Odds and Ends: Venom, ESO, Hard in Hightown

I’ve had a few topics I’ve wanted to discuss but which didn’t seem meaty enough to fill a blog post on their own, so I’ve decided to cram them all into one Frankenstein monster post.

Venom mini-review:

A shot from the movie Venom, starring Tom HardyI wanted to do a full review of the Venom movie, but as I’ve said before, mediocrity is hard to review, and I just don’t have much to say on the matter.

It’s not a bad movie in general terms, but it may be a bad Venom movie. I’d expect Venom to be a very dark, gritty story, but instead it’s more of a light, campy romp. As light, campy romps go, it’s actually pretty fun, but it just doesn’t fit the character very well.

I wouldn’t advise against seeing it, but it’s definitely not a must-see, either.

Overall rating: 6.9/10

ESO’s bribery:

Despite my griping, I’ve been playing a fair bit of Elder Scrolls Online lately. This is in large part due to the fact Zenimax has been showering players with a number of incredibly generous giveaways as of late. It’s shameless bribery, and it’s working.

Probably the most notable giveaway is the palatial Grand Psijic Villa home. Given how over-priced housing in this game usually is, giving away a house of this scale is kind of incredible. My previous home in the Rift and its yard could comfortably fit in the Psijic Villa’s main hall.

One of many beautiful views from the Grand Psijic Villa home in Elder Scrolls OnlineMy focus lately has been furnishing the new dwelling, which given the high costs in gold and crafting resources of furniture is actually quite a challenge. Not even sure why I’m bothering given the total lack of practical functionality for housing in this game, but there is something satisfying about it. It’s a pale shadow of the creativity I got to display back in Landmark.

It has had the side effect of helping me learn to earn gold more efficiently. I’m trying to get in the habit of doing crafting writs every day. That’s easy money. Along the way I’ve been developing my crafting skills further. I had already maxed out woodworking, clothing, and blacksmithing a long time ago, and I’ve now maxed my provisioning skill, as well. Enchanting, alchemy, and jewelry crafting are lagging behind, but they’re a good source of writ income if nothing else.

While the story of Summerset may have disappointed me, it remains a beautiful zone, and Alinor is a very conveniently laid out city, so I’ve made Summerset my “home” for the time being. I spend most of my time there, doing dailies and farming.

I’ve also been playing my warden a little.

Oh, yeah, I have a warden.

Don’t think I’ve mentioned her before — probably because I haven’t played her much — but yes, I have a High Elf warden. When I pre-ordered Summerset, I got Morrowind for free, and while I haven’t explored its content yet, I did want to try out the new (to me) class.

My High Elf warden in Elder Scrolls OnlineThe warden marks my third attempt to play a pure caster, the previous being a Khajiit dragonknight and a Breton nightblade. It finally seems to be sticking this time. I think it may be because I’m building this one as a healer.

One interesting — if possibly unbalanced — quirk of healers in ESO is that they use largely the same stats and gear as magicka DPS, meaning there appears to be little penalty to doing both on the same character, which is exactly what I’m doing with my warden. One action bar uses a resto staff and is pure support, while the other uses a destro staff and is pure damage.

One thing I’ve learned from D&D is that a hybrid of support and damage may just be my ideal RPG playstyle, or at least as close as someone as indecisive as me is ever going to find.

A final interesting note about my warden is that although she’s now well into her 20s, I have yet to do any significant amount of questing with her. And honestly, I haven’t missed it. There may be a whole post to do about that…

Hard in Hightown thoughts:

Finally, I recently finished reading through the physical copy of Varric Tethras’ Hard in Hightown. Yes, the book you can find chapters of in Dragon Age: Inquisition. It’s a real book in the real world now.

Cover art for Hard in Hightown by "Varric Tethras" (really Mary Kirby)Well, for a certain definition of “real book,” anyway. There wasn’t actually that much effort put in, sadly. The whole thing is only about seventy pages, and it’s barely been fleshed out any more than the chapters you could find in Inquisition. In the end it’s more of a gag collectible than a book that’s worth reading on its own merits.

It does have some cool illustrations, though.

Overall rating: 5.8/10

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Why Don’t I Like ESO More?

Elder Scrolls Online is a strange game for me. I find it can never hold my attention for very long. I’ll play for a couple of weeks, then get bored and drop it for a few months before the cycle repeats.

My sorcerer using her ultimate ability in Elder Scrolls OnlineThis is perplexing because on paper it’s very nearly everything I want in a game. It puts story front and centre, it’s very solo-friendly but has accessible group content for when I want it, it has my favourite business model (B2P with DLC), it’s got action combat and global level-scaling, it has a very flexible build system, and it’s got more Elves than you can shake a stick at. It would not be far off the mark to say that ESO is essentially The Secret World, but high fantasy, which is pretty much my idea of perfection.

