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

A third person picture of a character sitting on a horse, in a cobblestone courtyard in a city square, at night.

Above: The Dark Elf city of Davon’s Watch.

Image Credit: Dennis Scimeca/GamesBeat

The adventure that made me lose myself in The Elder Scrolls Online

I was walking at night through the city of Davon’s Watch when I saw four people lit by the glow of a pair of torches in nearby sconces. They were standing and kneeling in what looked like prayer, paired off in front of two stone slabs with bodies laid out neatly on top of them, as if at a wake.

I noticed a dog walking back and forth between the slabs. I knew that dog. His name was Rexus. I’d first met him on Bleakrock Isle, a starting area for characters that were part of the Ebonheart Pact — the Nords of Skyrim, the Dark Elves, and the reptilian Argonians.

I approached and recognized the four people holding vigil. Captain Rana and Sergeant Seyne were Dark Elves who had commanded the forces of the Ebonheart Pact on Bleakrock Isle. Aera and Trynhild Earth-Turner were Nordic farmers I’d rescued from Bleakrock when soldiers from the Daggerfall Covenant had burned down their village. That’s when I realized that I knew the men laid out on the funerary slabs. They were Denskar and Littrek Earth-Turner, Aera’s husband and son.

Captain Rana and Sergeant Seyne had led the Earth-Turners and other survivors of the Covenant attack on Bleakrock Village through an old Nord resting place, to a hidden cove on the other side of the island. We boarded the tiny, Nordic ships and sailed for Morrowind, landing on the shore near the village of Dhalmora, a collection of mud huts inhabited by the Argonians.

Daggerfall Covenant troops were in the fields outside the village, stomping and burning the crops. I went on a quest to light signal fires to warn other villages on the coast of the invasion, and then Aera Earth-Mover told me that her family had taken up arms to fight the Covenant, and I had to choose which battle to participate in.

I wasn’t used to making choices in MMOs. If I’ve had to make them in other games, they were so insubstantial that I’ve forgotten having to make them. But I’d already been through several quests in The Elder Scrolls Online that had resulted in a permanent change to the world, so I was on guard as soon as Aera told me I had a choice to make.

Denskar and Littrek had joined the battle to protect nearby Fort Zeren, which was filled with refugees but also replete with defenses. Captain Rana and Sergeant Seyne had gone to defend the docks where there were no strongpoints whatsoever. Captain Rana had gotten us safely off Bleakrock Isle, and her situation sounded more desperate, so I felt obligated to go to her aid.

When I’d killed the captain of the Covenant ship which had delivered their troops to the harbor, the battle ended. It was another permanent change to the world as a result of my actions. Dead Covenant troops littered the roads on the dock. The survivors stood and cheered for me. I moved on to my next quest, to warn the commander of the Ebonheart Pact forces at the city of Davon’s Watch of the Covenant’s impending attack.

A picture of four non-player characters holding an evening vigil over two bodies laid out on stone slabs.

Above: The realization that I cared about the characters lying on those funerary slab made this a moment I didn’t want to forget.

Image Credit: Dennis Scimeca

It was shortly after I finished that quest in Davon’s Watch that I ran into Captain Rana, Sergeant Seyne, Aera Earth-Turner and her daughter Trynhild, holding a nighttime vigil over the bodies of Denskar and Littrek. I felt like I had to pay my respects, so I walked over to each funerary slab and confirmed the bodies were of the men I thought they were. Then I stood back and watched the scene. I didn’t want to move, and lose the moment. Here were these people I’d been with for almost 15 hours, and I had the distinct feeling that I would never journey with Rana or Seyne or the Earth-Movers again.

I was sad about it, and that’s when it hit me: I actually cared about some NPCs in a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. That had never happened to me before in over a dozen MMOs I’ve played. And that’s why I lost myself in the moment at the funerary vigil, because it was the bona fide end of an adventure.

