Which brings us to the other side of this list, the parts where ESO falls to its knees.
1) More MMO than Elder Scrolls
You will notice that three of my five positives are firmly rooted in “feels like Elder Scrolls” territory. There is a good reason for that: Where Elder Scrolls Online is at its very best is when it brings the franchise elements we know and love into the online space and capitalizes on them. Unfortunately, there is no mistaking Elder Scrolls Online for a true entry in the Elder Scrolls franchise. It tries, oh how it does – Daedra this and Oblivion that -- but at the end of the day it feels much more like an MMO than an Elder Scrolls game.
But let's be fair. Does it also feel like an Elder Scrolls game? Yes it does, and that's what gets lost in all of the criticism. If you're a fan of MMOs and of the Elder Scrolls, there is a good chance you will like this game. If you're looking for an online Skyrim Online™, however, you will likely be disappointed.
One thing is for sure, though: ESO is facing an identity problem. If it's not really Elder Scrolls and but it is a recognizable MMO, it becomes a generic MMO with Elder Scrolls on top. Is that really where Zenimax wants this to be? The problem is, I'm not sure there is a way around it. This may just be what happens when you turn Elder Scrolls into an MMORPG.
2) Slow, Underdeveloped Combat
Combat is the most fundamental thing you will do in the Elder Scrolls Online. You will fight creatures big and small, laying the smack down on any mud crab or spider queen who gets in your way. Using a unique blend of action and hotbar combat, battles should be big and punchy and leave you coming back for more. While it remains close to its franchise roots, I would also say it's a much slower breed of “action” than players might be used to.
Nothing feels particularly fast-paced in Elder Scrolls Online, not even things that should (such as abilities with the word “rapid” in their title). Attacks also lack weight and substance, like you've taken a swing in tee-ball and come up with a whiff. These are issues that have plagued the Elder Scrolls franchise for years. Instead of improving on an old formula, Zenimax just adopted it, warts and all.
Likewise, routine battles often just felt too easy. Enemies telegraph their attacks with an animation and the too-common red zone of death and are usually courteous enough to wait for you to move before attacking. You can and will die, but this isn't a game that feels quite so on your toes as, say, Guild Wars 2.
3) Shoehorned First-Person Perspective
Speaking of things added in to meet demand! I shouldn't be mean here because first-person perspective really works quite well out-of-combat. It's immersive! When you're in-combat, however, it's just a little game breaking. Here's the thing: those red zones enemies use to telegraph? They're by your feet. You're not looking at your feet. You're aiming your reticle so your attack hits. A+B=C, so if you don't want to die, you zoom out. The thing is, zooming in and out every battle gets old quick, so the simpler bet is just to stay zoomed out.
But do you remember back before first-person was introduced? The press made no bones about it, ESO loses a big chunk of it's Elder Scrolls appeal without that perspective. There needs to be a better solution. Like an auto-zoom.
4) Last-gen Animations, Terrible Armor
The Elder Scrolls Online is a mixed bag in its presentation. While sure, the environments can be downright beautiful, the animations you'll use to run through them are often wooden. Honestly, it's like every character in the game is suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. My back, Agnes! Oy!Get me the Advil! One commenter I read suggested that character's backs run straight into their butts. It sounds funny but it might also be true because something's not flowing right back there.
Even when standing still, the armor models in this game range from Somewhat Decent to Astoundingly Awful. I'm going to echo Bill here and say that, sure, some of the gear looks painted on, but even what's not can look terrible. Armor models are not created equal, and I'm afraid if you're an Argonian in need of a decent helmet, you might want to mail order LotRO circa-2007.
We can argue about the style of the series, or if this is a consistent criticism across every circumstance (it's not), but in a genre so predicated on acquiring-and-styling gear, ESO just fails to impress.
5) Phasing That Separates Friends
Finally, we come to one of Elder Scrolls’ most egregious errors: relying on phasing so heavily that it keeps you from playing with your friends. For those unfamiliar with the term, “phasing” is a storytelling tool MMO designers use to show players change in the world. Rid a town of bandits and the flaming tavern from the beginning of the questline might transform into a prosperous place of business. We all know how important storytelling is to the Elder Scrolls franchise, so it’s no surprise that Zenimax is phasing in the story beats their fans have come to expect.
But it all breaks down when it’s time to group with your buddies. If you find yourself on different points in a quest line -- say, having finished the quest you’re trying to help a friend with -- the most you’re likely to see is a ghostly white arrow floating above an invisible body. When so many other games get this so right, it is shocking that ESO gets it so wrong. If the intention is for friends to play with friends, this is the frustrating opposite.
So there you have it, folks: the mixed bag that I have found the Elder Scrolls Online to be, filled with good and bad and everything in between. At the end of the day, will I play it? I plan on it, at least for the first month. There is no question, this is a game worth $60. But is it worth a consistent monthly fee when other games are doing similar things, sometimes even better? For me, that will depend on their update plan and just how well they listen to the community.
What about you, MMORPG readers? Now that the NDA is down, share your best and worst qualities in the comments below!
Christopher Coke / Chris has been an MMORPG player since the days of MUDs and began writing about them in 2009. Currently, he writes two columns for MMORPG, Tripping the RIFT and Player Versus Player, and also hosts the official podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @gamebynight.