Tuesday, December 18, 2018

*If* ESO had good combat, it would unquestionably be the best themepark MMO

I keep thinking this every time I come back to the game. World design, freedom to explore, writing (which is way better than the single player Elder Scrolls games), encouraging doing delves and public dungeons for shards, all are real steps forward from both the traditional questing model and the awful, lore-free, story-free public events model where you never feel like you’re actually on an adventure.

The skill system is magnificent and a giant step forward for the genre - huge build diversity if you’re not obsessed with veteran trials or theorycrafting, the ability to level by doing almost any activity in the game, actual skill points out in the world to discover, and relatively little class restriction with 90% of the game’s skill trees and all three trinity roles mostly viable for all classes. The world is rich and immersive, things like stealth being ‘actual stealth’ instead of just going invisible for a few seconds, great guild questlines and fantastic expansion content only improve the proposition. Instanced PvP is ok and very much a love it or hate it thing, but that’s true for every themepark except the ones that really suck (like GW2’s ranked PvP).

800+ levels of alternate advancement provide ample progression at endgame without feeling like a huge grind (in that you can start raiding and doing veteran dungeons very early on in the champion point progression rat race), and expansions don’t invalidate previous gear progression so there’s a sense of long term ownership that doesn’t exist in some other games. Tying skill lines for thievery, assassination, the mages and fighters guilds, the psijic order, vampirism and lycanthropy to questlines and player decisions is a revelation - ESO feels more like a real RPG than any non-old-school MMO I’ve played.

Content release cadence with one large expansion-zone, one smaller zone, one raid and four dungeons per year is also pretty good.

And then there’s the combat. The fact that ESO’s combat even made it into a complete game, and that Zenimax has never even attempted to fix it, is actually a disgrace. ESO’s combat system is perhaps the most boring to ever grace the genre, the worst hybrid of hotbar and ‘action’, with lackluster animations, awful enemy AI, a first-person mode that is unusable in any kind of endgame or challenging content and an even more extreme version of GW2’s “yo-yo” health bars that are constantly shooting up and down as you struggle to figure out which aoes you’re exposed to.

The twin pillars of ESO’s combat are “sustain” and animation cancelling. The former involves constantly re-upping six-second DOTs, HOTs, buffs, and debuffs. Combat is now pure timer management - and it’s obvious that the only reason these aren’t toggles or longer buffs like in other MMOs is to disguise the innate emptiness of the combat by forcing you to press three buttons ten times a minute for the length of an encounter. Animation cancelling works in Street Fighter (or so I’m told) when the devs design and animate for it - so there are custom transition animations for cancelled abilities - but not in Elder Scrolls Online, where it just feels like a bad bug left in the game to placate the meta obsessed theorycrafters and artificially inflate the game’s ‘skill ceiling’. You too, can look like a schizophrenic, constantly interrupting every ability animation, weapon switch and block to spam the light attack button - and the damage increase here is so high that it’s basically mandatory if you want to perform remotely well at endgame. It looks and feels terrible.

But other than that, ESO’s a great game!

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