Elder Scrolls Online looks to re-envision the Elder Scrolls franchise by turning what has so far been a solitary experience into a massive open world RPG; but does it succeed in making you feel like you are still playing an Elder Scrolls game or are you left looking for your sweet roll in another generic MMO?
Set a thousand years before the events of Skyrim, Elder Scrolls Online opens up the world of Tamriel as we have never seen it before. Fans of the series will instantly recognise the mountainous terrain of Morrowind and the vast dessert of Hammerfell. For those not so akin to the franchise, the game does a great job at delivering a meaningful experience littered with tit-bits of lore that hardcore fans will be quick to pick up on.
As in all Elder Scrolls games, you start as a prisoner but, this time, you’re dead. Molag Bal, the Daedric Prince of domination has stolen your soul and has you held captive in his plane of Oblivion. This time you’re fighting for your very life to even get out of the tutorial area and Elder Scrolls delivers on its story-telling ability we’ve become so used to over the years to immerse you in this moment of futility.
Before you’re thrust into the battle for your soul you’re presented with the familiar character customisation options that we’ve become familiar with in all MMOs. You’re given the option of three factions; the Aldmeri Dominon, Ebonheart Pact or the Daggerfall Covenant and it’s from these factions that you choose one of the nine familiar races we have seen in previous Elder Scrolls games and four classes new to the online game. Each class has a specific set of spells and attacks, but you’re no longer bound to wear plate as a warrior or cloth as a mage. A wide array of character customisation will have tinkerers and fiddlers sliding to their hearts content as they see their character morph before their very eyes.
And here is where the Elder Scrolls Online’s first major difference from other MMOs is apparent. You’re free to choose whatever class you like, but you are no longer bound to performing how we have been conditioned to in other online RPGs. You’re able to play a sneaky rogue while dressed in full heavy armour and wielding a two-handed axe if you so wish. The game doesn’t limit you to a specific way of playing, something that is both its downfall and its triumph. The problem with giving a player limitless access to armour and weapons may seem at first like a fantastic idea, but as you progress through the game you begin to feel that you’re not playing the game to the status quo. Should you perhaps have chosen more stamina for your two-handed sword wielding mage? Or are you now starting to realise stacking magicka on your cloth wearing warrior may have been a mistake?
However, the game still feels wholeheartedly like an Elder Scrolls game. The user interface has been given the Skyrim touch and when, out of combat. You are left with nothing on your screen but your overhead compass and your quest objective. Enter combat and you’ll instantly recognise the familiar red, green and blue bars that adorned your screen in Skyrim, but it is here where the familiarities end. You’re given an action bar that, as you level up, fills with spells and actions which you learn along the way. A major downfall to the action bar however is that it is capped at six with no ability to key-bind any more spells. Compared to World of Warcraft’s near endless amount of action bars and the ability to freely key-bind, you feel incredibly limited to what action you can cast. As default, you can bring up a radial menu (similar to Dragon Age) that allows you to drink potions and eat food at the press of a button.
Within seconds, the A-list voice acting talent hits you square in the face as you are greeted by an apparition of a character called the Prophet, voiced by Michael Gambon (Professor Dumbledore). He informs you of his plan to rescue you from your cell and that he has seen visions of your future. It may take you a while to look past the fact that you’re being led around by Dumbledore but, once you escape the cell, you’re led through the usual hand-holding tutorials you come to expect from an Elder Scrolls game.
As you play through the starting area, picking up weapons and armour pieces as you go, you’re greeted by more of the stars that Bethesda and Zenimax no doubt paid a pretty penny for. John Cleese provides the comic relief as a gone-mad-pan-wearing-lute-playing stranger tasked with giving you advice on a certain quest. Jennifer Hale (of Mass Effect) acts as your companion and guide through the area while providing additional quest information.
While the game does a good job of providing an excellent soundtrack, the visuals of the game struggle to keep up. In-game set pieces such as the death of the Emperor in Oblivion or the opening scene in Skyrim always felt epic, but here, you find yourself looking around the screen at anything but the action. Don’t mistake this for a flaw by Zenimax however; this is a characteristic of many MMOs. It’s difficult to engage a player in one specific moment when you have given them a quest log full of things to do and a massive world to explore.
Graphically, the game looks beautiful from afar, but get close and textures appear dull and flat. Environments look lush and expansive, but get close and you’ll find yourself surrounded by nothing by rocks and a couple of skittering spiders. The areas lack in substance and you will often find yourself running for five minutes without encountering a single bit of wildlife or any enemies.
Combat seems to have taken a back seat to the world design and feels incredibly clunky at times. The ability to play true first person in an MMO is nice, but disorienting. No doubt the inclusion of first person was a no-brainer for the franchise as it’s something we’ve come to know and love in the series, but frame rate issues and stodgy animations do nothing but cause nausea and discomfort. Animations lack sharpness and an unconvincing hit-box does little to engage you in a battle. You’ll find yourself swinging through an enemy without doing any damage only for them to swing from five feet away and catch you square in the jaw.
However, some areas of combat are a welcome change. The ability to now interrupt your opponent’s attacks is a welcome addition and is executed well. The game does well at retaining the feedback you feel when you do land an attack, the swing of a heavy mace feels as satisfying online as it does in Skyrim. Nevertheless, there is no display of how you’re damaging your opponent as we’ve seen in MMOs before. Numbers don’t appear as you make contact with an enemy nor is there any indication as when you make a critical strike. This has no doubt been done to add to the immersive feel of the game and to make it feel like you are still playing an Elder Scrolls game, but it could be a negative for those used to seeing their damage output visually represented.
Questing remains mostly the same as you’d expect from the set-in-stone MMO formula. “Gather 10 of these things and return them to me so I can do this” or “Kill 10 of these so I can later ask you to go gather 10 more things”. What the game does well is to add a bit of polish to this formula. A gathering quest becomes a journey through the use of quest text and dialogue. NPCs are all fully voiced so you no longer feel as though you’re doing a quest for some random faceless being; instead, you’re doing it because you’ve formed a connection with that character. It feels, Skyrim-esque.
That final point there, “Skyrim-esque”; therein lays the main problem with The Elder Scrolls Online. You’re so immersed in this game that has been intentionally designed and produced to feel like part of the Elder Scrolls universe you’re left wondering why you’re not playing one of the older games.
The Elder Scrolls Online struggles to convince you to pay the monthly subscription fee when the experience you were hoping for can already be experienced. The game itself is beautiful, expansive, and a joy to be in. Maps and NPC interactions are like we have never seen in an MMO before and it does a great job of keeping you immersed in the game. But it falters in separating itself from the solitary experience we’ve had before, instead opting to sit on the fence of an MMO and a single player game.
– Contributed by Joe Coleman