Video game re-review: ‘The Elder Scrolls Online’

The Elder Scrolls Online

The Elder Scrolls Online

Game: The Elder Scrolls Online

Developer: ZeniMax Online Studios

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

Genre: MMO

Rating: 4/5

Links: Official website, Facebook, Twitter

Like virtually every other reviewer, I harshly criticized “The Elder Scrolls Online” during its launch week, referring to it as a mediocre MMO, a very poor-man’s traditional “Elder Scrolls” title and a clear failure as a compromise between those two things.

The potential was obvious, but it was also clear that ZeniMax Online Studio’s massively multiplayer take on the franchise would need a few years’ worth of polish and reworks if it were to have any real impact on the gaming scene.

It’s rare that a developer addresses concerns and criticisms to the point of practically reworking their entire game, but ZeniMax Online Studios has done just that. The change in direction is startling, but “The Elder Scrolls Online” has only improved since its initial launch in 2014 and there’s never been a better time to jump in.

With that in mind, and the recent release of the MMO’s latest expansion, “The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind,” it’s worth taking another critical look at the game. Unless otherwise stated, this re-review will be focused on the base game and the content that is available to all players regardless of subscription status. New players should note that purchasing “The Elder Scrolls Online” Morrowind” will also unlock all of the content available in the base game.

OK, moving on. The first question most people will ask is: Is “The Elder Scrolls Online” a good multiplayer “Elder Scrolls” title? The answer is a resounding yes. This is about as good a mix of single-player RPG’ing and an MMO as one could reasonably expect, and a phenomenal game in its own right.

The game’s greatest strength is its endless customization. Though classes and the game’s three base statistics (health, magicka and stamina) provide some structure, players have a vast array of perks, weapons and abilities at their disposal. Sorcerers can viably don shields and heavy armor, while the Warden—introduced in “Morrowind”—can mix a variety of abilities from its dedicated tanking, healing and damage skill lines. Practically everything is at least decently viable unless you’re participating in the most difficult endgame player-versus-environment content, which is to be expected.

However, it’s a bit of a letdown that your race has a noticeable impact on your stats. “Skyrim” fanatics might want to roll a Nord character, but unless you’re interested in tanking, you’d be better off with another race. It’s not so drastic to gimp your character, but it’s a shame that such a visible part of your character is tied to stats.

Still, freedom is the focus here: I specialized my main character as a stealthy Nightblade ganker. Armed with a variety of buffs and burst abilities, the toon can assassinate unaware players in the blink of an eye and vanish before enemies can retaliate, but the character suffers from paper-thin defenses and poor sustained damage. Even in this niche role, customization options are abound. Gear, utility spells and even weapon types are up to user preference and can completely change the play style. Bows, greatswords and twin blades are all viable and have their own strengths and weaknesses, which is unprecedented in a gaming genre that typically requires players to adhere to a conventional metagame.

As importantly, you can play almost the entire game with anyone. The entire world is immediately open to your character regardless of faction and is scaled, which means that players of all levels can quest together. Outside of the Cryodil PvP (more on that later), even players from separate factions are free to group together.

The combat is also a cut above the typical MMO fare. Blocking, dodging and sidestepping are essential for all classes and roles and the plethora of threats will reward studious players. Though the combat isn’t quite as visceral as it is in “Fallout 4,” it’s nonetheless a massive step up from the point-and-click boredom of most MMOs and I can’t see myself seriously playing another game in the genre after duking it out in “The Elder Scrolls Online.”

Of course, none of this means much if there isn’t stuff to do in-game.  Powerleveling is certainly an option, but for those that game at a more relaxed place, there’s at least a few hundred hours of content to keep players logging back in. “The Elder Scrolls Online” has remedied a significant majority of its glaring launch issues and the difference is night and day. Crime systems, player housing, dueling, major quest chains and incentives (in the form of skill points and lore books) to explore all of Tamriel should keep the “MMO grind” to a minimum.

