As I sat at my main gaming PC for about the 10th hour last Wednesday, I looked over to my Steam Deck as it charged. I was playing The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle for our ongoing review and really wanted to just...not sit at the same desk for a few more hours that night. Valve's Steam Deck is supposed to help unshackle your library from your main PC, so I thought why not?
After installing ESO on the Deck, it became apparent that it would take more than just launching the game to actually get it to work. But when I did, it's transformed how I do this review for the better.
Getting ESO up and running on Steam Deck
The Elder Scrolls Online isn't a supported title on Steam Deck, but that doesn't mean it can't run on the device. Many titles I've installed from my Steam library work despite not being deemed "Great on Steam Deck." Hell, the device has become my de facto mining device in EVE Online (asteroid mining, not crypto for those confused). However, ESO requires a bit of a workaround to get running.
Because the Steam Deck is running a version of Linux, there are a ton of resources out there to help tweak your device to get something working, albeit not always smoothly. Despite sources saying Final Fantasy XIV is fixed on the device, I still cannot get it to properly launch for example, even using workarounds. However, a few tweaks to the launcher options was all it took to get ESO up and running (thanks, Scott for the advice!).
Proton DB is going to be your best source if the game you want isn't running natively. With a few tweaks to the launcher options in Steam, ESO launched just fine.
ESO on Steam Deck: How Does It Perform?
Funnily enough, The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle, despite not being optimized for the Deck, runs pretty smoothly. At high-ish settings, I'm averaging 60 fps in most areas, though even dense areas with a ton of transparencies and alpha effects like the jungle island of Amenos maintains a solid framerate. It's an 8-year-old game that can run on previous consoles, so it's not shocking that the custom RDNA 2 chip in the Steam Deck powers this game rather well, especially when you consider the alternative playing on the go is 30fps on Stadia.
Because ESO supports gamepad support as well, controlling the MMO has been as simple as picking it up and playing. Keeping one of the trackpads as a mouse is nice too, especially if I'm navigating the PC menus in the game to adjust settings, such as enabling FidelityFX Super Sampling or tweaking UI options.
FSR does impact image quality in a very noticeable way, and you don't want the Steam Deck-level FSR and the in-game FSR running at the same time, unless you like your MMOs smeared with a layer of Vasoline. I actually found that it doesn't really need FSR to run smoothly on the Steam Deck, and the image quality hit wasn't worth the occasional drops.
The only real issue has been high ping. Since my Steam Deck is running via WiFi, depending on how many people are using the network too will impact how well the MMO performs. It hasn't been terrible or unplayable. But given that I'm in Vegas, the servers are in Texas, I'm already dealing with some large distances even if I were wired. There are also stutters as I load into a new area, as if the MMO is having trouble streaming the next batch of assets seamlessly.
Given that my version of the Steam Deck is the cheapest option, I'm running High Isle on an SSD card - it could simply be down to the transfer speed and performance of that card too. It's not game breaking, though, and in most situations I rarely see the framerate dip from 60fps.
It's been fantastic as I no longer feel obligated to sit (or stand thanks to my standing desk) at the same PC for hours after we end our shift here for the day to work on this review. Sure, my ultrawide monitor and RTX 3080 Ti-powered PC is a better experience, and for the most part I'm still playing there. But when I lounge on the couch with my kid, kicking my feet up and playing a modern MMO in my hands is a rather cool thing.
It makes me wonder how the MMO would handle if ZeniMax were to go all-in and ensure the Steam Deck is a native option moving forward. Because it's not been rated by Valve as even 'playable" on the Steam Deck, any future update could break support, causing players like myself to wait for a fix or a community workaround.
Until then, I'll be snuggling up on my couch, turning on some Archer, and uncovering the Ascendant Order's plot in High Isle this evening. This is the type of gameplay I was looking forward to when I ordered the Steam Deck: bringing my favorite games wherever I want, whether it be across my house, at my family's for a get together, or even traveling to events in the future.
The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle on Steam Deck is actually fantastic. I can't wait to see how well it performs with some dev love down the road.