Review: The Elder Scrolls Online

May 30, 2014

In many respects, the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) is a remarkable achievement. I was fully prepared to jump into the world of Tamriel in what seemed like a can’t-go-wrong proposition: take the gargantuan single player RPG online as a massively multiplayer game. Ironically in this transformation ESO becomes a victim of the success of its one player predecessors. There’s more than enough content here to justify the monthly subscription cost, and the MMO aspects are very engaging, particularly the Player versus Player (PVP) content. The problem that ESO suffers from is that the Player versus Environment (PVE) content mounts to a full length Elder Scrolls game that’s been stripped down to provide the necessary level grinding mechanic for an MMO. This came at the price of creating artificial “gates” for players both in the game world and the economy, which more or less forces a player down the leveling path toward the end game content. Without the unparalleled freedom in the field that The Elder Scrolls series is famous for, leveling became more like running errands than a grand adventure of my own making. After a while, ESO starts to feel like an imperfect juxtaposition of two decidedly different roleplaying experiences, but so long as you’re willing to overlook the imperfections, ESO’s immense world is more than worth the price of admission.

Before continuing, I want to mention what my system build looks like and how ESO performed with it. I have a fairly new (at the time of this writing naturally) Dell Inspiron 15R, running 64-bit Windows 8.1. This laptop is configured with an Intel Core i7-4500U processor clocked at 1.8 GHz, 8 gigabytes of DDR3 RAM, and the graphics are handled by the integrated Intel 4400HD processor. Though I was confident the laptop easily met most of the recommended system requirements, I was a little nervous about game performance without a dedicated GPU.  So I didn’t push the game settings past any defaults.  I was relieved that ESO ran very well, though at the cost of prettier visuals and some graphical hiccups here and there. For the curious, this page details the minimum and recommended PC system requirements (the game is also available for Mac). I mentioned that ESO is a remarkable achievement, and the fact that it runs very smoothly on even my low-mid grade laptop is a testament to that.  There’s a lot of content but it apparently doesn’t need an obscene amount of PC horsepower to run competently.

Town_of_MistralbThe hallmark of The Elder Scrolls series is player freedom, and character creation doesn’t disappoint here. There are nine races (ten if you have the Imperial Edition) all of which should be familiar to veterans of the series.  Besides obvious differences in physical appearances that comes with each race, there are latent racial abilities and bonuses that should influence (but not strictly determine) how the character can be constructed further. ESO has four base classes: Dragonknight, Templar, Sorcerer, and Nightblade. This is a somewhat clear departure from the single player games into MMO territory. Obviously the classes are based on the classic archetypes found in most MMO games (Tank, Healer, Damage Per Second) .  But each class comes with different class skill trees that reflect different play styles, i.e., offensive abilities, healing abilities, etc., allowing room to change how you play the character if need be. Of course you can alter your character’s body and facial appearance however you wish. Finally, in creating a character a player must choose a faction. The faction choice determines which quest lines you will undertake and the starting zone after the tutorial level: the three factions are the Aldemeri  Dominion, the Daggerfall Covenant,  and the Ebonheart Pact, which begin in Auridon, Glenumbra, and Morrowind, respectively.  Although character creation doesn’t present an overwhelming amount of options it can be bewildering at first, especially if you’re looking for a casual experience.

The drawback of such great character flexibility is that you really do need to have a solid idea upfront for how you want to play ESO. For my initial play through I wasn’t really sure how I would play the game, but I was determined to “solo” the content as much as possible. I fell on old habits then, making a cleric-like character as I usually do for a mix of offensive prowess and healing capability. I created an Imperial Templar and chose the Daggerfall Covenant for my faction. ESO features a kind of emergent character design through the weapon/armor/crafting skillsets that can be leveled up based on what you use in game. I planned to rely on this flexibility as much as possible until I figured out how to play the game. As I initially leveled up I distributed new skill and attribute points without any real thought toward how I might be playing this character later down the road. In hindsight this was a regrettable decision – predictably it led to haphazard point allocations, and my first character not was optimized for any one play style. By the time I settled on a path as a mix of melee DPS and healer, I had already spent a number of points on skills and attributes that didn’t compliment the way I was playing the game. Needless to say this hurt as I started to get into the mid game content.  My level progress slowed to a crawl as I was routinely getting battered by crowds of enemies and boss characters. I took a more focused and balanced approach for my second character, a Dark Elf Dragonknight. The results were noticeably better.

