When The Elder Scrolls: Online was initially announced, the excitement in the WGTC bunker was absolutely palpable. More than a few of us are fairly massive Skyrim fans (Chad has been known to try dragon shouts on writers who miss deadlines for instance), and I think it’s safe to assume that just about all of us enjoy Bethesda’s work.
Personally, I was absolutely ecstatic to play through the lore with some buddies. However, after letting it settle in for a bit, I started to worry about just how well it would play out. Some of my favorite moments in Skyrim can only be described as bleak and lonesome, and it didn’t really feel like the game could work if it was in the same vein as World of Warcraft. Now, after a few weeks of playtime under my belt, I can safely say that while The Elder Scrolls: Online may not be very similar to other titles in the series, it definitely fits a nice little niche of its own.
For starters, there’s never a shortage of things to do here. Every major city is filled to the brim with NPCs offering new quests, and it often feels like you can’t walk more than a few hundred yards before another one will run up to you and demand your services. There is a bit of that traditional Elder Scrolls humor in a few of them as well, and listening to the dialogue can be extremely rewarding.
In creating your character, you’ll choose from three different factions and four different classes. The factions all have a distinct starting area and slightly differing quest lines; however, nothing ever feels distinctive about them. As such, playing as a member of the Daggerfall Covenant won’t give you a play through that’s drastically different from one you’d find in the Ebonheart Pact.
While four classes did feel a bit stifling at first, the sheer amount of sub-skills you’ll have access to pretty much guarantees you won’t find a build exactly like your own. There’s a skill tree for seemingly everything in The Elder Scrolls: Online. Crafting and attacks are covered, as well as the three in-game guilds you’ll join, racial stats, and even skill trees based on your weapon type and armor. While a lot of these options won’t fit your play style by nature, it’s great to know that if you want to make a mage who specializes in great swords and heavy armor, the option is on the table.
While I’m not sure what I would have done otherwise, I was extremely disappointed that I was limited to only 5 skills at a time, especially considering how many were waiting for me to unlock them. I ended up settling on two healing spells, two light-based attacks, and a soul steal spell to keep my soul gems in working order, but there was so much more I was hoping to do. Granted, at level 15, I unlocked the ability to switch weapons in battle, which opened up another five skill hot bar, but I wasn’t able to find a system that allowed me to use these with any degree of success while on the fly.
Combat in The Elder Scrolls: Online walks a very fine line between traditional MMOs and what we’ve come to expect from the franchise. You’ll still have to aim your attacks as opposed to simply clicking on them and then pounding away at your hot bar, and trying to balance mana use and stamina is a constant issue in the heat of the moment. A quick click of your left mouse button unleashes a quick attack, while holding down the button will launch a much more powerful blow at the cost of additional stamina. Blocking is done via the right mouse button, and evasions are handled by double tapping the WASD keys.
The Elder Scrolls: Online also removes kill stealing, something that has plagued MMOs for quite some time. Everyone who does damage to the enemy will get credit for its defeat and also be awarded unique loot in most situations. This is absolutely fantastic for quests that are simply variants on “kill this many of this enemy type,” and really helps to keep the game moving.
I have to think this is unintentional, but it can become absolutely hilarious when you wander into a single player dungeon populated with 10 others running through it. The zerg rush of mages, dragon knights and Templars simply mowing down everything is hysterical, although I can imagine it harms the immersion for players looking to get lost in the game.
I heard a lot of unfair criticism about The Elder Scrolls: Online not being a true open world game, and I’m honestly at a loss on how to approach the critique. Trying to offer the full amount of freedom found in an open world title would be impossible in an MMO; however, I do have to tip my hat to Zenimax for the steps they put in place to try. The Elder Scrolls: Online is a game that rewards you for looking in every nook and cranny. Reading the right book may give you a free point towards one of your skills, and searching through random pots may very well reward you with a new crafting recipe.