That said, “The Elder Scrolls: Online” suffers from a severe lack of tangible rewards and bling. There’s very few quests that drop anything more than leveled gear that will become obsolete within an hour of play, while the vast majority of the cosmetic armor, interesting mounts and practically everything else you’d hope to find while adventuring in a single player “Elder Scrolls” title is locked behind the game’s cash shop.

Yeah, “The Elder Scrolls Online” doesn’t require a subscription and it is a game that exists in 2017, so of course there’s a cash shop, and yes, it’s a major bummer. In fairness, it’s not as egregiously awful as the cash shops in some other MMOs (I’m looking at you, “Star Wars: The Old Republic”) and subscribers get a generous monthly stipend to spend on all sorts of cosmetic goodies, but the lack of cool unlockable in-game items is a major turnoff nonetheless.

If the massive world loses its luster, overworld quests will definitely start to drag after awhile. Though some world bosses and events necessitate concentration, most of the game will become laughably easy after you learn the mechanics, especially if you keep your gear up-to-date. That said, this is an MMO, and there’s certainly enough endgame content to make the occasional drag of leveling worth it.

Player-versus-player battles are suitably skill based and demands both environmental awareness (a huge plus that can not be stressed enough) and deep knowledge of each class’ strengths and weaknesses. On the other end of the spectrum, PvE dungeons and raids feature plenty of entertaining mechanics that encourage teamwork and communication, although I doubt there’s enough hyper competitive content to drag diehard raiders away from “World of Warcraft” in the long term. Still, serious players will find plenty to do here, though dungeon queue times can be rough for DPS players. Like most MMOs, “The Elder Scrolls Online” is best when you’re with friends.

While the PvE content is largely what you’d expect from the genre—though it benefits greatly from the game’s fantastic combat system—the game’s primary PvP mode is sure to polarize players. Cryodil acts as a massive objective-based PvP instance, and though it’s an ambitious concept that occasionally results in brilliant moments, there’s far too much downtime and when action occurs, it often devolves into zergfests where massive unkillable hordes of players rove the map taking objectives. I much prefer Battlegrounds, introduced in “Morrowind,” where three teams of four duke it out in several game modes. There’s great potential for coordinated groups to succeed and Battlegrounds will likely prove to be one of the game’s greatest features, even though the mode is currently marred by a shoddy queue system that often dumps solo players into underpopulated teams. Again, bring some friends.

Whether you’re interested in slaying fellow players or teaming up with them, you’ll probably make frequent use of the Guild Trader (auction house) system. It’s interesting that much of the endgame gear is tradable on the player-run markets, but the ambitious system is absurdly inconvenient. The Guild Trader’s user interface is horrible and there’s no centralized trading hub, which means that you’ll need to hoof it all over Tamriel to compare prices between the scattered vendors.

The user interface issue extends to the rest of the game. It’s an infuriatingly minimalist design, and “The Elder Scrolls Online” would definitely benefit by going in a more information-heavy MMO direction here. Thankfully, there are plenty of add ons that can improve the user interface—including the former Guild Trader issue—but this stuff really should’ve been built into the game.

True to the franchise, there’s also several noticeable bugs. Player character models occasionally fail to load unless you relog, grouping systems sometimes boot players out of an instance and, as mentioned, fail to create balanced PvP teams and random crashes do occur, albeit rarely.

But you know what? In my 300-odd hours of playing, those quirks don’t stand out. It’s the slaying of demons, the shooting other players in the face, the saving of kings and the exploring of caves that I remember, and I haven’t had this much fun wandering around a massive open world in years. I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing a game improve this much since launch and while “The Elder Scrolls Online” definitely isn’t perfect, it’s a grand, content-rich adventure that I imagine I’ll still be playing for months to come.

“Overwatch” champions inclusiveness in a divisive age

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Blizzard released a comic strip revealing that their perpetually cheery video game hero Tracer is a lesbian last month.

