I give this game 3 out of 4 mudcrabs.

Why Game Reviews Are Useless: A game review of reviewing games and then a real review

Warning– Hmm, I suppose a trend for this blog will be to open with a warning, but yes, be warned that this post contains an unusual amount of large images which may eat up data allowance on mobile devices. I have tried to make them a reasonable size for the purpose of conserving precious data, so if you find you can’t read my sardonic-Photo-Shopped-text, then simply click on the image and a larger version should open in a new tab.

Additionally, please be advised that whilst there is nothing explicit or graphic (in terms of depictions of sex/violence) in this post, The Elder Scrolls Online does have a ‘Mature’ rating from the ESRB. Much of the content in this post, including the screenshots, feature vulgar language and innuendos which may not be suitable for all audiences. Also, there are puns. No one should have to suffer puns.

As always, read at your own risk.

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I spent my weekend a little tied up.

This weekend was the third Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) beta test I had the privilege of taking part in. This was also, technically, the first beta in which Zenimax Online encouraged users to document and share their experiences by lifting the non-disclosure agreement. Presumably because I have blogged about the game and the beta in the past, I received several requests through social media to do a review of TESO- something which I had previously stated I would not do.

As you may recall from my previous posts, beta tests are generating controversy within gaming communities. What was once seen as a special privilege selectively handed out to a few lucky, loyal fans, is now seen as a sneaky viral marketing scheme designed to, essentially, crowd-source advertising. I, personally, am of the opinion that blogging/ sharing/ reposting/ tweeting about a game before it comes out not only chucks wood on the hype steam train (which is just plain obnoxious), but also spoils some of the excitement for those not selected for the beta who morosely idle their days away, staring forlornly at the ceiling wondering what to do with the empty void in their lives which the game will eventually fill.

So, why am I reviewing the game if I am so against feeding the hype-monster? Namely because I was asked to and I’m a good little cog in the propaganda machine. Also because I wanted to point out the futility of game reviews. Guess what, folks?

THEY ARE SUBJECTIVE!!!

Chances are, what you look for in a game and what I look for in a game are going to be vastly different. Game scholars have chalked this up to a number of different factors- from play styles, to individual psychology, to socialisation, to conditioning- and I’m not about to address those here. Suffice to say, asking why people often develop such strong emotional attachments, preferences, and opinions about their game of choice is like asking why some people prefer pinot grigio to sauvignon blanc. And I like both, for your information.

Don’t believe me? Okay, I’m going to go ahead and review TESO and I’ll show you how the things I liked/didn’t like don’t actually matter to whether or not you will buy the game and all you have to do is keep reading.

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How I Rate Game?

Like any good scholar, I decided I first needed to conduct some research on how game reviews are done before I set off to do one. After a few lazy Google searches, I came to the conclusion that there is no one best way to ‘jugde‘ a video game. IGN makes an effort at quantifying how pleasurable or ‘painful’ a game is to play using a vague numerical system, but what’s the use in that? Besides the fact there are some terrible games which are fun to play precisely because they are so broken (see Emily Flynn-Jones’s work on kusoge ),  one gamer’s 8 could be another gamer’s 8.2.

Fortunately, a Wikihow article gave me guidance. In just 13 easy steps, you too can become a videogame reviewer! The categories the Wikihow suggests (yes, I am seriously using a Wikihow in a flagrant disregard for all that is holy in this world) are: Game play, controls, challenge level, and ‘how fun it is’. The article also encourages you to proofread before submission. Pro.

Right, using these categories, let us begin!

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Game Play

The first thing I will note about game play is the combat. I made a furry lolcat Khajiit Dragonknight (aka warrior-class-archetype) for the purposes of this review. I should note that I also have a Templar (healer) and Nightblade (melee DPS) of various other races.

The first encounter is a doosey.
The first encounter is a doosey.

The primary starting zone, Coldharbour (shown above), is common to every faction. It is a relatively safe zone, despite being located on the Oblivion plane, with very few low-level baddies to sharpen your blades on. Your primary goal here is to escape the underworld and return to Tamriel where your true destiny awaits.

Spoiler alert: You don't get to fight the big bad yet.
Spoiler alert: You don’t get to fight the big bad yet. Also, there are no fishy sticks in Oblivion. 😦

The most interesting thing about this early gameplay is the iconic 3 stats-system. Prevalent in previous Elder Scrolls titles, a character’s health, magicka, and stamina are also prevalent here. Depending on your view of TESO (and whether or not you think it should be more like an MMO or more like an Elder Scrolls game) depends on how we can rate this system (subjectively, of course). The fact that ‘warriors’ use magicka and stamina to power their defensive/tanking abilities surely adds another layer of strategy to the tanking-class system, but whether or not players want this strategy- or can find an easy work-around for this strategy- is another kettle of fishy sticks.

fallingtomydeath
The only real risk in the starting zone is falling to your death. And even that is kind of amusing.

