For those who've listened, my feelings and trepidations heading into The Elder Scrolls Online have been pretty clear. To me, the Elder Scrolls games have been solitary experiences. My adventurer, normally an archer who'd fit in more with the rogues than the rangers, out to discover the unknown. I spent over a hundred hours in Skyrim, combing the wilderness for hidden treasures, mapping out secret locales, and defeating the worst dredges of scum and villainy. It was my world to conquer.
With experience in other Massively Multiplayer Online games, the idea of an open world that would allow me to capture the joy of those solitary adventures was laughable. By virtue of there being other people involved, and the framework used to build a modern MMO (framework which has been iterated on ad nauseum for the past 10+ years), there was little to no chance of that carrying over into this shared space.
But Zenimax insisted. They assured and cajoled that not only was it possible, but they were doing it. So here we are, and to be fair, they were not completely off base.
The moments in ESO that capture the essence of the original games happen when you are out on your own, away from the hustle and bustle of the people-filled host cities. Out here, following the location pop-ups that appear on your compass, it almost feels like home. Checking your map, you see the places you've visited and made a difference, each place visited shows up in black with a white outline, until such time as you have completed the quest line associated with each point, at which time the icon for that places reverses, accompanied by a brief description of your actions.
It's a nice touch, and a filled out map is a fond memory of my Elder Scrolls experience. I'd also go as far as saying it's one of the better MMO maps, as every point on it is useful in some way or another, either by explaining what you were doing, showing you what's left to do, or offering you a means to fast travel between way points. Straddling the line between mounted travel/hearthing to a home base and the freedom to travel anywhere at any time for free in Skyrim, ESO offers waypoint to waypoint travel for free, or anywhere to waypoint for a nominal cost. It also uses this system as a quick way for parties to get around, if you're in a party, and I mean really, why would you be in a party?
No seriously, why would you be in a party? As a self-professed solo MMO player, I found this aspect of ESO to be, oddly, the most comforting. The story, while not the greatest (a criticism easily leveled at every other Elder Scrolls game), goes well beyond other MMOs at trying to present you, the player, as the only one involved in its narrative. Starting in the dungeon of Molag Bal, because where else would you start than imprisoned, you are startled awake by the spirit form of the Prophet and immediately freed from your cell. Joining with the other prisoners who have also escaped, because apparently a Daedric Prince is incapable of keeping order even in his own province, you follow a linear path out and arrive, washed up on the beach, at the home city of whichever of the three factions you'd chosen at character creation.
It's almost laughable that you're even given a choice of factions; there is almost no difference in the story your character experiences, and outside of their obvious uses as framework for PVP, they serve only to separate players into starting cities. From your entrance to the starting city, a new player could easily find themselves on quite a linear path through the game, never finding a need to branch out, explore or, getting back to the point at hand, group up. It's simply not necessary. Only once in the my first 15 levels did I encounter a quest that even suggested a group, and were it not for my previous Elder Scroll experience, I might not have ever ventured off the path enough to encounter one of the optional group dungeons. Unlike every other MMO I've played, which go out of their way to give you reasons, whether story or treasure, to try the group content, ESO leaves it out on the map like a suggestion, like a “hey, now that you found it, here's this dungeon... you could find a group, or you know, not, but hey, it's up to you, we don't want to suggest that you find someone and do something together, but it's here.”
As weird as that lack of encouragement is, it's for the best, as grouping is a mess. Combat in ESO, even more so than the other Elder Scrolls, is awkward at best, and when that awkwardness is combined with that of others, the result is a mass of writhing bodies, all of them running up to, through, and around mobs of various sizes, some of them hitting, some of them not. These group... masses as they're best described resemble nothing else I have ever seen, and it makes traditional targeting hard to deal with, and first-person targeting nearly impossible for ranged classes. Switching to third-person view makes dealing with others a bit easier, and there is also a not at all revealed by anything but a cursory search of the key bindings targeting system, but neither method feels good in use.
Contributing to the awful mess that is grouping up in ESO, skills are spread wide and are incredibly varied. While this adds a lot to player choice, and provides means to more unique characters, it makes the struggle to find groups with the right break down of successful characteristics almost impossible. I understand that the idea of the “holy trinity” of MMO classes, your tank, healer, and DPS, is often spoken of less then reverently, but the reason it's such a main stay of the modern MMO space is simple. It works. It makes knowing your role easy, while also giving you confidence that the people you are grouping with have the tools to fulfill their roles. That confidence is not present in ESO.
Another area where ESO strays from the norm without delivering a system that works is combat. Developers have spent years trying to make first-person combat feel right, and being so close to the action of swinging swords and chopping axes, you would expect to really feel the violence inherent in the action. Instead, there's nothing. Swings pass through enemies as though they were air. Two handed blows that should shatter bones produce no more then a knock to the red bar that represents a mob's life. The only time there is a reaction, which itself is a brief stun, is when you successfully block a special attack or bash a spell caster while they are casting. Archery feels much the same, with the drawing and releasing of a bow incorporated into a single click. Even holding the click, an act which results in a harder, more theatrical swing of a melee weapon, only holds the draw, with no indication but a hard study of your opponent's life bar indicating any difference in the results. It's disappointing, and turns what was touted as a selling point into a less effective way to point and click. With zero feedback, I might as well be clicking buttons like the majority of other MMOs on the market.
The one place everything comes together though, is the last thing I expected to like: PVP. Separated from the main game is Cyrodiil, the same area made unforgettable by the fourth Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion. It's here where the three faction vie for control of the Elder Scrolls. Battles feel very massive, and no matter what you've chosen to do with you skills, there are a number of ways to contribute to the overall battle. Personally, I found the scouting missions to be right up my alley, especially when they took me away from the rolling ball of steel and fire that is the main battle, but when strength was needed, getting behind the controls of a siege engine was a ton of fun. It opens up for everyone at level 10, and experience earned in PVP allows you to continue to level up the same way the standard campaign does.
ESO also does a great job delivering on some real basic quality of life issues. Having in game mail be a part of the players interface, as opposed to a physical mailbox location, makes sending and receiving items anywhere a breeze. The journal does a fine job describing quests, and I really liked the addition of hints for the collectible Skyshards. Collecting these items awards skill points, so being able to track what you have collected, and get hints on the ones you are still looking for, is fantastic for those who get far into the game and are trying to maximize their characters potential. Like all Elder Scrolls games, the inventory is clunky at best, and were it not for seeing it in chat, I would never have found that expanding your inventory is done by visiting an NPC in the bank.
Elder Scrolls Online is about as middle of the road as an MMO can get. It fails in some spectacular places for a multiplayer-based game, and in the same way I questioned what Zenimax was thinking when they announced it in the first place, I question just how long they'll be able to hold out before flipping the switch from paid subscription to free to play. In order to review this, I was gifted 60 days of playtime, which, as I finish writing this, has run it's course. While I don't regret my time in Tamriel, I think the most damning piece of criticism I can deliver is that I do not plan to re-up on my subscription. 60 days was more then enough time for me to determine that I would rather spend my time elsewhere.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!