And yet, I still find it can only hold my attention sporadically. I always find myself thinking highly of the game, and intellectually there is perhaps no other MMO on the market I have more respect for, but still I struggle to muster true passion for it.

It’s vexing, but I think I am slowly beginning to identify why ESO doesn’t grab me as much as it theoretically should.

The story is bland:

I almost feel bad criticizing the story in ESO because Zenimax offers more story content than most any other MMO out there, and it’s clear that narrative has always been a priority for the dev team. That’s something I want to celebrate.

But the fact is quantity doesn’t equal quality. ESO may have many long, detailed quests with high production values, but they rarely offer anything memorable as stories. The characters are usually flat (with some notable exceptions), there are rarely any twists (that aren’t super easy to see coming), the reuse of the same voice actors becomes painfully obvious after a while, and there’s a tendency to substitute magical technobabble for truly inventive or thought-provoking fantasy concepts.

The Crystal Tower in Elder Scrolls OnlineThe Elder Scrolls setting is incredibly deep, with thousands of years of detailed history behind it, but there’s very little flavour or originality to any of it. There isn’t the creativity that I expect from a good fantasy setting. It’s either the same politicking you could read in any history book, or paper thin Daedric cultists trying to blow up the world for no reason.

That’s not to say ESO’s story-telling is bad by any stretch of the imagination. I have seen far, far worse. It’s just flat. Unambitious. It’s always competent, but it’s rarely exciting.

The combat is repetitive:

A lot of people tend to feel that something is off with ESO’s combat. It gets accused of being overly spammy and generally unsatisfying.

I’ve seen different explanations thrown around for this. A lot of people tend to blame the lack of ability cooldowns, or the limited action bar. Those might be contributing factors, but I don’t think that’s the real issue.

The problem is there’s no natural synergy to any of the abilities in ESO. TSW’s ability wheel was built so that each ability was like part of a jigsaw puzzle, meant to interact with each other to form cohesive rotations. All of ESO’s abilities feel like they were designed in a vacuum. They’re fine individually, but they weren’t built to come together into a cohesive whole.

My templar tanking a dungeon in Elder Scrolls OnlineAs a result, there aren’t really rotations in ESO, nor many proper combos. You mostly just end up spamming whatever your highest damage ability is all the time. There are exceptions of course, and you can mitigate this to some extent depending on your build choices (my main uses a lot of DoTs), but at the end of the day “spam your nuke until the button breaks” is still the heart of the game’s combat.

There isn’t a lot of variety to mob tactics, either, which exacerbates the issue. It’s not as bad as your average WoW clone, but there’s only a handful of different mechanics and fighting styles spread across the various mobs. Every fight just starts to feel the same after a while.

It’s unrewarding:

MMOs tend to be stingy with rewarding players in general, but ESO is an especially bad offender. Leveling is slow. Meaningful gear upgrades are less than common. Gold income is a trickle at best. You feel constantly starved for skill points, at least if you want to do anything beyond combat, like crafting or thieving.

People blame the level-scaling and lack of gear resets for this, but I’ve played horizontal progression games before, and they didn’t have this problem. Indeed, TSW — which, again, is probably the closest analogy to ESO in overall design — was probably the most rewarding MMO I’ve played. AP flowed like wine, as did cosmetic rewards, and there was always a new goal to pursue.

ESO doesn’t feel like that. I won’t say I’ve run out of goals to pursue, but everything I could do to progress my character at this point — even cosmetically — requires such a daunting grind it doesn’t even seem worth trying.

The Stonefalls zone in Elder Scrolls OnlineA game shouldn’t need rewards to be fun to play, but it is frustrating to spend an hour on a quest and have the only rewards be a tiny pittance of XP, a handful of gold, and a piece of vendor trash gear. Especially when, as mentioned above, those quests aren’t exactly setting the world on fire on their own merits.

It’s stagnant:

This is something that only became apparent with time, but I think it’s one of the main reasons I was so underwhelmed by Summerset. ESO doesn’t change. It doesn’t evolve. They keep putting out new content, but when you take away the superficialities of story and environment, it’s all the same.

If not for the box price and marketing, there’d be nothing to separate Summerset from any of the zones the game launched with. They all feature the same content presented in largely the same way. Quests, delves, skyshards. Same old, same old.

MMOs aren’t supposed to remain static like this. They’re meant to try new things, to deepen their experiences with time, to become better games. WoW may go overboard with the way it all but reboots the game every expansion, but at least Blizzard is always moving forward. ESO only ever plays it safe.

It’s no wonder ESO can keep up such an impressive content cadence. It must be easy when all you ever do is reskin the same content for ever and ever.

* * *

My Dunmer templar in Elder Scrolls OnlineAll that’s not to say that ESO is a bad game by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, if you ask me, I’ll still tell you it’s one of the best MMOs on the market today. But it’s frustrating to see it come so close to perfection but not quite make it. I want to love this game, but no matter how hard I try, I just can’t.