I should also mention that no time is wasted in busting out the celebrity voice cast Zenimax and Bethesda so dearly shelled out millions for. One of the first NPCs you run into is voiced by John Cleese. And he has a pot on his head. We can but approve.

John Cleese, ladies and gentlemen.
John Cleese, ladies and gentlemen.

After you escape Oblivion and are spat out into Tamriel, the true questing begins. Gone are the huge, daedric beasties- sadly replaced with bugs, skeletons, and devious members of spurned factions. Your character is filled in on the current political state of whichever faction you happened to join and it doesn’t take long before you encounter an arrow to the knee.

This is the first and last time I'll bring this up. Promise.
This is the first and last time I’ll bring this up. Promise.

For MMO players, this is standard fare and, (un)fortunately, TESO doesn’t deviate much from it. Other than a compass bar at the top of the screen which shows you where your current quests are rather than a minimap, the game play follows the standard formula:

1. Talk to an NPC.

2. Follow dot on compass bar to location on map.

3. Touch stuff, kill stuff, read stuff, look at stuff.

4. Return to NPC (who may have moved around the map).

5. Gain XP.

Now, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this formula- it certainly appears to be successful- but it just hasn’t changed. If you were expecting TESO to be a second-coming which revolutionises game play, I’m afraid you will be disappointed. However, if you enjoy questing and like to get stuck in a good grind, then you’ll be quite pleased that many common MMO-complaints have been addressed. 

Travel time between quests, for example, is minimal with towns and cities being big hubs for quests which take place in the town or city. There’s no need to grab a quest, run 30 minutes into the middle of nowhere and collect 20 buzzard asses, then run back to the quest giver and have another NPC ask for 20 boar asses- which were right next to the buzzards.

Also, interestingly, the game doesn’t seem to reward XP for killing baddies, so there’s no need to stand in the middle of nowhere killing buzzards and boars for hours on end till you hit level 16 and can finally move on to the awesome-looking zone to the south- I’m looking at you, Westfall. Depending on your subjective view, this can be either a positive or a negative thing. In order to level, you need to do quests and progress through the game’s narrative, which is far more time consuming than rampaging through the wilderness and decimating local flora and fauna like a zombie at a Mensa Society conference, which I actually quite liked doing. I was a bit sad that my master plan to hit level cap by killing mudcrabs was thwarted before it could come to fruition. 

On the plus side, however, the quest text is usually entertaining and the quest giver’s voice acting is quite good. The best part is that their facial expressions change to fit their tone of voice/mood (unlike the dead-eyed-cast of Guild Wars 2 which creeped me out!). See the following example:

+15 to poop-jokery.

One of the things I look for in games is a sense of humour. I need a reason to read the quest text. I need a reason to, for the 500th time, kill a load of mindless skeletons. I need something to keep me hooked, entertained. In my subjective opinion, humour is one of the key elements which made WoW such a hit. It is also what Guild Wars 2 lacked.

They have academics down pat. "Are you talking about my pet research interest? No? Then leave me!"
They have academics down pat. “Are you talking about my pet research interest? No? Then leave me!”

I was pleased to find rather subtle and refined jokes, silliness, and morbidity laced throughout the early quests of TESOA common complaint amongst many ex-WoWers on the TESO forums is that Mists of Pandaria tipped the game over the silly-cliff and left it spiralling to a pre-teen market. The general sentiment I get is that WoW had become too cartoony-both in terms of graphics and in humour.Whilst there is nothing wrong with the occasional meme reference (as I am sure you will find many in this post!) it does tend to go stale after the 200th Night Elf mohawk joke.

Perhaps for differentiation, or to be true to the Elder Scrolls franchise, TESO has gone for a more subtle art styling with a more sober sense of humour. In addition to overly-cerebral-elves, there are jokes which feature a morbid edge I imagine will go down well with the Northern European player contingent. Take this campy twist on the ol’ evil necromancer trope:

campyskele

campyskele2

campyskele3

Never has a threat to wear my skin been so amusing. I actually heard ‘Goodbye Horses‘ playing in my head as the NPC’s mandible rattled away.

Unfortunately, the beta has a level cap- which is to be expected. I’m unable to comment on whether or not this humour carries throughout the game. Likewise, I am unable to comment further on the quality of game play. I tried out PvP but spent about an hour running around aimlessly without seeing another player. Yeah, Cyrodiil is huge. I tried to get a dungeon group together but, surprise surprise, no one wanted my melee DPS and my healer and tank weren’t 1337 enough. Sigh… Onto the next criterion!

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Controls

Whilst many of the controls are the same as their Skyrim-counterparts, certain crucial commands are different- like selling stuff. Bewildered by my first interaction with a merchant, I ended up spending 300 coins on a useless, and might-I-add flavourless, soup not realising there are separate tabs for buying and selling items.

Gold is the root of all evil.
Gold is the root of all evil.

This minor annoyance will be avoided by most of you, I am sure, which once again points out the subjective nature of reviews. The game isn’t broken, this particular feature just wasn’t intuitive for me. Several other features, however, were.

