Friday, 12 August 2016

Elder Scrolls: Legends Beta - First Impressions

Bethesda have recently lifted the NDA that was on Elder Scrolls: Legends. Given that I’ve been binge-playing the game in my spare time, I figured a kind of pseudo-review/impressions piece wouldn’t go amiss.

Functionally and visually, it’s obvious to pretty much everyone that Elder Scrolls: Legends has Hearthstone in its sights. The chunky tiles, flashy card animations and straightforward game mechanics are all carefully put into place to make Hearthstone players feel right at home.

And, if you’re going to attempt to ape an existing card game, there’s no better one than Hearthstone. At this point, Heartstone’s success is pretty much self-evident. It’s a huge success for Blizzard, and as a card game has helped introduce people to CCGs that would otherwise never have picked them up. It’s Magic: The Gathering for a younger, online-based generation that blurs the line between traditional card games and computer games.

All that being said, the game is not without its flaws. Its obsession with RNG effects, and the developer’s general ambivalence about whether or not the game should be considered a competitive title, means there’s plenty of ways that competing games could set themselves apart.

Elder Scrolls: Legends’ trick so far is to act as a halfway house between both Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering. The basic gameplay will be familiar to everyone that’s played at least a few games of Hearthstone; monsters are summoned to the board, they attack each other, some have special abilities that affect what they do. Pretty much every basic game mechanic that’s in Blizzard’s game have made it over here. Hell, some of the key words are identical, silence and charge are literally the same mechanics, with the same keywords, in both games.

Where the game differs is where it gets its other influences from. Combat in Elder Scrolls: Legends is handled in two lanes rather than an open battlefield. It’s vaguely similar to SolForge’s lane system in that regard, but much simpler. On a fundamental level however, this simple mechanic changes how the game plays quite dramatically.

One of the crippling problems with Hearthstone is that, aside from the tendency towards luck-based gameplay, matches can be incredibly tempo driven. Games can quickly spiral out of your control as an opponent snowballs one small advantage into a bigger advantage, slowly amassing more and more power to their side of the board. The game is so simple that one of its strengths begins to harm the game; it’s so simple that it becomes impossible to turn back many games with skill. Occasionally, the game can feel as if it plays itself.

Hearthstone’s answer to this problem is the abundance of board-reset cards. Consecration, Flamestrike, Blade Flurry and Lightning Storm, to name just a few. There’s a reason effectively every class has some, sometimes multiple, forms of mass removal. Without it there’d be many games where a single advantage, many times down to some random element, would result in the opponent simply snowballing their way to victory.

By having the game take place on two lanes Elder Scrolls: Legends manages to gracefully navigate past this problem. However the game pans out in the future, the decision to have the two lane be a central mechanic will be one of the smartest decisions the developers made.

In practical terms it means that fights become a more tactical affair, as you weigh up the pros and cons of deploying your new minions in the left and right sides of the board. Furthermore, minions deployed in the right lane can’t be attacked by enemy creatures for a turn, as they are granted one round of cover. It leads to plenty of mind games in many cases, as I often tried to goad by opponent into constantly deploying in the left lane to deal with my chaff, so that the right lane would be free for when I dropped a big bomb card and attempt to take the round.

What the lane system also achieves is allowing players to “race” one another. In Magic: The Gathering this is a familiar concept. When two decks are pitted against one another and neither one can take the controlling route (i.e. play for card advantage) there comes a time when both take players must spend their resources to end the game as fast as possible. In other words, a race ensues.
In Hearthstone this was possible; trade or go face was definitely a question that got asked, but rarely did it mean anything more than analysing the threats on the board and calculating the odds of having lethal damage the next turn. In Elder Scroll: Legends, thanks to the lanes, there’s multiple issues to deal with: what lane to deploy in, what direct damage spells you have, and how can the opponent use guard creatures to halt (multiple) avenues of attack.

I’ll say it again. The lane system is elegant, simple and a terrific core component of the game. Not only does it add greater texture and strategy to matches, it adds to the available design space for new cards. Already there are some creatures that are able to shift lanes after they’ve been deployed.

