Disclaimer – Being such an expansive game it took us a bit longer to get this review out. We wanted to fully experience the world of Elder Scrolls in all its glory and get a fair depiction of ESO as a whole rather than a glimpse.
I’ve been playing Elder Scrolls games since Morrowind. Now, there are plenty of series veterans who have been playing longer than I have, but I like to think I’ve got enough Elder Scrolls street cred built up. Morrowind is still my favorite game out of the series, simply for the fact that the environment was new, unique and exciting, and there were so many things to do and ways to do them. Morrowind seemed, at the time, an endless expanse and I am happy to say that Elder Scrolls Online shares many of these same qualities. ESO is vibrant and colorful, full of lively environments, subtle and dark humor, and plenty of exciting questing. Being able to travel through so much of Tamriel is incredible for anyone who has, as I have, spent years in between Elder Scrolls games, waiting to get a glimpse of the next Tamrielic province. ESO is, obviously, full of something else as well: other players. This presents both a wonderful variable and a terrible wild card.
The thing about the Elder Scrolls games is that each variant has always been designed as a solo adventure role play. The player was absolutely secure in knowing that they and only they would be able to dramatically influence the events taking place. I felt great knowing that everything in Skyrim, Cyrodiil, and Morrowind hinged on the actions I made, and that nothing could or would change without my influence. This sense of adventure, this immersion in the world around me, has disappeared in ESO. Nothing sucks more than trying to do a quest only to have all of the mobs already dead, or having someone fighting all of the mobs and bosses with you, even though you never invited them. On the flip side, the presence of other players can be great fun when you want it to be, and it can certainly change the way you play out a quest. During my experience with Elder Scrolls Online, I have done this several times. When you want to team up with others, then their presence becomes part of the atmosphere, but when you just want to enjoy the story, they absolutely ruin it.
The character classes are relatively standard, and certainly few, but the nice thing is that most of the skill groups can become available to any character. There’s even a special skill group set aside for players crowned Emperor in Cyrodiil. The character customization is fun and interesting, but there really are not very many skill groups. In fact, I have found that building a character is quite boring. It seems as though the only thing limiting what a character can do at any given time is the size of the hotbar, which is five skills plus an “ultimate” in case you were wondering. Really, what I am saying here is that I think it’s important to limit characters in an MMO. I think that limiting what character races and classes can do is how players are encouraged to work together, and leaving characters so open ended just encourages players to lone wolf it through the game.
I decided to make a Dunmer sorcerer for this playthrough, and as a result I have joined the Ebonhart Pact, the alliance made up of Dunmer, or dark elves, Argonians, and Nords. Each race has access to a racial skill line, and for my character this has involved some fire resistance traits, dual wield bonuses, and a few others. While this makes for a few interesting level up choices, I can’t help but feel like my choice of race hasn’t really made an impact on the way I have played the game, or the way the game world has responded to my character. While we’re talking about skills here, I want to stop for a moment and talk about the crafting system. One of my good friends said it best: “an MMO without decent crafting is unplayable.” Lucky for Bethesda and Zenimax, ESO has a halfway decent crafting system. It has several layers and tons of materials collectible in the world and in fact, I would almost argue that there are too many different ingredients. I’ve heard it from dozens of players, “too much crap” or “not enough bank space” and I have to say that I agree. I think that for the sheer amount of crafting materials and other items, there simply isn’t enough space.
Of course, if you are looking for more space or more access to buy or sell goods, you can always join a guild. Really, I think that many of the other features, or lack thereof, are designed to push the player into joining a guild or five. There is also an unfortunate side effect to not having an auction house or other large selling mechanism for players to use: the economy becomes inflated. In the time I’ve played ESO, I’ve watched as prices for certain in game items have doubled within a week. Without a large trading apparatus to help regulate prices, the in game market is entirely dominated by sellers and this isn’t healthy for an MMO hoping to thrive.
