Elder Scrolls Online is one of the most anticipated MMOs in recent memory. With a series that’s revered by millions across the globe, the stakes have been high for developer Zenimax Online since the game’s announcement. How do you even begin to take an epic single-player game and turn it into an MMO without upsetting at least a few thousand people? Its missteps and hardships have been well publicized, but is there a solid game underneath all the forum-based ire?
The long and short of it? Yes, there absolutely is. But since that won’t be enough to go on, please keep reading unless you just came here for the score. I reviewed the game with an Imperial Edition that Zenimax sent me, but it’s worth noting I also paid for my own copy, because I’m legit like that. I did not reach the level 50 cap, but I logged well over 60 hours during the course of this review.
GAMEPLAY – 8
It’s easy to look at ESO, or any MMO I suppose, and say “you can either quest, or go PVP in Cyrodiil” and think that’s all there is. But that would be selling this game short. Questing in ESO isn’t the sort of exclamation point gathering and checklist hunting you get in most traditional themeparks. Instead, Zenimax has crafted dozens of small stories across every map in the game. I suppose you could still say they’re “hubs”, but each one feels far more interactive and cinematic than your run of the mill quests. There’s a lot of story for each one, lore to collect and red if you’re up for it, and oftentimes choices to be made on how you complete each quest. Many are well crafted, some of mediocre at best, and some are just little jaunts to boost your XP bar.
It’s very reminiscent of any other Elder Scrolls game, how you’ll happen upon someone in an area, and they’ll “start” the quest for an area or town and you’ll be left to work through the objectives until you’ve saved or ruined the day. In fact, aside from the lore itself, questing in ESO might be the thing that feels most like Oblivion or Skyrim. Its main downfall being that the progression of the story is still tied to your level, and so you must linearly go from one zone to the next.
At times before launch, the combat in Elder Scrolls Online felt a little disjointed, and far less impactful than it needed to feel. Since those days, a lot of tiny but significant changes have been made to combat and the effects on screen. There’s a shake with heavy attacks, blocking, or hitting a blocking enemy. NPCs have collision detection as well. While it’s still an acquired taste, I believe that ESO’s soft-targeting combat feels far better now than it used to. It’s still dependent upon which weapon you use, but as a sword and shield player, I find it very satisfying. Ranged weapons still have a sort of disconnect from combat, however, and the bow just doesn’t feel all there yet.
It’s not quite the direct FPS-style of other TES games, but for a compromise I find it rather enjoyable, even with the limit of five skills and one ultimate per weapon set. Older TES games required serious modding to make combat more than just one or two skills at your disposal without swapping between “favorites” or pulling up the menu. ESO lands somewhere in between this limited stance and the traditional MMO setup of “let’s put everything on your screen at once and make you manage the UI.” Zenimax’s opting to go with a limited visual UI may displease some, but as we’ll discuss in aesthetics, I find it keeps me much more engaged with the game and its action, as opposed to bulky and noisy UIs that pull you right out of the moment to moment.
The public delve dungeons in ESO, though often plagued by bots through this first month, are also something I’ve long missed in modern MMOs. They might be “instanced”, but they’re not private. Some may lament the idea of open grouping as though it leads towards anti-social MMO-ing, but I find it exactly the opposite. I can’t count anymore how many times I’ve formed exploration groups, teamed up ad-hoc, or gone on to do elite world mobs with people I’ve met in these delve dungeons. All it’s taken is opening up the chat interface, saying hello, or using the contextual menu to invite people to groups as we run into each other.
There’s a surprising amount of group-oriented PVE content in ESO, though you wouldn’t ever need to do it, which is probably why many might claim it’s non-existent. Between public dungeons, elite locations on the map, and group private dungeons... there’s as much or more group content in ESO than any other recent themepark release. Pair that with veteran ranked dungeons at 50, and once the Craglorn update launches later this month (an entire zone geared towards groups of four and raids of twelve) there will be plenty to last group players a good while I’d think.
Crafting in ESO is something I can’t put enough praise towards. For the first time in a good while with a themepark MMO, crafting actually matters and is useful. Heck there are entire sets of items only crafters can make, and the world must be explored to uncover them. Guild Wars 2 managed to make a solid system, but ESO trumps it with the ability for crafters to make the best and brightest gear in the game. With a community that can’t just flood a singular AH, crafters have a chance to become “known” in the game as the only people who can make certain items. With the advent of Auction Houses, themeparks lost a lot of the social part of the economy. The Guild Stores of ESO aren’t a perfect fix, but it’s nice to see people meeting up, joining “Guilds” to sell their wares, and otherwise communicating in-game to work the economy. The biggest downside to crafting is that with very limited bag-space, collecting madmen like me are forced to focus on one or two professions at a time, even though Zenimax allows you to work on them all simultaneously. If only the Guild Store UI wasn’t so broken and useless as it is now. Get some add-ons for this part, and you’ll be happy.
And where to begin on character progression and customization? Possibly one of ESO’s greatest triumphs, character progression is about the most free-form you’ll find in today’s MMOs. You may be confined to a singular class at the beginning, but it’s entirely feasible to not use any of your class skills and instead make entire builds out of weapon builds, fighters and mages guild skills, and of course the addition of Vampire and Werewolf builds can be thrown in for good measure.