8 Reasons why The Elder Scrolls Online will bury a great games franchise
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A while back we reported on leaked details of an Elder Scrolls MMO coming our way soon. Now Zenimax Online, developers of The Elder Scrolls Online, have released official details on the game in the June edition of GameInformer. Our resident Elder Scrolls nut, Michael Glavin, was not impressed. We asked why... We probably shouldn't have.
Warning: Some of what you are about to read may contain fan-boy rage.
8. The cookie-cutter plot and setting
When it comes to fantasy role-playing games, there's not much variation in the overall plot sense – you start off a lowly serf, you find out you're “the chosen one” destined to save the world, and after about 100 hours you're a walking armoury with the powers of a god. That's a given; that's what we expect. But we do expect at least a little bit of originality when it comes to setting.
In The Elder Scrolls, this is no different. While you might be on a constant quest to save Tamriel, you're doing so from dragons, civil war, or a vampiric demi-god harnessing the power from the heart of a god from beneath a volcano that spews disease and insanity (what the hell, Morrowind?). So, in The Elder Scrolls Online, you probably wouldn't look twice at the setting – the Imperial throne is left empty, effectively destroying The Firmament that separates Mundus from Oblivion, and now one of the Daedric Lords has set out to get his grubby gigantic mitts on the mortal realm.
Except that we've done all that before. In Oblivion, the Emperor Uriel Septim is assassinated, thus leading to the invasion of the Daedra led by the Prince of Destruction, Mehrunes Dagon. In TES Online, it's Molag Bal doing the plundering of Tamriel, which means that the concept of Oblivion Gates sporadically popping up in the countryside and spewing forth demons has been replaced with giant anchors that fall down from the sky (to the same effect of scaly monstrosities everywhere), but the point still stands. It's 90% the same story, only this time instead of running fetch-quests for Martin Septim you'll be... Well, we'll get to that in a bit.
"It's retconning at its most blatant and inappropriate"
7. It directly contradicts TES lore
So, as we reported in our previous article, TES Online is set over a thousand years before Skyrim, during a time of civil war and unrest. The period of time that we're talking about is known as the Interregrum in Elder Scrolls lore, between the Second and Third Eras when Tamriel had no emperor and the provinces dissolved into independent warring states. That's all well and good.
But nowhere in any pre-established TES lore, from Arena all the way back in 1994 to Skyrim in 2011 and everything in between, is there one scrap or shred of evidence from any book, researcher or exploration, that giant demonic anchors from another dimension rained down from the sky.
Now you might think “Well, it is based a long time ago in comparison to the other games...” - and that would be correct. But Tamriel's historians are a very thorough bunch, and most of the time-line in the events of Nirn are pretty well established – even as far back as the First Era, hundreds if not thousands of years again before the setting of TES Online. So, what, did everyone just forget about the apocalyptic invasion from Oblivion, or did Molag Bal use some obviously very spooky form of magic to make them all forget and remove every single piece of evidence? It's retconning at its most blatant and inappropriate.
6. You can't just shoehorn in references and expect them to work
And it's not just the whole Daedric invasion that makes no sense. Names from previous TES games have been cropping up all over the place in GameInformer's coverage, and they're even more baffling. For example, the fact that the noble Tharn family (who would go on to spawn Jagar Tharn, the main antagonist of Arena) is conspiring with Mannimarco, King of Worms (a recurring necromancer character from both Daggerfall and Oblivion) to raise an army of the undead to protect Cyrodiil's borders. Mannimarco in turn is double-dealing with Molag Bal to bring all sorts of unpleasantness Tamriel's way.
This would be fine, if it weren't for the fact that Mannimarco's lifespan (which encompasses a few millennia) is pretty well documented and, again, there would have been some record of his dealings with the Daedric invasion. It can't really be said that his whole involvement would've been missed or overlooked, because if that were the case – why mention it in the lore in the first place? He's obviously going to have some key role to play that will be pretty hard to miss – it's a safe bet that the player(s) will have to face off against him at some point to try and reclaim their immortal souls (which is a convenient stopgap to explain why players never permanently die, and also flies in the face of a fair few conventions of lore in itself). These “champions of Tamriel” are undoubtedly the kind that would have their deeds well-documented (we'll ignore the fact that we've never heard of them, until now), so why would future scribes miss out on their face-off with the infamous King of Worms?
