So here it is, Bethesda Softworks's attempt at crafting the next big massively multiplayer online game. In an era when developers are taking their MMOs free-to-play or bringing their best to the MOBA genre, Zenimax has poured five years of manpower into crafting an authentic Elder Scrolls experience. It worked out pretty well with Square Enix's relaunch of Final Fantasy XIV, but can Zenimax Online repeat the feat? I've spent nearly two weeks trying to figure that out.
Let's get to the question you really want to know: Is Elder Scrolls Online really an Elder Scrolls game?
That's depends on how you approach the idea of "Elder Scrolls". Is Elder Scrolls a collection of characters, places, and lore that adds up to a rich universe for Bethesda to build stories in? Is Elder Scrolls an open-world you can explore to your heart's content? Or is it a specific style of gameplay with arrows to the head, spells to cast, and companions to help you?
If it's the first of those three questions, you're in luck. Zenimax Online has created an MMO that feels like it exists in the Elder Scrolls universe. Taking place a millenium before Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and just under a thousand years before Morrowind and Oblivion, you won't be seeing many familiar characters that aren't gods, but you will see many of the places you've come to love in Bethesda's other games. Riften, Daggerfall, Windhelm; they're all here.
The presentation of the game is completely Elder Scrolls, as defined by Oblivion. The characters have that same glass-eyed look when you approach them for conversation, even if the NPCs do look like they've lost a bit of weight since Skyrim. When you're in conversations, they're all fully voiced. It's an appreciated inclusion, but the voice acting is hit or miss, as one would expect from a project of this scope. Get used to hearing the same voices over and over again. Urns, crates, and bookshelves litter the world, full of random items for you to steal or books for you to read. Overall, it feels like falling into the warm embrace of a close friend; Zenimax Online knew what type of visual presentation modern players were looking for in the Elder Scrolls name and they've delivered on that end.
Even the game's opening is in line with Oblivion and Skyrim: you've been trapped in a dire situation only for someone wiser to step in, tell you that you're the chosen one, and set you on the path to do awesome things (or murder everyone, my Skyrim playtime involved the occasional wanton destruction).
Playtime is Over
You'll begin the game designing your character, choosing between nine different races (ten if you purchased the Imperial Edition): Breton, Redguard, Nord, Argonian, Orc, Khajit, High Elf, Wood Elf, and Dark Elf. After that you'll pick between four classes: Dragon Knight, Templar, Nightblade, Sorcerer.
Wait, come back Skyrim players!
Yeah, while Skyrim was the last major Elder Scrolls game, Elder Scrolls Online harkens back to Oblivion and earlier titles. Yes, in Skyrim, what you did is what you were. If you wanted to be a ranger, you equipped some medium armor and a bow and kept using them until you were felt you could call yourself a ranger. In contrast Elder Scrolls Online has classes, but you shouldn't panic if the idea angers you; they're more like guidelines. While a Dragon Knight may lend itself to being a melee attacker class or a Sorcerer may be your basic mage class, what direction you ultimately go in is up to you.
See, everything in Elder Scrolls Online is based around skill points. Everything. Skills related to your class abilities, soul magic, crafting, and even conversational abilities like Persuasion. You gain experience by traveling the world, completing quests, and killing all sorts of things. Experience nets you levels, and levels net you skill points. You have a certain number that you'll gain over the course of the game and you can raise that number by finding Skyshards, but it's still finite.
You need to plan your build. The build is everything. Elder Scrolls Online gives you a ton of freedom to choose what your character will be, but you can't just spend points in everything. Jack of all trades, master of none. The game offers you all of the lowest skill trees in the beginning, so you have a chance to see what draws your fancy. After that, it's best to hit the forums and the web to find some help in planning out your skill points. That's what I had to do, because a number of levels in I had no real clue where I wanted to end up. It's a freeing system with a great deal of choice, but for the neophyte that can be paralyzing. When you're playing alone, the freedom to build whatever you want is fine; there's no one else you can effect. But online, if your build isn't up to snuff, it could lead to angry groups in PVE and PVP. Tread softly. True freedom to choose means having the freedom to fail.
Finding your Place in the World
Elder Scrolls Online is pretty big, but the expanse of Tamriel isn't all for you to explore alone. Each of the nine races belongs to one of the three major factions. The Daggerfall Covenant quests in the area between High Rock and Hammerfell, the Ebonheart Pact roams from the cold mountains of Skyrim down to Morrowind, and the Alomeri Dominion owns the Elsweyr stretching west to the Summerset Isle. There's a lot of area to explore, but again, most players will probably stick to their lands because while you can wander, Elder Scrolls Online isn't a sandbox MMO. More on that later.
