The Elder Scrolls Online Review
Let's get something out of the way right at the top: I don't really like reviewing MMOs. The experience is, in my opinion, hugely dependent on factors that are in many cases wildly different day-to-day.
The constantly changing and evolving nature of an MMO - not just through patches, but through community and gathered knowledge - makes it incredibly difficult to attach a score to. As such, this look at Elder Scrolls Online, and the number at the end, comes with a caveat: They represent the game in its current state. Next week... it may be completely different. That's the MMO genre.
The biggest challenge facing The Elder Scrolls Online was always one that I felt was mirrored in the plight of Final Fantasy XIV and its recent reboot - how do you take a series revered for its single-player fun and turn it into a competent MMO?
The Elder Scrolls Online remedies that at the onset with a decidedly Elder Scrollsian opening. My character breaks free from a prison in scenes vaguely reminiscent of the opening of Oblivion, with a celebrity voice actor, in this instance Michael Gambon - you know, Dumbledore - guiding me through it all.
It's a strange moment, the first time you walk from your cell and see other people running around. At first you think they're scripted NPCs for the prison riot, but no - they're real people. Running, fighting, looting. There's that giveaway lack of smoothness to their movements that betrays them as human - and that, for me, was the moment it clicked. Oh, right. A MMO.
Outside the prison for the first time, there's a sea of characters - and again it dawns, this is a MMO. The world looks strangely familiar - this is certainly one piece of Tamriel or another - but it's full of nutters I don't quite recognize. It takes some getting used to, but it quickly begins to click.
From the moment you break out of the prison, a pretty significant world of content awaits you. I've put about forty hours into the game, but based on my experience so far I estimate it'd take around double that to hit the current level cap of 50. Thankfully, Elder Scrolls Online is rather generous with the content it has, and unlocks of new quests and content 'ding' on a regular basis, with some things often reserved for higher levels in other games - such as proper Player versus player content - unlocking around the time you hit double digits.
Unlocking content actually ended up being the driving impetus for me in ESO, something that's quite a change from single-player Elder Scrolls. This series is rarely about the wider story and usually ends up being about discovery and exploration - the narrative you can fashion by yourself in an open world with crazy, emergent AI. Here it's not about that - those concepts are difficult to make work in an MMO.
Instead, it's the thrill of the unlock. Where the fuel to keep you moving is discovery in, say, Skyrim, here it's reward - new gear, new quests, new zones. It's an interesting change for the Elder Scrolls series.
This structure is of course one that'll be familiar to those who are hardcore MMO fans. It's the 'Warcraft Experience', and the vast majority of MMOs follow that path. It works, and ESO leverages that structure well with a great slate of unlocks for the player as they plough through content - but I can't help but wonder if it's at all what fans of Skyrim actually want.
That's a question that persists in my mind throughout my time with ESO; who is it for? The gameplay systems are designed in a fashion that certainly makes them meaty and exciting enough for MMO aficionados, but one has to wonder if those who have never played an MMO, looking into this title because they liked Skyrim, will understand what's going on at all.
There are strong attempts to mask the MMO elements to make this feel like a 'proper' Elder Scrolls. The traditional MMO hotbar of skills is married with skill-based real-time blocking, dodging and attacking in a very solid and enjoyable way that succeeds in making combat feel more real, satisfying and immediate, for instance. There's also a first person perspective that actually feels like it could very seriously become a 'thing' for the genre - but this feels, at all times, like an MMO first and an Elder Scrolls second.
It is a damn solid MMO, though - and better than many recent big-budget releases without question. Combat may seem a little dry early on, focused on blocking and slicing until the enemy falls down, but as you get deeper into the skill tree and the difficulty curve begins to ramp up, the game begins to not only get better, but begins to be a more convincing mingling of single player Elder Scrolls concepts with MMO tropes and systems.
One key leaf taken from single player Elder Scrolls is openness in character development. Choices made at the very onset will lock you in with three unique skills only for your base class, but from there you can spec and equip as you wish with few restrictions.
