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The Elder Scrolls Online review

Decent
AT A GLANCE
  • Excellent PvP
  • Some creative quests
  • Plenty to justify the subscription cost
  • Inconsistent design
  • Far too close to the standard MMO
  • Draws too many comparisons to other, better games

Ever since its inception, The Elder Scrolls Online has tried to service the demands of two, very different audiences. Die-hard ‘Scrolls fans who demand depth and the ability to go it alone, and MMO enthusiasts who crave a constant flow of fresh, exciting adventures to share with friends (and, sure, enemies). Unfortunately, ESO bears the scars of that tension, in that the interaction between its storyline and its MMO elements causes both to suffer. The result is an inconsistent blend that exists in the place where mediocrity meets competence.

On paper, this game nails the basics of a proper Elder Scrolls title. Many series trademarks, like starting off as a prisoner, an elaborate character creation tool, and--oddly enough--basic quest design, make the move to MMO fairly well. Sadly, it's missing the unbridled liberty of its single-player counterparts. Instead of the series’ iconic open worlds and emphasis on exploration, you find areas effectively blocked off by high-level monsters. Instead of exploring that space alone and feeling that you’re someone chosen for a special journey by the powers that be, you shuffle along the same paths as everyone else.

And those well-trodden MMO paths cut into the franchise's sense of wonder. Some of my most memorable moments with the single-player games in the series have been those times I’ve stayed up far too late at night just… wandering. In Morrowind’s Seyda Neen, I recall finding a chest of gold underneath some docks, leading me to ask: “Who left it there?" and “Why?” Elder Scrolls Online often attempts to capture that feeling, but only finds occasional success. One quest started with me tracking down a drunken soldier and ended with me attempting to stop an assassination plot on the king. That was a nice touch, but there are too few of these moments, and they don't come often enough as you play through the game.

Even when these moments do come, they are hampered by the game's MMO trappings. In that same quest line to save the king of Skyrim, one character presented me with a riddle. I had to solve it to uncover the King’s secret haven, but seconds later a quest marker popped up on screen revealing the exact location of the solution. For all the detail put into the game and its lore, ESO feels like an MMO wearing an Elder Scrolls costume.

Cobbling together crafting

One of the best pieces of Elder Scrolls Online is the crafting. You still need to hunt down material components, but making items and improving them isn’t a guaranteed success. Weapons and armor can have specific traits that will boost their damage or enchantment effect, but if you want to make items with those traits you’ll need to research them. So far the best items in the game are ones that have been lovingly crafted by players. That’s a welcome change from grinding for super-rare drops during high-level raids.

It’s fortunate, then, that as an MMO, ESO can stand proudly on its own. For one, it tosses out standard character classes in favor of a more dynamic system. You’ll pick between four main types of characters, and each has a clearly defined skill set associated with it. But to master these skills, you actually have to use them, and that opens up interesting gameplay variety. Any time I felt it necessary to make a quick change to one of my skills, all I had to do was use that ability or item more often. Progression scales with levels as well, so taking up a new weapon in a max-level area will take a fraction of the time as trying to train up something new in the beginning. Throughout the course of the game, you'll also have the opportunity to up skills and abilities that aren't intrinsic to your class, and that opens up even more options for character differentiation and customization. And while there are a whole host of opportunities to gain new skills, this process isn't infinite, so max level characters won't all have the same skill set.

Most veterans of the genre will tell you that MMOs are about grinding and endgame content. With only a handful of outliers, that’s largely been the case since World of Warcraft’s debut in 2004. Elder Scrolls Online does more than most to buck that trend by attempting to justify its monthly cost primarily with quests and content that’s readily accessible to everyone.

On the one hand, ESO contains significant depth for the more experienced MMO players out there. Combat, for example, cuts back on the post-WoW tyranny of ability bars. Instead of adopting that convoluted system, ESO grounds its play in careful player movement. Dodging, blocking, and speed are far more important than memorizing exactly when you need to use which ability. It’s a streamlined style that requires a bit more practice and skill to utilize effectively. It's clearly aimed at core MMO players.

