The Elder Scrolls Online is a mess.
Somewhere, buried under bugs, often bizarre design decisions and weird rookie level structural mistakes that the game makes, there is a great MMO struggling to be found.
I played it for just over 30 hours, reaching level 16 (of 50) and the third zone in my faction's territory. Yes, the game is huge: Zenimax weren’t joking when they announced the 150 hours average game time to end-game. But there were plenty more reasons why it took me so long to get even this far, and the majority of them were due to an endless torrent of progress-halting bugs.
The Elder Scrolls Online is just not ready for players.
It is a tragedy.
To recap, quickly. There have been single player Elder Scrolls games for over a decade. They are open world RPGs that focus on exploration and player choice. They sell a dream: go anywhere in their world, and be a hero.
The Elder Scrolls Online sells a different dream. Go anywhere in the world and be as much of a hero as the others. It looks and sounds and occasionally feels like a traditional Elder Scrolls game. All the elements that make it feel familiar are there: it includes a system allows players to develop interesting hybrid player classes. It is fully voiced. It shares an art style. Even the cursor looks Elder Scrollsy.
It is set in the same universe; roughly 1000 years before the events of Skyrim, the last game in the series. A Daedric Prince named Molag Bal is attempting to weld twin planes of existence: Tamriel (our home) and Oblivion (hell, sort of). After freeing yourself from Coldharbour - Molag Bal’s sadistic prison of souls - It’s up to you to stop his diabolical plans, with the help of everyone else.
You have a choice of three player factions: the Ebonheart Pact, Daggerfall Covenant and the Aldmeri Dominion. Each faction includes three races, unless you pre-ordered the game which will open up all races to each faction. You'll also be unable to play as the iconic Imperial race, unless you pay extra for the collectors edition (£69.99 or $79.99). That point feels like a cash grab. It leaves a sour taste.
There are other weird restrictions. You’ll never see a player from the opposing faction aside from in battle: their areas are roped off until you reach the maximum level of 50. And even then, when you enter those areas, thanks to the way the game instances these zones, you’ll only see players from your own faction. It portrays the world as an artificial biodome full of NPCs: it just drains the immersion and life right out of it.
It’s a big game though: in the image above the dark and bordered areas are the currently playable zones in Tamriel. The rest is inaccessible, and there’s a great deal of it. Naturally there needs to be post launch content and expansions, and you need a place to put them. The playable areas are big: for some context the small island in the bottom left populated by various icons took me a good 20 hours to complete.
Elder Scrolls Online’s character creation and customisation is actually impressive - it’s probably the best thing about the game. Creation feels right: there’s all the sliders you could want to fine tune your look, and picking between one of the four classes: Dragonknight, Sorcerer, Nightblade and Templar is a hard problem.
That’s because any class can use any of the available weapons and armour just like Elder Scrolls fashion. You could dress your Orc Sorcerer in medium armour and augment his two handed sword with fireballs. Maybe you want to use a bow from afar as a Wood Elf, but also fall back on some healing magic from the Templar class. This is genuinely exciting and forward thinking, and Zenimax Online deserves real credit for being brave enough to follow through with a character class system that is a world ahead of traditional MMO archetypes.
Combat is interesting, but clunky. It’s uses a combination of pre-determined action bar skills, and real-time weapon swinging. Clicking with your left mouse will let you swing or fire your weapon, whilst the right button enters a blocking stance. Enemies telegraph powerful attacks - if they’re blocked, you can stun and knock them back.
Each weapon set can hold upto five skills and an ultimate ability, which you can mix and match from weapon and class abilities. When you reach level 15 you can have two weapon sets on the fly, each with their own set of abilities. As you use these abilities and weapons, they will begin to level up and eventually will be able to be morphed. Morphing gives you a choice between two upgraded variants of a specific skill, further tailoring to your style of play.
There’s a real density to the choices ESO is offering you. You can heavily invest in one archetype alone or split it between two - which you can change at a weapon swap. Skills can be swapped on the fly as long as you’re not in combat too, so you can be versatile in the situation at hand. You can pay a hefty fee to reset all your spent skill points, so at any point in the game every weapon/armour combination is open to you. This sort of freedom should be the standard for future MMOs.
Elder Scrolls Online is about quests. And in principle, they’re not bad.
You’re rarely asked to kill ten rats or a similar equivalent. It’s a bit more natural. Quests are always related to an overarching narrative, and are delivered by some quality voice acting. Sometimes you can recognize a reuse of a certain actor, but it’s the smallest of nuances. You’ll find yourself involved with complex conspiracies, heated family feuds and a weird abundance of vengeful ghosts.
Sure, you’ll be killing lots of monsters in between, but only because they’re en route, and not because a quest tracker is telling you to.
You’re not constantly directed by the quests, too. Most you discover for yourself by exploring, and there’s always the main quest - to combat the forces of Molag Bal, nagging at the back of your mind. Then there’s also your faction quest line - a set of objectives in aid of your chosen faction.
Being in the Aldmeri Dominion I was one of Queen Ayrenn’s agents - aiding her bid for acceptance among the people while foiling the plans of her silent enemy: the Veiled Inheritance. It’s a big political drama, smoothed over by one of my favourite characters in the game: Razum-Dar. He’s a sharp Khajiit, another agent of the queen and your mentor. His writing has had me laughing on a number of occasions and I absolutely adore him.
Compare that to the main quest which is just… rubbish.
While the faction quest line follows you around in your exploration, the main story line doesn’t. Instead, every few levels The Prophet - played by Michael Gambon and your guide in your war against Molag Bal - will magically appear next you with the rehearsed request: “Vestige, I must speak with you”. You then have to stop whatever you’re doing, fast travel to meet with him, and then complete whatever task he has before you. Rinse and repeat. It’s a stiff, weird interruption that feels disjointed and alone from the entire world.