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

A picture of the snow-covered pinewood forest on Bleakrock Isle in The Elder Scrolls Online.

Above: One of Tamriel's many gorgeous vistas that will stop you in your tracks.

Image Credit: Dennis Scimeca/GamesBeat

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When I first heard about The Elder Scrolls Online, the most important question I had as a devout fan of The Elder Scrolls series was whether or not a massively multiplayer online game could possibly live up to the standards of what I consider some of the best single-player role-playing games ever made. For all of their bugs and rough spots, Bethesda’s franchise has consistently drawn me into their worlds more than any other RPGs.

Story and franchise faithfulness mean nothing in an MMO unless they are built upon a solid core design. We saw what happens when that isn’t the case with the disappointing Star Wars: The Old Republic. And while I appreciated The Secret World’s unique class customization system, it felt silly to deal with genre conventions such as respawning enemies (aka mobs) and running around doing the same thing as everyone else. So I’m glad to say that The Elder Scrolls Online makes enough changes to what I’d consider a typical MMO to make it different enough for a pure genre fan, versus a franchise fan, to give it a whirl. The Elder Scrolls Online adds something to MMOs.

So, does the first MMO set in Tamriel meet the standards of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim? In my 20 hours with the PC version of ESO (it’s also coming out for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in June) and a thorough exploration of the first three zones for Ebonheart Pact faction characters, I found an MMO borne from the spirit of the single-player games — one that’s not only mechanically interesting but also faithful to the source material.

What you’ll like

A picture of the skills screen in The Elder Scrolls Online. The character appears on the left side of the screen, and a series of skill charts are on the right.

Above: The skills screen. Note the symbol to the left of “Poison Arrow IV.” This indicates that the skill may be morphed into a new version with additional effects.

Image Credit: Dennis Scimeca/GamesBeat

Class doesn’t dictate your role

The four classes in The Elder Scrolls Online may map roughly onto typical MMO classes – Dragonknights are warrior-tanks, Sorcerers are spellcasters, Nightblades are rogues, and Templars are healers – but the customization is so deep that the system doesn’t limit these to the preferred roles in parties that those archetypes usually fill.

You earn skill points when you level up, and you can apply those points to class abilities, weapon class attacks like new bow or sword skills, racial skills like my Nord’s two-handed weapon specialty, or crafting skills. Furthermore, every class can use every type of weapon and armor throughout the game, which means you have access to all of their associated skill trees from the very beginning.

I still see people shouting “One more DPS!” or “Need two healers!” in chat when they’re trying to assemble parties for encounters, but I wouldn’t assume that all Sorcerers do tremendous amounts of damage but can’t take punishment, or that all Templars need to sit in the back ranks of a fight and be protected while they heal everyone. That Sorcerer you just recruited might actually be a battlemage, and that Templar might be a damage-dealing paladin.

A picture of a firey chain leaping from a player character's hand, and hooking into an enemy.

Above: “Get over here!”

Image Credit: Dennis Scimeca

Combat breaks out of its MMO chains

The Elder Scrolls Online feels perfectly normal to play from a first-person perspective, and that goes a long way toward making it feel like The Elder Scrolls single-player RPGs. It also makes the combat feel more personal, versus the detached, stats- and repetition-based combat tactics that dominate most MMOs I’ve played.

The left mouse button still swings your sword and looses your arrows, and the longer you hold the button, the more powerful the attack. The right mouse button throws a block. Sword and shield fighting in particular just feels right, like it ought to in any Elder Scrolls game.

Where physical attacks feel like they’re more about where you’re specifically aiming your blows, ranged attacks are still mostly about auto-aim. Actively changing targets on the move was much easier for me in The Elder Scrolls Online than in other MMOs, because selecting targets with the cursor versus tabbing through targeting choices was my preferred method, and that played into making ranged combat more interactive.

For instance, if I’m facing two enemies, I probably want to hit each of them with a poison arrow, which does damage over time, before I close with either of those enemies. Enemies are silhouetted with a red glow when you target them, so I loose one poison arrow, manually aim at the second target with my reticule while I’m backing up, make sure the second enemy has the red glow, and then fire the second poison arrow. Switching ranged targets on the move is all about kinesthetics.

I can mostly stand still and use the abilities on my five hotbar buttons to defeat an enemy, but dodging enemy special attacks by double-tapping one of the movement keys is important. The area of effect of an enemy’s special attack is outlined in red as they’re prepared to use the attack, so I know precisely how to get out of the way. If you’re up close with an enemy, you can also interrupt their special move and knock them off balance for a moment.

It all adds up to a very active and satisfying combat system that breaks from what I expect from an MMO.

A picture of the alchemy crafting window, which shows a list of potential plants to add to a brew.

Above: Alchemy takes a lot of patience.

Image Credit: Dennis Scimeca/GamesBeat

Crafting is easy and actually worth your time

The crafting systems in The Elder Scrolls Online are superlative. I always craft in MMOs when the systems are not overly complex, but usually I find that whatever I’m making is worthless compared to the weapons and armor I get at the end of quests. In The Elder Scrolls Online, I made my entire first suit of heavy armor from scratch, and some of the pieces maintained their value much longer than armor of a comparable level I’ve made in other games.

I fastidiously make sure I have the right kind of food crafted, and I use it all the time. Food crafting is usually a throwaway thing for me in MMOs. I’m taking the time to learn enchantments because they’ve also been immediately useful, versus being a crafting skill that only really matters toward the end when I’m crafting high-level items to sell to max-level characters for a ton of gold.

The only form of crafting that’s been useless to me so far is alchemy. Just like in single-player Elder Scrolls games, I have no idea what effects a particular plant has until I’d experiment with them. Some plants are the basis of potions that restore health, and other plants make poisons. Plants can restore or damage your Magicka, which powers spells. Figuring out the alchemical properties of all of the different plants I’ve found is slow-going, much more so than I’d like.

I keep at alchemy, however, because I am so entranced by the crafting systems in The Elder Scrolls Online that all I did for my first hour or two was collect resources for all of the different crafting systems — and level them all up as fast as I could.

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.

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.

Conclusion

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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