Elder Scrolls Legends preview: I used to be an adventurer like you…
Despite first impressions, Elder Scrolls: Legends succeeds in mixing the best parts of Hearthstone with the characters and lore of Tamriel.
When Elder Scrolls: Legends (ESL) was first revealed at E3 2015, it was way too easy to palm off as a "Hearthstone rip-off". While it certainly follows suit in some respects, Elder Scrolls: Legends ups the ante by drawing on the series' established characters and branching narrative. I had a chance to spend some time with the Elder Scrolls: Legends closed beta. Here are my early impressions.
It's true that in so many ways Elder Scrolls: Legends is like Hearthstone. So let's get that shiz out of the way:
- Your player character or hero, whether they be Redwood, Breton or Khajiit, sits centre field, taking the damage while offering some sweet perks.
- You start with one Magicka (Mana) and gain one every round. This resource determines which cards you can play from your hand.
- You begin with three cards and gain one each round.
- Spells and ability animations closely resemble those from Hearthstone.
To be brutally honest, I was disappointed with Elder Scrolls: Legends' presentation at first. Its close-to-FMV cinematics seemed cheap, it's clear "inspiration" way too obvious and its general feel of not giving a hoot was just not good enough. Yet I soldiered on for the sake of this preview and found, very quickly, that Legends has a few aces up its sleeve that help separate it from Hearthstone.
A new chapter
The closed beta for Elder Scrolls: Legends pushes you through a number of story-driven chapters that each introduce a new gameplay element. Gradually, Legends eases you into the game so that you've more or less mastered the basics by the end of the first act. The story itself is essentially a series of events that set the backdrop to new elements, like lane conditions (more on these in a moment) and card abilities. It's not a deep and complex narrative, but it engages you enough to push on to the next chapter. Whether it be a pack of wolves or a gang of occultists, I was always excited to find out who or what I would be going toe-to-toe with next.
Another neat touch is the way prize cards align with what's happening in the story. Events that unfold after a victory sometimes lead to a choice and whatever decision you land on reaps a different kind of reward. For example, after an overwhelming encounter with a pack of hungry wolves, a lone pup is left behind. The player has two choices here. Adopt the pup and raise it as your own, earning yourself a formidable creature card; or abandon it, and gain an action card that allows you to retrieve a creature card.
Every so often, similar branches present themselves when the player levels up and is given the choice to upgrade a card in one of two ways. In one example, it was time to upgrade one of my loyal worker arachnids. I had one of two options. I could let my little worker drone grow up to be an intimidating force to be reckoned with, boosting both its defence and damage, or craft some sturdy armour from its carapace, allowing me to boost any creature's attack and defence by four. I'm not a bad person, but in this situation I went with the latter. I felt like adopting the stray wolf earlier had given me some license to be evil.
Another way Legends distinguishes itself from its predecessor is with introduction of lanes. The board is split into lanes and four quadrants (two for each player). Creatures can only attack opponents in the same lane. Strategizing around this becomes increasingly important when cards like Guards are introduced. A Guard is a creature that when played, attracts all the damage from the opponent. The guard must be defeated before the player character can be attacked. By the end of my run with Legends, I relied more and more on building powerful guards in each lane to protect my precious HP.
Lanes sometimes bring with them special game-changing conditions. In the game's story mode, these conditions are inspired by transpiring events and can help and hinder both sides. For example, the wolfpack encounter unfolds during a snowstorm and both lanes are affected by its conditions. Thanks to the cover the blizzard provides, creatures are invulnerable during the first round they are played. At first this condition seem inconsequential, given it affected both sides. However, controlling and culling your opponents hand before they have the chance to attack is an effective way to reduce the amount of damage done to you, as creature has to wait a turn before they attack. So safeguarding them for that first round leads to a torrent of attacks when both sides emerge from the fog.
A rustic take on Hearthstone's winning recipe
All this aside, if you squint your eyes, Legends does bear on overall striking resemblance to Hearthstone. That's not a bad thing. Hearthstone was not the first to the fold, but it's by far the most successful digital CCG, bringing in around $20 million a month in revenue. That doesn't mean there isn't a place for Legends at the table. GTA III wasn't the first open-world action adventure, but it did have the largest cultural impact and became the template for many more successful games to follow. We're seeing a similar ripple here with Hearthstone. If it ain't broke and all that.
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If Hearthstone is the white bread of digital CCG, Legends is the wholemeal pumpkin seed loaf. It's a little dull at first glance, but packed with unique flavours and textures.