The Elder Scrolls Online is set hundreds of years before Skyrim, Tamriel Unlimited takes place in the middle of a huge war. Three implausible factions vie to put their emperor on the throne of Cyrodiil, all while the sinister Daedric prince Molag Bal attempts to take over the entire plane of existence. As a victim of his sinister plot, you’ll escape the chilling Coldharbour dimension and attempt to save the world while exploring Tamriel itself.
Elder Scrolls Online looks and feels like the everyman’s MMORPG. It has a familiarity to it. You can pick it up and immediately know what it does. On that count, Bethesda has done well to create an online mechanic that users can immediately get to grips with. There are classes, they have abilities, there are maps and tradable items, there are factions that compete with each other across the world. At first blush, Elder Scrolls Online is safe, warm, and easy.
However, MMORPGs are complex beasts. There is as much enjoyment in managing your game as there is in playing it, and Bethesda could have spent more time devising an interface that was more intuitive.
One of the main strengths of Skyrim was it was easy to understand and follow, but also very powerful in the game management system – which once modded was a dream to use. But Elder Scrolls Online was built for a more robust online experience. It had bolder ambitions and wasn’t designed with single-player gamers in mind.
One of the main draw backs is the in-game management system of MMORPGs is the closest gamers come to offline play, so there is merit in a single-player approach.
Secondly, and more importantly, the clutter and complexity of the Elder Scrolls Online GUI makes it hard for fans of the series to pick the game up and get going. If you’re up to level 10 and the game still hasn’t guided you towards an effective kit out for your quick commands, then something crucial has broken along the way.
But progression is not a problem with Elder Scrolls Online. The title sits on a bedrock of non-linear quests, lore and experience that fans of the series will hungrily tap into. The amount of main quests, sub-main quests, side quests, guild lines, secret missions or simply just places to explore is absolutely enormous. That is, of course, to be expected from a game that brings together the many wondrous environments that Bethesda has exposed us to in the past.
There is ample content in Elder Scrolls Online, even without its expected DLC, for even the most rapacious gamer to be satisfied.
Added to the game’s content there is a clever extension of the World of Warcraft factions mechanic, bringing additional complexity to the title.
Players can choose to join the Aldmeri Dominion, the Daggerfall Covenant or the Ebonheart Pact who then all compete for territory and control across the entire global map. By controlling territory members of each faction can be buffed depending on how much they rule over, giving gamers a real reason to engage in the politics of the meta game. Your chosen faction also determines which part of the map you start your character’s life in – so choose wisely. If you are Skyrim or Cyrodil fan, you might not want to spend 15 levels trudging through Morrowind.
But regardless of where you are, trudge you will. The Elder Scrolls Online combat mechanic is a strange mix between Neverwinter Nights II and the earliest iterations of World of Warcraft. It’s not necessarily bad, it’s actually pretty decent, but compared to the intense combat of its single-player predecessors Bethesda’s online offering feels stilted and barren.
Even the low-level boss battles you experience early in the game feel like they were put there, just so that’d you’d have something to aim at. When put beside the wealth of storytelling in the Elder Scrolls‘ universe, more could be included to create a sense of majesty and impetus.
What is impressive is the organic way that your character levels up and improves. Unlike more restrictive MMORPGs, Elder Scrolls Online allows you to build your character into the shape you want.
Gone are the arbitrary restrictions on armour or weapons, and instead you can choose to build your character into a hybrid of several other well-known classes. This is a throwback all the way to 1994’s Arena and has been transferred well into the online world. It’s also a forward thinking move by Bethesda. Once the guild scene starts to improve you can expect to see gamers thinking carefully about which builds to include, and how they can be deployed to the best advantage for their party.
But unfortunately, it is that all important “player-to-player experience” that is at the heart of the Elder Scrolls Online‘s problems. MMORPGs are supposed to be social experiences, one that you share with other players in a communal way.
Elder Scrolls Online does not yet have this flavour. That doesn’t mean it’s not going to get them in the future, obviously communities take time to build. But the early experience is of a Tamriel where gamers are only in it for themselves, and where they don’t see the need for team play. This is a failure of design.
Bizarrely, even the combat areas of Elder Scrolls Online feel like the holding lobbies of older, less sophisticated online titles. Everyone is either taking a shortcut through your experience, trying to get their head around their menus, or is just ignoring you.
This critique matters because it resolves Bethesda’s big gamble. Previously the Elder Scrolls series was intended to be a solitary affair. That’s what made it impressive. You, and you alone, were immersed in a fantasy world of your own that begged to be explored.
Expanding that out to others was the next logical step, but in doing so Bethesda may have overreached.
Perhaps Tamriel wasn’t meant to have thousands of marauding heroes. Maybe it should only have had 200, or 100, or 50 at any one time or on any one server. In overreaching Bethesda has missed a chance to create a more immersive online role-playing experience by not re-thinking the fundamental mechanics of the genre, which paradoxically was the reason that the Elder Scroll series was so popular in the first place.
The Elder Scrolls Online is a solid, meaty title. It has hours of gameplay, satisfying character trees, and a wealth of online role playing experiences to churn through. It’s safe and secure. It serves up the classic habitual MMORPG experience, albeit with a Tamriel twist. And for many gamers, this will be fine.
Bethesda has created an example – not an evolution – of the genre. This is an important lesson for Bethesda to learn, because if it doesn’t, it will have spent years creating a world that exposes you to everyone – but which leaves you feeling even more alone.