Combat in The Elder Scrolls series has never been brilliant, despite the fact that it's been integral to each title's design. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion introduced a more action-based system, while The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim built upon that formula, keeping the basics in place, while refining the rest. Combat became weightier and seemingly more brutal, but it still lacked a certain depth that's perhaps to be expected of such a popular franchise.
- We've already taken a look at quests and exploration in The Elder Scrolls Online - you can read about them here
With The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited, the traditional system has been grafted onto the structure of a massively multiplayer online experience – a process that has understandably come with its own set of challenges. For starters, it has to be a central component of a balanced and fair system, especially since there are player-versus-player activities. Next, it needs to be somewhat less reliant on action and overall player skill – not just for technical reasons, but because it has to tie into a gigantic world that offers hundreds of levelled enemies and quests. In other words, it needs to supplement a gradual sense of progression that's integral to what's expected of the genre.
And so, we're left with a combat system that'll feel familiar to Elder Scrolls fans, while also adhering to the necessities of an MMO that strives to be balanced, fair, and purposefully structured. It's relatively unique to the genre in the sense that it's still action based; it requires you to move, attack, block, and space yourself correctly, all while watching and reading your opponent's actions.
Staying in line with what we've come to expect of Bethesda's property, you're able to equip either one-handed or two-handed weapons. You may opt for a sword and shield combo, a two-handed great sword, or even a magic staff, but regardless of what you choose, the control scheme stays the same. R2 is your attack button, holding it down will charge up a power attack that drains stamina, and L2 acts as your block.
As far as MMO combat goes, The Elder Scrolls' underlining mechanics mean that the whole thing's surprisingly accessible. As a result, those who have perhaps previously felt intimidated by the myriad systems and rows of hotkeys found in other MMO games might just find this approach refreshing.
Speaking of hotkeys, they make an appearance here, too, and arguably, they're actually a welcome addition. In previous Elder Scrolls titles, your abilities have been limited by what weapons you currently have equipped. For example, in Skyrim, you couldn't run around shooting fireballs while also wielding a claymore, because both of your hands would be used to hold the sword. Likewise, if you wanted to mix archery and magic, you couldn't, purely because bows required the use of both hands. In some ways, the system made sense purely from a logical point of view, but it felt a little bit stifling as a result.
Here, however, there are branching skill trees made up of magical abilities, physical techniques, and passive buffs. Your equipped weapon still determines some attacks – for instance, you can only make use of heaving great sword moves if you're busy wielding one – but class-specific abilities and even some magic attacks can simply be placed on your hotkey menu, which is tied to the DualShock 4's face and trigger buttons. This means that you're free to make up your own ideal set of techniques, where pressing the corresponding button fires off the desired attack, regardless of what you currently have in your hands. It's a neat, accessible system that actually manages to, in some ways, improve on what's come before.
But how does brawling actually feel? Well, as mentioned, things are a little more routinely structured. Enemies have visual cones for certain moves that you'll have to step out of to avoid the impending offensive, while other basic facets are equally reactionary. If your opponent's about to whip out a power attack, blocking the incoming blow will stun them, and then you can knock them down with a power attack of your own. Fights are far more to-and-fro than what fans of the franchise will be used to, but again, it's a system that seems to work quite well – especially when you're bringing out specific abilities and even ultimate techniques to keep fights flowing in your favour.
Combat as a whole is bolstered by how your character grows, too. There are dozens of skill trees and branching paths to invest in, although at the same time, some elements have been streamlined. For example, not all of your skills increase through practice like in previous Elder Scrolls titles. Instead, defeating enemies and completing quests grants you experience, which, in turn, goes towards developing your currently active skill trees. So, if you're running around slaughtering bandits with a massive axe, your two-handed tree will be bolstered with experience, as will your overall class skill tree, and your preferred light, medium, or heavy armour skills. When these separate skills level up, your overall experience level rises, too, and every time that that fills, you'll level up in the more traditional sense, and you'll be granted a skill point which you can use to unlock yet more abilities.
On top of all this, you'll also be finding, looting, buying, and crafting equipment, which, of course, bolsters your strength further. As such, even from just our limited time with the beta, it's clear that there are countless ways to build your hero, developing them to perfectly suit your playstyle. And, since foes don't scale to your level, you'll need to strengthen your avatar effectively, so that you can progress to new areas and take on more dangerous tasks.
Much like questing and exploration, The Elder Scrolls Online's combat and character progression don't appear to be anything special, but once again, what's here is well worked, accessible, and surprisingly addictive. Taking to the field and grinding out a couple of levels is a satisfying way to pass the time, and the weighty feel of Skyrim's combat has made the transition relatively unscathed. Proceedings are more methodical, then, as you'd expect from an MMO, and although the action lacks a bit of intensity, we can't help but feel the need to jump back into Tamriel and continue to whack increasingly powerful monsters with big bits of metal.
Have you managed to get into The Elder Scrolls Online beta? Do you agree with our analysis of the combat? Swing low in the comments section below.