The more I inspect the world of Tamriel in The Elder Scrolls Online, the more I'm filled with a sense of slight unease. It is as if instead of romping across the mountains of Skyrim or wading through the marshes of Vvardenfell as in previous games, carving out a niche for myself in a living, breathing world, I find myself in a museum or sorts, or a grand theatrical historical experience, surrounded by actors and other tour audience members. Tamriel in TESO is beginning to feel more like a showroom (a very big one) than a world that's actually alive.
The presence of other characters is beginning to grate when it comes to PvE, being out in the big wide world. It just doesn't really fit, and I'm having to suspend an enormous amount of disbelief. Having played WildStar for hours on end, I have to say that NCsoft's game made sense -- you're on a frontier world, scrambling to do everything that you can to carve out a niche. It would follow that certain pillars of the community would be in demand, and I could more easily ignore multiple characters swarming about the place. There are obvious benefits to having fellow adventurers alongside you for certain areas that absolutely require a group, but on a moment to moment level, it's sometimes a little disconcerting.
Part of that has to do with the fact that the game seems to not know exactly what it wants to be. Exploring the frozen tundra of Bleakrock, having persevered with the Ebonheart Pact, occasionally feels a lot like playing Skyrim, and there are moments when I've found myself wandering the wastes in relative solitude. But often the constructs are a bit of a lie, with objects and bodies that might otherwise be interactive rendered inert here, like window dressing -- serving the showroom vibe rather than contributing to the world.
That said, I rocked up to an abandoned fishing camp and got out my rod and stayed for ten minutes or so, catching fish to later sell. By the time I left, five more people had arrived, and there we were, angling in snowy serenity. Then we teamed up and went off to deal with the Frozen Man and his riddles, only one member of our group glitched out and couldn't complete the quest and wasted half an hour thanks to a bug.
There's so much I'm enjoying about TESO, but it always seems like there's a caveat just around the corner.
I've been impressed with TESO approach to exploration thus far, though. You can't roam the entire land straight off of the bat -- there's a concession to the genre there -- but whichever compass direction I've found myself wandering in, my navigation bar has swiftly been littered with quest markers and locations of interest. Treasure chests litter the landscape too, and it's important to stick around and see what's inside them because monsters are rather rubbish when it comes to dropping loot. Quest givers will occasionally bestow a special item on you upon completion of the tasks they set, but otherwise it's all about keeping your eyes peeled for these trunks with respawning random contents.
Lockpicking is a skill you'll want to master early on. You're given a limited amount of time to work the five bolts into the right position, starting from left to right. Basically this involves pressing your left mouse button down until the bolt starts to waggle, and then quickly letting go. If you're jumping the gun, the bolt will reset; if you're too late, your lockpick will snap; and if you're bang on, then the bolt will stick in place and you can move onto the next one.
I have been loving the skill system, too. The freedom that you have to forge a truly unique character over time is absolutely fantastic, and could prove rather revolutionary in the MMO genre were others to implement it. "Progression through action" might be a simple concept, one incredibly familiar to Elder Scrolls veterans, but to see it here is a joy, and allows for character reinvention that other games in the genre simply don't allow for. There are benefits, of course, to making the most of the combat stylings of your particular race and role -- my moustachioed Imperial Dragonknight is suited best to a sword and shield, for example, but that doesn't mean I can't deck him out with a bow or a staff or dual daggers if I want to, and then it's simply a case of grinding to get better.
Speaking of which, I've been pleasantly surprised to find that grinding gets you nowhere in terms of general levelling and amassing XP. Quelling monsters delivers a paltry amount of experience points, but engaging the various beasties you'll come across in a spot of fighting does boost those skill rating and the progression of your special abilities. TESO downplays levelling nicely elsewhere with the skyshards scattered around the world of Tamriel. Collect three of these and you can nab yourself an extra skill point, rewarding those who do what they've always done in previous Elder Scrolls games -- not settling until they've scoured every corner of the map.
In this game it's all about the quests, and I've really enjoyed them for the most part thus far. ZeniMax have done a good job of dressing up traditional MMO fetch-heavy staples with well-voiced characters and little narrative vignettes, framing the tedium of backtracking and familiar MMO mechanisms with objects and people of interest to further root you in the world. At first I was sort of constantly asking myself, "Am I having fun?" and then I forgot to do that completely because I absolutely was.
Next up, though, it's time to fly the banner of the Ebonheart Pact and get stuck in with some PvP. I've hit level ten and Cyrodiil beckons. Time to take the seat of power back. Wish me luck.