Upon entering the world of The Elder Scrolls:V for the first time, players are given the option of travelling almost anywhere, at any time, to hunt dragons, save villagers or simply wander the planes to discover hidden treasures, locales or dungeons. There are generally no arbitrary restrictions, as per previous Elder Scroll titles (at least since Morrowind) in terms of where you can go and what you can do. If you find a piece of armour that fits, you can wear it, and subsequently, wield any type of weapon or learn new types of magicka. There are quest lines, but you can ignore them, choosing to delay your avatar’s dragonborn destiny while you fill up your questionably sourced houses with old pots, chairs and books.
It’s within this paradigm that the existence of The Elder Scrolls Online becomes an enormous paradox. How can a game that was made so famous and so popular, especially amongst those who aren’t generally fans of fantasy RPGs, for it’s lack of restraint be boxed into a genre commonly known for the opposite? I have had the innate luxury of seeing the development of this game from an early stage - I was privy to the pre-alpha code last year in Maryland, where, frankly, there was very little to be excited about. The starting areas were stark and wooden, full of standard mobs and uninteresting quests. We were only offered a few hours to play before developers shut down our sessions and announced the now infamous first-person viewpoint.
The well publicised and patronised betas over the past few months showed the game had made some progress in attempting to salvage much of what plagued a fairly droll early game. But I still felt that while the cosmetic and systematic portions of TES were definitely stronger and sturdier than before, the conundrum that Zenimax faced regarding balancing freedom and structure was still the obvious elephant in the room. TESO was not designed from the ground up to offer the same “open” experience as Skyrim, and it’s important to know that if players are expecting their play to emulate that standard, they will leave disappointed. But that doesn’t not mean that this is a bad game by association - it’s just sitting in a very awkward limbo.
TESO does a lot of things right, and many of those modified mechanics are a huge departure from traditional MMO stalwarts. Class selection is not highly rigid, instead, alongside the standard race, gender and body customisation, provides a set of abilities that can be levelled or ignored at the players leisure. On top of this, choosing a race becomes a little more interesting - some may provide stealth or archery bonuses, for example, or proficiency with healing. But largely, outside of a few specific skill options - a healing spec’d character can wear heavy armour if they like and dump all their points into 2-handed axes if they feel the urge.
This freedom is not entirely original but it’s a breath of fresh air when it’s coupled with ESO’s traditional, (and brilliant) system of natural skill progression. If you use a particular spell frequently, wear heavy armour and wield a bow, then the game will track that usage and level up the various abilities as appropriate. Over time, some skills can be “mutated” by spending skill points to fork the ability into a different, stronger, direction. For example, a spell that originally hit one enemy for 48 might now hit two for 48, or alternatively, hit one for 90. Progression is notified in the same way as Skyrim - with bold white text briefly gracing the screen as you get stronger.
I loved this touch, and I especially liked how it seemed to operate independently from the standard levelling system that still exists within the game. The UI is equally as slick, taking more cues from earlier titles by barely existing at all - health, magicka and stamina bars still manage the flow of skill use (with no cooldowns) and only appear when required. There’s a hotbar and map of course, but these are the only static elements, meaning as much of the screen as possible is available to absorb your surroundings. Zenimax Online should be applauded by stripping back the visual mess that overlays tend to have, flooding players with information that they generally don’t need.
Combat is where the wheels start to fall off the wagon however, and while a lot of work has been done to remove much of the latency out of the equation, it’s clear that some things just don’t translate well across from solo play. There is still a lot of animation lag in combat across all stages of action - clicking the left mouse button may not immediately initialize a quick attack, and even if it does, it’s far too slow to connect. Equally, blocking incoming attacks with the right button can be entirely hit or miss - the game offers up a helpful tooltip to prompt you when to block but even then, this still may not register. It’s also extraordinarily difficult to target attacks for multiple mobs and objects. At the same time, for Australian players, this can be even more extenuated by the extra 120ms or so of latency we have to deal with normally.
It’s frustrating since your opponents can move very fast in many cases, with zero lag in their actions and subsequent reactions to your movements. Some mobs have the ability to teleport or jump around you, meaning your delayed actions can not register at all against some of the more powerful mobs. On top of this, there is a dodge mechanic which is essential to survival… and almost impossible to use in the much touted first person mode. While it’s fun and cool to duel tet-a-tet with a sword wielding bandit, the lack of spacial awareness means you can’t see the his mate running up behind you nor can you see the tree to your left which is blocking your dodge-roll.
The much lauded first person viewpoint was added quite late in the development cycle, and it begins to show its limitations fairly early on. Most players I talked to ended up scrolling back to activate an over the shoulder perspective, particularly once they encountered multiple enemies that frequently utilised unblockable ground attacks. It’s a shame, because it’s one of a few, fairly significant drawbacks that pull you away from the TES framework. Many players will likely fumble their way through it anyway, but I advise against it for the sake of posterity. Especially when you’ll find mobs rubberband back to their original spots if you move too far away.
