The Elder Scrolls Online got a pair of new videos this week and a lengthy multiplayer demonstration at Quakecon.Buzz around the new MMO has been building steadily for months. Much of what the two trailers show indicates a game that hews closely to Elder Scrolls conventions as well as Skyrim UI standards. There's an onscreen compass at the top of the screen that shows both the direction you're facing and points of interest. Like most modern MMOs, Elder Scrolls Online will also reward exploration and backstory research. Both first and third-person viewpoints will be an option.
The Quakecon demo focused on multiplayer combat with a demo of how groups of enemies will work together to fight players. In the video, one enemy quickly pours fire on the ground, while another lights it. That's not a bad idea, as far as it goes, but the flexibility of the implementation will be key. To use this simple example: If Enemy #1 pours oil and Enemy #2 lights it at melee distance, can they perform the task at range, with Enemy #1 <em>throwing</em> the flask of oil, and Enemy #3 lighting it with a fire arrow or a spell? Can Enemies #1 and #3 use the flaming oil trick right after Enemy #4 casts a "Slow" spell? Can a group of enemies deliberately hide until the group has walked past, then light an oil trap from behind and in front simultaneously, trapping the group inside a burning circle?
These are the kinds of AI tricks that would help create a different MMO experience. I'm reminded of an old Flintlocke comic from 2005 in which a group of heroes attempt to infiltrate the low-level Wow dungeon, the Scarlet Monastery. Upon receiving notice that intruders have attacked, Commander Mograine says something along the lines of "Quickly! Everyone split into small groups that can be pulled one-by-one!" We were mocking the trope back in 2005, but come 2013, the "Small group by small group" is still the norm.
Game environments look amazing and combat appears to focus on substance over tons of skills, though players will be able to choose skills from various factions as well as having class-based abilities. If you're a member of the Fighter's Guild, that'll open up new skill trees, as will membership in the Mage's Guild, the Dark Brotherhood, or the Cowardly Janitor's Association (I made that one up). The combat model will be different from Skyrim, which is good, because Skyrim's combat model was one of the worst things about the game. Still, if you liked the staggering capability or knockback of Skyrim, you may be disappointed. Those functions are impossible to implement in an MMO because they too easily lead to what's called stunlocking -- multiple characters using a knockback or stun skill can keep an enemy on the ground indefinitely. That's not to say there's no knockback / stun in the game at all, but expect these abilities to be parceled out to limited degrees.
For those of you who haven't paid much attention to the game, ESO takes place a thousand years before the events of Skyrim and 800 years before the story of Oblivion. The Septim Dynasty, which ends in Oblivion, won't even be founded for another 300 years. Leaping back so far in the timeline gives Zenimax freedom to explore a very different world, while simultaneously showing different versions of a few cities and towns that still exist in the more modern titles. It also helps prevent lore overlaps -- stories and books that have been forgotten by the time of Skyrim will still be remembered 1000 years earlier.
The game has been delayed to ensure it can launch with Xbox One / PS4 support and is now expected in spring, 2014.