Nintendo platforms, and Final Fantasy 7 by itself justified the new console. It did not disappoint, even with the added lag times from running on CD. This was one of the first games I recall evoking strong emotions and finding myself engaged, even deeply moved by. None of the Final Fantasy titles since have come close.

5) World of Warcraft

Despite its sunset into “Pandaria”, World of Warcraft stands as one of the greatest cross-medium franchises of all time. What Blizzard crafted was more than just the most successful MMORPG ever, it became part of modern culture. I do look forward to the eventual reboot… maybe… to coincide with the release of the movie? Com’on, Blizzard, all the other cool kids are doing it.

6) Rockband

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Rockband is the only console game I have ever driven in a car to go play with other adults. While most multiplayer games are fine played over an internet connection, or even better when you have the whole screen to yourself, Rockband rebels as the perfect party game where the more folks you can have over, the better. BOYB. Talent optional. We went on to get the “Green Day” and “Beetles” expansions, in addition to easily a hundred DLC songs. Instant favorite – still as fun as the first time I played.

7) Tomb Raider (2013)

The 2o13 Tomb Raider was a surprise hit for me. I bought this for my wife, who loved the puzzle-jumping, exploration heavy series. Watching her play through this “reboot” as young, pre-awesome Laura Croft, and I could tell right away it was the cure for the modern, dreary cash cow sequel. Solid story telling and a perfect mix of puzzle solving and top-shelf shooter action put this game, and heroine, head and shoulders over most hits in the last few years.

8) Borderlands 2

Anyone can craft a solid, multiplayer shooter – squeeze in amazing writing, memorable characters, seamless vehicle mayhem, real emotion, epic boss sequences and more laughs than you can count, and you’d be looking at Borderlands 2. It might be “the perfect game” – to the point of being potentially un-reproducible.

9) Dead Space 3

I struggle choosing a favorite from the Dead Space trilogy – each stood alone as a near-perfect title for different reasons. I picked Dead Space 3, despite being arguably less scary than the first two, because of the addition of the second main character Carver and the story between he and Isaac. Visceral Games serves up expertly woven character development, dynamic gameplay and absolutely breathtaking visuals. I loved every second of DS3 and it’s too-brief DLC “awakened”.

10) Skyrim

Time will tell, but Skyrim just might be the “last great epic single player game”. No game comes anywhere near Skyrim in terms of open world, exploration, dynamic story and free form character development. No other game, save all the Warcraft Expansions together, counts for more hours of enjoyment on my part. The music, story, environments, memorable characters and freedom of gameplay all add up to a benchmark than will not soon be exceeded.

Here are five more I am eagerly awaiting:

Titanfall

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Coming out Spring 2014 – Titanfall stole center stage at E3 and continues to sweep awards at each show since. Pre-release game footage shows fast-paced “multiplayer campaign” type story telling with hot mech vs pilot action. Titanfall looks to break the standard for team based shooter gameplay, and is one of the best looking next-gen hits we’ve seen. Yes, Respawn, I am “standing by for Titanfall”.

Destiny

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From the original makers of Halo comes a daunting, ten-year promise of a truly epic next generation dynamic cloud based multiplayer shooter. In the distant future, post apocalyptic earth awakens, having narrowly missed total annihilation. Players work together in the last great city to survive and ultimately to learn what happened. Bungie set out to create a story that would grow and unfold over a decade, in a constantly living changing world, experiences both on consoles and supporting high integration with mobile devices. Early footage looks really exciting, raising hopes that it will live up to the hype.

Assassin’s Creed 4

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I liked each of the Assassin’s Creed games, although I was less of a fan of the undercurrent high-science-fiction backstory that links the series. That aside, the rich attention to detail in reproducing historical periods or actual locations and events is commendable. Most recently, AC3 made a big impression on me. When I saw AC4 would feature even more focus on Naval Combat, feature an open world gameplay style – and has pirates – I preordered the same day.

Call of Duty: Ghosts

 

Aside from COD:MW3, I don’t consider myself a diehard COD fan. However, E3 footage for COD:Ghosts and early multiplayer gameplay videos show something unlike the former hits, which in this case might be very good news. The footage and production diary videos showing how they motion captured the dog and brought it to life in the game are remarkable.

Battlefield 4

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Battlefield is a consistently good series with a great engine that has long been a standard for a top-end shooter. Battlefield 4 debuts the Frostbite 3 engine on next-gen hardware, further pushing the limits of graphics technology, mobile device integration and cloud-based computing. It is a picture of what a next-gen launch title should look like, and will be a shoe-in for Game of the Year on its credentials alone.

Is it November yet?

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