The Elder Scrolls Online, Bethesda and Zenimax Online’s first MMORPG entry in the previously single-player Elder Scrolls series, launches today worldwide. Like most MMOs, it’s a massive game, and after playing it more or less nonstop for the past few days, I’ve barely scratched the surface. The Elder Scrolls Online is massive, and because it’s massive and massively multiplayer (so the experience changes depending on who you’re playing with), I’m not going to do a regular review—at least, not yet. To assign a score to the game now, with so much of it left to explore, would be impossible.
That said, I have already played a disturbing number of hours of Elder Scrolls Online, and if you’re wondering whether you should buy this game—at $59.99 plus a monthly $15 subscription fee, it’s quite an investment—I can answer that question.
First, I have to get something out of the way, though. I come to The Elder Scrolls Online as a fan of the Elder Scrolls series but not as a fan of MMORPGs. I don’t like MMORPGs. As a result, I haven’t played many of them, so I was both eager and hesitant to play TESO: eager because I loved Skyrim so much, and hesitant because I felt like an MMO version of Skyrim would be awful.
As it turns out, I was right to be eager and right to be hesitant.
The Elder Scrolls Online is a fairly by-the-numbers MMORPG, with the only major genre departure being that you can play it from the first person perspective if you want (and sometimes you will want to). There’s nothing here that revolutionizes the genre. You create a character, choose a race and class, and after the typical prison-escape introductory sequence, you’re unleashed into the world of Tamriel with nothing but the rags on your back, the weapon in your hand, and a bunch of black-arrow quest indicators popping up on your map.
Like most MMORPGs, you play by finding completing quests. Quests generally involve finding objects or people, and often require fighting your way through hostile forces or solving miniature mysteries. Your reward for completing a quest is gold, experience towards your next level, and often also a useful item to add to your kit.
Speaking of items, there are billions of them in TESO. Well, maybe not literally billions, but a lot. And in addition to all the weapons, clothing, armors, adornments, potions, and enchantments (among other things) you can buy from merchants all across Tamriel, you can also collect the raw materials and build them yourself using the game’s crafting system, which is incredibly deep.
Buying or building better items is one way to upgrade yourself, the other is by using skill points (obtained by leveling up, mostly) to acquire and evolve new skills and to increase your base stats (health, magicka, and stamina). Your upgrade paths will vary tremendously based on your race, your preferred weapons, and your own choices, so as with most MMORPGs, the further into the game you get, the more specialized your character is likely to become.
Fighting in The Elder Scrolls Online obviously varies quite a bit depending on your character choices, but the basics are the same throughout. Click for a fast attack, hold for a heavy attack, and press ability buttons (the number keys) to use various abilities. In easier fights, this system is pretty mindless, because when an enemy is more than a level or two below you, you can pretty much just click mindlessly and still win. But against more difficult enemies, you’ll need to think more strategically and use your abilities wisely to win. My character, for example, has a poison arrow ability that can stun enemies when they’re preparing for a major attack, so timing use of this ability to prevent damage in addition to causing damage is key.
It’s worth noting that, weirdly, at least for the moment The Elder Scrolls Online doesn’t support any kind of controller input. There’s apparently already a mod that fixes this, and I imagine official controller support will be added someday given that the game’s slated for release on PS4 and Xbox One this June, but it still seems like a very bizarre oversight.
The world of Tamriel is massive, and it would be hard to overstate how much there is out there to explore. There may be plenty of fields and forests, but there’s not a lot of empty space in Tamriel; there’s always something interesting happening around the next bend. And the game, while not as nice-looking as Skyrim (especially modded Skyrim), is still quite gorgeous. A huge variety of environments, from dank dungeons to towering cities to lush grasslands, helps keep exploring Tamriel exciting. And the excellent ambient sound and swelling orchestral soundtrack help to ensure that your adventure sounds as good as it looks.
This is an MMO, though, so you can’t really go exploring wherever you want. If you head off in the wrong direction, life can get very frustrating very quickly. If you find yourself in an area where the enemies are more powerful than you, you can end up stuck between a rock and a hard place. There is a fast travel system, but it costs gold, so it’s tempting to avoid it, especially early in the game when you’re likely to be pretty poor. But trying to run, sneak, or fight past more powerful enemies is an exercise in frustration.