Emperor_Plans_at_Daggerfall_Encampment_02bThe gigantic world that ESO offers is filled with new discoveries and quests popping up virtually every other step, and the freedom to take any step you wish. For the PVE content this is very appealing, but soon your world exploration is impeded by overpowered monsters and miserly loot drops from defeated enemies that make obtaining new gear at an acceptable clip all but impossible. Besides the main quest line for which new content becomes available roughly every five levels, there is a slew of side quests that can be done alone, and group dungeons which require you to join a group to effectively clear. Interspersed in the field are tough enemies that typically require more than one player to defeat. Unfortunately enemy levels don’t scale with your character levels, so it’s very possible to run into higher level foes who will crush your character very quickly. This is disappointing in the low level areas as the typical Elder Scrolls wanderlust never really can take hold. The bad loot drops only serve to compound the advancement problem: you’ll be stuck with low level gear unless you join a player guild and trade for better items or you take up crafting since it’ll take a very long time grinding against foes to amass enough gold to buy anything decent from merchants. This becomes problematic when entering the PVP areas, which is unlocked at level 10. The “Alliance War” takes place in Cyrodiil, the setting of Elder Scrolls IV. That size of the area is impressive in its own right, and playing in squads working toward common goals feels far more rewarding and is downright more fun than grinding against the environment.

The combat system in ESO uses real time mechanics as in previous Elder Scrolls games.  You’re free to approach enemies in any manner you choose.  For example, you can just rush in for a fight or try a stealthy method to avoid detection. Most enemies fall into the categories of close range melee attackers, distance strikers, and spell casters. With a mouse and keyboard, you use the left mouse button for your basic attack, and the right mouse button to block. You can hold down the left mouse button longer for a strong attack, and by holding the right mouse button and then tapping the left button, you can perform a shield bash, which typically interrupts enemy casting abilities. Five character class skills and weapons skills can be mapped to your action bar, with a sixth slot reserved for your “Ultimate” ability.  Using the standard WASD keys for movement, you can double tap one of the keys to perform a dash roll in a direction, which allows you to avoid strong enemy attacks. When an enemy performs a strong ranged attack, the ground will light up red to indicate the attack area. In practice you have to time this perfectly, I’ve found that even if I rolled out of the red area before that enemy attack resolved, I would still take damage if I hadn’t evaded before the attack animations began. Eventually as character skills are unlocked and abilities are leveled up you’ll get a feel for an attack sequence to handle most AI combat. The downside of this is that the combat becomes somewhat repetitive, considering how many hours you’ll spend in the PVE areas. Still, you’re wise to master the basic mechanics of combat because they are essential to doing well in the PVP area.

Dark_Anchor_in_Reaper's_MarchAs far as time commitment goes, my first character averaged three to four hours per level, sometimes five, depending on how poorly I did against certain area bosses. My second character progressed quicker, perhaps two to three hours per level. At a casual pace, I estimate it takes approximately 150 to 200 hours to clear the main quest and get a character to the level cap (50 at the time of this writing). Hardcore players experienced in MMO games could conceivably do this in half the time. The first “adventure zone” has recently come online for veteran players. Once level 50 is obtained, players are able to obtain “veteran” ranks, currently up to 10 additional levels. This content consists of much more difficult quests and exploration of the zones of the two other player factions, adding to ESO’s replayability.

Taking everything into consideration, and there is a lot to consider, ESO is ultimately a very good but flawed MMO.  The massive world is awe-inspiring for its scope, but to effectively become an MMO, various compromises to the traditional design had to be made, most notably in the way players are herded along level paths. As a consequence it falls flat in the “create your own adventure” experience which the series is renowned for. That said, it’s hard to argue against the value proposition of The Elder Scrolls Online. You can spend a lot of time developing your character and uncovering everything this incarnation of Tamriel has to offer, and the Alliance War is a brilliant way to keep players engaged. I suspect that hardcore MMO players who value quality end game content won’t find the traditional monthly subscription model too unpalatable, especially if more veteran content is released at regular intervals. More casual players, or those expecting a traditional Elder Scrolls experience, will probably want to pass unless the game becomes Free to Play, at which point the gigantic world and all its lore can be explored freely at their own pace. It will be interesting to see what game design improvements – if any – are made to ESO during the course of the year, leading up the console releases. Until then, if you’re thinking of taking the plunge or wondering if you should renew your subscription now that Craglorn has been released, expect a long journey into a rich and lively world.