I took 10 minutes to get a proper screenshot I could use as a spur to remember that moment in which I lost myself in The Elder Scrolls Online. This is the effect that Bethesda games often have on me, whether it was Oblivion (which made me wish so hard that other human players could join me in what was the most engrossing video game world I’d been in to date) or Fallout 3, a game whose world pulled me in so deep that I took my actions seriously enough for them to provide the richest experience of self-reflection I’ve had playing a video game.

Bethesda’s role-playing games succeed in pulling me into genuine moments in which I’m lost in the world they’ve provided. They give combat physicality rather than making it a series of power combinations and crunching stat numbers. They create vistas that stop me in my tracks, and force me to just stop and look at the environment because it’s been crafted so well and the music score perfectly accentuates what I’m seeing. They present conversations with characters in first person, which makes those conversations feel like part of the game rather than something which interrupts it.

Even if The Elder Scrolls Online has only created one of these genuine Bethesda-type moments for me so far, and even if The Elder Scrolls Online never creates those moments as consistently as Bethesda’s single-player Elder Scrolls games do, the dividing line between single player and massively multiplayer role-playing games has never been blurred like this for me before. Of all the things The Elder Scrolls Online gets right, this may be the most important.

What you won’t like

How monsters behave

The enemies in The Elder Scrolls Online steadfastly stick to the trope of spawning in a certain location and then running back to that location if you draw them too far away from it. I think the developers could have taken a risk and broken that, permitting enemies to chase you ad nauseam, because the system as currently construed breaks the illusion I just described entirely. It’s not as though other MMOs haven’t allowed enemies to chase you great distances, and dying in The Elder Scrolls Online is a minor inconvenience at best.

You can respawn at the spot you died if you have a filled soul stone. I haven’t had trouble finding cheap, empty soul stones from merchants, and every class has the Soul Trap ability from level 1. That means any character can cast the Soul Trap spell, kill an enemy while the spell is active, and fill an empty soul stone. If you don’t have a filled soul stone, you respawn at a nearby wayshrine. And in either case, your gear takes damage that’s cheap to repair.

Quests are too easy

I have to begin this with another caveat: I still haven’t leveled high enough to unlock what I imagine will be the really difficult quests, but I would expect that even beginning quests in an MMO would have some challenge to them. That’s not the case in The Elder Scrolls Online.

The example that will stick in my head is a quest to save someone who was defending the deck of a ship. The “quest” amounted to standing near a friendly NPC while two or three NPCs ran up the gangplanks one by one, each of whom I killed in like two seconds. So far The Elder Scrolls Online hasn’t made attempts to break the standard MMO quest tropes of “Go here, do this, come back.” If not for the story elements and world changes which are sometimes involved I’d find questing to be nothing more than a dreadful grind I needed to put up with for the experience points so I could level up, which is how I usually feel about quests in MMOs.


Where The Elder Scrolls Online fails is when it doesn’t break enough from the traditional MMO formula, which is the same mistake other massively multiplayer games keep making, but the only places I’ve felt that weakness so far are in the monster behavior and quest systems. If the endgame and player-versus-player content I haven’t gotten to yet also stick too close to typical MMO formulas, then it’s going to be difficult for Bethesda to justify the cost of a subscription for The Elder Scrolls Online unless additional, fresh, and substantial story material is regularly added to the game for high-level players, maybe even on a monthly basis.

Elder Scrolls veterans who don’t normally play massively multiplayer games but decide to jump into The Elder Scrolls Online because they think this might be the MMO they can enjoy are likely to find the rubber-banding enemies, the overly simplistic quests, and the lack of dungeons in the open world alienating and/or dissatisfying.

However, enough defining design elements of the Elder Scrolls single-player RPGs have been successfully grafted onto the traditional MMO template to make The Elder Scrolls Online feel like what an Elder Scrolls massively multiplayer online game ought to be. In that sense, not only is a comparison to the single-player games in the Elder Scrolls franchise rendered irrelevant, it also makes The Elder Scrolls Online a success, at least in the short term.

The long-term value of the game, as is always the case with a fresh MMO, remains to be seen.

Score: 90/100

The Elder Scrolls Online was released for Windows PC on April 4, 2014. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a copy of the game for the purpose of this review.


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