OK

I'm sad, and angry. Mostly angry, actually.

I spent last weekend watching Elder Scrolls Online turn into Elder Scrolls on Life Support right in front of my eyes. It was that bad. Still a beta, the hopeful were typing into chat. Still a beta. What do you expect?

Error message after server crash, Elder Scrolls Online MMO
Ooopsies!
Well, from a beta for a game that is scheduled to go to market in less than a month, I'd expect it to run. And all too often, it didn't. Or it ran right off a cliff.

More on this, and why it would be a tragedy for gaming, below under the orange bundle of jute....

Error: An unknown error has occurred.

How many times did I see that message after the game suddenly lost contact with the server and shut down? Thirty? Forty? In three days? Way too often.

UI Error.

Error: Error 200 (7:1:1060:597)  Login service has failed.

Error: Error 318 (6:3:1162:2) A message rate limit was hit.

In its worst moments, the server seemed to be playing Whack-a-Mole with us, letting us get to the character selection screen and a little bit, say two minutes, into the game before it tossed us out again. Or we would try logging in, and it would tell us we were already in game, right after it had thrown us out. And then it would eject us again, or crash, or sh*t the carpet in some other way.

A drink vendor in Elder Scrolls Online, who is glitched, with the UI error screen up beside her.
You'd drink too if you were stuck in a video game this buggy.
It thought up a lot of ways to sh*t the carpet.

If this is the beta, the alpha must have been banned under one of the Geneva Conventions. Probably the one concerning torture.

I and my partner were both in earlier betas. These had uncovered a number of faults, which we hoped would be addressed in this, the first beta for which there was no non-disclosure agreement. Well, live in hope, die in despair, as my mother always said. A number of the old faults were still there, only worse.

Here's an example. In the second area you travel to, the Orc island of Betnikh, necromancers allied with the demonic Molag Bal are raising the dead in an old Breton graveyard, and both the ghostly Bretons and the Orcs need it to stop. You are charged with calling forth three evil spirits from their hiding-places in Oblivion, bringing them to our plane, and destroying them so that the dead can again rest in peace. A relatively straightforward quest, with both its motivations and its mechanisms clear and consistent (you use a custom staff of Arkay, the God of the Dead, to do the deed).

In the previous beta, I had found the whole thing very frustrating because one of the evil spirits declined to be summoned. All the ceremony produced was a swirling mass of ominous mist, but there was never anything you could land a blow on, much less kill. The situation righted itself after a while – a long while – but it was still an annoying and story-breaking waste of time.

I returned there in this beta expecting this problem not to recur. Unfortunately, it did. Not once, but three times. This time, none of the evil spirits was willing to put itself in harm's way. Sensible, from their point of view, because with the passage of time there gathered an impatient, bloody-minded lynch mob of players waiting for them to pop up to be killed. But disappointing. And quest-breaking.

The cloud that DOESN'T produce the Abomination of Wrath in the graveyard at Bethnikh.
"I'm not coming out until you PROMISE to be nice to me!"
In other words, the bug hadn't been corrected. It has been universalized. The rationale for this is not easy to reconstruct.

This sort of thing happened again and again and again. I would try to incinerate the omnipresent wolves with a fireball before they caught up with me, and then find out that none of my weapons would work unless I rebuilt the user interface....with the wolves gnawing on my kneecaps in the mean time.

In one particularly absurd incident, a pirate kept on hitting me with slashes of his sword even though on the screen it looked as if he were a good sixty feet away. I couldn't fight back. None of my weapons, magical or physical, would work. This went on until I had one foot in the grave, when finally the system lurched to life again and several projectiles I had launched at least five minutes earlier caught up with the pirate and blew him into next week.

A pirate standing far away who is still managing to slash me with his sword. Probably the result of lagging.
What a long sword you have, Mr. Pirate!
That was a happy ending. Sometimes when you come back to the present after one of those jams, it's only for your funeral. Something has beaten or bitten you to death while you were away with the fairies.

It didn't only happen in battle. The game systems were reliably unreliable throughout, freezing almost at random. That major fault was complimented, if that's the word I want, by a number of lesser annoyances. To begin with, they haven't decided what keys to bind to some functions yet, so you get absurd little messages telling you to press the key "Not Bound" to open the social menu, for instance.

Absurd message telling you to press the Not Bound key, which of course doesn't exist. They've simply forgotten to bind a key to this command.
Is the Not Bound key the one next to the Any key?
The in-game person to person “whisper” chat never worked at all, so I and my partner had to communicate through Steam chat. That was, when we could find each other. More than half the time, she would be invisible to me, or I would be invisible to her, except perhaps as a lonely white arrowhead drifting about. Even when we did manage to appear to each other in our habits as we live, there was virtually nothing that we could do together successfully.
I and my partner in Elder Scrolls Online.
That's funny. According to the game, you don't exist.
The system never managed to understand that we were both online at the same time, telling me that my partner was not in the game, even when she was standing in front of me jumping up and down and turning the air blue with infuriated commentary.

