Sunday, February 1, 2015

You Talking To Me? Questing In The Elder Scrolls Online

With the tutorial out of the way things began to look up for my soul-shriven Kajiit Darknight but before he was finally free to go his own way there was one more twist to come. When it arrived it did begin to occur to me that the developers might be playing some kind of post-modernist prank; either that or someone had a bet going that they could fit every single MMO cliche into a single incomprehensible and convoluted origin story.

Just about the only box left unchecked by the tutorial itself was the old "pulled unconscious/half-drowned from the sea by a fisherman/sea captain" routine, so naturally that turned out to be exactly what happened when The Prophet and I catapulted ourselves back into Tyria Telon Tamriel. At least, that's what happened to me. The Prophet turned up somewhere else altogether - AkAnon or Mekalia from the description he gave. Could have been The Black Citadel. Somewhere with a lot of clanking machinery and a steampunk vibe anyway.

His astral projection left me with the final thought that if I had nothing better to do I might wander down to the docks and offer my thanks to the ship's captain who'd pulled me out of the drink. I had my own ideas, which mostly consisted of wandering around Daggerfall like a gawping tourist, taking screenshots.

Okay, so that's not actually Daggerfall. The principle holds.

As MMO cities go Daggerfall is quite convincing. There's a bit of an issue of scale, with everything built on heroic proportions, but that, like the townsfolk who seem to have nothing better to do than stand around day and night waiting to start up conversations with strangers, comes with the territory. At least they move about in a purposeful fashion giving the place a pleasantly lived-in feel.

And they really do start conversations. That was the thing that struck me most after a couple of hours play. In TESO you don't find quests - quests find you. I found it quite immersive; almost naturalistic, if only on the Littlest Hobo or A-Team scale of naturalism.

There's clearly some kind of proximity trigger that causes NPCs to react to your character's presence. Guards move you on if you get too close; gardeners comment on the weather and so on. That's a nice touch but where the mechanism really shines is when you pass within range of a potential questgiver.

It was soon after this that I was certified. Not before time some may well think.
Rather than someone running up to you, yelling and waving their arms and demanding you Do Something! as frequently happens around dynamic events in GW2, in TESO you tend to overhear things that might be to your advantage. Or not.

I'd already decided I wasn't going to run straight down to the docks to thank my rescuer. Instead I'd been ambling around getting my bearings. I found a noticeboard that informed me about crafting writs, again in quite an immersive and unobtrusive fashion, and I was pondering on that when I heard someone behind me saying something about the docks.

Before I'd really had time to think about it I'd turned and replied and next thing I knew I had a quest to go speak to the captain who'd saved me from the waves. It all flowed so well I abandoned my crafting aspirations for the while and went down to the harbor to pay my respects.

I never did find a good angle.
That seemed to set a pattern. I played for around three hours last night and most of what I did arose directly and serendipitously out of seemingly chance encounters. At one point a dog ran near me and barked; looking down I noticed I could interact with her so I did. She led me, Lassie-like, to her fallen master and his dropped shopping list and thence began a nefarious plot concerning dark magic, or possibly just very poor cooking skills, that I'm still unraveling.

These beetles only dropped iron armor. Its ludicrous but at least its consistently ludicrous.

While I was exploring along the coast and through the dunes, killing scorpions for fishing bait and beetles for armor upgrades and having a thoroughly fine time, I spotted a statue. Always on the alert for a photo opportunity I headed over and hopped up on the plinth. I was swiveling around trying to get an angle that would include me, the statue and a large lizard, when I heard someone talking to himself.

I hadn't noticed anyone around but the voice seemed to come from below me. I stood up and looked over the small ridge on which the statue stood to find an orc. He turned out to be having a little problem with maternal expectations that I was able to help him resolve. The initial encounter and subsequent quest sequence felt unusually solid, authentic even, which I put down largely to the naturalistic way in which the orc and my character met.

In this respect my early impressions are that TESO has managed a small but significant improvement in the quest acquisition process. Whether the approach will continue beyond the starting areas and cities remains to be seen. It's certainly often the case in MMOs that polish and innovation of this kind tend to fade away as the levels wear on. I hope not. I like it.

The quest text itself is nothing like as innovative. It tends towards the plain and workmanlike, which is no bad thing. The examples I've seen so far don't have the wealth of detail of EQ2 or the delightful archness of FFXIV but neither do they have the odd, slightly off-register tone of WoW.

The voice acting, too, seems understated and restrained. Every quest is voiced in full (indeed all NPCs with or without quests seem to have a spoken line or two in them). The main problem I've encountered questing so far comes with the actors' speed of delivery.

Give a cat a fish...

With the one striking exception of Nicolette, who gabbles out her lines almost too fast for the sense, every single NPC speaks in somnolent tones, as though giving dictation. By the time I'm at the end of the text they are rarely halfway through their oration. Fortunately they don't insist on completing each speech before allowing me to move the dialog on to the next stage.