If you want to turn a natural melee fighter into an archer, you can. It's a fine system, and one that makes me more inclined to keep playing - you can change direction at middling levels without a new character or a complete respec.
ESO gives players the full run of Tamriel, including many of its famous regions - Morrowwind, Skyrim, Daggerfall, and so on - but given the economy of scale in an MMO, not one area is as impressive or as spacious as one might expect from a full-scale Elder Scrolls game. By MMO standards, the world of Tamriel is expansive, varied and very impressive - but by the standards set by the other Elder Scrolls titles, it is lacking.
This is where ESO seems to most often fall flat. Sometimes, the intersection of MMO and Elder Scrolls isn't as smooth as it is in combat or player perspective. Most often these issues are disappointing, but aren't anything approaching game-breaking.
There's little in the way of caves you can go off exploring in without an attached quest, and the concept of non-linear questing - finding a body that you might otherwise be asked to search for before meeting the quest giver, for instance - isn't a thing here.
Those things are manageable - but when that crossroads is a truly rocky one, it can quickly become unbearable.
Sometimes quest design sees you unable to complete objectives because other players are beating you to them. Sometimes you're in a horrible clustered group of players waiting your turn to hand in an objective for your reward.
This is where the single player Elder Scrolls experience being placed into an open world goes wrong. The prison was a vision of the future - one hundred other chosen ones, all aimlessly jumping and flailing in the same special location only the chosen one can access. Because you're special - all of you. Every one. Immersion shatters to pieces.
It's strange, then, that the most bright and shining experience in ESO is the one that puts the most emphasis on interaction with other players - the player-versus-player campaign for your faction - one of three - to gain control of the Imperial City. Fighting in battles earns special currency that can then be spent on upgrades for castles to defend, or siege equipment to attack others. There's elements of a strategy game bubbling away beneath the surface.
In PvP it quickly becomes easy to forgive some of how ESO looks worse than its single-player predecessors, as it runs silky-smooth with hundreds of men on screen, burning buildings, massive siege weapons and so on all included.
When you get a decent group of people together to work with and get a solid battle on your hands, the PVP genuinely turns into something a little bit magical. The more action-style attacking, dodging and blocking plays into it brilliantly, and it just works - I found it the most compelling part of the game.
The Elder Scrolls Online is in a sense split down the middle. On one side sits the single player Elder Scrolls trappings. It's a convincing take on the Elder Scrolls universe, from the design of its expansive world - with MMO-based caveats - to its celebrity-laden voice cast.
The other side - the MMO side - is a different story. It's competent, solid, and enjoyable. Most of the time, these two sides of the ESO coin play nice together, but there are occasions where the single-player features on top threaten and sometimes even damage the very solid MMO design beneath.
The question of how you blend a single player series with the MMO remains unanswered. Final Fantasy XIV's reboot attempts to do so by simply cramming as much fan service as possible into a very competent but standard MMO design.
ESO attempts to actually plant the single player seed deeper, into the game's design itself. When it works, it does so brilliantly. Other times it sadly pours a bucket of cold water over the MMO side. Credit has to be given to Bethesda for their attempt to do something truly different with the genre in this - it just doesn't always work.
There's a vital question of value here - this game has a full-whack ticket price at retail, and then a regular subscription fee after that. That's a question I can't answer for you in this review - but hopefully my thoughts here will help give you an idea if ESO is a good value proposition for you in particular. Some may choose to wait for the game to end up cheaper one way or another, but make no mistake, there's a lot of content in this package.
Like any high-stakes bet based off an already-popular franchise, The Elder Scrolls Online is surrounded by a ton of rhetoric. Some will tell you it's an awful mess and others will tell you it's the greatest MMO ever - and the truth is somewhere in between. It's a solid MMO with some features inspired by single-player Elder Scrolls that sometimes enhance and sometimes damage the experience - it's as simple as that.