If the core combat is effectively Hearthstone with a few minor changes, then the colour system, which determines what cards can be placed into your deck, is pure Magic: The Gathering. Strength (Red), Intelligence (Blue), Willpower (Yellow), Agility (Green) and Endurance (Purple) are the five types or colours along with a collection of neutral colourless cards. Each colour has a general style and unique mechanical traits to further define it. Intelligence, for example, cares more about non-creature spells, Agility is able to shift lanes and Yellow is focused on spawning multiple small creatures, similar to how White typically works in Magic.

Each colour can be combined with another, resulting in ten classes in total, such as the Battlemage (Blue/Red) and Spellsword (Yellow/Purple). Taking their cues from a typical Magic set, each two colour class has their own identity that combines various cards from both colours, making for intuitive deck building for beginners, along with variety and depth for veteran card game players. Furthermore, each two colour combination also has access to a handful of unique multi-colour cards that typically enhance that classes core strategy.

Elder Scrolls: Legends goes one step further by allowing you to also craft mono-coloured decks, and provides several incentives for doing so. Some cards receive a bonus should the top card of your deck have the same colour. In effect it’s the main way that Bethesda’s game handles RNG; giving you a random chance of getting something good, but also putting in place the potential for deck building ideas.

Overall, the core colour system is simple but effective. It takes its core influence from Magic: The Gathering’s colour wheel, splitting the strongest cards across multiple different colours so that the  “best” cards can’t all simply be shoved into the same deck. Likewise, the two-colour class system is similar to Hearthstone, but gives the game potentially more freedom and design choices, since cards aren’t intrinsically locked to a particular class (well, other than the dual-colour cards) but instead come from their respective colours.

The much-talked about feature in Elder Scrolls: Legends in a lot of early video footage is the rune system. Players start at thirty life, just like Hearthstone, but for each five life lost a rune is broken from that character’s avatar and a card is drawn. In effect it “supercharges” the tempo/card advantage dynamic that goes on in many card games. As a general rule of thumb, the aggressor or “beatdown” in a match is willing to spend card advantage for greater tempo in an attempt to overwhelm their opponent. Conversely, the defender attempts to play for card advantage, that is, spend less cards on a card-for-card basis when dealing with their opponents threats, so that they have the advantage the longer the game goes on.

By giving the defender an extra card for each five life lost it adds an interesting conundrum for many matches. Does an aggressive player with a stronger board push earlier with their damage in order to potentially threaten with lethal damage earlier? Or, do they bide their time so as to not let their opponent draw too many additional cards? In many games I played I would happily let opponents with faster decks hit my life total in order to draw extra cards. Occasionally however, this would backfire as I allowed myself to become too low on life. Part of the skill of Elder Scrolls: Legends will come down to managing risk versus reward when it comes to rune breaking.

The rune system also opens up some more design space. Nords, which are centred in Strength and Willpower, gain bonuses for breaking enemy runes, incentivizing aggressive plays at the cost of providing your opponent with more card advantage.

It’s also appropriate to talk about Prophecy cards whilst mentioning the rune system, since the two mechanics are interlinked. Cards with the Prophecy ability can be played for free if they are drawn as a result of a rune breaking. This is by far my least favourite element of Elder Scrolls: Legends design. As a mechanic it feels frustrating to play against, random, and simply not all that interesting.

If I was to compare the mechanic to anything it would be Magic: The Gathering’s “Miracle” cards. Miracles were an utterly stupid mechanic introduced in one of the game’s more recent sets. In short, Miracles could be played substantially cheaper if they were drawn from the top of your deck at the beginning of your turn. In many instances, cards that would cost a substantial amount of resources would cost very little to play.