This is groundbreaking, as many news organizations have accurately reported. Tracer is featured on the cover of “Overwatch,” Blizzard’s much-loved first-person shooter, and is essentially the game’s mascot. Though queer characters and their relationships have been somewhat touched upon by video games in the last few years, none have been so prominently displayed by major companies such as Blizzard.

“Tracer is a lesbian on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. As in real life, having variety in our characters and their identities and backgrounds helps create a richer and deeper overall fictional universe,” Blizzard said in a December statement to multiple publications. “From the beginning, we’ve wanted the universe of ‘Overwatch’ to feel welcoming and inclusive, and to reflect the diversity of our players around the world. As with any aspect of our characters’ backgrounds, their sexuality is just one part of what makes our heroes who they are.”

This is an obvious win for progressive values and the comic strip enjoyed widespread coverage. What’s been less reported is that beyond last month’s Tracer surprise, “Overwatch” is generally one of the entertainment industry’s most inclusive and relentlessly positive outputs in recent memory.

Pop culture is what many of us use to distance ourselves from the dreary slog of day-to-day life but I’d argue that the general entertainment medium has spectacularly failed to provide relief, much less clarity, to the political and social madness of the last year.

However, “Overwatch” has continued to champion social acceptance and tolerance in a mature and subtle fashion since its May release. Given our culture’s increasing divisiveness, the game’s inclusive themes are all the more relevant today.

Though “Overwatch” celebrates its characters’ diversity, it doesn’t do so in a manner that comes off as preachy or contentious. Tracer is a lesbian, but that’s just one part of her character design and is never unduly spotlighted or advocated. If she’s a caricature, she’d fit the “spunky comic book heroine” mold far better than a social justice warrior stereotype.

Tracer is a video game character, but she feels more human than some of the flesh-and-blood pundits that argue about social issues in real life. Parallels could also be drawn to Korra’s bisexuality in Nickolodeon’s excellent “The Legend of Korra” series, which featured a relatable and natural romantic progression as opposed to self-righteous social rhetoric. That’s a good thing.

Compare this to another major entertainment blockbuster of yesteryear:

Despite its innocuous nature, “Ghostbusters” resulted in unbelievable levels of harassment and hatred between so-called “femnazis” and “misogynists.” Which side was right or wrong isn’t the point — the fact is that for all the presumed themes of diversity and female empowerment, the film spawned far more conversations concerning divisiveness and sexist vitriol.

Conversely, gamers, who are generally not considered a socially progressive bunch, have celebrated “Overwatch’s” diversity. Tracer isn’t the only example: “Overwatch’s” humanism extends to much of its cast.

Lúcio is a dark-skinned man from a Brazilian slum, McCree is an American cowboy and Genji is an honor-obsessed Japanese cyborg ninja. That might seem like a collection of stereotypes but it never comes across as such. The characters are varied and realistic but Blizzard isn’t afraid to address difficult topics such as bigotry in their interactions.

The robotic Omnics are widely distrusted in the game’s lore, and that quasi-racism extends to Genji. But when other characters bring up his machine half, Genji responds with reassurance and positivity.

In most other cases, the characters are ecstatic to interact as a team and work towards a common goal. Happy, motivational quips are yelled throughout matches and characters frequently complement one another on their differences.

Little exchanges like this are peppered throughout the game and are so fleeting that they probably don’t even register consciously. In the sole instance that Blizzard received criticism regarding exploitation and insensitivity — a sexualized victory pose for Tracer available during the game’s beta — the company quickly issued a statement and changed the pose. That “Overwatch” manages to do all of this without igniting a social media firestorm about political correctness or social justice is one of its greatest strengths as a truly inclusive entertainment product.

The care Blizzard has put into “Overwatch’s” messaging is palpable and reflects on the community, which is far more positive and engaging than those of similarly popular shooters.

Of course, there’s still plenty of arguing and raging in-game, but it’s usually restricted to insulting one another’s gaming skill and is no worse than the usual lighthearted banter and trash talk that’s rooted in competitive gaming culture.