TESO does follow the longstanding convention of putting icons over the heads of questgivers but these are, once again, rather understated. I'm not quite sure whether they even appear over characters to whom your character hasn't yet spoken or, possibly, who your character hasn't yet heard. Either way, there are no forests of glowing neon question marks and exclamation points, only a sprinkling of dull grey lozenges here and there.

I don't have much to say about the quest journal because as yet I've rarely had cause to refer to it. The quests seem to toddle along quite nicely with no more than the odd nudge from the handy Add-On mini map. There's a huge compass bar that hangs across the high center of the screen that I've only latterly realized acts as a directional marker for all kinds of things, quests included, but I haven't yet fathomed its complexities so I tend to ignore it.

I'm pretty sure this isn't just here to add local color...

All things considered, then, I'm rather enamored of the questing in TESO thus far. It's ever-present yet unobtrusive, interesting, entertaining and easy to follow without being insulting to my or my character's intelligence. I do get a slightly disconcerting feeling that there's a lot going on around me that I'm not being allowed to know about because I haven't hit the correct quest triggers yet but I can live with that.

This morning I ordered a copy of TESO for Mrs Bhagpuss. Our Sundays-only GW2 guildmate, on hearing that the subscription is dropping in March, expressed an interest in joining us, so it looks as though this one might stick, at least for a little while.

Next up: what's with this Vanguard vibe?


  1. You make me want to play this too. :) I tried it for free in beta and liked what I saw, I just didn't feel that I had the time for another MMO at the time, not to mention a second sub. I might just give this another whirl once the sub drops.

  2. I really only stopped playing becuz I had 3 of the 4 archetypes into the vet levels (and 2 sorcerers there, so 4 toons at 50+ with a nightblade in the 30's) and I'd done it across all 3 factions, so the vet levels simply repeating content was... honestly, just fine for me, but a really busy week at work made me miss playing for a bit and I didn't really miss it and so I just drifted off from playing. I still enjoyed it a ton, though, and with the new Champion system have always intended to go back, so..... probably will do a final month's sub in March to get the "you subbed when we switched" bonuses, but then I'll be happy to be able to log in any old time without needing a sub.

    As to screenshots...... yeah, I've taken a few.... and these are jsut the ones I uploaded. I had more:

  3. I recently resubbed to ESO and am again having a blast with the questing. I drifted away after hitting Vet levels with two characters but now that some time has passed replaying content on a higher difficulty feels great. The game really has a lot to teach MMO and RPG devs in terms of immersive interface design.
    It's sad to see how things fall apart in the Multiplayer aspects though, when you chat with Remembers The Dark and become friends with them under the name @tnanog rather than Remembers...

    I share that Vanguard vibe. It's mostly due to the similarities between Redguard architecture in ESO and Qalian archiecture in VGSoH. The next island you'll visit is an orcish one and that too has similarities. It's not quite as awesome as the VGSoH Orc/Goblin starter island which was the best ever, but close.

  4. You're making it sound appealing. Will prolly buy it once it goes B2P assuming that their business model is not crazy with pay to progress. Will be interesting to see how much freedom it offers when compared to Skyrim where you can effectively just shoot off in any direction and do anything you want.

    1. Honestly, it's a zone-by-zone progression themepark. When you start a new zone you don't go the "the later parts" sine the higher level mobs there can kill you easily. At least until you hit the veteran levels. Then you can go anywhere in a zone your fancy takes you since each zone is all the same vet level, though you still have to progress from zone to zone. Assuming you don't just run into Craglorn and get in a boss grinding group to blast to max Veteran Rank. I never did that, as it just didn't appeal to me. I actually quite enjoyed the freedom to simply explore a zone once I hit vet levels, and didn't feel like it was a "grind wall" at all.

  5. @Shintar and Pixelrevision - When I was looking for a boxed copy for Mrs Bhagpuss I found them on sale for as little as £7.50 so it's hardly a major expenditure. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it at that kind of price.

    @Magson - Some great screenshots in that collection. It's a very photogenic game. I haven't had enough experience to judge mob difficulty yet but it seems variable - some things three or four levels above me die easily while I've died to mobs my own level. I like the lack of information on that though - makes exploring a little more intense than the strict level-rated themepark experience might suggest. Also these zones are *big*!

    @Lani I'm grabbing all the quests I run across and not finishing many of the chains as is my usual wont. I like how free and easy the game is about letting you pick up quests without apparently needing to have done prequels although I suspect there is plenty of that going on as well.

    You could probably drop some of those sandstone buildings into Qalia and never notice the difference. The soundscape is very similar too. Looking forward to the orc lands!

    1. sorry for late reply but I'm glad I'm not the only one who got Vanguard vibes from some of the areas - certainly the desert zones as you mentioned but also some of the aldmeri zones just have that... *feel*. It's very odd. After having temporarily sworn off MMOs I'm getting tempted by ESO again...


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