The fantasy Massively Multiplayer Online landscape is an unwieldy one. Giant open plains, sprinkled with repetitive monster models and crammed with collectables. Each is a world filled with wayward souls, sprinting to their destination markers, oblivious to the ongoings around them. Working virtual economies power them, inextricably linked to real world currencies, that allow players to make an actual living within these computer generated universes. From an outsider’s perspective it seems like science-fiction, yet bizarrely the truth may be that this landscape is swiftly becoming frustratingly stale.
The most successful MMO (and the highest grossing game of all time, by a wide margin) World Of Warcraft has dominated the genre so entirely for almost ten years that every other entry has simply been playing catch-up, constantly mimicking the game’s ideas. MMOs have simply lacked invention, perhaps through fear of failure, for so long that it has become a tiresome in-joke. And so enters The Elder Scrolls Online into this cramped market, a series previously notable for having no multiplayer options whatsoever. It’s an exciting prospect, perhaps the most engrossing fantasy world in gaming, being opened up for everyone to connect to and explore together. It’s an idea that has so much potential.
But it’s horrendously obvious from very early on that the opportunity to invent, to digress, to progress the MMO genre has been squandered. The Elder Scrolls Online is an MMO that succeeds in joining this crowded landscape and offers everything MMO players want, but at the same time brings so little originality that the series’ single player pedigree quickly disappears into a messy grey of MMO tropes and clichés.
It starts off promisingly enough. After signing up and logging-in the player is presented with a character creation screen that those with experience of Skyrim (the most recent single player entry into the Elder Scrolls world) will find instantly familiar. The process in which you sculpt a body from a large selection of sliders that determine dozens of physical features from hair shape to facial muscles to body shape and size, is recreated here wonderfully. Each character is then assigned one of four classes (Templar, Sorcerer, Dragon Knight and Nightblade) which determines (in part) the skill tree available to them as they play through the game. The result is that the character you take into the Elder Scrolls’ continent of Tamriel feels rather unique compared to many other games in the MMO space, a place where it is possible to constantly bump into duplicates of oneself.
As has become a trademark of every game in the Elder Scrolls series, the player starts off as a prisoner. This time trapped in a Daedric plane called Coldharbour. This tutorial area introduces the main concepts of the game and then sets the scene for the ongoing main quest that leads the player through the game. Soon the player escapes this plane of torment, rescuing the mysterious Prophet along the way, and returns to the continent of Tamriel. From here they are unceremoniously dumped into one of three starting locations determined by the faction choice made by the player during creation. This single choice defines the main experience of the early part of the game, since characters cannot freely roam between faction areas until they have reached the near end game level of fifty.
Perhaps this is a small restriction, but it is something that resonates throughout the entire experience. One of the major hallmarks of any previous Elder Scrolls game is the emphasis on freedom to explore, wandering off towards an interesting landmark in the distance purely because one can. The Elder Scrolls Online has severely eschewed this in favour of a more typical MMO style of progression. The first character we created, a crafty feline-featured Khajit from the Daggerfall Covenant, had an early quest log that was extremely limited. Quickly shipped off to the small and relatively harmless island of Stros M’kai, there was a strong sense of guidance by an unseen hand ensuring that the areas this low leveled character entered were suitable for her.
Yet if one tries to stray from the suggested path, exploring in a manner more suited to the single player series, The Elder Scrolls Online quickly punishes the player with vicious creatures well above their current level far too often resulting in an untimely death. Effectively it is impossible to explore outside of the suggested areas for your character’s level, and while that may be an obvious statement for any current MMO, for a game with such a pedigree for exploration it is disappointing and frustrating. Perhaps it is an understandable necessity given the context of a massively multiplayer game, otherwise low players would unfeasibly be fighting creatures alongside much stronger compatriots, yet in the context of an Elder Scrolls game it is grating.
A similar sentiment runs through the combat and skills section of the game. On their own, or even as a comparison to many other MMOs, they provide a relatively fresh perspective, yet they lack the freedom that the series otherwise holds dear. Combat suffers in the same manner that any massively multiplayer game must, with swings of a sword or bolts from a magical staff invariably hitting despite whatever is displayed on the screen. Whether from a first or third-person viewpoint it lacks the visceral edge, with little to no visual feedback from hits other than small reductions in the red health bar of foes. Meanwhile many enemies have special moves that are telegraphed onto the screen with large red markers, signalling to the player they must dodge with a double tap of a direction button. In principle it could work to liven up the otherwise pedestrian battles, but often the windup time of these moves is so laboured it is barely an issue to avoid.
Of course later into the overall experience, when your character has many levels and skills under their belt, fights become much more intense with many monsters winding up moves to damage the player and causing one to consider when to dodge and which skills to perform. However late game combat still lacks that punch and fails to really grab the player. These are issues with MMORPGs in general where low bandwidth and variable pings need to be catered for, yet The Elder Scrolls Online lacks the stylish grace of combat from Guild Wars 2, but also fails to emphasise statistics, something many players of World Of Warcraft will find lacking.
At the very beginning fighting is simply a case of clicking the mouse button while facing an enemy, or holding it down to perform a more powerful strike. Quickly however it evolves as your character gathers skills, which can be used in tandem with the standard attacks. The skill tree is a rather wonderful mix of the Elder Scrolls ‘experience through use’ style gelled with a more traditional MMORPG point allocation system. This means that as your character uses specific types of equipment and techniques (such sword and shield, bowmanship or armour classes) as well as performing racial, class or guild actions then they slowly progress through levels in that area. Doing so opens up specific moves and passive effects, but these can only then be unlocked for use by spending skill points. Skill points are earned by levelling up your character through slaughtering creeps and completing quests, as well as finding skyshards that are littered around the map (a rather unimaginitive way of encouraging players to explore the otherwise rather empty maps).