On behalf of role players everywhere, I am pleased to report that the emote system is awesome. Unlike The Secret World in which you needed a cheat-sheet to remember any of the 400 commands, the emote-able actions in TESO are relatively straightforward (for me, anyway). If you want your character to lean back, type /leanback and they will do a wicked cool pose like this:

Even Fonzie wasn't this cool.
Even Fonzie wasn’t this cool.

Likewise, if you want to show off your musical talents, you can type /lute, /flute or /drum and your character will play a tasty jam for you. The best part? The bardic rocking is accompanied by in-game music. The worst part? That music doesn’t vary. Its really only a matter of time before you go AFK in a raid and return to your friends /flute-ing en masse to deafening volumes. This might be TESO‘s train set.

You can't tell, but my Khajiit is totally shredding to Kiss's 'Love Gun'.
You can’t tell, but my Khajiit is totally shredding to Kiss’s ‘Love Gun’.

As a side note, the game is ‘pretty’. I say ‘pretty’ instead of pretty because, in my opinion, it lacks style. Bethesda is known for going for ‘realness’ and, to some extent, they have achieved that with TESO- well, as much ‘realness’ can be achieved with cat- and lizard-people running around. The problem is, they don’t employ top-notch graphic engines to see this plan through. Rather than marvelling at the awesomeness of Tamriel, we are distracted by the shitty rendering of barnacles on a ship hull because TESO wanted to snare as many players as possible into their net. And why not? Isn’t that what made WoW successful over EverQuest II– that more people could play without breaking the bank on a new gaming rig?

Personally, and this is just a subjective preference, I would much rather see a game compensate graphical showmanship with a consistent and fantastical style any day. But that’s just me.

The final aspect of gameplay I’ll include in this review involves its sandbox, interactive world design. Elder Scrolls fans will be thrilled that there is plenty of shit to click on. Yes, I realise this is the second time I’ve used the word ‘shit’-whoops, third- in this post, but there is a good reason. Most of what you can click on is, in fact, shit. Unless you are obsessed with provisioning (cooking), there is little reason to click all 34 crates in a room… unless you are like me and have been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder. (I’m not trying to be funny here. I do have OCD and this did trigger me.)

LOOTALLTHETHINGS

There is something unfortunate about a history of RPG-playing which has filled me with the unease that if I miss a single clickable, I’ll miss either an essential quest item or the epic to end all epics.

All those yellow arrows? Clickables. I spent 20 minutes clicking, and I’m not even exaggerating. It felt like every time I emptied an urn, the one next to it refilled. I’m fairly certain, that if I hadn’t broken myself away with the promise of seeing more content before the beta ended I would still be in that room clicking away. The need to complete everything is strong with this one.

Mouse-hovering is a skill.
Mouse-hovering is a skill.

It certainly doesn’t help that some items look like they will be useful (glowing paper), but aren’t, and other items which look like a part of the environment (bottles), are filled with an essential crafting component for alchemy. This is why I have yet to hit the level cap, folks. I just can’t stop exploring and clicking! I’m actually thinking about clicking now…

Anyway, since I have yet to experience other aspects of game play, such as PvP and dungeoneering, its time to move on to the next Wikihow-suggested rating.

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Challenge Level

I got to play through the first 3 zones of an MMO. What do you think the challenge level is? If you answered face-roll, ding ding ding! We have a winner!

Next!

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‘How Fun It Is’

Judging only from the beta, I have to admit the game is fun. Many of the elements of WoW which I had missed, such as community, crafting, collecting, and achievements are all well and present in TESO. Whilst I hate comparing new MMOs to WoW, as it is often like apples to oranges or Playstations to Xboxes, there is something to be said about the fun-standard it set. As I detailed above, the main element of fun in WoW (for me) was always its humour. TESO has that, at least in early days, which gives me hope.

Moonsugar with 99% purity.
The famous blue moon sugar with its 99% purity.

There are several potential fun-killers on the horizon, however, and so I am withholding my fun-ranking until I’ve had the opportunity to mount up, do a dungeon run, and frag a n00b in PvP. (Note: I’m not being derogatory, I honestly can only kill n00bs. My PvP skills are renown for being terrible.)

Since I am reserving further judgement, pending further content, it is time for the final ranking category- and for this long-winded review to finally end! Let’s wrap things up with a final overview of my impressions of the game, shall we?

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Overall

Because every subjective game review seems to employ a subjective-disguised-by-numbers-thus-science rating system, I have made the choice to include one in this review as well. Taking into consideration all the factors listed in this review, I have decided to give TESO 3 out of 4 mudcrabs.

rating
Yes, this is photoshopped. But also yes, mudcrabs are thankfully in-game.

No, the mudcrabs don’t mean anything. No, this rating system doesn’t have an associated qualitative value. I just like mudcrabs.

So, there you have it folks, if you like Elder Scrolls games and you like MMOs, chances are you will either like or dislike this game. Go on, try it for yourself.

Until next time,

Ashley

2 thoughts on “Why Game Reviews Are Useless: A game review of reviewing games and then a real review”

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