The Elder Scrolls Online is a curious proposition; a subscription-based MMO set in a world that for the past 20 years has been doggedly singleplayer. The very nature of an MMO dilutes that quintessentially Elder Scrolls feeling that you are a special and unique snowflake, but Zenimax is obviously hoping fans of the series might be coaxed across to massively-multiplayer land thanks to the game's lore, location, and brand. No doubt some will, but so far, it's hard seeing them stick it out for long. If the usual MMO conventions aren't tedious enough for them, unambitious and in some cases flawed design might claim them first.
The main narrative of The Elder Scrolls Online concerns the nefarious schemes of Daedric Prince of domination and enslavement Molag Bal, who is attempting to merge Nirn and Oblivion into a single hellscape. Despite this singular threat, the races of Tamriel have split into three alliances and are squabbling over control of the continent's Imperial City and the White-Gold Tower. That makes little sense, but it does set the scene for the game’s entertaining player-versus-player component.
In many ways, Zenimax Online has done an admirable job of emulating the Skyrim experience, familiar to so many. The Elder Scrolls Online is fully and ably voice-acted, the UI familiar, stealth is possible, and – following pleading from fans – allows play from a first-person perspective. Character creation even surpasses that of Skyrim by an impressive margin, with cosmetic options so plentiful as to almost be overwhelming. A character’s race and class are the only selectable traits that have any bearing on gameplay though, with certain races slightly favouring certain stats and thus play styles, and each receiving unique skill lines as well.
Characters level up as they do in Skyrim too, with in-use powers, weapons, and armour accumulating experience points for their respective skill lines. Skill points are earned with each character experience level reached, or with every third Skyshard collected – a good incentive to explore surroundings thoroughly. These points can be added to current skills to make them more effective, or to pile extra effects on top of their base use.
Thanks to experience accumulating for almost every in-game action from discovering new areas to item use, progression is constant and thus extremely satisfying. The levelling system is also extremely flexible, allowing classes to blur together and players to adapt their build as required rather than start a new character. For example, my Dark Elf Sorcerer is your usual cowardly ranged-attack no-armour wizard-type in groups, but when adventuring solo, she stashes her staff in favour of a two-handed battle-axe, which she wields with almost equal effectiveness.
Combat is also a familiar blend of Elder Scrolls and MMO jankiness, although lag largely neuters its more promising elements. Health, magika, and stamina all must be managed, and a meagre five skills from any skill line may be placed on the hotbar which may not altered during battle.
Once the player has advanced sufficiently down a skill line, a powerful ultimate ability also becomes available for purchase with a skill point. Once used, it recharges via experience points rather than via a cooldown the way hotbar talents do. One item can be placed in a quick slot for fast access as well, or switched out quickly for another via a radial menu.
So far, so familiar, but the UI here is actually very sparse. There are no damage numbers, no cooldown timers on anything, and there’s no minimap either. This uncluttered look is nice, but perhaps gives too little feedback – something not helped by the odd bug that sees no reaction animation from enemies when attacked. Of course, all can be altered thanks to the plethora of easy-to-install, flexible mods already available for the game and as with any MMO, a few of these make it a much better experience overall.
Another slight deviation from the norm for The Elder Scrolls Online is the way it handles targeting. Switching targets using tab is permitted, and the player can block incoming attacks for reduced damage, but most players will simply find themselves free-aiming when on the offensive. This works perfectly well as most ranged attacks (by the player or enemies) have crazy levels of auto-aim. There is one extra mechanic though, wherein the well-timed block of an enemy’s heavy attack will stun them allowing the player’s counter to always be a critical hit, but with latency sometimes playing havoc with timings, it’s easier said than done. Dodging out of the way of area effect attacks via a quick step in any direction is a much easier proposition, although it’s not unusual for be hit even when outside the attack zone.
It’s pretty obvious that the game’s first-person perspective has been something of a rush job. One generic twitch of the fingers is the animation for most things, but the real problem is that combat is clearly designed with the wider angles of a third-person viewpoint in mind. Still, it’s enjoyable carving up enemies regardless of viewpoint, but there just isn’t enough systemic depth here. Most will find their pet combos of skills and melee attacks and just spam those ad nauseam, occasionally stopping to attempt a block from a heavy attack. It’s not a terrible system, but given the saturation within the MMO genre, you’d hope for something more interesting innovation here.
Elsewhere, The Elder Scrolls Online currently suffers the same way other massively-multiplayer games suffer. Things may pick up later, but the start is terribly slow and dull, enemies rubber-band back to spawn points if led too far away, and some quests seem small beans. Those that don’t are overly-directed jaunts between checkpoints, groups farm dungeon boss respawns in seconds which excises any challenge or sense of accomplishment, and bots and spammers are everywhere.