At one point in my game, for example, as a result of exploring I found myself in an area where I was under-leveled, everything killed me, and I couldn’t find any new quests to level myself further even when I fast-traveled to previous areas. It was absolutely miserable, and I would absolutely have rage-quit and never come back if it wasn’t my job to keep playing. There’s lots out there to explore, but you can’t really explore much on your own, you’ve got to work through the quests suitable for your level and trust that they’ll take you to new places.
Elder Scrolls immersion
Of course, if you’re a fan of the Elder Scrolls series, a lot of these “new” places will actually be places you know, and that’s part of the fun. You’ll also run into characters you’ve heard of, and you’ll get a feel for how the things you experienced in other Elder Scrolls games relate to the Elder Scrolls Online world. The lore is so deep, though, that it’s a bit overwhelming even for a hardcore fan, and my guess is that people who haven’t played the previous Elder Scrolls games will just be bored and confused by a lot of it.
Even as a fan, I find myself skipping the dialogue for a lot of quests (although the game occasionally punishes you for not paying attention) because I just can’t be bothered to learn the names of random-Tamriel-citizen-with-a-problem-only-I-can-solve number 4,271 and all his friends. It can become a bit like work: skip the backstory and just tell me what I need to do and where to do it so that I can get on with things.
And while the world of Tamriel is rendered in incredible depth and detail, from the visuals to the lore, the MMO-ness of it all often shattered my immersion. This stuff aside, it’s hard to take a quest too seriously when random strangers are jumping around like lunatics in the background. And even on the early access servers, gold farmers are already spamming the chat window in every area with ads and other meaningless nonsense. You’ll still enjoy exploring the world of Tamriel, but it definitely doesn’t feel quite as real it did in previous games.
MMO blues (and joys)
The Elder Scrolls Online does suffer from overuse of one quest trope I find annoying, particularly in the early stages: the branching-tree of errands. In these quests, one person asks you to do (for example) three things. But to do each of those three things, you’ll need to do three other things. And to do those things…well, you get the idea. This gets especially confusing when lots of characters are involved, because by the time you get to the end of the branching objectives it can be hard to remember why you started or who all the people along the way were and why you should care.
Another frustration is that because it’s an MMO, quest difficulty can drop or spike depending on whether there happen to be other people around to help. If you’re playing with friends, that’s likely less of an issue, but if you’re trying to go it alone, you’ll sometimes find that a quest is extremely easy because there are several other players at the same point in the game who are helping you take down every enemy. And quests can get a lot harder if your friends suddenly decide to pull out halfway through, leaving to you fight some monstrous demon by yourself.
On the other hand, playing The Elder Scrolls Online with friends is going to be pretty damn fun for hardcore Elder Scrolls fans. Personally, I don’t see the fun of playing with strangers at all, but a cooperative Elder Scrolls game can be a blast, and that’s exactly what Elder Scrolls Online is.
Should you buy The Elder Scrolls Online?
We’ll have more in-depth impressions of the game over the coming weeks and months as we continue to play it, but I’m pretty confidant that I can answer the question of whether you should buy it right now. Of course, it depends on who you are:
If you’re an MMORPG fan and love Elder Scrolls: Buy it. Yes, it’s expensive, but if you like MMOs and you love Elder Scrolls than this is having your cake and eating it too. I can’t imagine you won’t enjoy it.
If you don’t like MMORPGs, but love Elder Scrolls: Don’t buy it. This may be an Elder Scrolls MMO, but it’s still an MMO, and all the things you don’t like about that genre are still here to annoy you. If you want a new Elder Scrolls experience, try out some new Skyrim mods or pick up the DLC rather than spending your money on TESO.
Everyone else: Wait and see. At such a high price point, the game probably isn’t worth your money right now unless you know you enjoy the classic MMO experience and you know you like the Elder Scrolls universe. But if you just like one of those two things, or if you’re new to MMOs or Elder Scrolls games in general, TESO may still be worth checking out if/when it drops down to a lower price point.
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