I don’t need to explain why this mechanic was dumb. It highlighted perhaps the worst element of any card game with a random draw pile: the threat of the top-deck. It’s not that the cards were necessarily overpowered, although it is worth pointing out that in Magic’s case many of the cards with the Miracle ability did go on to be potent additions to many competitive decks. No, the problem is more that mechanics like this draw attention towards rather than away from the weakest aspect of their respective game. Regardless of whether or not a Miracle card was responsible for winning a game or not, they felt like they were solely responsible: ergo, they emphasized the feeling that the player that won the game did so through luck.

On the surface Prophecy cards feel awfully similar to me. Granted, there are ways to potentially play around many of the more devastating Prophecy draws, promoting player skill above random events. Still, they are the biggest aspect of the game that I’m most worried about. It seems strange that, when you’re already rewarding the player who is being attacked with additional cards, that you’re also providing them with the opportunity to play a spell or two for free.

One of the most interesting aspects of Elder Scrolls: Legends, for me, was undoubtedly going to be the Arena. I’m a Limited player at heart, so any card game that’s built around allowing me to draft my own deck is almost always going to get my attention. Bethesda don’t beat about the bush with this aspect of the game, it’s a straight up Hearthstone clone. And to be honest, that’s totally fine, Duelyst has similarly co-opted the format and that game likewise has benefited from it. If it ain’t broke, don’t try and fix it.

What’s interesting about Elder Scrolls: Legends' take on the Arena format is down to its cards. Like I said earlier, a great deal of effort has gone into given each two-colour combination its own identity through its unique class. At the start of an Arena run you get to choose from three randomly selected classes which will determine your colours.

Where things get interesting is the potential of the game’s card pool. Many of Elder Scrolls: Legends cards function as build-around-me cards, being potentially underwhelming on their own, but devastating if drafted into a cohesive strategy with a good mind for synergy.

Take Dres Tormenter, a card that screams to built around. For me, it’s design elements like this that give the game a real chance to shine. Build-around-me cards prevent Arena deck construction from devolving into “pick the strongest card, unless there’s major mana curve problems” auto-pilot mode. Cards like Dres Tormenter will range wildly in value depending on the composition of your deck, and the colour pair you are playing. Is the card better in Blue/Red, Blue/White or Blue/Green? I have no idea, but it’s the kind of thing I’ll be excited to learn as the game continues to develops.
Build-around-me cards like this encourage smart deck building and provide the game’s entire Arena environment, (and overall deck building), with significantly more depth.

This idea extends to the game’s two-colour pairings. From my experience already in Arena, I’d say that it’s entirely possible to have two players build wildly different decks with different strategies, from the exact same two colours. Much like a good Magic: The Gathering draft set, player skill, preferred strategies and the overarching meta-game will all have an effect on Elder Scrolls: Legends’ card-drafting gameplay.

The decision to also include a solo Arena, where players are able to take on computer-controlled opponents, was also an inspired choice. It can become difficult for new players to get to grips with Arena gameplay at first hand, especially if they are unfamiliar with similar card games, so the option to use the solo Arena as a training ground or trial run is a great idea.

It’s an inevitable aspect of card games that they have random elements. After all, part of the challenge of these card games is in minimising the effect that luck has on your ability to win. Computer game-based card games also have the unusual position to be able to utilize random elements in a way that traditional card games can’t. This is something that Hearthstone has clearly jumped upon, spitting out new chaotic effect expansion after expansion.

That’s also precisely part of the problem that the game has however; it’s obsession with random effects. In part, it’s beholden to them, they provide excitement and keep the game’s otherwise simple mechanics from becoming rote and stale. Despite what many, typically angry, players will say, random effects are usually fun to watch, especially for a game that’s deeply ingrained with online 24/7 streaming with its high profile players.

Yet, RNG can also lead to lazy design, and I’d certainly argue that has been the case with Hearthstone for some time now. Fortunately, Elder Scrolls: Legends does seem to distance itself from the haphazard randomness that afflicts Blizzard’s game. It certainly has random elements, a few cards will randomly provide effects and the “colour’s matters” cards, along with the Prophecy mechanic, all have a degree of chance involved.

