Matt Firor Shows Us Real-Time Combat & New POI System
The Elder Scrolls Online nearly caused the internet to explode when Zenimax Online spilled the beans on their MMO last month... and then caused it to slowly deflate once details started emerging. "Is this just World Of Warcraft in Tamriel?" we asked, disgruntled, seeing the familiar first person action replaced by toolbars and a jarring cartoony graphical style.
Luckily, game director Matt Firor stood poised and ready to blow the lid off this slightly confusing state of affairs at E3, from how the new Points Of Information system will work to why the combat isn't as cooldown-dominated as you might fear. Firor is no stranger to epic MMOs, having directed The Dark Age Of Camelot back in 2001, and what we saw of TESO after five secret years of development is looking rather interesting.
However, whether it will feel like a true Elder Scrolls game - or manage to prise players off of Battle.net - remains to be seen.
The Elder Scrolls Online is set 1000 years before Skyrim, in an age of chaos before Tiber Septim took the throne. Without an Emperor to stabilise the region, the prince of Cyrodiil has entered a pact with Daedric prince Molag Bal (the mace guy, in case you've only played Skyrim) to raise an undead army to claim the realm for his own, co-opting the Imperial forces to his dastardly plans. Luckily, three factions have risen up to claim the throne for themselves: the Daggerfall Covenant, Aldmeri Dominion and the inexplicable Ebonheart Pact, who somehow comprise the Nords, Dark Elves and Argonians. Seeing as these three races despise each other, even Firor was unable to explain their cooperation as anything other than an "alliance of convenience." Convenient for whom, Zenimax Online?
Having chosen a quest and assigned a faction, players are free to explore the world of Tamriel; from the frozen wastes of Skyrim to the verdant plains of Cyrodiil, Hammerfell, High Rock and the Black Marsh. We haven't been able to visit these areas in years (most of which haven't appeared in-game since Arena), giving us a truly enormous world to explore. Instead of being guided through the storyline by a rigid quest, The Elder Scrolls Online will encourage us to explore its huge tracts o' land, giving us the thrill of discovery that underpins Bethesda's series. Players will hear rumours about dangerous dungeons and areas that might yield treasure or adventure, picking up optional plot threads that lead to branching mini-narratives and diversions galore.
Dungeons will scale with players, presenting multiple opportunities for endgame raiding and harder difficulties. Monsters, traps and puzzles all feature in these instanced encounters, forcing players to work together in more than just combat. However, while crawling through non-instanced public dungeons, you'll frequently run into other players who need help with a particularly challenging enemy or trap (human foes are randomly generated using the full character creation system, resulting in some potentially incredibly dangerous builds), and assisting them will reward everyone with a full share of any loot and experience. Firor explained that they want to reward us for helping out fellow adventurers rather than putting the focus on cynical opportunism.
A short guided gameplay snippet demonstrated how optional subquests have been replaced by Points Of Information. While undertaking a particular story arc, you'll frequently discover blips on your minimap that indicates that something relevant to your current objective is nearby. Should players decide to investigate, a 25-30 minute optional quest will begin, which alters both the outcome of the overall mission as well as leading on to new, branching Points Of Information to undertake.
Be aware that the next two paragraphs contain spoilers.
As an example, our nameless hero was bound for the town of Camlorn, which reportedly suffered from an infestation of werewolves who were suspiciously well-coordinated. However, a POI summarily appeared in the minimap, suggesting that he investigate the spooky Glenumbra Moors far from the beaten track. Doing so revealed an ancient battlefield full of restless spirits, who had returned to the world of the living in order to impart an important message. Once the hero ventured into a tomb, he was sent back in time to the battle itself, which just so happened to be a desperate defence against an undead werewolf known as Faolchu. Realising that this lycanthropic general was almost certainly responsible for this new wave of werewolf attacks, players will actually assist in the fight... and discover that Faolchu has a weakness to fire. A piece of information that will prove invaluable when facing Faolchu in the main questline, of course, upon returning to the present.
Here's the clever bit. This jaunt to the past offers two separate outcomes - either we could save a female soldier who would reveal Faolchu's Achilles' Heel, or we could ignore her in favour of fighting Faolchu himself in an area with some convenient bonfires. Either way, we'll learn his weakness, but this choice will open up different Points Of Information. Should you save the soldier, for instance, you'll encounter her descendant to unlock new lines of inquiry. This POI system may not be quite as dissimilar to traditional subquests as Zenimax Online would like you to believe (characters still dole out objectives while shrouded in a glowing aura), but it's potentially going to make for an insanely replayable and versatile MMO experience.
Firor's team approached combat and character development with the aim of ensuring that the holy trinity of Tank, DPS and Healer classes is blown wide open. The Elder Scrolls is famed for its freeform development and fast-paced action, so as such, the combat has been designed to resemble a traditional action RPG. Like previous games, characters will be fuelled by health, stamina and mana, with players able to block, power attack and trigger finishing moves all in real time.
This is the key. While previous previews suggested that TESO would ape World Of Warcraft's turn based shenanigans, our demonstration illustrated characters directly raising their shields to deflect blows, charging up power attacks by holding down the mouse button (not waiting for a cooldown) and launching into nasty finishing moves, using the minimal GUI and toolbar for convenient access to a few key skills rather than a constant port of call. Indeed, the toolbar actually disappears after a while until you roll over the base of the screen. Though some skills almost certainly will come with a cooldown, the result is a game that could feel much more dynamic than many similar MMOs. Or, just as easily, plague the whole thing with latency issues.
The art style, which features a stylised aesthetic, oversized feet and hands and a strong resemblance to Kingdoms Of Amalur, seems to be a double-edged sword at this early stage. On the plus side, Firor reckons that "any player who's bought a PC in the last five years with some sort of 3D acceleration" should be able to run The Elder Scrolls Online, potentially creating an enormous player base. But there's something... wrong... about seeing Tamriel presented like this. It's like seeing your favourite thing deformed and simplified, uncanny enough to feel utterly disturbing. Like coming home only to find your loved ones replaced with waxworks. A personal gripe, I warrant you, but one that I just can't shake at this stage. Still, this will at least allow The Elder Scrolls Online to age gracefully rather than quickly become a visual relic.
The Elder Scrolls Online is an odd proposition then, one that seems to offer something new amidst all of its familiar trappings. Firor promises that strong social elements will make TESO the "most connected MMO of all time," but for now, it's clear that Zenimax Online have a lot to prove to both Elder Scrolls and MMO fans alike. We'll find out if they pull it off in 2013.