The average conversations I’ve experienced in games such as “League of Legends” would make most Twitter trolls cringe and I’ve been the victim of calculated, sustained harassment in MMO games in the past. I’ll take harmless badmouthing of someone’s kill/death ratio in “Overwatch” over that any day of the week.

If there was ever any doubt that positive, reserved messages of diversity and legitimate tolerance in gaming were not worth the effort, let “Overwatch” stand as a remarkable example of their success. In an age where pop culture has been infected by hatred, bigotry and closed-mindedness, “Overwatch” stands as a shining champion of inclusiveness done right and the greater entertainment medium would be wise to take note.

Video game review: ‘Star Wars: The Old Republic: Knights of the Eternal Throne’

Star Wars: The Old Republic: Knights of the Eternal Throne

Star Wars: The Old Republic: Knights of the Eternal Throne

Game: “Star Wars: The Old Republic: Knights of the Eternal Throne”

Developer: Bioware

Publisher: Electronic Arts

Genre: MMO

Rating: 4/5 (Story content), 1/5 (As an MMO)

Links: Official website, Facebook, Twitter

“Knights of the Eternal Throne” is a remarkable single-player adventure and one of the best “Star Wars” stories in years.

It’s certainly the strongest narrative content Bioware’s “Star Wars: The Old Republic” MMO has received since its launch in 2011, anyway. Storytelling and gameplay are leaps and bounds beyond last year’s awful “Knights of the Fallen Empire” expansion. Here, the plot is both original yet suitably faithful to “Star Wars” lore, your dialogue decisions can drastically impact the plot, and things conclude in satisfying fashion.

If that’s enough for you, “KOTET” is great. It’s a gripping nine or 10 hours and well worth the $15 price tag. This is probably as close as we’re going to get to a third “Knights of the Old Republic” game and really feels like the intended finale to the overarching story the “Old Republic” games have been telling for over a decade now.

But past that first month, that few hours of solo adventuring content, there’s absolutely no reason for longtime or returning players to dedicate further time and money to the game. “KOTET” is a worthwhile solo adventure, but a horrific MMO. It’d be one thing if the issue was a lack of real endgame content — though the expansion has absolutely none to speak of — but the greater problem lies in the abhorrent gearing system and Bioware’s apparent aversion to quality assurance, free-to-play users and overall accessibility.

Before we dive into that, let’s talk positives. For all of its spectacular failings as a multiplayer game, “KOTET” still has an enjoyable story. Subscribing for one month unlocks the expansion and all prior content, and the cost is justified even if your only new experience will be the “KOTET” story arc.

The plot wastes little time before throwing your character into the action. Empress Vailyn is back, she’s grown increasingly insane and she wants you, her brother Arcann and mom Senya dead. That’s all made clear in the first five minutes, then you’re thrown into a massive invasion on the planet Voss. Good luck!

Yes, it’s the same basic MMO combat and there are still way too many Skytroopers and Zakuul Knights, but presentation goes a heck of a long way. When fighting would otherwise be stale, interesting locales and a drive to get to the next cutscene are apt motivators. There are even a few sections where you control different characters, ranging from a mouse droid to an AT-ST-esque walker. It still doesn’t make much sense if your character isn’t a Force user, but hey, that’s a price of sharing a single narrative between the eight origin classes and their unique backgrounds.

Regardless, it’s particularly refreshing to visit old locales with new looks, such as the recently war-ravaged Voss. It’s certainly a nice change from grinding the same old daily quests on prior planets, which was a major focus of the prior expansion that made zero narrative sense. The new areas are also enjoyable; a desolate planet crucial to “Old Republic” lore finally makes its haunting debut and is one of the most memorable planets added to the game since launch.

