(PC Review) The Elder Scrolls Online

Developer: ZeniMax Online Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Genre: Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game
Players: 1-N/A
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Nick Stewart

Overall: 7.5 = Good

Minimum Requirements:
Dual Core 2.0 GHz, 2 GB RAM, Nvidia GeForce 8800 / ATI Radeon 2600 with 512 MB, 80 GB Hard Drive space

It’s perhaps unsurprising that, after Skyrim‘s monstrous success, someone saw the potential to branch off the Elder Scrolls series into an MMO. In many ways, this makes a tremendous amount of sense: the sheer size and scope of the single-player series—and Skyrim in particular—already lends those games a distinctive MMO feel. As you bopped around Skyrim, watching from a mountaintop as a distant dragon engaged in battle with three necromancers, two guards, and a bear, it was easy to feel that this was a world where other players could and possibly should exist. And with numerous MMO-style features such as crafting, the game gave the impression that the transition could be relatively smooth. In other words, once you trim away the trappings of “You are The One”-oriented plotlines, it’s not hard to see how The Elder Scrolls Online could exist as an extension of that experience, and Zenimax has certainly gone to great lengths to deliver that as a concept.

The reality of The Elder Scrolls Online, however, is significantly different, but it’s important to note that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. From the outset, it’s crucial to understand that for all the hype, ESO isn’t meant to exist as an MMO-flavored Skyrim; rather, it’s a Skyrim-flavored MMO, and a fairly traditional one at that. This a positively crucial difference, given that much of your early experience will hinge quite heavily on your expectations—how ESO is or isn’t like a traditional Elder Scrolls experience. This is a fair comparison, of course, given the game’s very name, but the brand’s flavor comes through in the atmosphere and the finer details, rather than the overall structure. In other words, ESO is by no means a revolutionary experience: instead of layering other players into an Elder Scrolls game, Zenimax has instead infused your more-or-less standard MMO core with Elder Scrolls lore, characters, and ideas.

This approach has tremendous advantages and disadvantages, and the players’ ability to enjoy ESO will stem directly from how willing they are to accept the inherent flaws of the standard MMO–like, for instance, its handling of the plot. Set hundreds of years prior to the events of Skyrim, ESO is the story of the Daedric Prince Molag Bal, who has set in motion an elaborate scheme to weaken the barrier between worlds and fuse the world of the living with his own daedric plane, allowing him to harvest untold numbers of souls. The game begins with you being sacrificed to Molag Bal, after which you awake in his demonic prison. Although he is now in possession of your soul, your quest to escape back to Tamriel begins, highlighting almost immediately the inherent schism between the Elder Scrolls brand and an MMO format. As you join countless other new players and non-playable characters attempting to fight their way to freedom, the plot bends into a solo-focused affair as you discover that it’s now upon you and only you to make things right, which can be incredibly hard to accept, given that a lizardman named DancePants2910384 next to you is doing the exact same thing.

This is an inherent problem with grafting Elder Scrolls single-player plotting onto an MMO, and it’s something that stretches on far beyond your initial escape from the daedric prison: as you wander the lands, you’ll encounter countless opportunities to prevent assassinations, deliver key artifacts, and more. It significantly shatters the spell cast by the best Elder Scrolls titles when you’re told that only you can free this kidnapped townsperson by defeating this evil bandit king, only to see dozens of other players attacking him or waiting for him to respawn. It’s a very standard genre element, but it perpetually, constantly puts the lie to the tale that you are the only one who can save Tamriel, despite the occasional solo instances that the game uses for particularly plot-heavy moments.

Once you accept this key difference from the standard Elder Scrolls title, however, it becomes considerably easier to judge the game on its own merits, and the quest structure in particular. Once you escape the opening daedric prison, you’ll be sent out into Tamriel proper, with your starting area and general quest lines being dictated by your character race. From there, you’re immediately faced with numerous opportunities to pursue quests: some are simple one-offs, while others are tangentially related to advancing the interests of various local guilds, and further tasks advance the central Molag Bal plot. The very best quest lines delve much more intimately into the political machinations at play throughout Tamriel, exposing the complex interconnectedness of the land’s many factions; these in particular really give you the chance to absorb the lore that infuses the gameworld, if you care to pay attention.

While there are some standard kill-this, save-that objectives, the way that ESO packages them makes them feel much more interesting than they really have much right to be. Over the course of even the first handful of hours, you may be tasked with uncovering deadly plots, infiltrating bandit camps in disguise, and solving a murder. The game is also fond of giving you tasks that aren’t what they seem: a straightforward, groan-inducing delivery quest can sometimes turn into something much more intriguing when you discover that your drop-off location is in fact a slave camp, leading to other obvious quest options. Given the long-term gaming that ESO offers, it’s satisfying to see some pretty solid diversity in the quest mix.