The involvement of the Tharn family makes just as little sense – again, they must have some significant involvement in the whole affair, or why bother having them in there at all? And yet if it turns out that they're heroically vanquished or otherwise incarcerated by the hero(es) in the events of the game, how then is it that several hundred years later little Jagar manages to weasel his way into the Emperor's court, and be close enough to stage a coup?
It's fairly obvious that elements are like these are just inserted because fans of varying lifespans will recognise them and go “Ah, I know that person” - but there's been just about no consideration given to whether these references actually make sense. And speaking of which...
5. The factions themselves make no sense
The identities of the three factions involved in TES Online has also been revealed. Initially we speculated that it would probably involve some sort of coalitions vying for the Emperor's throne, and in that sense we were right – the three factions that the player can choose from are the Ebonheart Pact (made up of Nords, Dark Elves and Argonians), the Aldmeri Dominion (comprised of High Elves, Wood Elves and Khajiit), and the Daggerfall Covenant (consisting of Orcs, Bretons and Redguards). The Imperials, as we previously mentioned, aren't having a great time of it – with the Imperial Throne empty Cyrodiil has been sacked repeatedly by each of the warring factions trying to take White Gold Tower and proclaim their dominance.
Now, it's not hard to see the direction that Zenimax has been going for – stories of intense political intrigue have become quite popular since Game of Thrones raised its head, and it's a fairly comparable setting. But none of these factions make any sense at all. The Daggerfall Covenant, for example, is supposed to be the most democratic faction that'll be most commonly associated as “good” - yet this goes directly against the hundreds of lore-based history where Bretons and Redguards warred with and enslaved the Orcs before they managed to pull themselves together and create their city-state of Orsinum. Not to mention the fact that the neighbouring Wood Elves and Khajiit have also been warring for centuries, and the Nords, Dark Elves and Argonians of the Ebonheart Pact have all been at each other's throats since about as long as they've all been on the scene in Tamriel.
It's not unreasonable to think that in times when the whole world is under attack even enemies have to work together – but already we've seen that this is not the case. As previously mentioned, Oblivion's story follows pretty-much the exact same lines as TES Online's, and listening to NPCs discussing the invasion in the game reveals that Skyrim and Morrowind both try and take advantage of the situation by invading their neighbours. And Morrowind has been known to invade Black Marsh repeatedly to take Argonians as slaves – a fairly big portion of the culture in Morrowind was dedicated to the Argonian slave trade. These are three races that have deep-seated issues of racism that don't disappear even under global crises, so the fact that they all seem happy to skip the animosity and work together for mutual gain is completely nonsensical.
4.The visuals don't fit the Elder Scrolls theme. At all.
While it's not specifically stated, it's become common knowledge that TES Online will use the Hero Engine, the same engine that Bioware used in creating Star Wars: The Old Republic. SW: TOR is designed to be based in the same era of the Star Wars universe as Knights of the Old Republic, several thousand years before the seminal movies. A lot of fan criticism was based on the fact that visually, The Old Republic bears almost no resemblance to Knights of the Old Republic. Not only was the design style way off, but the whole game was given very cartoony graphics that made everything look like it was made from plasticine.
"It's true that you don't want to be straining your eyes through various shades of brown, grey and green in a game where visual acuity and spatial awareness will inevitably be quite important, but it just flies against the whole Elder Scrolls visual them"
While it's true that a game engine does not dictate the quality of a game, or even how the game will appear, it seems that TES Online is suffering from the same problems as The Old Republic. Oblivion was uncharacteristically colourful and gaudy compared to the other games in the series, but the rest all had a somewhat more gritty visual style. It's not all bleached colours and offensive bloom effects like Modern Warfare 3, but it does present itself as quite grim on more than a few occasions.