On the flip side, the game also strikes a great balance between depth and accessibility. Take, for instance, player-versus-player combat. Starting at level 10, everyone can compete for territory and glory in Cyrodiil, a zone that acts as a PvP hub. Low-level characters receive stat bonuses that put them on roughly equal footing with those at max level. How well you do from there is more based on tactics, skill, and coordination with others players instead of which player has spent the most time hunting down the best gear. One-on-one fights are extremely rare, and that’s actually great for new players.

Of course, this accessibility scales up once a player has their feet wet. For example, large-scale strategy logistics in PvP fit the deep-but-accessible philosophy just as well. Every player will be in one of three factions, each battling over the same delta-shaped piece of land. The geometry there is important because if any one faction begins to gain more territory, the size of the front they must now defend increases. It’s rare in Elder Scrolls Online for any one group to become overwhelmingly dominant for too long. Over the course of my month or so of play, my faction--the Ebonheart Pact--seemed to dominate everyone for the first few days. It wasn’t long, however, until the other two groups banded together to poke holes in our defenses and steadily erode our advantage. More than anything else, this balance is what prevents the kind of one-sided victories that keep new players from ever feeling useful.

ESO is a competent MMO and that’s enough to carry the experience, but it’s only just enough. The one distinguishing factor--the Elder Scrolls backdrop--fails to capture the feeling of the franchise, despite its many concessions. MMO players looking for a strong PvP mode might be interested, but for everyone else ESO is middling at best. The tension between Elder Scrolls fans and MMO fans shows at every level. Instead of trying to create a totally unique experience inspired by both schools of design, they trample over one another and tarnish what could have otherwise been the ultimate tribute to the series.

More Info

Release date: Apr 04 2014 - PC, Mac (US)
Available Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Mac
Genre: MMO RPG
Published by: Bethesda
Developed by: ZeniMax Online Studios
Franchise: The Elder Scrolls
ESRB Rating:
Mature

Elder Scrolls Online struggles to balance between its single-player legacy and its decidedly MMO trappings. Some of its ideas work really well, but the rest is either derivative or half-baked.

This game was reviewed on PC.

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21 comments

  • R_U_Guys_From_British - February 14, 2014 7:36 a.m.

    Eurghhh wood elf ;-)
  • GOD - February 15, 2014 12:10 a.m.

    So now it sounds like a less good version of a regular Elder Scrolls.... Sure you can find stuff, but anything you can find, everyone else can find, so that river tunnel you described is a good example of the problem. In a single player Scrolls game, that's a hidden cave with some cool stuff inside. In an online game, that's a river tunnel that constantly has people going in and out of it and it's very clearly a place to get something because of all the traffic it will get. Overpopulation can ruin the experience, and under population can make you wonder why you're paying for an mmo in the first place. This is why I feel that the regular Elder scrolls but with online co-op would have been better. Maybe even a GTA styled online could have worked.
  • usmovers_02 - April 4, 2014 5:58 p.m.

    I can totally understand co-op in an Elder Scrolls game but an MMO? They were blinded by the money when they came up with this idea. Really hoping ES6 doesn't suffer.
  • Divine Paladin - April 12, 2014 6:06 p.m.

    Bethsoft is working on Fallout 4, and this was made by ZeniMax Online. You need not worry about ES6. From what I read though, it sounds much better than I'd previously expected it to be.
  • CinnamonToastAntista - February 15, 2014 9:08 a.m.

    In Oblivion you steal an Elder scroll during the Thieves Guild quest finale, that is the first in game use of an Elder scroll.
  • jivecom - February 16, 2014 4:36 p.m.

    :( I want this world in a single player scrolls game. I wanna go to all these places in Tamriel in one game, rather than seeing one region every five years. I want to see Hammerfell and Elseweyr! I want to see the migratory trees the Bosmer live on! It looks like THIS game will have a lot of those things, but I want to have my own experience in this place, not have an experience that is not only mostly the same as everyone else's but also necessitates that i'm working with other people constantly. I like to role play in these games and I don't think I can do that with loads of strangers who won't play along
  • xMajestic - March 16, 2014 11:33 p.m.

