Elder Scrolls Online Combat is Smart and Satisfying, Loot Disappointing

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As we all know, engaging combat that excites the player is a vital component of all MMOs. Game developers must create enemies that are challenging enough to keep the game interesting, but not so difficult that combat is overly burdensome or interrupts the flow of the game. Although it’s not perfect, ZeniMax Online Studios has managed to strike a good balance in The Elder Scrolls Online for the most part.

As a member of the Ebonheart Pact alliance, I was immediately introduced to a wide variety of standard enemies, including polar bears, skeletons, giant spiders, and human/humanoid members of rival alliances. There were also some enemies that are unique to the Elder Scrolls universe like Kwarma and the Clannfear. My character has the ability to summon a clannfear minion, so these encounters lead to some awesome clannfear-on-clannfear action (imagine two miniature dinosaurs bashing each other with their tails).

I was really impressed with the AI of enemies and NPCs. Something especially interesting that I repeatedly encountered during combat was two enemies (one ranged, one melee) who would use a two-step sequence of collaborative attacks to get at me. First, the melee attacker would douse an area (namely, the space I occupied) with some kind of flammable substance. Next, the ranged attacker – always a pyromancer – would target the affected area with an attack and the radius would go up in flames, causing massive amounts of damage to anyone who hadn’t evacuated the affected circle. I thought this was creative and original, and it definitely added some flavor to an aspect of the game that can grow tedious.

Players have the option of switching between first-person and third-person perspectives (both in and out of combat) simply by zooming in and out using the mouse wheel. Like other MMOs, I spent most of my time playing in third-person. When I did decide to give first-person a try, I found the transition to be seamless. The higher level of detail in first-person was astounding, so if there’s an enemy you want to get up close and personal with, zoom in and give first-person a try. Additionally, it was remarkably easy to adapt to the dynamics of MMO first-person gameplay. I was concerned that the narrower field of view coupled with attack animations taking up more of the screen might make certain combat scenarios a bit trickier, but I had no trouble compensating. Those who play ESO from a computer will find the first-person experience to be very reminiscent of an FPS game, while those who play on a console will likely find it similar to previous Elder Scrolls games which utilized the first-person perspective. I think that the first-person perspective lends itself nicely to classes or weapons that require more precision (archers or other characters who choose to wield an off-hand bow, for instance).

The combat dynamics were fairly typical of any MMORPG game, but still satisfactory. Players have the ability to light attack by left clicking, charge a heavy attack by holding the left mouse button for a few seconds before releasing, or use hotkeyed abilities. It’s important to note that excluding “ultimate abilities” (which are hotkeyed to the ‘R’ key by default), only five abilities can be actively hotkeyed to the numberpad at any given time. All of these abilities will level while they are active, independent of how many times the ability is actually used in combat.

Some enemies are able to charge special or heavy attacks. These attacks are identifiable by their distinct combat animation. They may target a single player, or may be area effects that occur within a radius or a directional line. These attacks may be dodged by ordinary strafing, or by double tapping an arrow key (or WASD key) in the direction you wish to move. Please note that this action consumes stamina.

Most special attacks can be blocked with a sustained right click or interrupted through certain abilities. If the block is successful, it will stun the enemy for a few seconds, like so:

The single greatest disappointment I’ve suffered throughout my time in Tamriel is the looting system. Much to the detriment of the game, the loot dropped is not at all proportional to the difficulty of the combat. In fact, many bosses (both major and mini) fail to drop anything at all. Although I’m not usually prone to rage quitting, it certainly tests my patience to have my efforts go largely unrewarded after investing time and energy into beating a difficult enemy. The victory seems much less triumphant, to say the least. When something is dropped, it’s rarely an item I can make use of, both because it wasn’t relevant to my character’s class/race/skills and also because the item’s levels typically lagged behind my own. If that wasn’t bad enough, almost all items have pitifully low resell values, which makes earning gold a rather long and laborious process. As someone who enjoys looting corpses, chests, bookshelves, and anything else I can get my hands on, I really wish Zenimax would have retained the system for loot used in Skyrim and Oblivion, which was at least satisfying, though not always useful. In some instances, loot from combat is acquired by turning in the corresponding quest. While this does provide some consolation, I don’t particularly care for this system of continuous deferred gratification. To be fair, the reason for deemphasizing item acquisition via looting is because the game has introduced an absolutely stellar crafting system with the intention of circulating all the best items into economy. While I can appreciate the new importance of crafting, it does not feel like an equivalent alternative, and it has detracted from the enjoyment I once got from combat and looting.

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There were relatively few boss battles or elite enemies, but the ones I did encounter were pretty challenging. Although I’m always up for a challenge and I do love a good boss battle, I feel that the difficulty of a few bosses should be scaled back to more reasonable levels. For example, there was one particular boss that I was unable to defeat while playing solo. This guy had a decent amount of HP, but more importantly, he had the ability to regenerate health like, well…a boss. Although I had no trouble staying alive, I was simply unable to generate enough DPS to wear him down on my own. After spending almost an hour attempting various DPS-enhancing strategies to no end, I eventually grew frustrated and withdrew from the fight (I returned later in a group of three and finished him off in under five minutes). While my Dark Elf Sorcerer was admittedly not the strongest or tankiest (falling somewhere in between glass cannon and battlemage), I met many others of all classes, races, AND levels who were unable to take this enemy solo. Please note that I was a level or two above this particular boss during my first solo attempt. I also noticed that LFG solicitations for this specific boss were one of the most common uses of the chat window.

I recognize that certain aspects of the game (such as Dark Anchors) are designed to encourage players to group together, but it’s still a bit sad for introverted gamers to see main storyline progress so dependent on forced cooperation. That being said, I found group play to be absolutely delightful. The other players I grouped with were all very pleasant, multiple enemies in combat were decidedly more manageable in a group, and encounters were more efficient. To put a cherry on top of all that, you get a percentage XP bonus while grouping.

Overall, I was satisfied with ESO’s combat. It didn’t feel too repetitive and it contained a good variety of enemies, but as I mentioned, I think they still have some game balance issues to resolve before launch. I would also be REALLY happy if the looting system was adjusted to better compliment all of the terrific enemies in Tamriel.


Our overall impressions

Crafting system encourages experimentation

Questing offers varied objectives, mix of Elder Scrolls and MMO gameplay

Character builder overview

Expansive skill trees add customization to leveling

More video from our playthrough

Lauren Martina Fosco

About Lauren Martina Fosco

Lauren Martina Fosco has been a gamer since the early 8-bit NES days. Aside from her affinity for MMOs, she's usually hands deep in some sort of scientific research. She is an expert statistician, and will probably beat you at any sports bet. She is also a master troll....careful with this one. Twitter @LaurenMFosco