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Heroes save the world, and others pay the price in The Elder Scrolls Online (review)

A third-person camera shot of a character in The Elder Scrolls Online, standing on a cliff and overlooking a snow-covered valley.

Above: Hunting on Bleakrock Isle at night. The day/night cycle in The Elder Scrolls Online is very cool.

Image Credit: Dennis Scimeca

World exploration

The value of world exploration was largely tied to my crafting. The environment is chock-full of crafting resources to gather. You’ll find little stone altars from which you can pry glowing runes for enchantments, iron ore to mine for blacksmithing, fallen logs of maple to chop for woodworking, fibrous plants to pick for weaving into clothes, and flowers, herbs, and mushrooms for alchemy. Gathering resources didn’t feel as tedious as in other MMOs, owing to the constant variety of different sorts of crafting materials as I explored the world.

Picking the locks of the chests I’d find took me a while to get used to, tapping down pins with the pick until I found the sweet spot to let go and get the pins to stick in place, but lock picking has the same sort of tactile quality I enjoy in other Bethesda RPGs. I showed patience with my failures, and now I’m a heck of a lockpick.

Reading every book you can find is worth the time. I haven’t quite figured out the relationship between the book I’m reading and the skill that goes up when I first open the book. That was a 1-to-1 relationship in the single-player Elder Scrolls games. If you read a book about swordplay, your One-Handed skill might go up. In The Elder Scrolls Online, you can read a book about cooking and your Bow skill increases.

The day/night cycle really adds something to how you see the world. White snow contrasts with green trees during the day on Bleakrock Isle, and at night blue shadows are broken with the yellow glow of torches. The sunrise over an ocean makes the water glow orange, and at night the moonrays reflect off the water softly. The day/night cycle might encourage you to go back to ground you’ve already covered to notice something you might not have noticed before, given a new perspective.

There’s a minor negative to world exploration. Maybe I haven’t reached a high enough level to find more open environments that address this problem, but there isn’t a whole lot to discover in terms of dungeons out in the open world. There are what amount to sightseeing vantage points and areas tied to specific quests, but there’s very little freeform dungeon content for me so far. If I wasn’t so involved in crafting, I might actually feel that the world was a little empty.

Faithfulness to the source material

Between attention to detail in terms of lore and the way architecture and fashion reflect the long-established styles of the various Elder Scrolls races, this is an MMO that draws off preexisting source material and fastidiously sticks to it.

That the source material is moving from one kind of video game RPG to another certainly helps make the transition smooth, and it works more so than in other MMOs based on existing IP I’ve played like Warhammer Online, The Old Republic, Dungeons & Dragons Online, or even my favorite MMO of all time, Star Wars Galaxies.

A picture of a grassy field with burning siege engines and captured prisoners sitting on the ground.

Above: This battlefield was filled fighting soldiers, but the fray ended once a I completed a quest.

Image Credit: Dennis Scimeca

Your actions make real changes in the world

In The Elder Scrolls Online, quest completion can appreciably change what’s going on in the world. It’s like instanced content that mixes seamlessly with the rest of the game, with no discrete borders separating the instance from everything else. Maybe I haven’t played other, recent MMOs that also make use of the technique, but it’s new to me — and I love it.

I had a quest to stop the undead from rising in a Nordic ruin called Skyshroud Barrow. I ran around killing skeleton warriors to find runes to open the doors of a tomb at the center of the Barrow. I went into the tomb, killed the necromancer that was raising all of the skeletons, and when I walked back out onto the Barrow, the skeletons were gone — all that remained was just piles of bones and armor and weapons scattered around. If other characters were tackling the same quest at the Barrow, I couldn’t see them — and nothing else — to break the illusion that I’d just changed the world.

I went back to the Barrow more than once to see if the area had reset, if I would find skeletons walking around and players killing them as if I’d never finished the quest, but that didn’t happen. I always and only found a quiet barrow with skeletons collapsed into piles of bone and armor.

I freed the spirits who led a spectral army and broke the curse that had summoned them, and their remaining ghostly soldiers stopped attacking me. A city was under siege, enemy soldiers and friendly troops fighting inside and outside the walls. I helped a Sorcerer summon a Daedric spirit to loose on the opposing army, and the battles were over. These sorts of events happened over and over again while I played The Elder Scrolls Online, and it made the world feel more real than in any other MMO I’ve played.

Real storytelling

Dialogue sequences in The Elder Scrolls Online are presented precisely the same way they are presented in other Bethesda RPGs: a first-person view of the character and recorded dialogue for every conversation you have. There’s no looking at the chat window, or word bubbles, or any other methods that MMOs traditionally use to convey information from NPCs.

Character accents and attitudes hew closely to what the Elder Scrolls games have laid down for various races. Mouth animations are terrible, and sword hilts or other objects on an NPC’s person will phase through their limbs, but with my graphics quality cranked up, the character’s clothing and faces were drawn so well that it made up for technical imperfections. Inasmuch as the dialogue conveys story in The Elder Scrolls Online, it was a story I wanted to hear, not read through scanning the text of an NPC’s lines and then quickly clicking through my dialogue choices.

But the best way I can tell you about the story in The Elder Scrolls Online is to tell you one myself, about how I saved the day, and others paid the price.

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Bethesda Game Studios is an American in-house development team at Bethesda Softworks established in 2001. Previously synonymous with parent publisher Bethesda Softworks, the studio's name and logo were established with the release of T... read more »

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