The Elder Scrolls Online Review (PC)
Emboldened by the mainstream success of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Elder Scrolls developer Bethesda has taken the free-form, explore-everything formula this hit series is known for and applied it to a MMO mold. Being able to play The Elder Scrolls with your friends may sound like a match made in Sovngarde, but, after playing a bit, you might just end up wishing for the sweet release of Oblivion.
[Editor's note: If you're curious what The Elder Scrolls Online's introductory experience is like, pop over to the first part of our review!]
As with most MMOs, much of your time in The Elder Scrolls Online will be spent completing quests. ESO’s quests aren’t exactly streamlined or stimulating. Often they ask the same requirements we’ve seen a thousand times before, but without any of the bells and whistles of today’s online games. Kill X number of mobs. Collect X number of glowing things. Get bored X number of times. The quests of the Elder Scrolls series are known for offering dynamic tours of a large, fantastic world, and while a few of ESO’s quests manage to hit this mark, far more feel drab and lifeless. They’re also heavily dependent on which faction you choose at the game’s outset, as, at this moment, there’s a massive imbalance in how well-put-together the different faction’s starting areas are. Should you go in blind and pick the “wrong” (ie not Ebonheart) faction, prepare for banality.
ESO’s combat breaks away from typical MMO trappings, which is both a blessing and a deterrence. You fight in real-time, with little in the way of auto-attacks or cast bars, and have to adjust positioning on the fly against foes who weave around in combat. While this is interesting, at first, eventually it falls into the bad habits of old-school MMOs, requiring you to spam the same attacks/order of attacks while still asking you to pay extra attention to positioning and dodging enemy special attacks (which are often overpowered to the point of shredding 30-50% of your health). You’re never fully engaged, nor are you ever fully relaxed; it’s the worst of both worlds.
There’s a player economy in The Elder Scrolls Online, though it, too, has some issues. On the positive side, ESO doesn’t hinder players by requiring they designate themselves to one crafting/gathering skill, instead letting them make new items based on how much experience they have using a particular skill. On the negative side, however, players trade items through a guild auction house, buying and selling items under a guild’s banner rather than under the unified banner of a universal auction house, so finding what you want can be damn near impossible. Not helping this economy is a massive exploit which occurred soon after ESO’s launch, netting ludicrous amounts of money for some players while leaving most in the dust. Bethesda quickly found and removed this bug, but the economic damage lingered, and now many player-created items are inaccessibly overpriced since most higher-level players still have extra money thanks to this exploit.
Most of a player’s power will come from choices they make in their gameplay. If they play with a bow, they’ll gain new options with a bow. If they fight with magic, new spells will become available. It's a smart system, though certain elements, like only being able to become a vampire/werewolf through enemy/player character bites, are problematic. Some players have currently banded together to control the spread of lycanthropy and vampirism, holding it hostage in exchange for huge sums of money from any player who wishes to become undead.
Once players hit maximum level, a “Veteran Rank” system goes into effect. These veteran ranks grant statistical bonuses- much smaller than normal levels- and gate players from being able to access certain PVE content until they’ve grinded out the requisite levels. This system may sound good on paper, but what it really creates is a new, massive grind for high-level players, forcing them to slog through unrewarding new levels to slow down how quickly they access (and wear out) high-level dungeons and encounters. Once you do arrive at the high-level dungeons, if you're familiar with the epic battles in other MMOs like World of Warcraft, Guild Wars or Rift, you probably won't be impressed, as they're too drab and lack the interesting mechanics and glorious presentation found elsewhere. Drab does a pretty good job summarizing the audio/visual side of things, too, as the music is mostly dull, quiet and reserved, and the visuals are mostly a vast sea of browns and greys. Don't expect to be able to customize your character into a magically-charged rainbow of awesomeness; you're going to be a gritty, serious, grim darkling whether you like it or not.
Elder Scrolls Online’s player-versus-enemy content may mostly fail to impress, but its player-versus-player content is much more engaging. PVP takes place in the form of massive, three-sided campaigns on separate, pervasive PVP maps. Groups of players battle for control of massive fortresses. These battles are thrilling affairs, with siege weapons raining chaos down on groups of players scrambling to strike down their foes. The huge PVP maps make it possible for large groups of players to storm enemy encampments, or small, hit-and-run squads to strike key points and make a difference.
The Elder Scrolls Online manages to be a spectacular failure in adapting a popular series to a new format. The freedom and fun of the previous games seem all but gone, here. Players hungry to explore untouched lands will be turned away by arbitrary level requirements or by finding a pile of players already exploring the places they wanted to be the first to discover. ESO feels like its development team willfully ignored the advances most MMOs have made in the last few years, awkwardly blending active action and illusory freedom with the trappings of a subscription-based game. As this is a MMO, things may change in the future with the addition of patches and expansion packs, but as The Elder Scrolls Online stands right now, you would probably be better off just playing through Skyrim again.
This review is based on a purchased download of The Elder Scrolls Online for PC.