The Elder Scrolls Online Review (PC)

Making them available online sure would stop a lot of fighting. And cause a lot of blindness.

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MMORPGs are in a strange place. Numerous contenders for WoW’s throne have tried and failed, either settling for small user bases or shutting down altogether. Budgets have ballooned to the point where even the $300 million The Old Republic failed to make a significant ripple. When Bethesda announced The Elder Scrolls Online, there was a lot of cynicism. Over the months that followed it was hard to make out what this game was going to do right over all of its failed predecessors. Now the game has been out a while and we’ve had a chance to play through – how does it fair?

At its heart TESO is a true Elder Scrolls game in many ways. The UI is instantly recognisable for using the same aesthetic as Skyrim, the textures and objects in the world are similarly familiar. This isn’t always a good thing as you grow tired of the identikit dungeons and houses (there’s hundreds of enterable dungeons, each with their own story, but the layout and map of each are only marginally different. In fact you quickly work out exactly where the ‘boss’ of each dungeon will be that lets you show it as completed on your map). In some ways it works spectacularly well though. Coming across locations or characters that are familiar due to the lore is always exciting and if you drop the game down into first=person you can almost convince yourself that you’re playing a sequel (or extreme prequel more like) to Skyrim. In third person for some reason the effect is lost, as with all Elder Scrolls games combat is not the strongest feature and seeing your character wildly flinging their axe or sword around without it connecting to anything while being able to walk diagonally backwards over a rough floor is a surefire way to break any immersion there might have been. In first-person all of those janky animations are hidden and you also get a much better sense of scale in the world. The Elder Root town in Grahtwood is impressive as you approach it from some distance, a giant tree illuminated in the forest. The dark anchors are similarly imposing, hurling down from the sky with a real sense of weight. As is the case with nearly everything in TESO, there’s some really great moments and aspects, but it’s all too often let down by something just as disappointing at the same time.

When you start the game you can picked a race and class, with your race deciding your faction (one of three, this decides your starting area and ‘team’ for PvP). The faction differences seem a little artificial as eventually you go through all of the other zones and quests anyway and there’s even a collector’s edition-only ‘Imperial’ race that can go into any faction. All this split does is separate the playerbase into three groups, which might be a good thing for server load in some of the lower areas, but it’s a terrible thing for grouping. Rolled an Argonian and want to play with your friend who wanted to be Khajit? Tough, no grouping for you. While the decision to divide the playerbase might be seen as a concession to the thick lore that surrounds the Elder Scrolls, even that barely makes sense. These races have been grouped together for no real rhyme or reason. Sometimes it’s because their homelands are geographically close together but then in every Elder Scrolls game we’ve been used to seeing the races mix in nearly every town and village. It’s an odd choice that’s going to cause problems for lots of players. We expect the feature to be altered in the future with any race being allowed to join any faction, especially since you’re always an outsider in most of the quests so it doesn’t matter too much who you are.

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The classes are also a strange choice and feel out of place in an Elder Scrolls game. TESO gets a lot right with skills, any class can serve as any of the holy trinity (healer, tank and DPS) but to be honest the trinity disappears fairly quickly in any dungeons as everyone end up doing bits of healing, the aggro mechanics mean a tank can rarely hold the attention of every mob in a trash pull and everyone needs to contribute to the DPS. You also get skills not just from your class but from your weapon, armour type, race, crafting skills and more. We played through as an Imperial Templar but ended up almost entirely using the one hand and shield skills rather than the class-specific ones. Lots of ‘typical’ Elder Scrolls skills are linked up to weapons rather than classes, so anyone can use a destruction or restoration staff (although the other schools of magic are oddly absent). The classes themselves consist of a sorcerer (who is quite happy to use a 2H sword and heavy armour), a templar (who is basically a paladin), a dragonknight (sort of a warrior but they can breathe fire and make spikes come out of places) and a nightblade ( a rogue/ranger). If you’re hoping to play a fantasy archetype you might find it difficult as none of the classes are quite what you’d expect, but at least there is a lot of opportunity to branch out and forget some of your class skills along the way. It does seem strange that they even bothered with the classes, other Elder Scrolls games have done fine without them and the skill system seems set up to allow you to mix and match from everything, there’s just an arbitrary restriction based on a choice you have to make before you even start playing.

Once you spawn into the game you start in classic Elder Scrolls style incarcerated in a prison. Not just any prison, a prison for the dead where you find out your soul has been ripped from you. The main story begins quickly and thankfully there’s none of the standard MMO tropes of ‘kill 5 rats’ before you get into the meaty stuff. Before your first half an hour is up you will have seemingly condemned someone to an eternity of suffering and seriously annoyed a Daedric Prince, and that’s before you find new trousers. One of the best ways TESO breaks away from the genre is by never patronising you with quests. The vast majority seem important and dramatic, there’s hardly any simple fetch or kill quests, they’ve all been framed in much more complicated ways and you’ll rarely kill more than nine or ten mobs in the first couple of zones (per quest). Experience is linked to quest rewards and exploration much more closely than killing and although it is possible to grind, you can quite happily level through zones without ever killing anything that’s not strictly necessary for your objectives. Of course there are roaming monsters and bandits and even enemy camps and world bosses that you’ll want to take down, but you don’t have to and that’s one of the most significant leaps forward that TESO makes. This feels like an RPG game with MMO elements, rather than the other way round. Every quest is voice acted (often by celebrities) and although the delivery is usually quite wooden and never convincing, it at least helps you to pay attention to why you’re doing things in the game. It’s definitely not up there with SWTOR for dialogue and plot but it’s a far cry from the dry quest text of WoW.

