There came one of those rare moments during E3 2013 when I wasn't having fun. That moment came when I was playing The Elder Scrolls Online.
It's unfair to judge a large-scale game meant to be played for hundreds of hours in the space of 40 minutes, of course. But even a massively multiplayer online role-playing game can reveal a lot in a short time. Is the basic combat enjoyable? Is the setting inviting? Is it fun to move about the world? The Elder Scrolls Online had a chance to make an impression this week, but it failed to do so. The demo felt old, uninspired, and clumsy, and most damningly, it was boring. So boring, in fact, that I struggle to find much to say about it and am not particularly inspired to know any more.
On the other hand, what I saw of ArcheAge at E3 left me with loads of questions and an eagerness to know more. In case you've never heard of ArcheAge, it's a sandbox massively multiplayer online game developed by XL Games, with Lineage designer Jake Song at the helm. My first impression of my ArcheAge demo (shown by publisher Trion Worlds, the folks behind Rift and Defiance) was that it is gorgeous. The game is powered by CryEngine 3, though a powerful graphics engine means little without an art style worth rendering. Luckily, what I saw of ArcheAge was unusual and beautiful, with exquisitely detailed airships crossing the skies and massive sea vessels parting the waters. I watched the player ride a cow and a donkey before he took to the skies on a colorful glider, looking like a human-size butterfly. I want to know more about this place, its people, and its purpose.
I also want to know more about the sandbox itself. Trion told us the game is designed to be player-driven, with a complex economy and crafting system in which individuals and guilds must transport goods across land and ocean. For instance, when constructing a giant ship, you must move the goods to the construction zone. Guilds could create caravans in which members do their part to contribute to the process, carrying resources on foot or on a mount. If you are building housing, your residence exists right in the persistent world rather than in its own instance. ArcheAge is designed to be a world manipulated by its players, for better or for worse.
The player-driven adventure Trion Worlds described that had me most excited to play ArcheAge for myself, however, was a pirate tale. You might be accused of being a pirate by other players, which could lead to a player-run trial and a verdict. Should you be found guilty, you could be exiled and become a full-fledged pirate, which makes you an enemy of any upstanding citizen--which in turn means that non-player characters will no longer talk to you. I don't know much more about this system, but the possibilities and logistical hurdles that penetrate my mind when thinking about piracy in ArcheAge make me giddy. Oceanic ship combat, with players fighting over goods and resources? Complex supply lines built for the creation of imposing structures and transport methods? I'm so in.
It might be unfair, then, to compare a player-run persistent world like ArcheAge with a theme-park MMOG like The Elder Scrolls Online. The Elder Scrolls demo was an immediately familiar experience even within its own subgenre, however. I took quests, I went and killed assassins with swords, I interacted with boxes, and I got gold and new weapons for my trouble. The good old chase-the-quest template works just fine, of course, but there just wasn't any excitement to the adventuring, or precision to the combat. By its release, The Elder Scrolls Online will feature a first-person view that shows your hands and weapons onscreen, as in the single-player Elder Scrolls games. For now, however, the game is played in an MMOG-typical third-person view, with swordplay that sort of, kind of, tries to emulate a real-time action game.
But based on the demo, The Elder Scrolls Online doesn't do a very good job of it. There's no sensation that your blade is meeting steel and flesh, in contrast to Tera and Neverwinter, which feel much more immediate and precise. Every combat scenario in the demo was characterized by the awkward, sometimes broken animations. Of course, there's still plenty of time to refine the clumsiness, but even outside of combat, there was nothing to hold my attention. Well, aside from the fact that I was in Daggerfall. It's too bad all I had to do there was perform cookie-cutter MMOG errands. Even the final act I performed--saving the king from assassination--lacked oomph, the ultra-scripted AI damaging any chance the quest might have had of making me think the royal ruler was actually in any danger.
Of course, this is Elder Scrolls, and the chance to visit old haunts in an online setting might be enough to keep the game compelling. But there's nothing about what I played of The Elder Scrolls Online, or about what Bethesda has told us, to make me want to know even more. And I suspect the reason is that we already know exactly what it is: a bog-standard online RPG with a setting beloved enough to spark interest. ArcheAge, on the other hand, inspires a spirit of discovery. After these MMOGs are released, these impressions might be proven vastly incorrect by the games themselves. But for now, ArcheAge prompts in me an adventurous itch I look forward to scratching. The Elder Scrolls Online seems content to follow the old recipe book.'