It’s also likely worth mentioning that even in the more standard quests (i.e., Kill X Demons/Bandits/Evil Soldiers Plaguing the Town/Temple/Ancient Ruin) your successes often have a real impact. It’s to the developers’ credit that the game takes some strides to try and give you a real sense of permanence, which lends at least some semblance of a single-player feel. If you’ve liberated a village, your character will always see it as being liberated–it won’t be retaken by Evil Aggressors 20 minutes later. This is a terrifically nice touch and helps you to take some ownership of the improvement of Tamriel, and a real sense of accomplishment when you can see on your map that you’ve already improved the lives of the land’s various cities.

Many of these quests aren’t handed to you, relay-baton style, from quest giver to quest resolver and onwards; the best among these are typically found through simple exploration, and therein lies one of ESO’s strongest suits. The version of Tamriel on offer here isn’t nearly as picturesque or as dense in potential discoveries as anything you’ve seen in the series to date, but it certainly takes a fair stab at giving you a lot of expansive territory to wander through and things to find. Though there’s a full-screen map, no mini-map is available, having been eschewed for the Oblivion/Skyrim style of proximity arrow. Though less useful from a day-to-day MMO gameplay point of view, this nevertheless lends that addictive “there’s something nearby that I haven’t found yet” pull that’s so effective in the series. Once you’ve found set locations, whether a city, temple, or handy teleportation beacon, they’ll populate your map, making it easier for you to track your exploration progress and your opportunity to find even more quests and resource nodes. Wandering the world also lets you discover some of the best spots for fishing, or even some of the surprisingly frequent treasure chests strewn about the land. Additionally, the urge to loot everything that the Elder Scrolls series bred carries over here as you’re able to find tons of crafting items in random packsacks, dresser drawers, desks, and more. But more importantly, exploration provides you with reference points to check against your in-game encyclopedia for cryptic clues to the locations of Skyshards, brightly glowing stones that are not just great for the thrill of the search but also reward players with a precious skill point for every three collected. In other words, exploration isn’t just a potential hobby for obsessive completionists, but it also directly benefits your character in tangible ways. Ignoring the simple possibility of searching online for each location, this is a great metaphor for the game’s approach to the potentially easygoing tourism of Tamriel.

Considering the value of each skill point you accumulate—otherwise garnered through levelling via combat or quest experience—hunting for Skyshards is certainly a worthwhile pursuit. Skill points are a versatile commodity in ESO, as they can be invested in one of a great many skill trees that are available to your character. Some are tied directly to your class, but the game quickly offers you considerable variety by connecting additional skill trees to your preferred weapons, to various guilds you join, and to your crafting abilities. In other words, you can be a rogue type that’s handy with a sword and shield, or you can play a warrior that’s handy with a fireball-lobbing staff. If that wasn’t enough, the game also allows you to morph individual skills into one of two alternatives after you’ve spent sufficient time with them in the field and have a spare skill point to invest: for instance, a skill that allows you to entangle a foe and do damage over time can be morphed to extend the time for which they’re snared or to heighten the damage the skill does. Or, of course, you can simply choose to leave it be and invest your precious skill point somewhere else. Factor in the fact that your character can only have a set number of skills active in the hotkey bar at any one time, and it becomes clear that ESO offers players a rather refreshingly unique chance to build their character how they see fit.

Standing alongside exploration and skill development as ESO’s brightest spots is its overall approach to combat. Although the plethora of skills means you will still spend a considerable amount of time slamming hotkeys and watching skill cooldowns, the interim combat has a simple but surprisingly visceral approach: you have to click not only to swing your weapon, but also to get into a brief defensive stance to serve as a makeshift shield. Managing the balance of attacking, skill use, and defense is crucial, as many enemies have strong attacks that can be blocked with a bit of snappy defense; by timing things properly, you can often leave them stunned, allowing you to move in with your more lethal skills. Enemies also tend to be pretty mobile, so it’s not unusual to have to dance around the battlefield to get into the best possible position, or to avoid a charging foe. It can be daunting at first to try and suss out which skills complement your strategies and how to mix and match them with your physical moves, but it becomes worthwhile on several fronts. Defeating the world’s many enemies isn’t just about 1-2-1-2-loot, but now about having to spend a few moments knowing what moves to make and when. It’s a nice touch, and a welcome twist on standard MMO combat that provides ESO with some needed heft.