Combat in the game is tied to a few simple principles. You have a hotbar where you can slot five skills and an ultimate, and once you reach level 15 you can create a second bar for a weapon swap. We currently have a ‘tanking’ set with a sword and shield and then a ‘DPS’ set with a bow and arrow for when getting close simply isn’t an option. Swapping between them is a simple button press and it essentially gives you two hotbars to work from although sadly you can’t use the same weapon for both. The controls are similar to Skyrim, you can block at the expense of stamina, bash with a shield to interrupt or hold down attack for a stronger swing. You can also double tap in a direction to dodge out of the way, something you really need to learn in dungeons as it seems most of the mechanics revolve around ‘there’s a rapidly expanding red circle, jump out of it or die’. Sadly many of the more interesting mechanics like active blocking and bashing tend not to work on bosses so it quickly degenerates into the same kind of boss fights we’re used to seeing in MMOS – kill the healer adds, avoid the bad things on the ground, keep healing and try to plan out your cooldown use. It’s not that this is bad per say, but it’s nothing new or interesting. The most innovate boss we’ve seen was one where you fight a giant monster just before the final boss in the dungeon, and then when you come to fight the guy you’ve been chasing, he’s literally just a person and goes down almost instantly after trying to attack you with a dagger. That was something we hadn’t seen before and made sense within the world. Sadly it’s the exception rather than the rule, you’ll go from that to the next dungeon where you’ll fight a single person who has the same health bar as twenty-foot tall Daedric monster.

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All the way through TESO it seems like there’s been two teams, one making a standard MMO and one making an Elder Scrolls RPG. The elements from the Elder Scrolls are often great and exciting, but then you need to wade through the MMO side to get to the fun parts. In the PvP you fight over a whole zone set in the same place as ‘Oblivion’ (Cyrodil, not the Daedric plane). The idea is that you’re fighting for the Imperial City and you need to capture castles, resources and Elder Scrolls in order to win the capital. In some ways it’s a great idea, you feel awesome riding across the plains with a bi group before ploughing into an all-out war with siege weapons, archers and brutal melee. But then to capture a resource you stand in a circle for a while. Even worse, to capture an Elder Scroll you can just walk up and take it from an usually accessible building. There’s a quest in Oblivion where you steal an Elder Scroll and it’s unbelievably convoluted and tricky because these things are the most powerful objects the various races have access to. For the sake of PvP they’re just left in easy-to-find buildings above ground on the battlefield. They’re a flag, to capture. Why couldn’t they have used an actual flag?

Once you make your way to level 50 you can start progressing through ‘Veteran ranks’ and the top tiers of crafting and content become available to you. In true MMO fashion, not much changes. There’s some interesting mechanics (that are playing out oddly at the moment) like becoming a vampire or werewolf, there are 25 player ‘raids’ and there’s always this three-way tug-of-war in the PVP; but sadly nothing really changes. The locations are cool but you quickly start to see the patterns and every new zone feels repetitive, the dungeons can be visually impressive but the mechanics are dry and uninteresting, the PVP is possibly the real lasting draw but on such a large scale it’s hard to feel like you have much of an impact as an individual, there’s no arenas for you, just large-scale warfare and if your faction is doing badly there’s not a whole lot you can do to change that.

If you have a large group to play with, TESO will easily at least be value for money, there’s tonnes of content and in a group you can access all of it fairly quickly. As a solo player you’re going to have a much harder time but I’d say just being able to explore all of Tamriel is probably worth the asking price as long as you can put up with the usual MMO annoyances. So far there’s doesn’t seem much reason to carry on a subscription though, in a month you will have likely seen all that the game has to offer gameplay-wise and there’s very little variation on that. Bethesda have already announced the first content patch with new higher-level areas so perhaps they’ll come through, but for now I’d be wary, this is just another of ‘those’ MMOs.

Verdict 7

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Author: Thomas Souter

I'm Tom Souter, a full time English and Philosophy teacher who has been playing games as long as I can remember. I started off with a tape-loading BBC (I still remember getting our first mouse!) and moved on to playing NES games at my friends' houses. My first console was a SNES, and I became a Nintendo fanboy through my formative years. This all changed with the arrival of the Xbox, and now I've overcome my fanboyism to the point of owning every current console, and a gaming PC. I've never really had a favourite genre, but am painfully shallow when it comes to fancy graphics and art styles. All-time favourite game? Rollercoaster Tycoon 2.

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