The Elder Scrolls: Online also does away with the traditional server choice and instead throws everyone into a mega-server based on their home location. This mega-server runs multiple instances, so there’s no guarantee you’ll be on the same one as a friend initially, and the overall sense of community is less defined. Back when I played World of Warcraft with some regularity, it wasn’t uncommon for me to see the same names pop up in zone chats, letting me know that those guys were still out there. That’s not the case here, since there’s really no way of telling what instance you’re in at any given time.
However, the obvious benefit to this is that Zenimax can filter the traffic, making sure that even months down the road, the starting areas will be well populated with players. It’s a fairly bold decision, but I think it’s something that will play out pretty well.
The largest problem The Elder Scrolls: Online has is trying to bridge that gap between MMO and open world RPG, and it’s most evident right off the bat. In the early areas, players are only out for themselves, and they tend to use a play style similar to previous Elder Scrolls titles. While this is fine on its own, it completely misses the point of a social game. Luckily, once you make it a bit further in, communities do begin to grow and flourish, and with time these communities will become more integral to the overall experience.
Visually, the game is the most stunning MMO I’ve ever played. Forests are teaming with life, city streets are lined with vendors, and caves are dark and foreboding. It may not live up to the extremely high standard put forth by Skyrim, but I have a very hard time imagining that anyone would be disappointed with how the graphics and environments lookhere.
The audio in the game is stellar as well, however, everything seems extremely quiet. Even with maxing out the settings, I had to crank up the volume on my speakers to get everything to a level that I felt was appropriate. Of course, there’s some unwritten rule of the universe that says as soon as I up my volume, someone is going to email me causing an earth shattering tone to rattle around my apartment and scare the crap out of my dog, literally and figuratively. This issue may just be with a few select users, but it’s something worth mentioning all the same.
One of the reasons we delayed our review was to be able to give an accurate representation of the game under full load, and sadly we’ve run into more than a few bugs. I’ve had characters get stuck in the scenery, watched as an entire forest vanished into thin air, and had an impressive moment where I dropped through the floor for a good two or three minutes before ending up standing on a debug texture. I do have to admit though that watching a vendor prop her foot up on a bright red box simply reading “missing” did get a nice chuckle out of me.
Over the weekend, the entire NA server was taken down in order to patch some bugs, and the entire guild system was temporarily disabled for a bit. I have to think that had Zenimax not been using the mega-server approach, there would have been a chance for some of the servers to stay up, allowing players to keep pushing during what would otherwise be prime playing time.
There’s also no auction house to speak of in The Elder Scrolls: Online. While guilds each have their own bank where you can share materials, as well as a store where you can sell to other members, there’s nothing in place for trading on a larger scale outside of spamming the chat. This issue is compounded by the fact that the guild store interface simply isn’t very good. While you can search for a certain type of weapon, there’s no way to refine your search for specifics, leaving you to shuffle through all of the staves until you find one with the stats you’re looking for.
More damning, however, are the actual gameplay bugs. Certain quests have had issues with characters not appearing in their designated places or simply not activating, leading to a lot of frustration from gamers. Multiple people I’ve spoken with have also reported a strange bug where crafting can sometimes lead you to destroying gear you’re currently wearing or not being rewarded with a completed good. The largest bug right now seems to be that upgrading the size of your bank can wipe it clean of anything you have in it. Considering my bank is filled to the brim with crafting materials, a wipe like that could set me back hours.
The Elder Scrolls: Online walks a very fine line. It’s not the traditional MMO we’ve come to expect from World of Warcraft, but it’s most definitely not Skyrim either. Instead, I found myself playing a strange amalgamation of the two. Still, regardless of its bugs, slow levelling, and repetition in quests, it’s a very engaging game, and it’s something I can see myself putting a decent amount of time into. I think there’s something here for fans of both MMOs and open world RPGs, but if you’re coming in looking for the best of either genre, you may be disappointed with what you find.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which was given to us for review purposes.
The Elder Scrolls: Online is a nice distraction for fans of open world RPGs and MMOs alike, but there's not enough here to keep either crowd around for very long.