TES Online, on the other hand, seems to look more like World of Warcraft. The colours stick out like a sore thumb, and the whole visual presentation looks very bold and cartoony – nothing at all like the style that TES games have made for themselves. It's true that you don't want to be straining your eyes through various shades of brown, grey and green in a game where visual acuity and spatial awareness will inevitably be quite important, but it just flies against the whole Elder Scrolls visual theme, and it's not unreasonable to think that there is common ground between the two that could have been comfortably reached without looking like Lord of the Rings meet Viva Piñata”.
3. Some of the game-play elements are simply ridiculous
Part of the reason that World of Warcraft is the most successful MMO on the multiplayer gaming scene is because it got there first, and it set the standards that all other subsequent MMOs have been judged against. Every game that has sprung up under the pretence of being a “WoW-killer” has quickly been dismissed on release as being, ironically, “too much like WoW”.
Zenimax have been trying to dissuade this notion by promising that game-play will more closely resemble the core game-play of traditional Elder Scrolls games. But it's hard to see how they plan to back that up; the GameInformer article states that TES Online will have 5 core classes for players to play – which is unlikely to be a tank, DPS-based mage, rogue, healer and something yet-to-be-disclosed. That, plus the fact that the aforementioned factions have all obviously been deliberately designed to take advantage of the warrior-mage-rogue triumvirate that reigns supreme over the entire fantasy RPG genre.
Not only that, but Zenimax have been teasing game-play elements that are obviously supposed to entice fans into believing that TES Online will break the mould. One of these aspects is the quest Zenimax revealed that involves putting on the armour of an ancient warrior and travelling back in time to the fateful battle where he was killed. Now, it's not hard to see how this was justified – Skyrim had a section of the game that revolved around time travel, seemingly a first for the series, and by opening that avenue it's reasonable to see that Zenimax would be eager to explore it. What they didn't seem to take into consideration, however, is that the time travel part of Skyrim was stupid as hell – and the time travel section of TES Online sounds like even more of a gimmick.
Another game-play element was being able to set up traps to ensnare enemies – specifically having a stealth-based character spilling flammable oil around the battlefield and having a fire spell-wielding mage set it alight. Now, this might sound like the clever kind of set-up that Bioshock 2 let you arrange – but in reality, all it is is the ability to lay traps (something almost every MMO with a stealthy character class lets you do) only it'll need another player to take advantage of them. So from the get-go it cripples one of the most important solo game-play aspects of one of the main character classes. Granted, the very nature of playing an MMO encourages you to play with others, but what about in a duel? These observations aren't some kind of incredible insight – they're simply common sense, and if the designers at Zenimax have caught them then I sure hope they're doing something else they're not telling us about in order to make it work.
2. It'll (probably) kill the Elder Scrolls series
Another reason World of Warcraft did so well is because it was a spin-off on an already-established and successful series. The Warcraft series of RTS games were some of the most popular games out there in the nineties, and WoW was designed to expand on the story after the hugely popular Warcraft III. But, if you'll notice, there haven't been any new Warcraft games in years, WoW expansions notwithstanding.
This is no coincidence. While it's gone from strength to relative strength over the last 20 years or so, the RTS genre has always appealed to somewhat of a niche audience. World of Warcraft, with a subscriber base of over 4 million players, obviously appeals to a much broader demographic. And with the fact that the last 3 successive Elder Scrolls games being dubbed Game of the Year on every release, it's not hard to see the same pattern emerging on a much larger scale. Why release another Elder Scrolls single-player game when you can release a TES Online expansion pack? It's already been confirmed that huge swathes of the Tamriel landscape have not been included in the initial development, are instead being saved for release as DLC material at a later time.
Granted, one point that goes against this argument is that TES Online is being developed by Zenimax Online, not Bethesda Softworks, who have worked on each previous TES title. But both studios are owned by a parent company, Zenimax Media, and Zenimax Online was set up specifically for the purpose of developing TES Online. If it does well enough, it's not hard to envision Bethesda being subsidised into Zenimax Media after finishing whatever Skyrim content they have planned in order to work on their title instead. And if that happens, we can say goodbye to ever experiencing more of the Elder Scrolls universe without having to pay for a full-price expansion pack and a monthly subscription fee.
