The Elder Scrolls Online Review-Not quite Dragonborn
The Elder Scrolls Online is the first entry in the revered RPG series introduced by Bethesda 20 years ago to ever feature online multiplayer. This fact alone created a huge interest around the game from many fans of the saga who couldn’t wait to roam Tamriel with their friends, at long last.
The duty to carry on this huge project was assigned to Zenimax Online, a dedicated studio whose sole purpose in the past few years has been to make The Elder Scrolls Online; the project director, Matt Firor, was a prominent member of the team behind Dark Age of Camelot at Mythic, which easily explains the RvR-like PvP mode.
Make no mistake, The Elder Scrolls Online doesn’t break new mold in the MMORPG genre. It is, in fact, a classic themepark MMORPG in structure, with a clear-cut separation between PvE and PvP, which is currently only available in Cyrodiil, where the three factions (Ebonheart Pact, Aldmeri Dominion and Daggerfall Covenant) are constantly waging war on each other. Unlike World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic, then, you won’t find any open world PvP while playing in the PvE regions, because each faction has its own zones; in an interesting twist, it’s actually possible to play the other factions’ questing content, but only after reaching the maximum level. On one hand, this is great because it automatically removes the need to create new characters in order to explore that content; on the other, though, it blurs the lines between the factions themselves, which is indirectly harmful for the PvP, as the sense of belonging was instrumental in fueling Dark Age of Camelot’s successful Realm vs Realm mode.
Character creation is pretty good, with many sliders to choose from, including height and body type; it is easy to create a satisfying avatar with which to enter the game world. The first praise has to go to Zenimax Online’s artists, as the zones of The Elder Scrolls Online are all unmistakably beautiful; also, performance is already good on average and you won’t need an expensive PC to witness this beauty.
While the world is not quite seamless (unlike World of Warcraft, there are loadings between zones), this is not a huge deal as the zones are pretty big and most importantly, they are filled with objects that can be interacted with, similarly to a single player Elder Scrolls game. As usual, it is recommended to always check libraries as they could provide a skill increase (once again a feature borrowed from the single player games); right now you can harvest pretty much everything in NPC houses without any consequence whatsoever, but Zenimax already announced that a Justice System will be introduced at some point. Then you’ll have to face NPC guards, so you might want to make haste and take everything you can in the meantime.
From a roleplaying point of view, I really liked the fact that every NPC has something different to say. This helps a great deal with immersion and it makes The Elder Scrolls Online stand out in comparison to other MMORPGs, where the RPG factor clearly takes a backseat; all in all, the world feels more believable thanks to this.
Quests are perhaps the biggest win of Zenimax. They are way more interesting and deep than those usually found in the genre, and the best of them may even rival the epic, single player RPGs; more than once I’ve found myself torn on the characters actions, and choices have been sometimes quite hard to make. The issue here is that these choices, because of the very themepark nature of the game, are purely fictional as they don’t impact the game world in any way; each player will then make his/her own choices in their very particular, phased version of the game, which is however not shared by anyone else. This part of the game is effectively very close to a single player RPG on all accounts.
The remaining PvE content is mainly comprised of public and instanced dungeons. Unfortunately, neither are that great right now. Public dungeons are especially disappointing as most of them are way too similar from one another, not to mention that the final “boss” is constantly camped by 15/20 players, who can barely get a hit to retrieve the achievement before it’s dead. However, the faults of instanced dungeons may prove to be more harmful for the game in the long run, as those are the only kind of repeatable PvE content; while graphically they are all very pleasing, their degree of challenge is quite low at the moment. Rewards are also lacking, especially during the levelling phase, as most bosses won’t provide any kind of loot and the XP gathered by killing NPCs is minimal; it is a well known fact that dungeons are only worth doing once right now, while levelling a character.
The first content update, Patch 1.1, will soon bring a whole new Adventure Zone dedicated to max level players, Craglorn. We’ll see if this zone (which will include Trials, the game’s own version of Raids with up to 12 players in a group) will prove to be challenging enough, but for now, group PvE content is a bit disappointing.
As mentioned earlier in the review, PvP is a three way war fought in Cyrodiil. The structure of the Alliance vs Alliance mode is very similar to Guild Wars 2’s WvW – the goal for any alliance is to conquer the most objectives possible, from the smallest such as mines and lumber mills to the largest such as castles and keeps. The latter generally require the formation of a “zerg”, a large group of people banded together to raid the keep, while the former can be conquered even by smaller, organized groups. The main issue here is that while this mode can and will undoubtedly provide some fun, there really isn’t much purpose to it, unlike the wars for territory fought in sandbox games such as EVE Online, Darkfall Online, Mortal Online or Shadowbane.
Keeps may well change ownership every couple of hours and there is little that any single player can do about it; moreover, there isn’t any major reward for guilds. Individuals can look forward to becoming the Emperor if certain requirements are met, but while this achievement unlocks a specific and powerful skill tree, once again this just makes that character more powerful – the Emperor doesn’t get any political power at all, which would have been far more interesting. Also, if you happen to be interested in any form of smaller Player versus Player fights, The Elder Scrolls Online simply doesn’t have anything to satisfy your needs – not even the basic dueling.
Moreover, combat isn’t quite as compelling as in other action based MMORPGs such as TERA or Guild Wars 2. While Zenimax improved on this aspect from early beta thanks to the addition of character collision (only active with NPCs) and some other changes, combat often doesn’t feel responsive, with skills activated only after a significant delay or not at all – sometimes the character even gets stuck for a few seconds during certain animations. Even the dodge button isn’t that responsive, which makes it hard to avoid some damaging spells from enemies.
At any rate, the combat will feel familiar for those who are used to Oblivion or Skyrim. Stealth is available to all characters regardless of the class, and whenever possible it is recommended to approach an enemy from stealth as that will guarantee a critical strike; it is possible to choose from a light attack and a heavy (charged) attack, which is especially useful after blocking an enemy’s charged attack, as it will knock the foe down for a few seconds.
The skillbar is limited to five skills (plus an ultimate) per weapon; it is possible to swap between two weapons in combat. The skill system is very open, with the initial class choice (there are four: Dragonknight, Templar, Sorcerer and Nightblade) which provides three skill trees and blocks those of the other classes. Other than that, there are many skill trees to choose from and as a result, the amount of different combinations is simply huge; this can be safely counted among the strengths of The Elder Scrolls Online.