After five successful single-player entries in the Elder Scrolls series, Bethesda has decided to dip its toes into the MMO market with the Elder Scrolls Online. Much of the gameplay in ESO will be familiar to those who have played a previous Elder Scrolls game or an MMO, and the world is absolutely massive. But ultimately, Elder Scrolls Online is not a game for everyone.
After you select your character from one of 10 races and four classes, the game begins with an escape from Hell. Well sort, of the game calls this place Coldharbour, one of the planes of Oblivion, but you’re a spirit trying to come back to life from an unpleasant part of the afterlife, so for all intents and purposes, it’s Hell.
Playing the part of an escaping prisoner should be familiar to fans of the previous Elder Scrolls games, as it’s basically how Oblivion and Skyrim began. The prison break in ESO isn’t quite as memorable as those two games, but it provides for an interesting setting and a good tutorial to learn the basics of the game.
Once you’ve come back back to life, you’re free to explore the continent of Tamriel as you see fit (well, not the Imperial City or Orsinium unless you pay extra). In typical MMO (and Elder Scrolls) fashion, you’re then free to take on quests or explore the world at your leisure.
During this time period in Tamriel, there is a conflict between three factions for the vacant imperial throne, as well as a battle against Molag Bal, the prince of Oblivion you were sacrificed to, but a lot of these missions are locked off until the later game. The early quests aren’t quite as basic as “Kill X Monsters” or “Collect X Trinkets,” but most of them aren’t very well thought out beyond that structure.
In one early mission, I was tasked with gathering three other adventurers to plan a heist though, and having all three involved in the caper ensured that I was easily able to steal an object while the guards were distracted. That was one of the better missions I’ve played in an MMO, and more like that would really make the Elder Scrolls Online shine. But far too often missions just involved tracking someone down in a cave or tomb.
As it is, there’s not a whole lot about ESO that makes it stand out from other MMOs or RPGs. Combat is largely based on using triggers for attack and dodge as in the past two Elder Scrolls games on console, except now most of the other buttons can also be used for special attacks, similar to hot keys in your typical MMO. It’s functional, but not necessarily fun.
While the spirit of the the previous Elder Scrolls games is here from the controls to the UI, something has definitely been lost in the transition from large single-player experiences to online RPG. There aren’t quite as many random objects to pick up, enemy encounters are a lot less predictable, and that feeling of wonder and isolation as your explore a wide open world on your own isn’t quite so special and intimate when there are a couple dozen other players around you all the time.
All of the pieces of a great Elder Scrolls game are here, but they seem held back by the gameplay tropes forced on MMOs like slower combat and less interesting quests. And for MMO gamers, unless you’re playing with friends, there aren’t a lot of other players willing to group with you until you reach some of the later content.
One final note about ESO: Unlike a lot of MMOs, once you’ve purchased the game, there’s no required monthly fee, but if you do choose to plunk down an extra $14.99/month for a “Premium Plus Membership,” you get access to DLC zones, crowns to spend on mounts and pets, and a bonus 10% to experience points. It’s definitely required to see most of the game, but those that do enjoy ESO will probably find the extra fee well worth it for the additional content.
ESO isn’t a bad looking game, but it’s far from the best we’ve seen on the Xbox One. Tamriel looks better than in Skyrim or Oblivion, but only if you don’t look too carefully. There’s no real detail to interiors and the objects you pick up like in prior games, and the world doesn’t really feel alive. There’s no wind blowing trees as you walk through forests, and bodies of water are almost completely still. Some of this is due to the game having to process so many other things while thousands of players are simultaneously online, but it’s still disappointing. At least NPCs are animated better than in previous Elder Scrolls games. They no longer appear like creepy dolls with moving mouths, and actually make a few life-like gestures during conversations. Enemies, on the other hand, can still be a little awkward with their attack animations, and they have the annoying tendency to pop up just a few feet in front of you.
The Elder Scrolls games usually have just a few orchestral songs playing in the background, and ESO is no exception. But while the tunes in Oblivion and Skyrim were kind of catchy after awhile, the music here is pretty forgettable. I spent quite a few hours with the game, and I probably wouldn’t recognize one of the songs if you played it for me right now unless you told me it was from ESO. Even though the music isn’t very memorable, at least it’s not annoying, and it fits the mood of the game well.
Voice-acting has improved quite a bit over previous Elder Scroll games. There aren’t any big names lending their voices to ESO (at least none that I recognized), but the performances from quest givers are all well done.
There is a ton of content in ESO. It’s easily bigger than Oblivion and Skyrim combined, the skill tree is massive, and there are hundreds of quests to take up, then its time to tackle the endgame content and the fight for the imperial throne. Beyond that, there are already two large DLC zones available, with more content planned.
It’s also a real grind to get to that endgame content and most gamers will probably get bored long before they reach that stage of the game. If the gameplay clicks for you, you’ll easily lose hundreds of hours of your life to ESO, but most Elder Scrolls fans will probably go back to playing Oblivion or Skyrim long before they hit the level cap.
Reviewed by Chris Freiberg