Zenimax Online did a good job providing interesting things to see and look at while you quest: volcanos, ancient fortresses, sites of ancient magic, and even the impressive Dark Anchors of Molag Bal. Unfortunately, there are some drawbacks. Elder Scrolls Online is built for an extensive multiplayer world and as such, there's a lot of detail lost in the transition from Skyrim. A place like Riften just doesn't have the same effect with the muted lighting effects and textures of ESO.
When compared to competitors like World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XIV, or Guild Wars 2, Elder Scrolls Online just comes off as a bit drab and lifeless. There's an overall absence of bright colors in all of Tamriel; that's not to say there's no color whatsoever, but it feels trapped within a limited range. The contrast has been turned way down on the world, with the difference between a grey, a green, and a red not feeling as pronounced as they could be. No area really filled me with the same awe that some of the aforementioned competitors did; the game visually feels like a subdued version of Trion Worlds' Rift. Your armor gets more detailed, but from the third-person perspective it'll rarely feel like you've made grand strides new during your adventures.
Zenimax Online has done its best to hide the fact that Elder Scrolls Online is a standard theme park MMO, where you do all the quests in one area before moving on to the next area. While you're out in the world, you'll be doing the MMO staples: kill x things, touch this, find this and use it here, beat this boss. The voice acting and story will fool you into thinking there's more to it, but the truth becomes readily apparent in the end. ESO lacks some of the more interesting additions to genre, like public quests and rotating events in an area, so it all feels a bit static. One smart design decision is hiding quest giver markers until you're in the immediate area. It makes you feel like you're finding something new by exploring instead of just running to the next exclamation point. But once you pull the facade away, you're still dealing with the same quest hub structure you've played in a ton of MMOs since Everquest launched long ago.
Elder Scrolls Online also uses phasing, meaning certain changes in your world will only appear in your world. You'll return to cities to find them under siege or burning. Some quest-givers can die, and they'll stay dead to you. It lends a bit more weight to your story, even if incongruent elements like the Templar Sir MixALot or the Sorcerer MileyVyrus intrude occasionally.
Fighting the Good Fight
And while you're completing those quests, you'll be fighting a lot. Combat in Elder Scrolls Online retains many of the same features as Skyrim's combat. You'll be on the move, attacking with mouse button 1 and blocking with mouse button 2. The lowest levels fighting in ESO consists of whaling away at an enemy until they telegraph a special attack, interrupting that move, and then using your heavy strike to knock them down. Sometimes there's a bit of a delay between you hitting the attack button and the attack landing on your foe, which takes away from the "real-time combat" effect.
It gets better as you gain more class abilities. You can bind these abilities to your hotbar and they'll bring more excitement to your combat. Not too much excitement though: like the rest of Elder Scrolls Online, spell effects are muted when compared to some flashier titles like Final Fantasy XIV. Despite that, they add more strategy to the combat. You'll find a flow in attacking, using an offensive ability, blocking, interrupting, and then using a heavy attack or defensive ability in the lull. It works and it's great the first few times you meet a new foe. With repetition, it can grate on you. Don't stick in one area for too long.
I will say that Skyrim players who are bow-centric will need to look elsewhere for their fix. There's no sneaking around and putting arrows in the skulls of your foes. Well, there is sneaking and you can sneak attack, but there's no positional damage in Elder Scrolls Online. There's also no real aiming; your arrow either hits or it doesn't, based on a hidden random roll. I really missed real-time bow combat, because that's how I played Skyrim; hiding in the shadows and plinking foes in their skulls from behind. Trying to replicate that in Skyrim was rather unsatisfying for me, even if I understand why Zenimax Online went with the method they did.
Abandon All Hope, All Ye Who Enter
The PVE game involves exploring and killing things out in the world, but every now and then it kicks things up a notch with dungeons. Public Dungeons are the most common affair; these are dungeons that you and everyone else in the world can enter and tackle together. And when I say together, I mean rushing around the dungeon on your own quest objectives and hoping no one gets in your way.
There's pluses and minus to this approach. Remember those moments in Skyrim when you'd die in a particularly vicious dark hole over and over again because it was just you all alone? There's less of a problem with that here. Eventually, someone else will come along on the same quest and you can complete the fight together. If you're uninterested in the story, it can help; I found myself relying on the random aid of strangers a few times. For story-centric players, I can see it being like an annoying itch throughout the entire game.
