The release date for The Elder Scrolls Online is rapidly approaching, and ever since the game was first announced, the Elder Scrolls fan base has been divided. Some saw an Elder Scrolls MMO as a natural evolution for the series, a game that will finally allow you to explore Tamriel with friends. Others viewed the game as a cheap impersonation that could never manage to capture the magic of the series in MMO form, essentially World of Warcraft disguised as an Elder Scrolls game. Zenimax recently held another beta test, this time opening things up a bit more than in the past, and we were able to take part.
A few months back we expressed some trepidation about whether The Elder Scrolls Online would be able to really implement the defining elements of the series in an MMO, and after spending a good amount of time in the beta, that unfortunately seems to be the reality. To be very clear, both that piece and this one come from the point of view an Elder Scrolls fan first and foremost, and if your tastes run more towards MMOs than The Elder Scrolls your experience may be quite different. With that said, when you get right down to it most of The Elder Scrolls Online looks like an Elder Scrolls game, but nothing about it really feels like an Elder Scrolls game. Most would agree the defining elements of the Elder Scrolls series have always been freedom and exploration, and these are two areas where The Elder Scrolls Online really comes up short.
Expecting an MMO to have the type of open ended experience offered in an open world, single player RPG is probably asking too much, but the name Elder Scrolls carries with it certain expectations. At its core, The Elder Scrolls Online is not an open world game, and despite some flashes of exploration, it never even gets close to achieving that sense of wonderment and discovery that proper Elder Scrolls games exude. The reason people play for hundreds of hours in Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim is largely due your ability simply pick a direction and walk, knowing you’re going to encounter interesting things along the way. The Elder Scrolls Online, on the other hand, is a far more directed experience.
Once you complete the tutorial dungeon you will find yourself somewhere in Tamriel, exactly where depends on which faction you’re a part of, but we’ll get back to that later. Unlike every other Elder Scrolls game, ESO doesn’t feature an open world, but rather individual open areas that you can travel between, which hampers your ability to explore. You can’t simply travel to a new area at will, you must first be told to do so by a quest. Once you move on you can freely return at any time with the game’s fast travel network, but you only encounter new areas when the story allows it. There are moments of exploration within the individual areas, but it’s all lessened by the knowledge that you’re basically stuck wherever you are until you progress enough to move forward. It’s also not helped by the fact the areas feel far emptier than what you’d find in the single player games, so despite featuring fairly large areas, they aren’t as densely packed with interesting things to see and do.
So, you may not be able to explore like you can in the single player games, not surprising in an MMO. However, the exploration is not the only example of the classic Elder Scrolls freedom being diminished in The Elder Scrolls Online. The ability to craft any type of character you want through gameplay has been a core feature of The Elder Scrolls for a while, with Skyrim in particular taking this concept to the absolute extreme by removing classes entirely. Even in Elder Scrolls games that had classes, you still had the ability to create any type of class you wanted and were never prevented from using any items or learning any spells based on your class. The Elder Scrolls Online does attempt to implement some of these concepts, but it still comes up feeling much more restrictive than even Morrowind and Oblivion, and far more restrictive than Skyrim.
The game features most of the classic Elder Scrolls races, with the Imperials missing from the beta and only to be included with the collectors edition of the full game. Each race is tied to one of three factions, which determines your team in PvP and your starting area. Already the game is restricting you based on character choices, but that is only the beginning. You must also choose from four character classes, which fit standard archetypes. The Dragon Knight is a warrior, the Nightblade is a rogue, the Sorcerer is a spellcaster, and the Templar is a healer. You do have the ability to use any type of weapon or armor like you would in a typical Elder Scrolls game, but your access to spells and abilities is limited by your class. Unlike Skyrim, you aren’t free to dabble in magic at your leisure or entirely switch disciplines dozens of hours in, and though you have some freedom, each class has very specific roles they will be best suited for.
Just looking at The Elder Scrolls Online, it does indeed look much like an Elder Scrolls game, especially the combat. The game supports a first person perspective, and on the surface handles much like other games in the series. The combat is based on real time action, with your actions being tied directly to your inputs rather than the common auto-attack style of most MMOs. However, unlike the single player games, the combat system is heavily reliant on an ability bar rather than simply using what you have equipped. You can dual wield, but the game doesn’t use the “right hand, left hand” system of Skyrim, instead you simply have an attack and block. Say what you will about Elder Scrolls combat, Skyrim at least had a decent sense of weight and impact to it, which is not at all present in The Elder Scrolls Online.
The combat of ESO more closely resembles Oblivion, and not in a good way. The combat in Oblivion tended to feel weightless as you would just furiously swing away at enemies with weak sounding effects and a very poor sense of impact, and that pretty much describes what melee combat in ESO is like. However, it’s actually worse than Oblivion because the game’s enemies more closely resemble MMO mobs than the enemies of an Elder Scrolls game. Now, not to say the AI was ever stellar in any Elder Scrolls game, but at least enemies would implement rudimentary tactics in combat. That doesn’t seem to be the case in ESO, and even worse you’re likely to have enemies leash back to their spawn area while you’re fighting them if you drift too far away. Furthermore, the nature of it being an MMO means enemies respawn rapidly, so you have almost no time at all to look around in dungeons without the fear of the enemies you just killed re-materializing.
One of the goofier aspects of the recent Elder Scrolls games is the way that your character basically becomes the chosen hero of every faction and ends up in charge of every organization in the land. This is one area that The Elder Scrolls Online actually had an opportunity to improve upon, but that opportunity wasn’t taken. One would think that with thousands of other players in the game world, your character would be treated as one of many by the NPCs and story, but that isn’t the case. Your character is still “the chosen one” according to the story quests, and despite the fact that all the other players are doing the same thing as you, the story treats you like you’re the world’s sole hero, which makes things even more ridiculous than the single player games.
Despite this laundry list of issues, there are still some redeeming qualities. For one, the quest design, at least what we’ve seen of it, doesn’t get into the typical tedious MMO territory. We didn’t encounter any instances of “kill 10 rats,” “collect 10 mudcrab meat,” or any other similarly boring quests you’d find in most MMOs. Also, from a lore perspective there is some very interesting material here, especially if you’re a big Elder Scrolls fan and are up on a lot of the world’s history. It’s also worth noting that the entirety of the dialogue is fully voiced, which is not at all common for MMOs. Visually, the game looks quite good, but it does have some issues common to the genre. For one, the interior environments are ridiculously oversized, obviously to accommodate the potential population of players.
If the beta is any indication, The Elder Scrolls Online looks to be a well put together game with decent presentation, but it’s not an Elder Scrolls game. The series has always been about freedom, exploration and crafting a truly immersive experience to get lost in, and The Elder Scrolls Online comes up far short in these areas. When you venture into town to trade your spoils of combat only to find a hundred people crowded around a single vendor, including some guy named “Panda Rape”, you couldn’t be further from being immersed in the experience. At its heart, The Elder Scrolls Online is an MMO far more than it is an Elder Scrolls game. If you are a big fan of both The Elder Scrolls and MMOs, The Elder Scrolls Online may in fact be your dream game, but if you’re looking for a true Elder Scrolls experience there is little of that to be had here. Rather than being an online Elder Scrolls game, The Elder Scrolls Online is an MMO with some Elder Scrolls trappings.