The next chapter in the Elder Scrolls saga is finally here.
I’ve been lucky enough to get the five day head start; and I’ve logged some serious playtime since in order to bring you this initial burst of near-delirious opinion. I haven’t slept in a long time. My family and close friends are beginning to show signs of concern. I’m fairly sure they’re trying to arrange some kind of intervention. So, without further subtle cries for help, here it is – our Elder Scrolls: Online review.
So just who are you in ESO? The Elder Scrolls has made a big deal so far out of playing as a special, prophesied individual, and it surprised me to discover that they’re still essentially playing that angle – that’s right, despite the thousands of other special little snowflakes breaking out of Molag Bal’s clutches, the Prophet (voiced by none other than Michael Gambon) still tells you that you are the fabled Vestige, the soulless hero destined to thwart the evil Daedra plot. I bet he says that to all the girls. Surely it would have made more sense to prophecy an army of soulless Vestiges destined to beat back the forces of darkness? But I digress. The story actually works very well in tying together all the traditional MMO elements, and does a much better job than most of ESO’s competitors.
The one really stand-out thing ESO achieves right off the bat is the overwhelming sense of adventure and exploration. The starting area is a Daedric prison laden with exceptional British voice cameos and atronachs you have to crawl out of before you can explore Tamriel proper, but once you’re free from its confines, the big bad world opens up all around you and it’s almost enough to make you completely forget that you’re playing an MMO in the first place. I just got completely carried away with wandering around and hunting beasties for a good five hours, as is my standard practice with an Elder Scrolls game, before realising there were quests to be done and imminent demonic threats to be dealt with. Everyone else is out there engaging in server-wide PvP and clearing public dungeons and I’m chasing mudcrabs over beaches in my starting gear.
As you’d expect, character creation is extremely deep on a cosmetic level, as usual you can adjust the tiniest aspects of your appearance (Because we’re all so concerned about which direction our ears flare out in). The troll-faced presets and the time involved in creating a character that didn’t look like his mother and his sister were the same person in previous Elder Scrolls titles were a genuine concern of mine going into ESO, but they’ve been streamlined, thankfully. Now instead of manually adjusting individual sliders you can simply move a scale around between “Large”, “Muscular” and “Thin” for your body, and “Soft, Angular and Heroic” for your face. It makes it much easier to jump straight into the game and get hacking away at the meaty amount of content on offer.
An early emerging concern with ESO from my point of view is what I’ve come to call TOR syndrome – where a multiplayer game is so story focused it’s easy to start playing it as a singleplayer game. Which is a shame, because quite unlike TOR, ESO is already exhibiting some shining multiplayer. It feels very ad-hoc so far – banding up with wandering heroes to take on some of the greater challenges, and then going your separate ways when all the bad guys are dead and you’ve got the quest MacGuffin you need. Hopefully some greater structure and emphasis on approaching problems as a group will emerge as the community evolves.
So far the classes all seem to interact very well with each other. At the time of writing, most quest areas are all-out battlegrounds but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – experience works in a similar way to how it does in the other games and you ding from actually using skills rather than just grinding enemies. This way; everyone gets their fair share of reward for ganking whatever goblin/pirate/bandit/beastie it is you’re fighting. It’s a little frustrating at first, especially in the starting areas. You’re all keen to put your new teleport strike or fire staff to work, but the seemingly unending tide of other newcomers just wash over the skill-fodder and you’re left meekly picking up quest objectives and moving on with the MMO equivalent of blue balls.
The pace took a turn for the better right quick though, as a quest involving freeing a bunch of scallywag pirates from another bunch of even scallier-wags began. “Use a disguise to slip past the pirates” says the quest-givers. Hm. This seems interesting, I think. Proper stealth mechanics at play – you can use a pirate disguise to blend in, but certain enemies can see through your disguise and break it. Neat. I equip the disguise and go about blending in, looking forward to this fresh new approach to questing.
Unfortunately, as I’m doing my best to lay low and time my movements to slip past the sentries, a veritable army of other players appears out of nowhere and so begins what can only be described as a Normandy-esque beach battle begins. Disguises are out the window, pirate corpses are everywhere, and I start to feel a little bit bad for the completely overwhelmed enemy NPCs who have had their entire purpose invalidated. The random bursts of unscripted chaos are a wonder to behold, though, as the game’s exceptional ability effects start sparking off everywhere. Even better was getting stuck into the battle as a sorcerer at range, firing off mortar strikes of crystal magic and flooring groups of enemies whilst the rest of the ESO population piled in with swords and bows. There’s no jealous guarding of loot or experience potential, just everyone wading in to get stuff done.
There’s no grinding, repetitive process here. Quests are delivered in line with a fantastic story arc and every NPC has a voice of its own. Combat is fluid and skill based, so instead of just press a button and hoping numbers roll out in your favour you’re actively slinging spells and hefting axes at your foes. Unlike the elephant in the proverbial MMO room, you can dodge and block all in real time. Combat is exhilarating. I’ve logged over 50 hours in the game this week and the real time combat paired with the excellent character progression keeps it fresh. Exploring, fighting, crafting – it’s still just as entertaining.
There’s no sense of being rushed either. It’s no secret that most MMOs tend to funnel gamers right towards the end-game, which is where they shine – every WoW veteran knows the trip from 1-90 is just a necessary evil to get to the real meat of the game, but ESO is all about the journey. The story is so intricately woven with the MMO around it that you will find yourself dawdling and taking in lore where you might not have before. In the second year of my WoW experiences I just stopped reading quests at all. I just processed them all on the big conveyer belt of stuff to do and stopped paying attention. I can’t see that happening. There are recurring characters and reasons to emotionally invest yourself in Tamriel.
If nothing else, ESO is big. Really big. Tamriel in its entirety is here to be explored and they haven’t scrimped. A random bit of data somewhere said that it would take around 15 years to meet every single NPC in the game, which seems like a bit of a big number, but if it turned out to be true it wouldn’t surprise me. 50 hours in and I’ve barely scratched the surface. It’s all so varied – from the mushroom-studded landscape of Morrowind, tentacled Netches stalking the swamps, to the sandy reaches of Stros M’Kai, with dwemer ruins lurking in its dunes. I’ve loved this world in bits and pieces for a long time, as have many others, and here it is, all at once.
It’s not all good (it never is). If it were to stand on its own merits as an RPG without the Elder Scrolls experience around it, it’d be solid, but forgettable. It doesn’t bring much new to the table aside from a relatively low-fantasy approach to a real-time combat MMO. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been done before somewhere else. If you’re not an Elder Scrolls fan, there might not be any reason to check this out unless you have a bunch of friends getting involved, because ESO comes to life when you have a roaming band of heroes collectively scuppering the Daedra threat.
Not just an MMO, but an Elder Scrolls saga in its own right that stands up to the epic scale and depth of its predecessors. Ridiculously deep and overwhelmingly ambitious. Whether or not it stands up to those ambitions is something only time can really tell, but the foundations are all here for an MMO that could keep telling stories for a very long time. If this hasn’t been enough to swing your opinion either way, just remember that if you played the beta, you get an adorable little monkey as a pet.
Next time: We get stuck into PvP and class warfare.