The Elder Scrolls series has a long and storied history, stretching back to the wild days of ‘90s PC gaming and reaching all the way into the gaming systems of today. It took a few years for this robust, single-player role-playing game series to find mainstream success, but with the arrival of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on consoles, more gamers than ever could gear up and experience this series known for its sprawling, free-form gameplay. With the success of Oblivion and Skyrim, Bethesda felt emboldened to break away from the traditional Elder Scrolls formula by taking things to the multiplayer arena, and thusly, we have The Elder Scrolls Online.
[Ed.'s note: Rather than rushing out a review of an MMO, we'll be offering some impressions to start, with a full review a few weeks later.]
Like most role-playing games, character creation in The Elder Scrolls Online is an involved process… perhaps too involved. There are sliders for body thickness, breast size, nostril width, feet size; you can manipulate so many different aspects of your character’s appearance that anyone with a penchant for obsessive-compulsive perfection may want to steel themselves lest they spend two hours in character creation. After you’ve got your looks locked down, you have four classes to choose from: the fire-breathing Dragon Knight, the sacred Templar, the devious Nightblade and the sorcerous Sorcerer. Each comes with several skill pathways and weapon skills, ensuring that no two characters are exactly alike— even if they're the same class. That's because in ESO, any class can perform any role, so you can be a stealthy Dragon Knight, an archery-enthusiast Sorceror or a blasphemous gladiatorial Templar. In our time with ESO we were a sword-and-board-style Dragon Knight, and, once there were a few abilities on that action bar, we found it to be a satisfying, versatile class easily mutable to the style of whoever played it.
Once you’re past the realm of possibilities available to you in character creation, your freedom gets locked down and your character awakens imprisoned- a staple for the series. From there you break out, learn of your epic destiny, encounter fierce dark magicks, and most importantly, get familiarized with basic gameplay elements like leveling your character based on how you play them, combat and dungeon safety.
Like previous Elder Scrolls games, you’ll spend a good portion of your time either in combat or navigating deadly catacombs and dungeons. Unlike previous Elder Scrolls games, however, there is a strict order of operations to everything; if you’re level five, don’t expect to safely traverse a level eight area. And you know those many chests, boxes and bags most people are so fond of looting? You can still loot them, but don’t expect to find anything. Elements like these may be staples of the MMO genre, but when applied to an Elder Scrolls game they feel constrictive and regressive, locking down on the free-flowing sense of exploration the series is famous for.
No matter which of the games' three factions you choose, there are scores of fully voice-acted quests for you to dive into. ESO spared no expense in getting quality performers for their material, but, unfortunately, not even the most gilded-tongued of thespians can elevate dialogue as clunky and lore-laden as this. Most characters aren't so much characters as they are exposition machines, spitting out world-building facts without any hint of warmth or humanity. The major exception to this, however, is John Cleese's performance as the goofball Cadwell, whose dialogue flows with the comedian's expert grace. Voice performances aside, a major issue with ESO rears its head in the form of these quests. There may be many, many tasks for you to complete, but their levels don’t always represent their challenge very well. Some might indicate that you can complete them, only to face you off against foes that are several levels higher than you and who will delight in slaughtering you repeatedly.
NPC guilds, factions, player-based guild economies... there are many ins-and-outs of the world of ESO, and though there's much for players to do, it's quite overwhelming for new players. ESO has a terrible tendency to frontload new information, so rather than letting you learn about its many systems one piece at a time you're overloaded with so much information it's unlikely you're going to remember it all. These gameplay elements, like many things in ESO, feel half-baked and antiquated— no doubt a result from the title's lengthy development time.
With our full review of The Elder Scrolls Online, we'll dive a bit more into the PVE and PVP sides of things, ESO's unique combat system, as well as what it's like once you've broken away from the newbie experience. So far ESO has failed to impress with its early game content, feeling more like a restrictive, unpolished version of the other Elder Scrolls games than its own beast.
Be sure to check back soon for our full review of The Elder Scrolls Online.