The Elder Scrolls Online has a lot to live up to. By taking a brand that commands a huge amount of reverence, ZeniMax has tasked itself with merging this iconic RPG franchise with the MMO genre, while forcibly shackling it with the standard pay-to-play model. Ongoing monthly fees shouldn’t diminish your interest in this truly ambitious project — if it hooks you, it’s $15 you’re not spending on another game — instead, ESO’s inability to decide exactly what type of game it is presents a much larger concern.
I’ve been a fan of the Elder Scrolls series since Oblivion turned heads on Xbox 360 back in 2006; with an extensive world to explore, deeply rich lore, and dynamic gameplay. It illustrated almost a decade ago that I’d very much like to play something similar that allowed me to explore all of Tamriel’s lands with my friends. As it turned out, I wasn’t alone, as the folks at ZeniMax Online Studios shared my dream and have spent the last seven years working to deliver the game I, and arguably a huge chunk of the fanbase, have always wanted to play.
Despite the strong ambitions, ESO is still the first game in this franchise to be developed by a team other than Bethesda’s in-house studio, so naturally, concern began to fester that it couldn’t hope to capture the classic ES feel. ZeniMax, to its immense credit, has done a super-decent job at replicating all the things we love about this series. Rich, expansive world to explore? Yep. Tonnes of lore, with more books than you could possibly read? Check! Open-ended gameplay that allows you to go, and do anything as you see fit? Uh… yeah, sort of.
Unlike the two recent mainstay Elder Scrolls games, where you’re free to approach anything however you see fit, ESO does this weird thing where it stuffs you into a mandatory linear story, essentially restricting a huge amount of what you can and can’t do straight off the bat. Okay, so it’s not actually all that bad, since following the main questline is the most efficient way to progress through the game, and random exploration is still greatly encouraged because you know, you’re still in this huge land that’s ripe with adventure. However, it’s still unfortunate when you remember this is a series which is at its strongest when player-driven exploration is front and centre.
The obvious hard work ZeniMax has poured into satisfying long-time fans doesn’t go unnoticed. You’ll find yourself wanting to play for hours on end, as ESO captures the amazing, engrossing atmosphere this series is known for. I largely contribute the game’s longevity, at least where individual play is concerned, to the generous amount of quests available to you at any one time. But this isn’t to say they avoid the traps so many MMORPGs, or any offline RPG for that matter, often fall into. Repetition is the order of the day, with a sizeable cohort of Tamriel citizens remarkably having the same problems time and time again.
Thankfully, for every three or so same-same quests, there’s one that manages to stand out from the crowd offering a more memorable experience. This could extend to you having to hunt down werewolves, only to eventually find yourself having to discover a way to kill their leader; or what begins as a simple “go here and check something out” mission, quickly turning into an epic dungeon crawl that requires you pair up with other players.
The Elder Scrolls Online’s story has you assume the role of a silent protagonist, otherwise known as ‘The Vestige”, tasked with preventing the devious Daedric prince Molag Bal from merging his plain of Oblivion, Coldharbour, with all of Tamriel. But with the different races embroiled in civil war, and the Ruby Throne empty, can the Vestige put an end to Bal’s schemes once and for all, and save the world?
After nearly a month of play, The Elder Scrolls Online’s biggest failings are its MMO-centric features. I’m not adverse to playing with others, given the right context, and despite the many nights and weekends I’ve sunk into the world, the social dynamic is yet to click with me; though I wonder if it’s not because majority of my gaming friends aren’t playing yet with the console release still more than a month away. There’s been the odd fleeting moments where I’ve enjoyed the presence of other players, from having them come to my aid in a time of need, to banning together in the PvP area (Alliance War) for the glory of our respective faction through the anonymity of social chat. As an MMO, ESO stumbles when it finds itself engrossed in a tug-of-war with itself, between its more solo experiences trying to replicate classic Elder Scrolls, and its shiny new online features.
Ravaged by war, the lands of Cyrodiil are under constant attack as the three Tamriel factions vie for power over the Ruby Throne, which now lies vacant. Jumping into any of the available campaigns, you’ll play the role of a single soldier in a vast army with the goal of seizing forts, defeating enemy advances on your own, and taking control over the fabled Elder Scrolls. Teamwork among players of any faction is vital for success, and in many of the campaigns I participated in, we came close to taking control over Tamriel for ourselves. So removed from the single-player driven PvE areas, ESO’s more MMO elements shine through.
Despite whatever ground ESO’s MMO nature gains with its PvP content, it’s still not without its own set of troubles. The backbone of any good MMO is a specialised class-based system which comprises of damage dealer, tank and healer. Each are represented in ESO, but in a less rigid manner then you’d find in other similar games, with ZeniMax opting instead to introduce a Skyrim-like open-ended approach to how players build their character’s skill sets; want a healing tank, what about a healer who wears heavy armour? Sure!
While this opens gameplay to a rich, dynamic sense of play, what we’re seeing is a lot of unbalanced characters that don’t fit the strict three-class structure. This is a problem as ESO is still built like a dungeons and PvP-centric MMO. The tried and tested formula is undermined when you’re getting groups of players with three or four damage dealers, and no tanks or healers. Sure, maybe one or two DPS players can invoke healing spells, but there’s still no dedicated player who specialises in just that.
Alleviating much of the problem is the ability to set two custom skill “load outs” — unlocks when you hit level fifteen — and allows you to set two sets of skills, both of which can be changed on the fly. Potentially you can have two specific builds, but this relies on the player having the foresight to do so. Changing play style (i.e going from sword-wielding to magic user) mid/late-game is something impossible to recommend; I tried it, and started to die an awful lot, forcing me to switch back to what I already knew. That takes us back to playing with friends, which is rightfully the best way to play ESO, if everyone fills their specific pre-determined role.
Adding to the list of woes is the presence of the various technical hiccups — such as drops in audio, command inputs becoming entirely unresponsive and severe framerate drops — and bugs and glitches that have the potential to halt players progress for any length of time. The former was a rampant issue I encountered early-on, though as the days stretched into weeks they became few and far between. The latter I, thankfully, didn’t have to endure; though I did see an alarming number of players reporting quest glitches via the chat feed. In a game of this scope these types of problems are sure to arise, and to its credit ZeniMax has done an excellent job of ensuring players’ end-experience is affected as little as possible.