I’ve been intrigued by the idea of an Elder Scrolls MMO. The series has earned a place in gaming culture, and the RPG-hewn world is certainly rich enough to support a massively online game. But, like many of us, I’ve wondered what Zenimax Online Studios’ vision would actually create. Would Elder Scrolls Online be a living, breathing version of Tamriel, or would it be a single-player experience with multiplayer tacked on?
Our own Bill Murphy has a list of the good and bad from our recent preview weekend, and I’d encourage you to check it out. But, like a doctor judging a problematic patient, he’s also asked me to chime in with a second opinion. While we agree on a several areas about what makes ESO a blast to play, I’m a little concerned about some of the game’s more vital organs.
A Starter For Ten
First impressions count for a lot, and Elder Scrolls Online certainly knows how to make them. The character creator is flexible and feature-heavy, the orchestral score is strong and purposeful, and the voice acting is surprisingly good. Those early moments, escaping from a prison on Coldharbor, do a superb job at setting the scene and introducing some recurring characters. It all added up to that premium-grade feel that studios chase after these days.
And then there is the Starter Zone. After escaping the realm of Molag Bal, I was left to wander around a dry, monotonous island that felt completely devoid of other players. There’s scene setting and tutorial crunching to get through, and yet it probably alienates two big groups of players. Familiar with the Elder Scrolls backstory, I was itching to get out into the open world and start exploring. Familiar with how MMOs work, I wanted to get out there and start chewing through levels. And yet there I was, running errands like I had to prove I was worthy of playing the rest of the game.
It’s doubly annoying because Elder Scrolls Online doesn’t really open up until you’ve progressed beyond that point. Guilds become accessible, crafting becomes available and weapon switching unlocks. All that story prelude starts to pay off too, as if you’ve flipped through a pamphlet only to find a weighty tome lurking behind it, full of plot and intrigue. I also appreciate the way that concurrent plotlines are run; world, factional and guild quests all have a unique feel about them. There are the political machinations of the Aldmeri Dominion, the thirst for knowledge of the Mages Guild, or the save-the-world heroics of the main story.
The atmosphere is definitely Elder Scrolls, and that’s boosted by the graphical choices. It’s a versatile beast: my GTX 780-equipped gaming desktop easily handles ESO’s highest settings, while my maxed out MacBook Air 2013 runs smoothly on Low, making this a definite Starbucks gaming club contender. The UI also does a great job of getting out of the way, with a simple and minimalist design. That said, I was disappointed by the lack of advanced features such as tessellation or megatextures, although I suspect these were sacrificed on the altar of console compatibility.
This slight frown didn’t take anything away from my desire to explore however, and there’s certainly a lot to discover when wandering around. Points of interest creep up on you, like an abandoned mine filled with spiders or an isolated village desperate for help. I didn’t get a quest that sent me to these places, and that encouraged me to scour for them even more. It builds on that sense of adventure, of stumbling upon something as I moved from one city to another.
Not Quite Clockwork
With all that said, there’s a reason why I’m not relentlessly enthusiastic about Elder Scrolls Online, and it comes down to mechanics. The social systems lack cohesion and feel incomplete, the animation systems are decidedly dated, and the combat system is clunky and pace-breaking. Once all the stories have been told and the entire world explored, it’s punching through these systems that’s going to keep players hooked in. And right now, other MMOs do all these things much better.
ESO’s social problems begin with the inordinate amount of time spent in Starter Island Purgatory, watching the chat box sit there like a dead parrot. It only starts to become useful some five hours in, by which time you’ve probably decided that it’s probably not worth speaking to anyone anyway. That’s not to say there’s a lack of group content – there are plenty of areas with named mobs that need a party to take down, and there’re dungeons that open up after level 10. Even the Dark Anchors encourage random grouping, much like RIFT’s rifts. But it’s easy to overlook all of this if you’ve been steered into a single player mindset, which the formative levels definitely do.
Questing in Tamriel is great fun, unless you’re watching something move. Because ESO is fully voiced, quest text was paired with a talking NPC whose jaw flapped around like a Thunderbirds puppet. Running and walking animations looked peculiar too, as if my character’s arse and spine had fused together during an unfortunate toilet accident. Luckily, such abnormalities are hidden as long as he was standing perfectly still.
Those animation problems have a knock-on effect with combat. When I started playing, I thought it was like driving a stick-shift car and would become smoother over time. I was wrong – it felt just as clunky after several days. This isn’t any fault of the ability system (I loved how core abilities morphed into more potent ones, but forced a difficult choice), but is about how pressing hotkey or mouse buttons translates to combat action. Blocking felt hit-and-miss, and dodging was unreliable.
All Boxed In
But the Elder Scrolls series was never about smooth combat. Instead, it gave us a chance to live out a fantasy. As we adventured through Tamriel, we became heroes to a world full of interesting and meaningful characters. Each game in the series has added another layer to that tapestry of storytelling, and Elder Scrolls Online certainly adds to that.
And yet there’s a ‘but’ in my voice; this didn’t need to be an MMO. I can see that Zenimax wanted to create an Elder Scrolls title where the story continues after the game hits the shelves, and that’s a fantastic thing to promise. But the trappings of massively multiplayer just don’t fit well, and there’s little social glue to bind players together.
Before you start chanting about ‘free-to-play’, I don’t think that would work either. I want more Elder Scrolls stories, and I’d rather have the studio focus on writing them, than creating daedric pets and mounts in an attempt to crowbar my wallet open. Perhaps a form of episodic multiplayer would have worked better, pulling elements from both Journey and The Walking Dead. In choosing a heavyweight, subscription-based MMO, ZOS have created something that feels like awkward over-engineering.
Is Elder Scrolls Online worth the price of admission? Almost certainly – if my early experience is mirrored the rest of the way to level cap, then there’ll definitely be plenty of adventure for us to enjoy. The subscription, however, is another matter, and I can see myself only dipping back occasionally to catch up on how that story is progressing. In terms of a massively multiplayer experience, I’ll probably look elsewhere.
Gareth Harmer / Gareth Harmer has been blasting and fireballing his way through MMOs for over ten years. When he's not exploring an online world, he can usually be found enthusiastically dissecting and debating them. Follow him on Twitter at @Gazimoff.