There's also the issue that public dungeon bosses don't scale. The health and damage output they have against one player is the same when they're up against 20. Large numbers of players just sit at the end of public dungeons and wait for the boss to pop up again to take it down for loot and experience. Zenimax Online is aware of the issue and will be adding a loot timer to the game soon, but it doesn't completely fix the underlying problem, which is a lack of scaling.
Then there's the instanced dungeons. These are meant to be tackled by an existing team of four. The Holy Trinity of Tank, DPS, Heals still exists in some form, but in Elder Scrolls Online the roles are somewhat fluid. DPS and Healers will occasionally need to switch to the other side for additional support, and sometimes the DPS will have to do their own tanking. Things can get a bit stressful when it comes to building a group; Elder Scrolls Online's strength in allowing you to forge your own path makes it more difficult to build a solid group with random players. The flip side is some of the interesting group makeups that can occur. If everyone has a bit of healing ability and understands the flow of battle, you may not need a dedicated healer. The line between competent group and fallen failures is real thin. It gets real frustrating at times.
Stabbing The Competition
Maybe you'd like to take a shank to players, not bosses? At level 10 you can head to Cyrodiil, which sits in the center of all three faction zones, and take part in the ongoing PVP conflict there. While in Cyrodiil, you can either continue your PVE-style of play (hunting down Skyshards), take part in solo PVP, band together into small ganking squads, or participate in the larger battle. That battle involves keep sieges, severing enemy supply lines, and defending contested territory. Unlike Guild Wars 2's WvW system, Elder Scrolls Online introduces a pretty robust Wayshrine teleport system to get you to your group's frontline quickly. The game also marks real-time conflicts on your map.
Participating in this ongoing war earns you PVP-specific currency, which can be used on keep repairs and additions, armor and weapons, or joining new PVP campaigns. The mode largely boils down to who has the most people, but that's the same problem you'll find in any game that uses RvR. The Elder Scrolls themselves can also be taken in this large conflict; they give the side that owns them a bonus and act as a useful marker of which side is "winning" at the time.
It's pretty epic cresting a hill and looking down into a pitched battle, but if you're not into PVP, Cyrodiil won't do anything new to change your mind. If you're into PVP though, after level 10 you never need to return to PVE play again. You're not necessarily going to be useful in PVP at level 10 - unless you're a patient solo hunter - but you don't have to go back to PVE. It's also worth explaining that the PVP game isn't balanced around one-on-one combat, because Zenimax Online has no real idea what build you're bringing to the table. You might be a train, steamrolling your enemies, or you might be a bright, shining target on the battlefield.
The End of All Things
At the game's current level cap of 50, things get weird. Elder Scrolls Online's endgame involves something called Veteran Rewards. At level 50, you hit Veteran Rank 1 and you're sent to the starting area of one of the other two factions. Everything you do here is Veteran experience. Quests, public dungeons, instanced dungeons, and even PVP. Mobs are harder, traps kill you faster, and all the gear you gain is Veteran. It's basically a New Game+ mode within an MMO. It feels like a cop-out, but it does give you a chance to see the content available to the other two factions without starting a new character. Whether that works for you as "endgame" up to preference.
Zenimax Online is adding other endgame content to Elder Scrolls Online soon. The first will include the Adventure Zone Craglorn, which is an entire area tuned for four players, like an instanced mega-dungeon. The area includes its own story and dungeons within, so it should theoretically give endgame players a great deal to do. Unfortunately, Craglorn requires players to have reached Veteran Rank 10 before entering, so expect a great deal of leveling or grinding before you see it.
There's also Trials, the 12-man hard mode instances. These dungeons will have limited resurrections and running clock. Those who don't die and finish the Trial will be included on the game's leaderboard for all to see.
Elder Scrolls Online is full of good ideas and it's well-crafted. Zenimax Online did a good job making an MMO that feels like it's connected to the best-selling series. It has everything you'd need from a big-budget MMO, but I don't feel connected to the game like I did for World or Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, or Final Fantasy XIV. That's maybe because I'm not tied to the Elder Scrolls universe; I have no particular affinity for its lore in the same way I did for Final Fantasy XIV. The graphics won't knock you back on your feet, but they do their job. So, if you're really jonesing for an Elder Scrolls MMO, Zenimax Online has delivered. Otherwise, there are much better options, some of which won't drag money out of your wallet every month.