It went on and on, varied though unwelcome. On occasion, distant walls vanished inexplicably, showing the void beyond; roofs shone in strange ways. Swimming could turn into a nightmare of tumbling horizons and graphic collapse as the program couldn't decide whether you were above or below the water. Arrows mysteriously failed to reach their targets. Once a pirate knocked me back so powerfully that he propelled me right through the treads of a staircase and left me stranded in the space beneath, unable to get out. I finally managed to leave by teleporting to a wayshrine – there is a charge for that, and if I had not had the money I would have been out of luck. At any rate, almost as soon as I stepped out of the wayshrine I got killed..... and woke up under the stairs again. Back to the wayshrine again, but I had to pay double this time – the game, in a snotty little message, fined me for teleporting to a wayshrine twice in such quick succession. The criticism was not appreciated.

Glitch, glitch, glitch. The crafting systems in the game have drawn general praise, which I think is deserved, but they would be even better if you could get into and out of them without crashing or generating some absurdity. My characters tended to disappear when I tried to leave crafting – at least part of them disappeared, leaving the arms floating in the air innocent of any other support and requiring a restart or a user interface rebuild to work again.

When I said "To arms!", I didn't mean it LITERALLY.....
There was also a general tendency when leaving a resource-gathering scene, such as picking flowers or hammering on an outcropping of ore, for the figure to partially lose control for a longer or shorter time, leaving it only able to move in straight lines on the X and Y axis, but unable to change the angle of view or rotate. This is at the very least frustrating and ridiculous; fatal as well, if you have to deal with another of the incessant attacks from wolves and other hostile wildlife.

The wildlife can be surprisingly durable, by the way: mudcrabs have shrunk to a more normal size than their cousins in Skyrim, but it takes three or four blows with a warhammer to put one down, and they have acquired the ridiculous though thankfully largely worthless ability to tunnel underground faster than they can run. If you hated the things in Skyrim, you'll loathe them here. And, in a weirdly absurd touch, their dead bodies yield leather. Wolves have gone to magic school and learned how to duplicate themselves, which can easily have fatal results for you if you are a very low-level character, but only makes the pile of dead wolves higher once you acquire some elementary projectile spells. It's tempting to farm them for their leather; as usual in a multiplayer game, creatures respawn very quickly and in predictable positions. (I once staggered back to town with over 300 pieces of wolf leather.) Foxes are back, with their playful habits, though they seem definitely anorexic compared with their relatives in Skyrim: perhaps the one animal model that is clearly inferior to its predecessors.

Sometimes the annoyances are the direct result of design perversity or carelessness. For instance, you cannot trade with members of your own group – the trade interface will not open. So you have to leave the group, trade, and then rejoin – a cumbersome piece of idiocy. You can also trade things by putting them into a guild bank from which any member of the guild can withdraw items – but only if your guild is ten members or more. Nine – or two, as in the case of myself and partner – and you're sh*t out of luck. Encumbrance is calculated by the type of item, not the number or the weight, so one person may have a full pack carrying fifty types of flowers, and another may be equally full lugging fifty stacks of iron bars, which makes very little sense.

But perhaps the outstanding deliberate irritant is the lock-picking minigame. Varying flavors of these “realistic” nuisances are as common and as welcome as cockroaches, but one generally manages to endure them. In Elder Scrolls Online, there has been a special effort to make them unendurable by slapping a very short time limit onto the lock picking attempt. Think Oblivion's lock picking, with more fragile picks, a more finicky lock, a ticking clock, no auto-pick option, and an iffy “break the lock” gamble that isn't always present. The time limit is imbecile. We are dealing with locked chests and containers, not time bombs. Why should the attempt be concluded in twenty seconds? Such a transparent and contrived attempt to make the task more difficult deserves nothing but contempt, and I suspect most players break the locks that can be broken, and ignore the rest.

Not all the changes are bad ones. In fact, if the damned thing would run smoothly, the positive would greatly outweigh the negative. First and very important, the editor that you use to build your own character model is superb, one of the best I've ever seen. You can be handsome or gruesome, or anything in between, not a blot on the landscape as in vanilla Skyrim. Elves can be ethereal again, but I took delight in trying out a fat old orc with a face grotesque enough to curdle milk and crack mirrors.

Picture of extremely ugly Orc made with the new character editor, which is very flexible.
Hrim the Butt-Ugly at your service, ma'am.
My partner saw one person playing as a heavy-set young woman with pigtails and full-body tattoos, dressed only in her underwear. When they say be who you want to be, they really mean it.