"It's inevitable that the epic-scale sieges and invasions that Zenimax have promised will more often than not be predicated by a virtual faeces-flinging competition among the elite players as alliances are broken and poorly-spelled obscenities fill the chat window"
And finally: It's an MMO
OK, I'm going to get a lot of flak for this one, but it's true. Though I haven't specifically stated, it's probably been evident throughout this article that I'm not a fan of MMO games. Try as I might, I never seemed to manage to get my head around an MMO enough to enjoy it, and it's not for lack of trying. Single-player RPGs have always been more my thing, as is the case with a large portion of the Elder Scrolls fan base. Which is the reason that the series hasn't been made multiplayer until now. There's a very vocal subsection of the TES community that's hugely outspoken to creating an Elder Scrolls multiplayer game, which is an opinion Bethesda have mirrored – game director Todd Howard has gone on the record many times stating The Elder Scrolls always has been, and always will be, a single-player experience.
And there's a reason why. The Elder Scrolls games have always been about putting you in the driver's seat and letting you shape the world around you. They're designed to make you feel like the only person that really matters. So how are fans going to react to having to share that sense of glory and accomplishment with thousands of other players? It may sound juvenile, but it will drastically affect the whole layout of the game-play. You might be a max level, fully-epic-geared unstoppable killing machine who saved the world, but you'll still be only one of many.
Zenimax have tried to remedy this by implementing an endgame that allows players to form their own sub-factions to try and take over Cyrodiil and claim the throne of the emperor in White Gold Tower for themselves. This means that, sooner or later, there will be an Emperor (or Empress) of The Elder Scrolls Online, and it's fairly obvious that a fairly infantilised version of all the political drama that that entails will soon follow.
Gaming has made massive strides in the last decade and a half, but gamers are still at their core a petty and jealous bunch who want all the bragging rights for themselves. So it's inevitable that the epic-scale sieges and invasions that Zenimax have promised will more often than not be predicated by a virtual faeces-flinging competition among the elite players as alliances are broken and poorly-spelled obscenities fill the chat window.
That's not all, though. Part of what made The Elder Scrolls so distinct was the basis of having a game with the depth and scale of an RPG, and the first-person perspective and action of some bizarre fantasy-based FPS. In counterpoint to this, Zenimax have all but outwardly stated that TES Online will, by its very nature, be based in third-person. True, this might seem like a pithy point to bring up, but it is true that third-person games play very different to first-person games, and the task of simply mashing number keys on a hotbar to activate spells and abilities strips The Elder Scrolls of the visceral and in-your-face nature of combat game-play that it's been carefully cultivating over the last 6 years or more. In essence, it takes away the whole personality of the game, and by the looks of it we're going to be left with an “Oh look, it's another fantasy MMORPG, but this one says The Elder Scrolls on the box” kind of deal.
So in the end, why are we seeing an Elder Scrolls MMO when it is so (apparently) ridden with problems? The only answer that can adequately explain it is money. Oblivion sold ridiculously well during its tenure in the game charts, and Skyrim has performed even better in just six months or so. It's a fruit ripe for picking, and Zenimax have decided to do that – but, going on what can only be described as lazy design processes poorly masked as “unique features”, they've paid almost no regard to the quality or content of the resulting product. And while it's still very early days yet, if things keep going the way they do, the release of the game will bring about an Internet s***storm the likes of which Zenimax will have never experienced before. But me, I'll have no part of it. If this is how The Elder Scrolls is going to progress, I'm washing my hands of the series. It's been fun, and it's shaped more than a significant part of my life and tastes as a gamer, but I don't plan on buying a £40 game and whatever monthly-paid annual subscription fee will inevitably be in place just to be as disappointed as I expect to be.
Unless one of the editing staff members wants to hook me up...?
[Editor' s Note: Nice try.]
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