Crafting is another area that the developers try to mix up a bit, with slightly more limited success. Like most MMOs, ESO offers you the opportunity to take up a number of different crafting pursuits, and unlike other games, you can choose to practice as many as you wish. You can take up blacksmithing if you need heavy armor; leatherworking if you’re looking for lighter forms of protection; and fletching if you’re the “killing from a distance” type. Though the interface is far more complicated and unintuitive than it really needs to be, it’s almost always true that the weapons and armor you create via crafting will be more powerful than what you’ve found in the field or earned via quest rewards. Moreover, it’s not overly challenging to gather the needed materials, though some grinding is required through mineral deposits, trees, or drops from felled animals. There are even opportunities to break down gathered weapons and armor in order to research their attributes and apply those bonuses to future crafted items. Again, some nice touches, and for those who want to dabble in the more esoteric arts, there are ample opportunities to take up alchemy, cooking, and enchanting, all of which offer their own benefits for potions, general stat bonuses, and item improvement. All in all, it’s a pretty comprehensive set of options, and it’s to the game’s credit that you’re never restrained from experimenting with each of them.

If it’s PvP you’re after, ESO has a zone specifically mapped out for that purpose, which can be explored at any point after reaching Level 10. There’s a faction vs. faction element at play here, but it all works out rather straightforwardly as each side attempts to conquer various areas of the map. It’s an interesting concept that unfortunately falls down a bit on a few fronts, namely the speed at which everything occurs. Once you’re duking it out in a large crowd, things happen way too fast to appropriately react, and what’s worse, the game is terrible at letting you know precisely what’s affecting your character and when. So if you’re attempting to zap a particular opponent with an ensnare skill, and they keep moving around, you’re not certain as to whether it’s because one of their allies applied a buff, lag prevented you from targeting them properly, or any number of reasons. As a result, PvP combat usually devolves into a far less strategic affair, with whoever has the most people on their side typically coming out on top. It’s hardly the game’s biggest draw, and some strong UI and balance adjustments are needed before it can be worth serious investment of your time.

Despite the persistent issues with the UI, it has to be said that the game’s overall aesthetic does its best to impress, with middling results. Sometimes, you’ll be wandering the beach on your way to nowhere in particular, and you’ll come across a hidden waterfall, where the sunlight glistens off the slicked stones at its base, as butterflies hover some nearby flowers. It’s just one example of an unexpectedly beautiful sight, and to be fair, there are many in ESO. There are also many examples of less-than-impressive stretches, where dark greens and browns seem to be the only color palette and are interrupted by the occasional hill or bend in the road. Luckily, the sound does its best to compensate with plenty of great ambient noise and music, though the best element by far is the full voice acting of every conversation you’ll have in the game. It may seem wildly unnecessary, but it goes a surprisingly long way to engaging you with the NPCs, their plights, and more crucially, with the moments that make up the larger tapestry of Tamriel’s unfolding lore.

There are some odd design choices, painful bugs, and growing pains that go above and beyond the quirky, low-feedback UI, however. For instance, there’s no denying that the lack of an auction house hurts the game somewhat, making it incredibly complicated to trade off the astoundingly high number of bits and bobs that you’ll come across in every drawer and pocket in your travels. It also makes it pretty challenging to acquire the materials you need to up your crafting skills, all but forcing you to join one of the game’s many player-run trade guilds. Even this is a wildly imperfect solution, as you’re left only to trade via chat with whomever might be online at the time.

This also raises another massive problem with the in-game chat system, and that’s spam. At this point, ESO is full to the brim with gold scammers and spammers, all but deluging the public chat with endless babble designed to get around any filters that may arise. Worse, the spambots have also taken to private messaging and sending in-game mail, and while manually blocking and reporting each one individually is a partial solution, it utterly fails to stem the endless tide of gibbering, robotic harassment machines that pollute the game’s sole communications tools. Bots are also taking to looting and pillaging the game’s resource nodes and dungeon loot, which can be a major problem given the relative scarcity of each–or in the latter’s case, the low frequency with which it can respawn. And all this is to say nothing of the countless general bugs that plague the game, including the many, many quests that cannot be completed on your first try as you’re required to log out and in again, followed by dropping the quest and re-accepting it before completing it all once more. This and all other issues can be chalked up as growing pains, as one would hope that Zenimax considers each carefully and works towards a solution. Some, such as the UI, can be modded for relatively simple fixes; others, such as the deluge of spam and bots, are more complex, and should stand as an urgent priority for the future.

The Elder Scrolls Online is a game all about expectations. If you’re looking for Skyrim with co-op, you will be disappointed. If you’re looking for a great PvP experience set in Tamriel, you will be disappointed. And if you’re looking for a flawless experience, boy oh boy, will you ever be disappointed. But once you get past what the game isn’t, it becomes easy to appreciate it for what it actually is: a well-made, appealing MMO that steps just far enough out of the standard mold to be worth your time. It’s heavy with Elder Scrolls lore, rewarding of a generally slower pace of play, and happy to accommodate solo players, and particularly excels with its take on skills development and combat. There are lots of moving pieces, and not all of them shine equally, as Zenimax has some work ahead in order to make the experience better. But even in its current form, ESO is still a greatly satisfying experience, and with an optimistically bright future ahead.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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