At the moment however, I’d tentatively say that the game’s use of RNG has been balanced fairly well. In many instances, random cards have to be built around in order to improve their effectiveness, or RNG effects are limited by the board state that a particular player has. Rarely will Royal Sage turn the tide on its own, but its effect will clearly have a huge benefit to a player that’s been smartly managing their board state.

Even the game’s art style is a stark shift away from what Blizzard uses with Hearthstone. No bright primary colours, but instead a more dour, “serious” look that better fits the game’s source material.

This might seem like a minor thing to discuss for many players, but I’d argue that design and visual style owe a lot of how a game feels to play. Early expansions of Magic: The Gathering have some utterly gorgeous pieces of art, and the first decade of the game allowed it to cultivate a distinct tone and style that was clearly fantasy, but very much its own take on fantasy.

At the risk of getting off topic, I’d argue that if there’s one thing that Blizzard have done which has driven me nuts over the years, it’s the transformation of the popular fantasy art style. Prior to World of Warcraft, fantasy was typically much stranger, bleaker and in some cases rather melancholy, which made the fantasy MMO's stocky, primary-coloured visuals stand out as a light-hearted contrast.

Fast forward though, and it seems every fantasy title in whatever medium has “borrowed” the trappings of Blizzard’s style. Mixing in brighter colours and slightly more stylized visuals. It might work for World of Warcraft, but it’s made many other fantasy worlds seem far more bland in recent years. Take a look at many modern Magic: The Gathering cards and you’ll see the gradual shift towards the “Blizzard-style” of fantasy art, along with a more safe, commercial sensibility; well defined, "blocky" characters and bright colours, nothing too abstract.

Naturally, given its adaptation from existing video games, Elder Scrolls: Legends has a different base to work from. So far, I’d say it’s doing a good job of combining a somewhat unique art style with its gameplay. It’s clear Bethesda are aiming to make the game the “grown up” alternative to Hearthstone both in terms of the deeper gameplay mechanics and its more “realistic” artwork.

Obviously, in addition to my bigger issues with the Prophecy mechanic, there’s a few issues that I feel the game could have handled better. Given that’s it’s still a work in progress, these are a few minor aspects I think the game could work on prior to its full launch.

Firstly, naming cards that specifically spawn from other cards. I hate how Animal Companion works in Hearthstone, not necessarily because it’s random (although that’d be a whole other story) but how a new player has no concept over what they’re getting. “Summon a random animal” could literally be just about anything.

Unfortunately, Elder Scrolls: Legends features several cards that have the exact same idea but goes no way to fixing this problem. A card like Divayth Fyr references a “Daughter of Fyr” that to my knowledge doesn’t exist in any way other than from being spawned by this card. My problem isn’t with the card specifically, but how a new player has no idea what a “Daughter of Fyr” is. The solution to this would be to have the spawned card pop up to the side whenever you hover over a card like this, so that you know how they work, similar to keyword abilities.

Another issue currently is with the “colour matters” cards. If Elder Scrolls: Legends were a physical card game, the top card of the deck would have to be revealed to prevent cheating. Even though it’s a digital card game, I still feel this should be the way the mechanic is handled. At the moment,, all that happens is a cross or tick flashes over the card as it’s played. It’s not a particularly eye-catching and it can be hard to notice what’s happened at times. Furthermore, revealing the top card would add a little more strategy to the mechanic by giving both player’s a bit of information to work with. This is how Hearthstone handles its “joust” mechanic, and I feel it’s how the “colour matters” mechanic should work in Elder Scrolls: Legends.

Overall, I think Elder Scrolls: Legends is shaping up to be a great addition to the online CCG genre. Alongside the incredibly fun Duelyst, it offers a genuine alternative to Hearthstone, and hopefully the pressure of similar games competing in the same environment will encourage Blizzard to think more carefully about how they expand and improve their game in the future. It might not quite scratch the card game itch as deeply as Magic: The Gathering does, but, as a calculated halfway house between Hearthstone’s simplicity and smart visual design and Magic’s incredible depth, Elder Scrolls: Legends manages to strike a good balance.


Post a Comment