There are three major problems with ESO that I want to address here. The first and, perhaps most obvious considering the involvement of Bethesda, is that ESO is incredibly buggy. Quests all over the map are bugged. One of the worst bugs I’ve encountered is a gateway quest in Cyrodiil, the area of the map where PvP multiplayer takes place. The quest is essentially part of the multiplayer tutorial, and involves teaching the player how to fast travel in Cyrodiil and how to use siege weapons. The only problem is that the player cannot complete the quest in many cases. Not only has this happened to me, but when I did some research I found out that it has happened to many other players as well. Bethesda’s response? I was able to find only a single forum post from two weeks ago saying the equivalent of “we’re talking about it in the office.” Great. Anyway, please Bethesda let me know when you’ve fixed the quest, considering completing it is what grants players access to PvP daily quests and bounties.
Now, the PvP multiplayer in Cyrodiil, the portions I got to play anyway, aren’t all bad. Campaigns last for 90 days, and each alliance, the Daggerfall Covenant, the Ebonhart Pact, and the Aldmeri Dominion, controls an area of the map. There are forts that the alliances vie to control, which gives them control over a portion of the map and grant points every cycle. Each fort has three resources surrounding it, each of which gives bonuses to that fort. For example, the farm outside of a particular fort makes the NPC guards stronger, making it more difficult for enemy alliances to seize the fort. There are also elder scrolls around the map that can grant bonuses when held, and which can be stolen by opposing alliances looking to get bonuses of their own. There are other points on the map to be held as well, and even quests and resources to be gathered in Cyrodiil, if one is willing to take the risk.
Cyrodiil is also huge. The sheer size of the map forces alliances to think strategically about which areas groups of players will go to and which map points they will attack. During my time in Cyrodiil, I, with others, have often raided two to three map points at once, with the goal being the seizure of a single one of them. We even sometimes abandon one of our own forts in order to seize enemy held objectives and trap them between groups of our own players. It is all great fun. One of the goals is to hold all six of the forts that surround the Imperial City at the center of Cyrodiil. The alliance that does this controls the Imperial throne, and the player with the highest score is crowned Emperor of Tamriel. This player gains access to a special skill line, and grants bonuses to nearby allies. In my opinion, the PvP multiplayer is one of the most exciting features of the game because of the strategic and long term qualities it has.
The second major problem I would like to address deals with payment. When one buys ESO, the game comes with 30 days of included game time, like any MMO. The thing about that is that when you pay $60.00 for ESO and go home to try it out, you are then expected to immediately ante up the monthly subscription fee of $15.00. Well, what about the free month of game time I am supposed to get? Supposedly, this immediate payment is just an authorization so they know you will be able to subscribe, and that somebody purchased the game. It’s supposed to be refunded, however, apparently, thousands of players were not given that refund. My partner in this review project, Trevor Kincaid, who also happens to be the founder of BagoGames, waited a week for his refund to come through. This is simply unacceptable and, frankly, shameful. Charging an immediate subscription fee was a terrible decision, and I think the experience really takes away from enjoying the game before one even starts playing.
The third problem is, really, what I have been alluding to this entire time. Quite frankly, this game lacks any real sense of identity. ESO tries to be an action adventure, a role playing game, a strategy game, and an MMO all at once. Bethesda may have simply been too ambitious here. There are so many game features pulling players in different directions that it all becomes a frustrating blur, and that unfortunately takes away from the immersion factor that makes MMOs so engrossing. When a game is exceptional at one or two things, it is absolutely amazing, but when a game is just decent at a bunch of things, it almost becomes too tedious to play.
Overall, I still have to say Elder Scrolls Online is a decent game. The story is entertaining, there is a lot of lore to experience and the PvP is incredibly entertaining and strategic. Also, the map is expansive and there are tons of quests to complete. While I have my issues with this game in terms of its identity crisis and bugs, I think there is incredible potential here if Bethesda and Zenimax can get some things in order.
This review was written as a collaborative effort with our Founder Trevor Kincaid and contributor Edward Corey. Edward provided most if not all of the gameplay perspective.