The middle of the road has never been a good place to be -- you just end up getting run over by traffic from either side. And trust me -- as someone who once went sailing through the air and landed squarely either side of a sturdy, roadside, wooden perimeter -- there's little solace to be found in sitting on the fence. I wrote an article a little while back about identity and the importance of knowing, as a developer, what your game is, what you want to achieve, and who your target audience is. Unfortunately, The Elder Scrolls Online finds itself in a bit of a dither.
Is it just Skyrim with multiplayer? Is it a WOW-ish MMO with pretensions towards being an Elder Scrolls game? The Elder Scrolls Online demands to be judged by two completely conflicting groups of fans. On the one hand, the Elder Scrolls series has long served up several of the most expansive, enriched, singleplayer experiences to be had in this industry -- games that place you as an empowered individual, the only one who can save Tamriel from whatever mischief has befallen it this time around. On the other, you have this massive world, filled with warring factions and steeped in millennia of lore, just ripe with possibilities for a Massively Multiplayer Online experience.
So how do you consolidate the two into one game successfully? That is the question that lies at the heart of The Elder Scrolls Online.
And the answer is... you don't.
Tamriel itself is a bit of an empty husk. It's a showroom more than a showstopper, a simulacrum of the worlds we've previously explored in detail. But whereas before, we could be anyone we wanted and do anything we liked, here there are invisible forces at work compelling us to follow certain paths. There's no crime in this version of Tamriel, little opportunity for the fleet-footed and light-fingered, and NPCs are fairly few and far between. TESO is set a couple of millennia before the events of Skyrim, so having a more empty world might be just about justified, but the lack of interaction is troubling. If you saw a sword on the ground in previous games you could pick it up. Now, however, it's most likely just painted decoration.
For a series that has always been synonymous with immersion, that's not a good thing.
Thing is, it all starts off so well. The character creation suite is gloriously extensive, supported by Jeremy Soule's only contribution to this particular game -- a rousing, fresh arrangement that sees the familiar theme bubble over after a blood-pumping array of strings and horns set the heartbeat racing. You choose your race and your class and begin to fiddle with an assortment of sliders to bring about a hero to suit your liking. After this is the Elder Scrolls, right? This is all about you? Now it's time to kick arse and take names!
And there's so much possibility to begin with as you strike out into the world of Tamriel, having danced through a little prologue in Coldharbour where a spectral prophet tells you of Molag Bal's plan to join his Daedric realm with the realm of the living. Sure, you're island hopping for a few hours, getting in to the swing of things, but the quests have purposes, or at least seem to, and crafting is something that isn't needlessly convoluted, but proves instantly familiar if you're a series fan. You even begin to forgive the other "heroes" running around, breaking your immersion by doing the exact same things as you, occasionally vanishing into thin air as the singleplayer experience clashes with the fact that this is actually an MMO (it's like the game sometimes forgets).
It must be said that for the most part I can actually really get behind a lot of what Zenimax have done with The Elder Scrolls Online. The open nature of the class system is a great idea in theory. Leveraging the skills setup from previous Elder Scrolls games is a masterstroke, and works very well indeed. It's a simple tenet -- progression through action -- but it fits here and, better yet, makes perfect sense.
However, even though TESO actually sounds good on paper and presents a pretty solid opening few hours during which you believe and hope that it might all just about work, it's not too long before you begin to see the cracks. Part of the trouble is that when it comes to the crunch, when you eventually party up and venture into a dungeon, having focussed your energies and skill points into embodying traditional MMO classes will prove more valuable than the exploratory route you went down to begin with. TESO is a game in which it's all too easy to squander your points as a result of not compensating for, nor educating the player about, that level of choice, and thus it's all too easy to wind up underpowered and struggling before you even hit level ten.
This compounded by a levelling system that proves interminably slow. Progression in TESO starts off with open swathes of possibility, but it quickly becomes apparent that this is a game that requires a level of repetitive grinding that even the most badly botched F2P games might think is a little sluggish. Combat counts for little when it comes to building up your skills and XP, exploration even less -- everything is more or less predicated on players working through the quests, further funnelling players down the same channels. Whereas there was a genuine thrill to be had at going off of the beaten path in previous Elder Scrolls games, there's little of that here simply because of the importance placed upon quests. Moreover, though the framing of these quests works nicely for the first few hours, distracting you from the fact that at their core they really are fairly simple, traditional affairs, it's not long before the distances you have to travel and the amount of backtracking you find yourself doing tallies up and the veil begins to slip a little.
TESO does have some nice moments where you're permitted to play out a story rather than have it read to you by a group of voice actors of varying abilities. Delivering villagers from a dreadful curse, unearthing secret plots and character-fuelled betrayals, looking on helplessly as a former friend transforms into a terrible monster -- these are the moments when TESO shines. But they're moments that don't really belong. For every narrative peak there's a moment where having three fellow players on the scene breaks the whole thing and ruins the moment. You do actually have a quest that involves breaking into a house and pilfering an item, but any pretence towards roleplaying is thoroughly botched by the presence of ten other people sneaking around.