The result of this complex system is that each skill point allocated is a difficult choice, since there are often many possibilities available and even skills that are already unlocked can be morphed with points to add special effects. This means that even towards the end game content there is still a large amount of variation between characters. However even if the player creates a build that feels broken, skill points and attributes can be reset at any time for a relatively small amount of gold so there is the opportunity to experiment and create the most effective character.
There is however a limit of five skills and one ultimate ability available at any one time, as well as the ability to swap their weapon and skill set, which means players need to construct their skill sets before battle to cater for what they are about to face. In some ways this follows a similar pattern to Diablo III and indeed the combat of The Elder Scrolls Online is more of a kindred spirit to this dungeon brawler, despite its first or third person view-point, than any of the Elder Scrolls series. Most battles start and finish with the hammering of button presses to combo together moves and very rarely is there a strong sense that fights require timing or finesse. Mainly it is simply a question of ensuring that your character has the required mana or stamina to perform a move, and that your own health bar does not plummet to zero.
As the player progresses through the continent of Tamriel they will discover many exciting things to do and see. There is a wide variety of equipment that can be crafted, meals that can be cooked and items to be enchanted all using the rather insane amount of resources that can be scavenged from corpses or hidden away in containers scattered everywhere. Fortunately, due to the rather high drop rates and the ability to discover completely random items hidden away in boxes, finding the necessary ingredients is less of a chore than it can be in other MMOs.
Even if spending time sweating over an anvil does not sound particularly inviting then players have the opportunity to explore the land and the lore of Tamriel, something that series’ fans may be particularly excited about. As in the single player games of the Elder Scrolls series, there are notes left handily on tables and tomes crammed into bookshelves all over the world, and yes, some provide boosts in stats upon reading as well so there is always an ulterior motive to learning. Meanwhile players might drool over the prospect of finally visiting places that have only previously existed in text. Players can take the chance to visit areas such as the Valenwood - home of the Bosmer (wood elves) or Hammerfell land of the Redguard, though a large chunk of the continent is still out of reach, assumedly held back for future updates. The only problem is that these areas simply never feel as vibrant or as engrossing as one might hope. What should feel like an epic trip across a land only previously read about in digital text, feels underwhelming due to a lacklustre attention to detail, unimpressive sized locations and also an overabundance of players sprinting around ruining any sense of believability or spouting about powerleveling for a fee through the in-game global chat option.
And it is other players again that get in the way of so much else in the game. The quest system within the game is, on the whole, more dynamic and involving than the typical MMO collection fest. On very few occasions are you asked to collect ten rat heads, or whatever. Instead your character is asked to explore tombs, usurp tyrannical despots and (something that happens a surprising amount of times) put a ghost’s spirit to rest. The quests are all given vocally, the camera zooming in on the quest giver’s face revealing that familiar Elder Scrolls dead-behind-the-eyes look, and just like the rest of the Elder Scrolls many different characters are confusingly voiced by the same actors. In a way it is reassuring that they have not changed everything. But the biggest issue with these quests is that other players are queueing up to resolve them as well. This means that crowds gather around NPCs and the objectives, often blocking the area up and slowing you down.
In one example a disgruntled leader would not believe that our character was worthy enough and we were instructed to defeat several of his infinitely spawning champions before we could continue. However a flow of players were constantly stealing these champions for battles before we could challenge them. In the end we had to simply wait on their spawn spots, and hope we could hammer the use key before anyone else. Sure, it is an issue that will no doubt clear as the numbers thin post-launch, but it is simply another example that drives home how frustrating and uninvolved The Elder Scrolls Online experience really is.
And this is a shame because the possibilities within the game should create memorable experiences, from riding across the Tamriel countryside on your horse mount, to rampaging around as a lycanthrope or even attempting to gain favour with a Daedric prince. But these experiences simply never match up to the more involved single player series. It is unlikely players will remember anything from the game as they might remember the quirkiness of Oblivion or the magnificence of the dragons flying overhead in Skyrim.
These are all problems that mount up without even discussing the price. In a world where many popular MMOs are turning to free-to-play mechanics to keep their servers running, The Elder Scrolls Online costs as much as a full retail game to purchase and still has a monthly charge. Depending on how you structure your payments this can range from £7-£9 per month to continue playing. It is not a cheap world to become involved in, particularly when compatriots such as Guild Wars 2 or Neverwinter require only a one off payment or are completely free. While admittedly this means there is no frustrating pay gate restricting access to certain areas or skills without spending some money, you are still looking at spending the value of three AAA games within one year. It is an expense that one imagines only the most dedicated would continue to invest in.
Whether or not The Elder Scrolls Online is for you depends on what you are looking for. It is not a conversion of the single player series that many might have hoped for. You can finally trot around Tamriel with your friends, slaying goblins and daedra, but the experience is hindered by uninspiring combat mechanics and far more restrictive exploration options resulting in a less immersive world. It is certain that the entire game is targeted towards the MMO player base with much of the derivative mechanics that is attached to the genre, and for these gamers it may well be an enticing option. However even if this is the case, at its current price point we cannot imagine many fans of other MMOs switching their allegiance.