Website: Elder Scrolls Online
Developer: Zenimax Online
Category: Massively multiplayer – P2P with optional subscription, Fantasy
To date my most positive solo RPG experience is still Morrowind. I was going through a messy breakup when this game landed on my desk and being able to disappear into a wasteland populated by the xenophobic Dunmer with the freedom to go where I want – to do what I want when I want was perfect. 18 months later I was still in Tamriel. Spent days looking for books to complete a series in my library or simply trying to map and enter every dark corner, every cave or grotto. I lived off the grid and found that I eventually stopped going to the settlements and towns altogether. Morrowind’s soundtrack is still haunting to me.
Oblivion was shockingly colourful although the sweeping landscapes were gorgeous and thankfully I was a lot more socially integrated at this point of my life. City were bustling with life and activity and each town had a character of it’s own.
Skyrim was simply mindblowing. It’s remodeled mechanics and stricken tundra gave me that Morrowind feeling again – like I was playing something new and so completely immersive. Again I find myself standing outside a city gate with a quest update asking myself if I can be bothered with the bullshit of cities and the NPCs that fill them. Being able to return to Solstheim was like coming home.
The Elder Scrolls series has so completely defined RPG for me that I bring an almost Dunmer level of scrutiny to any other MMO I play. Being able to self-manage my goals, allegiances, my time and ultimately my ethics has given me a game that I truly lose myself in.
When I saw that The Elder Scrolls was going online I had mixed feelings – the strongest of which for me was caution. I could see me getting lost in Tamriel and I mean really lost. If it delivers that same Skyrim/ Morrowind feeling on an MMO scale I may enter and never return. Almost as strong was the feeling that it wouldn’t work. That Tamriel is a world you travel alone without the incessant chatter and clumsiness of other people. That other people would slow me down and cheapen the experience for me somehow. I was cautious of getting back into MMO the way I did with Everquest 2 and this just might be the formula that would shut me down for good.
Long story short? It didn’t, it didn’t and it wasn’t.
Don’t get me wrong – all the MMO boxes are ticked. Solid questing that strives to rise above the ‘kill 2 of those, gather 5 of these, go over there’ mentality complement a strong central plot that unfolds at roughly the same rate you level through the game. Decent social tools counterbalance a strong and thriving player economy. The races balance, the factions more or less meet in the middle.
Some of the zones are breathtakingly beautiful and the combat mechanics are solid. I’m impressed with the crafting system and this is a big one for me when I take on a new MMO. The character progression ticks all the boxes too – the mechanics of which are easy to pick up and run with and an in-game respec offers variety and the possibility to explore your character. ESO ticks all the boxes and provides a solid online gaming experience that’s easy to learn and quick to adapt.
And maybe this right here is the reason ESO seems to lack the teeth of other titles in the Tamriel universe – it’s a more or less balanced gaming experience that dutifully provides all the elements one expects in today’s MMO as if it’s ticking off an enormous spreadsheet. It’s boxed gaming that steadily nurtures you toward its endgame.
The Tamriel I know is far from balanced – it’s cruel where the weak either die or become enslaved. It’s built on old grudges and racism and populated by powerful figures who prey on the weak and plot against the strong. And it demands that you become all of these things too.
The Elder Scrolls series is spilling over with lore and tells grand tales of faraway lands filled with fantastical creatures and incredible wonders.While ESO nods to the content again it does so like it’s working it’s way down a list – it’s so cookie cutter clean that you always feel like you’re skating along the surface of what has always been an immersive game world.
And while the core mechanics tick all boxes, much of the interface would be cumbersome without the mod community. Fyrakin’s Minimap plugin is an absolute must as the game only provides a compass and a standalone map that the player must toggle between as they attempt to navigate through Tamriel. AwesomeGuildStore (sirinsidiator) and Master Merchant (Philgo68) take the clumsy and somewhat overwhelming store interface and make it dynamic.Foundry Tactical Combat (Atropos & Philgo68) provide the hardened MMO combat vet with the data they need to measure, shape and push their DPS or healing.
The game depends on the work of these people to give the player the control they need to make it in an MMO especially if you competitively play PVP or the economy however constant game updates quickly outdate many of these plugins – sometimes turning them into CPU or RAM sinks that need developer intervention. The day the mod developer cries enough and stops updating their plugins drives the player back to the clumsy default interface of the game.
Grouping is somewhat haphazard and sporadic and again the interface let the game down in group instances. The lack of an intuitive group interface made healing difficult and poor aggro building system creates a series of Benny Hill moments where a scout or mage is running around followed by an angry boss, followed by a desperate tank trying to grab the bosses attention while a healer desperately tries to figure out who’s hurt and how to fix them before they die. This being said, there is something almost organic about healing without a healer-specific interface that requires reflexes and a degree of intuition and it provides a satisfaction of it’s own.
At some point I stopped playing the game and got lost in the economy – making hundreds of millions in the first few months and this was triggered by an appreciation of some of the more unique elements of the game. There is no central Auction House which is startling at face value for an MMO. Every town or city has a limited amount of vendors and these are competed for every week by trade guilds that blind bid for these crucial resources. Joining the trade guilds that had an established presence then building and executing a trade strategy not only paid off – it got me hooked.
The crafting system is a real strength – offering a non grind-centric progression system and the ability to produce high quality items that will enhance your gameplay. Traveling to remote crafting stations hidden across Tamriel allows an artisan of sufficient level to produce set items and this mechanic boosted my character leveling and my bank balance via trade.
PVP is a constant war of objectives – an endless battle for control of Cyrodiil where players attempt to take keeps and push for control of territory. I have to admit I enjoyed the healer role in ESO and, appropriately geared and with the right skills, felt I could in fact swing the balance in many of the keep battles. The groups and the battles are spontaneous and exciting.
Subscription to ESO is optional but a subscribed player gets access to all DLC content and this reflects a generosity of spirit from the developers. In an industry succumbing to greed it offers a system where players by subscription invest in the game and are rewarded for that investment by gaining early and ongoing access to expansions as they are released.
All in all ESO is a strong title and has it’s roots buried deep in what I consider true MMO so if you are looking for a new MMO that brings back the nostalgia of massively multiplayer it will give you what you’re looking for.
For us more solitary gamers? You can in fact play the majority of this game solo but isn’t this in itself reason to return to Skyrim? The moment you step into ESO the rich colours and overload of incoming information tell you immediately that this is not the Elder Scrolls you know.
Pros: Visually striking, strong MMO economy
Cons: It’s just not Bethesda’s Tamriel
Pros: Interesting guild system
Cons: Linear skill trees, hard to find groups, rundimentary UI
Pros: Characters have own save trees
Cons: Often frustrating companion AI
Pros: Good diversity in quests
Cons: Some quests repeat across all factions, linear quest progression
Pros: Vibrant graphics