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Zenimax’s attempt at a massively multiplayer role-playing game, The Elder Scrolls Online, is now live for players in North America and Europe. It promises to bring the franchise’s memorable world and open gameplay into a multiplayer format, but it sells for full retail and has a subscription fee. Is it worth your hard-earned cash?
Setting Foot On Tamriel
The Elder Scrolls Online takes place on the continent of Tamriel. While the last three games in the series have focused on only a chunk of this landmass, ESO covers swaths of it. Cyrodiil, the interior landmass explored in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, serves as the PvP map, while other zones touch upon, but don’t cover the same ground as, Morrowind and Skyrim.
In fact, there are many areas that ESO fleshes out for the first time, most notably the homelands of the Elven races and the far northwestern reaches. This will be a treat for fans of the Elder Scrolls lore, and like previous games in the franchise, ESO is filled with ruins to explore, history books to find, and secrets to uncover.
Suggesting that lore is a selling point may be excessively nerdy, but the rich history of the Elder Scrolls fiction has become a franchise feature. And unlike many competitors, ESO ties exploration to tangible rewards via Skyshards. You receive one skill point for every three you find, and most are off the beaten path.
The Writers Earn Their Pay
The Elder Scrolls, like most fantasy worlds, has a fair share of gobbly-gook. There’s a long list of cults, factions, gods and demons, all with strange names that can be hard to keep straight. Lore fans will love the detail, but other players may be left scratching their heads.
Look underneath the high-fantasy lore, however, and you’ll find some solid writing. You’ll talk to recurring quest characters who are genuinely likable and become involved in political intrigue that is genuinely interesting. There’s even subtle humor; in a village belonging to the Khajit, a race of humanoid cats, I came across a caged dog surrounded by curious and horrified onlooker who seemed scarcely able to believe such a creature exists.
The depth of the story is helped along by the optional first-person perspective and the deep character creation system. While everyone has access to the same quests, not every character looks the same, and that helps create a sense of ownership. You’ll find it easier to believe what you do matters than in most recent MMOs, though ESO doesn’t quite match Star Wars: The Old Republic in that regard.
MMO, Elder Scrolls Style
ESO’s franchise flavor is impossible to miss. You’ll find it in crafting, character customization, questing and even player-versus-player combat. This game is more willing to let you mess up than some other recent titles, and it also feels completely uninterested in helping players reach max level. Quest chains don’t link up seamlessly, quest hubs are rare, and you’ll occasionally find yourself lost.
With that said, this is still an MMO. Though well written, most quests boil down to the tried-and-tired “go here, do X, come back” formula. Skills are activated via a hotbar, gear upgrades are extremely important, and AI enemies aren’t very intelligent.
The game’s PvP is also familiar. There are keeps that must be stormed and defended, small outposts that support them, and a wide variety of PvE quests that can be accomplished in the PvP area. All of this is fine, but also hardly unique; many games have tried the same, and most have failed. Whether ESO will be different is impossible to know so early in the game’s life.
The Elder Bugs
Bugs have always been a part of the Elder Scrolls franchise. Even Skyrim had its share of glitches, but the problems were tolerable because the game was a single-player experience. A physics bug that sent an enemy flying into the sky, for example, was more hilarious than disappointing.
ESO is different. The game is online, so bugged quests are harder to ignore and glitches can impact many players at once. Unfortunately, this hasn’t made Zenimax double-down on quality assurance. I ran across several bugged quests that had to be reset, and most friends and guildmates report the same. I also fell through the world twice and encountered a few opponents who clipped through the ground or a wall. One of these monsters managed to attack me while inside a cliff face!
The servers have had issues, too. Unexpected maintenance has occurred and features like mail and guilds had to be turned off temporarily because of duping bugs discovered by players. While disconnects are rare, lag is not uncommon, and I’ve occasionally struggled with login attempts that inexplicably failed.
So, Should You Buy The Elder Scrolls Online?
ESO is a bit vexing because its gameplay doesn’t entirely mimic modern MMOs, yet it also differs from a traditional Elder Scrolls title. The game feels more akin to console sandboxes like Dragons Dogma and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, both of which have large worlds filled with areas too dangerous for a low-level character to explore. This perhaps makes sense, as ESO is slated for release on both next-gen consoles.
If you’re an MMO veteran looking for a new game for raiding and end-game PVP, or you’re a die-hard Elder Scrolls fan looking to explore an open world, you should leave your money in your wallet. ESO is not going to satisfy either taste. This game is best for RPG loyalists and casual Elder Scrolls players who want a story-driven experience with room for some (but not too much) exploration.
You’ll also need to bring a healthy tolerance for bugs. While the launch of ESO is far from the worst on record (The Secret World, for example, was in shambles by comparison), there are some quest-killing bugs and unexplainable glitches. More polish is needed, and players with little tolerance for buggy games should wait a few months for the kinks to be ironed out.
What do you think of The Elder Scrolls Online? Is it worth $60 with a $15 subscription fee, or should it have launched as a free-to-play game? Let us know in the comments.