It works the other way around too, though -- the singleplayer elements occasionally coming around to frustrate and wreck the multiplayer basics. The megaservers make meeting up with friends pretty damn easy, and that's wonderful, but there's no way to go back and help a lower-level chum out with their quests if you already done them. They just transform into a bobbing, floating arrow. You and a friend might strike out into a region together, and suddenly you'll be fighting loads of enemies, but your friend won't be able to see them because they're at a slightly different bit in terms of the quest line and therefore can't see anything so it looks like you're just fighting thin air. Great.
Cyrodiil presents players with a spot of PvP, and actually it's here that The Elder Scrolls Online showcases its best and worst attributes. When you can find a spot of action in Cyrodiil, everything comes together. Alliance War sees players from the three factions -- the Aldmeri Dominion, the Daggerfall Covenant, and the Ebonheart Pact -- vying for control of defensive outposts, rich veins of resources, travel routes, and a smattering of Elder Scrolls themselves, which can bestow some serious buffs on your faction if you hold one.
Cyrodiil is only accessible from level 10, and it truly comes into its own at level 50 once you reach the Veteran part of the game, but even for lower-level characters, venturing into the Imperial heartland can be thrilling. TESO takes much inspiration from the Dark Age of Camelot's approach to PvP, which is unsurprising given that DAoC's design lead, Matt Firor heads up ZeniMax Online. But there's a way into the action for all comers, from lone wolves looking to help out by going on scouting missions and bringing back intel to small groups going on raiding missions and taking over smaller locations of interest, sometimes fighting other players, sometimes getting stuck into it with NPCs. Then there are campaigns for guilds and entire factions, manufacturing a whole bunch of siege weapons and attempting to ransack an enemy keep to steal back an Elder Scroll. You forget about the fake stage screens of this Tamriel, the short draw-distances and the clunkily written narrative. Suddenly, for the first time really, you're there creating your own, and it feels awesome. Until you die and then have to travel a yawn-inducingly long distance to get back into the fray.
See, as much as being stuck in between staying true to the series and trying to make an innovative MMO unravels the experience, it's the balancing and the manner by which the various parts of this game have been assembled that ultimately undoes The Elder Scrolls Online. This isn't a free-to-play game, it's an overpriced (£50?!!), subscription-based MMO that doesn't let you play as an Imperial unless you fork out an extra twenty quid. It's a game that has deliberately built vast swathes of empty land between quests, and forces you to backtrack time and time again in the hopes of flogging you an overpriced horse. It's a game where the economy is completely broken, where there's no auction house to speak of, and where bosses drop a measly two gold coins. It's a game that presents you with a vast array of choices and then rather punishes you if you try to indulge in that too early. It's an MMO that doesn't like you grouping up for quests. It's an Elder Scrolls game that constantly breaks your personal journey with hundreds of other people.
For as much as TESO gets some things right and the pieces occasionally fall into place and the action becomes meanging and you feel like you're getting somewhere, there are just as many situations when everything just fails, immersion breaks, and things don't seem to make any sense whatsoever. And then there are the bugs, of course. What else did you expect? It's a Bethesda game. But TESO isn't as thematically, mechanically cohesive as Skyrim, and the bugs are a little less funny this time around.
The Elder Scrolls Online finds itself caught between Skyrim and Guild Wars 2, trying to be some sort of amalgamation of both. TESO is it's own game, to be sure, but that doesn't mean it defies comparison. On the contrary, part of the reason that it proves so frustrating is because it's constantly flip-flopping on a moment to moment basis, unclear in its intentions before pressing on with a weak narrative and quest lines that encourage falling in line rather than doing your own thing. When players are allowed to come together to create their own stories in Cyrodiil, the game clicks into place, but it then ruins it once again with vast empty spaces that serve no purpose than to nudge you into buying a ludicrously expensive mount. That Horse Armour DLC suddenly seems like a bargain.
It sounds like such a great idea when you boil it down to a high concept pitch: Tamriel with friends. But TESO is a game of two conflicting ideologies, constantly struggling against one another, with the player caught in the middle. I love pizza, and I'm quite partial to a kebab every once in a while, but anyone who's ever had a doner pizza will know that some things just aren't meant to go together. It was a worthy effort, but seriously now, let's just have The Elder Scrolls VI now please.
- Cyrodiil is a blast when you hit the action hotspots
- Open-ended class and skills systems give you lots of choice
- Possibly the best crafting mechanics in an MMO to date
- Some of the quests do suck you in and are very well framed
- There are occasional wow moments with the vistas that do encourage exploration...
- ...It's just a a shame you're not really rewarded for anything other than questing
- Interminable distances, especially in Cyrodiil
- Levelling is a slow and laborious process
- Constant battle between solo and MP elements
- Grouping is horribly implemented
- £50-70 plus a subscription for this when Guild Wars 2 is out there is laughable
The Short Version: The Elder Scrolls Online is a brave attempt at combining two seemingly polar opposites, but it ultimately fails to build a continuously compelling world, compromising too much on either side. It's an MMO that can't hold a candle to likes of Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World, and an Elder Scrolls game that can't hope to be as deep and rich in content and solo experience as Morrowind and Skyrim. The allure of an online Tamriel is strong, and when the game's disparate parts align, it really is a bit special, but those moments are too few and far between to recommend for a game with this much of an inflated price point.