There also aren’t enough dungeons yet, horses seem far too expensive, and chests are strictly first-come first-served (although fix for that last gripe is coming).
Then there are the bugs. Hoo boy, the bugs. To be fair, many have been eradicated since launch, but there still remain a proliferation of unresponsive quest-givers, and more than a few animation glitches that prevent the player from attacking or even drawing their weapon until they logging out and then in again.
However, beyond these annoyances, there are three fundamental problems with The Elder Scrolls Online we've encountered so far that are more serious, yet unlikely to see a fix anytime soon. The first is that grouping in the game seems almost pointless, except that it makes vanquishing foes easier. Each player still has to talk to every quest giver, push every button, and so on and so forth, as if they were completing things alone. Worse, imperfections in the grouping system sometimes sees a party sent to different phases of the same content, so an arrow showing a buddy’s location is visible, but they are off in another instance, fighting their own instance of enemies.
Fortunately, the game is easy enough that it can be played solo, but – and that leads us to point two – you can’t just wander off in a random direction without dying horribly at the hands of higher level mobs, even in a group of two. So while there is a vast expanse waiting to be discovered, the actual discovery is very directed, which kind of defeats the purpose for those who came here looking for more Skyrim. Best to just slowly circle out from the start point completing quests than rush headlong into the unknown and certain death.
However, far and away the biggest problem with The Elder Scrolls Online is that its PvE content is just not particularly exciting. The writing itself is good and does well to disguise the checklist nature of the quests, but nothing here is at all awe-inspiring yet. New enemies or environs are generally met with a shrug and that same hotbar combo; there is little of the wonder and sense of scale inherent in other Elder Scrolls games here. Up to level 15 at least, It just feels a bit empty, a thin facsimile rather than the real thing. There is no urgency, compelling emergent narratives rarely surface, and some of the set pieces are comically underwhelming. An NPC will tell of a desperate and epic battle around the corner, only for the player to arrive and find a dozen NPCs looping the same sword swing animation at each other forever, or even ignoring one another altogether. If you remove the wonder and scale from an MMO, what’s left?
On the positive side of the ledger, the game's soundtrack is good, the crafting depth is seriously incredible, and despite how massive the map is, it only grants access to roughly one-fifth of Tamriel, so there is plenty of room for expansion.
That all makes player-versus-player in The Elder Scrolls Online an obvious highlight. Basically, the game’s three factions are vying for control of Cyrodiil, Tamriel’s middle district. The ultimate prize is the Ruby Throne within the Imperial City, but many other forts and outposts may be laid siege to, or rag-tag armies can just scrap out in the open. The delight here stems from the large numbers of combatants rushing about in frenzied battles at any one time, as well as from the hilarious yet largely futile efforts of exasperated armchair generals to direct a seething mass of attackers to do anything but plough directly ahead, Charge of the Light Brigade-style.
When it comes to taking a structure, siege weaponry tips things in favour of the offense, but breaching the walls can be done simply through sheer force of might, or allowed by defensive incompetence. Each faction also has an Elder Scroll it must defend, and should this be stolen, all members of the thief’s entire alliance are conferred bonuses. For whatever reason it reminded me somewhat of Team Fortress Classic's Dustbowl map: a war of attrition that would slowly tip one way or another before one side's annihilation was a certainty.
Joining the fray of a large scale battle is fun, and Cyrodiil’s PvE content is bolstered by the constant threat of opposing faction’s soldiers, but there is a lot of travelling between battles, and those in small groups will see themselves the victims of opportunistic high-level enemies before they see any true front-line action. That’s despite the game apparently boosting the combat effectiveness of lower level characters when fighting seasoned veterans as well.
So far, The Elder Scrolls Online isn't without its joys, but they are currently too few and far between, and its bugs and odd design decisions may turn many away before they even come close to burning out on the content. For every beautifully drawn city, gripping section of dialogue, or adrenaline-pumping battle we've played so far, there have been scores more that are simply deflating. This probably won't be good enough for Elder Scrolls fans, and it's hard to imagine even the MMO elite investing long term. It's worth stressing again that these first impressions have been drawn from 30 hours played across 15 levels, but the experience has been decidedly mixed. Given the ever-evolving state of MMOs, Zenimax might turn things around in the higher levels and end-game, or in subsequent content packs and expansions, but it's probably going to take some bold decisions regarding some of the game's fundamental systems, and it's hard to imagine folks paying a monthly subscription while they wait.