The Elder Scrolls series has always managed to set new standards for the gaming industry. Be it gameplay experience, the setting, the twisted story or the graphics. The latter became prominent largely due to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim also helped a little by the modding community.
Succeeding Skyrim is The Elder Scrolls Online; a deviant game in the series as it is an MMO instead of following the traditional single player formula that the Elder Scrolls series is famous for. Leaving aside the generally tepid and often fervent reaction to the game in general, let’s move on to analyse what the game’s visual department has in store for the Elder Scrolls series’ fans.
Following in the footsteps of a game that was hailed for its graphical prowess as much as for its gameplay, ESO presents a rather contrasting picture on the PC. ZeniMax Online Studios chose the Hero Engine – an engine specifically for MMOs – for ESO. Developers at ZOS had said that they’ll make the game compatible even with 5 years old machines as a result of which, ESO is playable even with low-mid range graphics cards like Radeon 6450 or the GeForce GT 630 at a remarkably decent frame rate of about 30fps in 720p with graphic settings cranked to medium.
Benchmarks aside, the difference between the game’s maximum and minimum display quality is as stark as night and day.
As much as you’d want to play the game smoothly with a low end card, ESO on minimum feels like an RPG from the 90s. In any case, tweaking the settings in the right manner would give you an almost stable 30+fps gameplay with even low end cards.
As much as I appreciate the efforts made by ZOS to make the game compatible, I have to commend them on making the game rather splendidly beautiful. The game employs a number of graphical tweaks although some are clearly seen missing like the level of AA employed or solutions like MSAA or SMAA. Being an MMO, we can grant some concessions to ESO. Anti-aliasing in the game seems to have been implemented a as post processing effect as even shadows, grass, hair and even leaves look affected by it. The V-sync in the game is something you hardly expect from MMOs. You may experience tearing at times but the instances are very rare.
One of the most flabbergasting things about the game is the water reflections. hands down, this was something that had left in utter awe for a long time. The water reflects every object of the world in real time and the ripples are a sight to behold. Viewing water bodies from different angles provides a feel of realism due to the anisotropic filtering.
Anisotropic filtering(AF) in the game is aptly and nicely used but it may seem lacking at times although, it would take a keen eye to notice any real difference in the sharpness and details of textures and objects when viewed from different angles. AF in the game may not be something that would hold you in awe, but it’s not a big let down.
The particles and the textures of the game are otherwise quite wondrous. You’d find yourself admiring the the interplay of lighting and the textures of the environment at large and hardly notice them, which is how they should be.
Characters have been nicely moulded and given ample attention albeit once a while it may turn out to be a slight disappointment but it’s not much to fret over. Shadows seem to have been given a special focus in the game. Shadows seem real enough and are affected by AA which is much appreciated.
Why almost all the shadows in the game look so brilliant is because the game uses the GPU to render them instead of the CPU, unlike a few earlier games that tend to use the CPU for the purpose. For grass, a simple option has been provided to the user; you either turn it on, or off. Turning grass rendering off has a marginal performance effect on slower systems, but it’s recommended that you turn it on because the grass rendering in the game is something to look out for. Not magnificent, but still praiseworthy.
Coming to post processing effects. This is where ZOS has really stepped up the HeroEngine. Distortion is amply used throughout the game; around fires, trees with light sources behind them and a sundry other random objects.
It’s subtle enough that you tend to not notice this and yet gives you a more realistic feel of the world. Depth of field is almost exclusively noticeable when interacting with NPCs as the background of the subject fades out of focus. Otherwise, there are only a handful of instances where you’d actually notice the use of this cinematic effect.
Bloom effect in the game has not been overused and I actually like that. ZOS hasn’t overdone bloom and what this has resulted in, is that light sources look beautiful and realistic enough when objects or subjects block the source. Metallic objects like armour and other objects in the world pronounce the light source just enough to make it pleasing.
On the other hand, non-reflective surfaces like leather armour or skin give off a waning reflection which again adds to the realistic approach that the developers have striven to provide.
Ambient occlusion. Hats off to ZOS for this. As a result of nigh flawless implementation of this, the game looks vibrant. Entry level gaming rigs may feel the pressure of this effect on their systems quite visibly as it involves rendering each pixel with regard to the contours of the objects present in a frame as visible in the presence of light.
What this means is that your armour, characters features and the environment in general looks realistic as shadows appear on the lee way of object/subject contours with respect to the light source. But there’s a trade off here which is, if you are in a poorly lit area like a cave, you’re as good as blind with ambient occlusion on as this further darkens the areas that may otherwise receive light. But it’s either about pleasing your aesthetic senses or just strutting about through beautiful vistas mindlessly.
Radiant streams of light from the sun (or some other bright light source) flitting through the clouds really makes the game’s fantasy setting all the more fitting. Even with all that good, view distances are something that leave a lot to be desired. As many arguments as may be placed saying ESO is an MMO, the draw/view distances are a downright damper.
Look a little too far away and you’ll see a couple of buildings, hills or a shipwreck or two that seem shrouded by dense fog when in actuality, it’s the engine’s failure in not producing the required polygons for making the draw distances impressive. There had been instances of input lag but they were few enough to not become a nagging problem.
The game’s compatibility is something worth praising ZOS over, but it’s recommended that instead of playing the game on bare minimum settings with only the colours brown and green to help you differentiate between grassy and sandy terrain, you upgrade your graphics card and play ESO on at least medium settings whilst appreciating a thing or two about the game. But the game is capable of being run on medium-high on almost every machine.
Granted The Elder Scrolls Online is an MMO, some things in the game are amiss. Interaction with water and light needs a little polishing. It would be good to see some alternatives to anti-aliasing settings instead of just having the option to switch the on or off. And something that I really look forward to is a dramatic increase in the draw distances.
We’ll have to concede to the fact that the game has just been released and that real problems would only show up once the gaming community takes to the game. But it also means that we will be seeing a lot on new upgrades and patches and there’s quite nothing in the game that can’t be fixed with a dozen patches or so over time.