Tamriel Infinium: How ZeniMax should fix Elder Scrolls Online’s combat


As much as there can be a consensus on anything in MMORPGs, it’s generally — but not universally — agreed that something is rotten in the state of Elder Scrolls Online’s combat. Whenever the subject comes up, which it seems to do quite frequently, certain terms are thrown around. It’s “janky.” It’s “floaty.” It simply doesn’t feel “impactful.”

However, for those who do take an issue with ESO’s combat system, the solution for the perceived problem doesn’t appear to be clear-cut. Everyone’s got opinions, of course — opinions that seem ignored by ZeniMax, which is content to continue more or less as it has been for the better part of a decade. So while I don’t have any great hopes of being heard and responded to on this issue, here is my hot take on why ESO’s combat isn’t that great… and how it can be improved with a few meaningful changes.

The problems as I see them

In the interest of full transparency, I want to note that I am not the biggest fan of action combat in MMOs. I rarely feel that it’s implemented well, while tab-targeting personally is more appealing, strategic, and even relaxing. But I’ll meet a game where it’s at, so if it has action combat, I’m not going to whine about it.

However, after playing many MMOs with action combat, I have concluded that there is definitely something off about Elder Scrolls Online’s approach. It’s not the worst I’ve ever seen, but it leaves a whole lot to be desired. I’ve sort of made peace with it thanks to a rotation that works well in almost every situation, but I am never, ever excited to get into a combat encounter. It’s just something I do to get on to the next part of the story.

Players more knowledgeable than I will point to things like animation canceling and weapon swapping as part of the problem. I’ll offer a slightly different take, which is focusing on the feel of combat. This nebulous term “feel” is a combination of animation speeds, sound design, pairing of sounds and contact, the amount of damage dealt with an attack, and how the game presents a decreasing health bar.

At worst, an MMO’s combat “feel” is completely abstract. I recall early days of Anarchy Online, when what was visually happening on the screen was detached from the combat log scrolling by. There was no parity, and that ruined immersion once I noticed. ESO isn’t quite that bad, but it’s got an element of this in play. It’s slippery and slightly abstract when it needs to be punchy and powerful.

Three small changes for big impacts

So if I’m proposing changes, the very first thing I’d recommend is speeding up and tightening the animations in response to a skill being activated. When I’m running up to a mob and hit my first attack spell, I know that I’m in for a full second (maybe more) of watching my character take out her weapons and go through the casting process. Delaying the start of combat to drawing weapons may be more realistic, but it is not fun or snappy. The rest of combat often features a lot of delays between skill activations and sluggish responses.

So let’s get that tightened up. If I activate something, for the most part I want it firing off pronto. I need to know that I can rely on my skills to do what I need them to at the time that’s required.

The second change I would make would be to nix the health bar that drains from both ends. I know this is an Elder Scrolls thing, but I don’t care. It’s weird that you have to visually track two ends of a bar instead of one, and by dividing damage dealt by half — so that half of it comes off the left side and half the right — any attack feels half as powerful as it should.

Thirdly, ZeniMax needs to go back to the drawing board with the sound design of combat. Never underestimate how much sound plays into a feedback loop for a player. If an attack sounds good, the player will be more likely to accept it as a strong attack no matter what damage is dealt. If the attack sounds like someone recorded a piece of paper fluttering through the air, then it’s going to severely lessen that experience for the user.


And a few more ideas

Those three items are changes that the studio could feasibly implement without a top-down redesign of combat to have the maximum impact. They’re relatively small, but they would make a big impact on the whole system.

Those three aside, there are other ideas that I’d love to see done. I wouldn’t mind some sort of auto-attack for a weapon’s basic attack, as constantly clicking during combat gets tiring. Maybe even couple that with a soft lock on targets so that a player doesn’t “slip” off a boss to hit an add instead.

I’d gladly trade weapon swapping for an expanded skill bar. We get to collect so many skills in this game, yet we have the space only to equip a small handful of them unless we’re willing to swap weapons to access the second part of the hotbar. That’s fiddly and dumb, so why not just give us a standard hotbar as most MMOs have?

Finally, at some point ZeniMax really needs to do an audit of the One Tamriel system in relation to the challenge level of combat. Combat in this game is either brain-dead easy or nail-biting hard with little between, which doesn’t make for consistently satisfying encounters.

No matter what is decided, combat needs to be addressed. It’s a constant complaint that drags this game’s reputation down, and if the studio wants to keep ESO relevant, it needs to take this faulty central system and punch it up.

Traverse the troubled land of Tamriel in the Elder Scrolls Online! Justin Olivetti will be your guide here in Tamriel Infinium as we explore together the world created by ZeniMax and Bethesda in one of the biggest MMOs in the genre.
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