The medium armor class has been re-introduced, and those tedious nuisances who have been miserable since Morrowind over the loss of the pauldron (armor shoulder-guard) can again be at peace. Much more important, you can drag and drop apparel and weapons, and see on a display your character's equipment, as in Morrowind, so no more accidental wandering around in your knickers Skyrim-style.

Some changes balance the game better. Quest rewards have been brought down to earth – no more getting hundreds or thousands of gold pieces from ordinary persons for doing relatively simple tasks. Alchemy has been made much harder by severely limiting the types and quantities of raw materials available, so you don't get the ridiculous situations found in Skyrim, where potion-grinding can make you filthy rich in short order. Most of the crafting additions add interest and depth to the game, although I do wonder who is going to bother much with fishing other than out of curiosity as to what one might catch. Research into armor and weapons traits still requires destroying an item that has the trait, but now you also have to wait a considerable time for the results. The weapons and armor upgrades are far more complex and difficult than in Skyrim, a change that is often frustrating but feels much more realistic than Skyrim's “Whoopie, here I am level one and improving this ebony warhammer!” In general, you have to earn your advantages, which is a good thing, even though it can grow fearfully complex at times.

One interesting consequence of the temporal positioning of Elder Scrolls Online, a thousand years before Skyrim, is that some of its systems seem to be functioning in a much more advanced way than those that are supposedly prevalent much later. The crafting and alchemy differences aren't that noticeable, other than crafting taking in a much wider area, and I suspect Skyrim has been or will be modded to smooth out that discontinuity. The changes in enchanting are much more noticeable. Elder Scrolls Online enchanting, done by constructing glyphs out of runes found here and there on the map, is both fun and sensibly proportioned (most of the glyphs are strictly limited both in application and strength, although the enchantments they provide can be replaced if necessary). The trouble is that it looks and feels a thousand years ahead of Skyrim's enchanting tables, not a thousand years behind them. The mere change is easy to understand – a lot can happen in a hundred years, let alone a thousand – but the apparent regression sticks out like a sore thumb.

As for the story, it does its job of holding the various pieces together. There are two stories running at any one time: the main game quest line, you versus Molag Bal for the return of your own soul and the fate of the world, and a local main story in each area you pass through. (A system of fast travel using wayshrines ensures that you can go back to anywhere you have already been, quickly and easily.)

The tutorial level is set in the Wailing Prison in Coldharbor, following the Elder Scrolls tradition of the player beginning as a prisoner. Coldharbor is the otherworldly realm of the Daedric Prince Molag Bal, who rejoices in the titles of Lord of Domination, Lord of Cruelty, and King of Rape. It's improbably simple and easy, but since this is where players new to the game get their first introduction to its mechanics, it has to be. Here is where you find out that you are not only dead but missing your soul, which you lost when you were sacrificed to Molag Bal back in the human world. Despite these fairly obvious weaknesses, you high-tail it out of there and back home to the mortal world with the help of an blind old man known only as The Prophet, looting basic equipment and supplies as you go.

You discover, to your surprise, that just as Hitler was a frustrated painter, Molag Bal appears to be a frustrated chef.

Colonel Molag Bal's Fried Chicken, with complimentary human sacrifices.
At any rate, that's the only explanation I can think of for the containers in his demonic lair to be full of such things as chicken meat, corn mash, brewing grain, and recipes for chicken noodle soup, roast chicken, ale, and beer, all of which you can steal and turn to your profit upon your return to the mortal world. Just don't tell your customers where you learned to cook....

The main game quest line appears as strong as any other in the Elder Scrolls family, which I know seems perilously close to damning with faint praise. However, in the beta it was difficult to make enough progress to get much idea of the main story, unless you hurried through the levels – and there is nothing less in the spirit of the Elder Scrolls than hurrying. That you are interacting with a gentleman known only as The Prophet, who is convinced of your transcendent importance, sent a cold shudder up my spine at first, but this fellow is much more tolerable that some of his ilk – even rather human sometimes, as when he complains of landing on his head on his return to Tamriel from Coldharbor. Whether he stays unpretentious or becomes unendurable remains to be seen.