Major characters from the Republic and Sith Empire make appearances, which helps connect “KOTET” more closely to the game’s overall lore. The core of the story revolves around your character’s fight against Valkorian’s family and it’s suitably dark and engaging. Though an arc revolving around the ever-manipulative SCORPIO droid drags on for a bit too long and smacks of filler, the rest of the story is a succinct, solid success.

OK, negatives. I won’t sugarcoat this: “SWTOR” has carried on despite some a myriad of bugs, exploits performance issues, laughably greedy microtransactions and otherwise terrible design decisions. None of that has changed here. “KOTET” is essentially three things: The new story, Uprisings and a complete overhaul of the gearing system.

Story is good. Check. Uprisings: They’re basically miniature Flashpoints (the game’s version of instanced dungeons) and are basically fine, but a far cry from real endgame content. There’s five of them and more are on the way, but they’re far too simple and short to offer much replay value.

Those two things are the entirety of new content. No operations (raids), warzones (battlegrounds), arenas, daily questing areas or multiplayer planets, server-wide events or Galactic Starfighter space PvP content. Nothing.

As “KOTET” is unlocked simply by being a subscriber, it’d be unfair to compare it to a full expansion such as “World of WarCraft: Legion.” But still, the absolute lack of anything new to do after the story is over is stunning, particularly since this was the case with last year’s expansion, sans two widely-hated PvP maps added later in that expansion’s lifecycle.

The lack of content begs the question of why one would even bother to gear their characters. The new progression system certainly doesn’t help; it’s so unbelievably bad, it’s as if Bioware is openly hostile to the mere concept of endgame content.

Gear is doled out of RNG boxes which are acquired by completing most in-game activities. Randomized loot is terrible, but being forced to “pay-to-win” is even worse. “KOTET” offers microtransactions to boost the rate at which you receive gear. This would pass for a mobile tower defense game, but this is a major MMO, and simply isn’t acceptable.

The progression system and the loot you receive is tied to your role and class, which means that gearing multiple characters is an unbelievably time-consuming and luck-driven hassle. Given the continued drought of new content, playing multiple characters is one of the few ways to keep veteran players engaged. “SWTOR” has strongly encouraged creating numerous alts since its inception, and the complete reversal in philosophy is stunning.

As for balance, well, players have argued about that since launch and will continue to do so until the game’s death knell. What matters more is the removal or changes to certain iconic or situationally useful abilities. Ability pruning is common in MMOs, but the execution here is remarkably sloppy.

My Sith Assassin lost Force Lightning, among several other abilities. Besides the sheer iconic value of the ability, the move had limited usefulness when my character would be rooted out of melee range. So on, so fourth for other classes such as Sniper and Powertechs that also lost major abilities.

Maybe that’s nitpicking. Here’s something that isn’t: Bugs. “SWTOR” is rife with them and few of them have been fixed in “KOTET.”

Menus have disappearing assets, several abilities are broken or overtuned to the point that it breaks the game and even the new missions have several bugs, some of which require resets and can waste over an hour of progress. Yes, this is an MMO and glitches are to be expected, but given the overall lack of content to bugtest and the several months of closed beta testing, the amount of issues and their severity are inexcusable.

Will these things be remedied and new content added in future patches? It’s obviously impossible to say with certainty, but if the past is any indication, that would be a strict no. Bioware has been promising new group content, bug fixes and a myriad of other longstanding requests for years and has consistently failed to deliver.

Loyalty among even the most devout players is at an all-time low and that isn’t looking to change. Already, several servers are virtual ghost towns. Just a week after launch, servers such as Prophecy of the Five and The Bastion have single-digit populations in major hub areas. That’s a really, really bad sign.

So, should you buy “KOTET?” If you’re looking for an interactive “Star Wars” story and want to experience the conclusion of the “Old Republic” storyline, $15 is a small price to pay. It’ll be fun, for a time.

But if you’re here hoping that the expansion is a “SWTOR” revival that will reestablish the game as a serious MMO, just stick to “World of WarCraft.” Or literally any other major game in the genre.