I have genuinely struggled with my attempts to define the PVE (Player Vs Environment) experience in TESO. On the one side, there has been a valiant effort made to reduce the “Go do this for me and come back” style of questing that tends to remove a lot of the flow from games with various story arcs. Navigation to quest holders is done via the icon navigation bar, also a TES staple, and in most cases it makes sense. Quest holders tend to begin a mini-cluster of events, ranging from finding items, to killing enemies, disarming traps and so on. Quite a lot of effort has been made to make many of these fairly grindy missions interesting by splicing in lore, flashbacks and old souls, and offering optional disguises to avoid combat.
The problem is that this experience is still not new, or exciting, especially if you aren’t deep into TES stories. Sure, everyone has dialogue trees, there’s some decent voice acting and whatnot, but you’re still just killing bandit after bandit, imp after imp. There’s usually only one way to complete or finish (sometimes two, although with little to no recurring consequence) a quest. Mobs roam around in their predetermined areas, clustered by level range, waiting to be killed. In a nutshell: PVE becomes dry, predictable, and grindy.
Exploration is similarly disguised in a layer of thin cloth veil - sure, you can roam around wherever you want… unless you wander into a zone where the mobs are too strong. There isn’t really much of an advantage to roam anyway - your quests are designed to be spread across the wider area of your level, and really aren't any easter eggs or cool areas to explore. It’s just a heap of zones - full of other heroes all running around, talking to the same people and setting off the same scripted situations.
Zenimax actually shot themselves in the foot by allowing non-instanced quest areas. As nearby players share the loot and experience of every battle, most of the time you can complete quests simply by turning up and firing off a single attack. Scripted situations occur one after the other, as players cluster and fight to trigger the event - like burning a boat or watching a flashback play out. It rips away much of the immersive nature of the situation when everyone’s a literally lining up to be a hero. I appreciate the active, visual population, especially in town, but the problem is the game doesn’t care about everyone else.
Groups are entirely unnecessary - most content is too easy and too short to be worthwhile finding someone else to play with - and when it’s not, it’s well out of balance and too late to find help. There aren’t many dungeons in the early levels and, as previously mentioned, the benefits of grouping are provided when solo. There’s fairly standard guild system that offers a bank and an internal store (there is no public Auction House), but unlike Guild Wars 2 there aren’t any bonuses or advantages as of yet to being part of it outside a feeling of solidarity.
It’s important to note that while, yes, TESO is an MMO and not a single player game, the title itself seems to forget that too. Unlike other MMOs it barely even mentions its group functions, nor especially tries to make sure you utilise them. As a result, it ends up being a lot like its predecessors in the manner that you tend to ignore anything and everyone else around you that isn’t part of your current objective. It pushes you back and forth across the map, into every nook and cranny, making it feel like you’re exploring - but there’s nothing cool hiding in the corners.
It isn’t until you enter the enormous Alliance War PVP (Player Vs Player) system that the benefits of playing with others begin to bear fruit. PVP takes a lot of cues from GW2 (and to a lesser extend Dark Age Of Camelot) with a wide system of siege warfare and builds on it by allowing more players to get involved with deploying weaponry and actively supporting your team via repairs and deploying forward bases for spawns. There’s a bunch of PVE content spliced into this system alongside a fairly robust reward structure for participation. It’s fun enough, but its design threatens the possibility for one particular side to become far too overpowered. After only a week, I could already see the tides turning towards a particular alliance. But at the same time, I enjoyed it, and just like some of the early 4-player raid content, the unique nature of character builds made group combat fairly interesting.
TESO is a strange beast. I have not played an MMO previously that is trying so desperately to be two things - a solo RPG with a fierce dedication to individual skill definition, mixed with a fairly traditional MMO theme park setting complete with scripted events, patrolling mobs and static dungeons. In some ways, it succeeds in carving out a lush, gorgeous world full of great locales and tons of lore.
There’s system tidbits like lockpicking and house harvesting to placate those who want to feel like they’re at home in TES. But at the same time I found much of the leveling content to be unimaginative in practise, regardless of its disguise, and gaining levels to reach the arguably more entertaining PVP and PVE Group content agonisingly slow. I didn’t see much of the clever mob AI I had been told about, nor did I feel engaged with other players or the world at large. Additionally, mixing hotkeys with real-time combat always tends to be an exercise in futility.
Much of this is complicated by the $15US/month subscription fee, which I personally think is far too high and subjectively irrelevant when server costs are now so low and content provisions are not as frequent or even free in many cases. In TESO’s case, this is compounded by the fact that the market has changed drastically over the past 5 years, alongside the plethora of MMOs that currently exist without a single monthly fee. At this point, I don’t think the brand is enough to justify such a high cost, especially when the endgame content itself is rare on the ground.
If you’re a diehard fan of TES lore, there is certainly more than enough here to keep your invested. But the lack of new mechanics, interesting side activities, buggy combat and generic PVE does not help its case. Under the surface, not enough has changed to the formula that separates The Elder Scrolls Online from existing free or established properties, and I would find it genuinely hard to recommend to anyone seeking an experience outside of a cosy, well presented, box.