Very slender female Nightblade in black armor.
NOT heavy-set.
A female Breton Nightblade in medium armor.
The local stories and their offshoots never descend into the ridiculous, though they can be quirky, and most of the quests are interesting. These usually succeed in bringing your companions to life as believable figures. Many situations are familiar, but that isn't much of a problem unless you are determined to find fault. On Stros M'Kai, for instance, the first area encountered after escaping Coldharbor, there's a cowardly Orc, whose mother is pressing him to kill a monster to prove his manhood, or Orc-hood, and who runs away from the monster after summoning it, leaving you to do the dirty work. He would like to be a smith, not a warrior. Yes, it's been seen before, but the situation of a member of a stereotyped minority wanting to be something different, not just another instance of the stereotype, is real enough, and the poor fellow has one of the most utterly hangdog expressions I've ever seen on a video game character, with dialog to match. There's also an inquisitive but timid High Elf with a pet Dwemer robot spider, delicately bloodthirsty (“The twitching. I'm particularly interested in the twitching”), who always "allows" you to go first if danger seems near, and then suddenly discovers he has urgent business elsewhere; an omnipromiscuous rogue pursued by both former lovers and aspiring ones, male and female, a useful fellow but realistic enough to give you the creeps if you're playing as a woman character; a coolly efficient Redguard pirate captain who's been abandoned by her crew for being insufficiently piratical; and another pirate captain who poisons one of her enemies and leaves her to die, but not before telling you where she's put the antidote. This last is a good example of the subtlety of the narrative: the captain later criticizes you if you save her enemy's life, but if she doesn't want you to use the antidote, why does she go out of her way to inform you exactly where you can find it? It's clear that she wants to appear ruthless in taking revenge for what her enemy has done, but doesn't really want the woman to die. After all, as she remarks at the end, lesson learned: alive or dead, that person will never be getting in her way again.

I've left discussion of the audio and the maps themselves until last, because there really isn't anything to say except go see for yourself. Both Stros M'Kai and Betnikh are superbly done -- the maps are much better quality than those in Skyrim -- and all characters but your own are fully voiced (John Cleese appears in a cameo role in Coldharbor, as a crazy knight-errant, "mad as a box of frogs"). It seems as if the developers spent most of their money and effort here, in the detail lavished even on structures and features that have nothing to do with any game objective and which you will find only by chance, if at all. When I was circling the coast of Betnikh to get a general idea of its size and features, I stumbled upon a beach that was alive with tiny green frogs. It was quite out of the way and had no game significance whatsoever. It was just there to be there, so to speak, and to reward the player who could shake off the OCD obsession with “the main quest line” and meander in any and all directions possible.

There's a ruin called the Tower of the Singing Sun on the coast of Stros M'Kai, again out of the way to anywhere vital and best discovered by wandering around the entire island. You don't know much about its history, and you probably never will. There is nothing whatsoever to do there other than listen to the seabirds and the wind, collect a few flowers, and watch the sun rise or set if you have come at dawn or dusk, the best times. The tower sits there quietly under the sky, looking out over the sea toward the lost Redguard homeland, the drowned continent of Yokuda, hundreds or even thousands of years old, reminding you that today's story is just one minor footnote to a narrative that is far longer than any individual life and will always remain unknown in most of its details.

Sunset over the docks, with the protagonist swimming.
The meticulous care taken over the structures, ruins, and scenery, and the lovely background music, combine to evoke what for me is the chief attraction of the Elder Scrolls game series: the gentle sadness and soft twilight of a Silver Age, living amid the ruins and scraps of civilizations more advanced, or at least more optimistic, than yours, aware that nothing you can do will ever bring past glories back and that you'll be lucky far beyond any reasonable expectation if you can even manage to preserve what you have now. Molag Bal, Lord of Domination and King of Rape, intends to annex your world to his dreary realm of Coldharbor, and you are under imminent threat. Even if there were no Molag Bal, the mortal races of Tamriel are deep into a three-sided civil war to determine who will inherit an empty Imperial throne, making a bad situation worse. And your soul-shriven character is somehow a vital part of all this, but no one has told you the details of how or why, or how best to prepare for whatever role the future holds. You can't even remember what your name used to be.

But sunrise at the Tower of the Singing Sun is still beautiful enough to linger over in the present. Time enough later to get on with all the little tasks fate puts in your way to do, hoping that they form a recognizable pattern some day in the future.


Finally, a word to our sponsors, so to speak.

Dear Bethesda,

You have created this lovely world, sometimes heartbreakingly beautiful, and then you've pooped all over it with your crappy programming, just as if vandals had hauled Michelangelo's David into a courtyard and sprinkled its shoulders with cracked corn.

Set it right, please. Ten or more server crashes a day is not acceptable. Missing body parts are not acceptable. You're not some indie house with a minuscule budget. You've sold twenty million copies of Skyrim, so you can't plead poverty.

Set it right even if you have to delay the launch by six months. Even if it takes a year.

If you don't, I hope that a detachment of Molag Bal's Fire Atronaches drags you off to Peyrite's Ashpits and locks you up on the very lowest level, to choke on the dust of our dreams until the end of time.

Or until you learn how to program a computer.

Whichever comes first.

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