Once upon a 2002, there was a little single-player RPG called The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, which sucked up so much of my gaming time you’d think it could have moonlighted as an MMO. Fast forward to 2006 and then 2011, and you’ve got the fourth and fifth installments of The Elder Scrolls series in Oblivion and Skyrim, both vying for my attention almost as strongly as their predecessor. Skyrim in particular drew me in almost as consistently as Morrowind, harkening back to the latter’s old-school sense of fantastic immersion while elbowing other more modern RPGs out of the way with great storytelling, incredible environments, and tons of things to do.
Enter The Elder Scrolls Online, launched for PC in 2014 and ostensibly a love letter to any Elder Scrolls fans who have long been asking for a multiplayer experience. Truly, one of the main reasons that I got burned out on the previous games in the series was the lack of a feeling of persistence, knowing that once I was done with the main quest, all of the other activities would seem superfluous. To my thinking, a massively multiplayer Skyrim could potentially offer the best of both worlds: single-player roleplaying with a persistent world dependent upon player interaction. Yet, while Zenimax and Bethesda’s MMORPG offers quite a bit in these departments, The Elder Scrolls Online seems hard-pressed to tally up against the likes of its single-player cousins.
In this week’s column, we’ll take a look at Skyrim vs. The Elder Scrolls Online in a Cage Match!
Visuals and Sound
There’s no question that the Elder Scrolls games tend to push the envelope when it comes to graphics. They may not necessarily take system hogging as seriously as Crysis, but I definitely use them as benchmarks for my PC upgrade schedule.
Skyrim looked phenomenal when it came out, and although that was a few years ago now, it still looks excellent, even compared to some current-generation games. I’m sure you could find a mod or two to increase the graphical fidelity, but you wouldn’t need to do so if you were comparing it to The Elder Scrolls Online. ESO looks great, especially for an MMO, and has been optimized as such with a wide range of machines and networks to consider. It has its share of breathtaking vistas and effects, but the PC version at least can’t stand up to the splendor of Skyrim. We’ll have to see if the console iterations look any different.
It should be said that both games overall have excellent musical scores and generally good voice acting and sound effects, which is no small feat considering their sheer size and amount of dialogue.
Gameplay in any Elder Scrolls game is a tough category to score, as they are none of them very innovative in the combat department, but they do offer so much in the forms of questing, character progression, storylines, and many more gameplay systems. Both Skyrim and ESO follow the established mouselook/click-to-attack method of combat, with ESO dabbling in MMO hotbars for skills. They’re both fine, if a little unexciting, with Skyrim taking a little bit of an edge due to a better feeling for hitboxes and improved latency.
The pudding proof for the Elder Scrolls games is less in the combat experience, however, and more in the general opportunities for exploration and, by golly, roleplaying. Skyrim and ESO each provide for and reward exploration in a number of ways, and offer a wide array of customization options and paths for character progression. Where Skyrim can deliver on a more sandboxy feel for its open world and character skills as a single-player game, the ESO experience has the potential to match up with its multiplayer-dependent systems such as PvP and crafting. Additionally, as large as the Skyrim map is, ESO has the added benefit of several different starter zones, nations, and the nostalgia factor of visiting places like Morrowind.
Another hallmark of Elder Scrolls games is the presence of bugs. With so many game systems, NPCs, dialogue options, and quest triggers of which to keep track, it’s no surprise that each game ships with a need for several more weeks of polish. Skyrim and ESO both have their share of bugs, but ESO, with networking issues and hundreds of thousands of players added to the pot, launched with decidedly less polish. It’s tough for an MMO to match up with the same kind of optimization seen in a single-player game, but those kinds of technical challenges come with the territory.
A game’s longevity is comprised of three factors: how many activities there are to do, how fun they are to do, and how much they cost. With a game like Skyrim, you’ve got main quests, side quests, guild quests, crafting, and a gigantic map to unlock with cities to explore, bandit camps to overthrow, and dragon shouts to uncover. There’s no shortage of things to do, even when you’re done with the considerably long main quest, although your mileage may vary with some of the repeatable side quest material. The best part about Skyrim’s multitude of features is that they’re absolutely free after the now nominal box price, but we’ll have to save that discussion for the Value section.
In theory, The Elder Scrolls Online offers just about everything that Skyrim does, and a whole lot more. The addition of PvP, guilds, a player economy, and the Champion endgame progression system in ESO potentially dwarfs the gameplay options in Skyrim, particularly for the long haul. The main sticking point, however, has been the critical reception for a lot of these systems, which is less than enthusiastic about ESO’s endgame experience. Still, the social aspect adds a huge amount of longevity potential to The Elder Scrolls Online, even if that experience comes with a subscription fee.
No doubt about it: even if Skyrim came out yesterday with a $59.99 price tag, you’d still be getting practically hundreds of hours of gameplay right out of the box. It’s currently $19.99 on Steam, and you could probably do even better during a flash sale. ESO, which you can get for $23.49 on Amazon if you don’t mind having to purchase a physical copy, still requires a $15 subscription fee after the first month. The argument could be made that you could get your money’s worth from ESO by playing hundreds of hours in the first month, but who needs that kind of pressure? Furthermore, while the longevity of The Elder Scrolls Online is presently supported by its subscription, and over time, will offer more net gameplay hours than will Skyrim, it’s hard to argue with the single-player RPG’s one-time price tag, particularly with similar buy-to-play MMO monetization models available on the market.
Skyrim has a vibrant mod community, which adds a new social (and user-generated gameplay) dimension that is normally missing from most single-player games. As cool as this feature can be, it can’t possibly stand up to the social accoutrements that come with even the most basic MMO. ESO ticks all of the social boxes of a triple-A MMORPG, and even allows for a modest addon community - lightweight though it may seem next to Skyrim’s. The Elder Scrolls Online’s social features may not be perfect, but they provide for a living, breathing world that is fun to interact with. It could be said that as the game is not a sandbox, and not dependent upon player interaction, you could likely play for hours and hours without having to once talk to another person. Still, the social features are there if you want them.
Overall Winner: Skyrim
You might be thinking to yourself, is it fair to compare two very different games, with disparate feature sets? Or is doing so an attempt to compare Skyrim’s apple to ESO’s orange? These questions are fair to ask, but for a lot of us Elder Scrolls fans, ESO has the potential to occupy a canonical space in the series, in the same way that Star Wars: The Old Republic was billed as being Knights of the Old Republic 3-8. Thus, it makes sense to query ESO’s worthiness as an entry into the Elder Scrolls series.
Given our rating system here, it does seem that Skyrim has won out over The Elder Scrolls Online, but there’s a caveat. Whereas Skyrim has received three official expansions and will likely see at least more mods, the game will be more or less static from here on out. ESO, with a full crew of developers behind it, has been evolving positively since launch, and will undoubtedly receive more content updates, gameplay tweaks, and full-blown expansions in the future. Zenimax’s MMO has been crushing it on our Players Choice Award for Most Improved MMO of 2014, and the devs have been very forthcoming about making the game more in-line with community requests and the Elder Scrolls series in general, while squashing bugs and adding content. We might even see a change in the subscription model soon, and the console release might be another good shot in the arm for the game’s development. We’ll have to revisit the argument after ESO hits its post-launch stride - but who knows, both games might be contending with The Elder Scrolls VI by that time.
How would you match up Skyrim with The Elder Scrolls Online?