    The game is great and rp friendly. Im not saying everyone will rp with u but the people on there are really nice so im sure u will find a huge group of people u could do it with. Id rather make it an online game because theres countless times I wanted to play skyrim witb my friends and if this was 1player would role playing be boring? Because u dont have anyone to do it with lol.
  • Maineiac - February 18, 2014 8:32 p.m.

    You can't sneak while wearing a disguise, but you can just go into your inventory and remove it.
  • xMajestic - March 16, 2014 11:26 p.m.

    Wow you guys need to stop being babies. The game looks amazing and all your excuses are really ridiculousm ive played it and its a great game. If u dont like it then simply dont play it, stop complaining.
  • Bluewraith - March 19, 2014 4:05 p.m.

    I won't buy it and I will stop the beta... for me it is not what I was waiting for... The game bored me quickly, not because of the maps and artworks, there are ok but because the dungeons are so badly design I don't want to go in there.. no traps, 50 player waiting to kill one boss, 20 warriors killing everything on sight... 10 thief trying to be discrete in the same shadow... pathetic.. Everywhere the same crude lighting, no ambiance, no thrilling darkness, no intimacy with the action, I had more sensation and fulfillment in one cave in Oblivion or even the good all Morrowind than the 3 week-end I grind level in ESO... and for an MMO.. I'm sorry the quest are simply not... fun If you like Morrowind, oblivion, daggerfall, ultra realistic HD mode in Skyrim don't touch this game... it's toxic
  • ragnar-thered - April 18, 2014 7:10 a.m.

    OK so you played 3 weekends during beta? I will say its no Skyrim, but man it is a great mmo. Graphics 9.5/10 Story 9/10 awesome main story can be very hard and make you die lots :) + in my book Quests 8.5/10 some are sticky relog ok now they work, some are still broken (remember wow didnt even get the servers working for the first 8 days heh. my props: Bosmer 32 nightblade (aldmeri dominion) Tanglewood Breton Restoration staff (heal centered) Sorceress 19 Daggerfall covenant Morgyn Nord dragon knight 18 Ebonheart Pact Gefn I started elder scrolls on a pc-133 pentium 90 with Elder Scrolls:Arena :) I love this game, and more, I love the effort that Zen/Beth are making to make it fun, challenging and playable.
  • sinkheadhxc - April 4, 2014 5:19 a.m.

    pretty sure every. single. reviewer is starting in the region of Morrowind, and there's hardly enough time to have thorough reviews produced by the time of release. therefore, there will probably be a ton of bugs we're completely unaware of in places none of the reviewers reached because, for some reason, they all started in the same territory.
  • shawksta - April 4, 2014 11:13 a.m.

    Who knows how it'll end up. If its as immersive as the series is known for, it'll probably be great long term game as the past games were.
  • Shigeruken - April 19, 2014 11:13 p.m.

    I watched a few pvp streams when the game released. A lot of people were saying it was a lot like Guild Wars 2, and I didn't believe them. All mmos are fairly similar in a lot of ways. Then I started playing Guild Wars 2. It seems identical to me. The keeps look the same, the siege engines look the same, people play the same way, even the level scaling works the same way. The only major difference seems to be that GW2 is server vs server vs server instead of faction vs faction vs faction. I've heard that Dark Age of Camelot was one of the first games to have pvp in this style. I sincerely hope more games adopt this approach to pvp going foward.
  • Brett35 - April 28, 2014 11:31 a.m.

    Will there be a separate review for the console version?
  • GR_RyanTaljonick - April 28, 2014 12:57 p.m.

    There won't be a separate review, but we will update this with console impressions :D
  • homestar99 - April 29, 2014 7:34 a.m.

    Impressions that are guaranteed to make the game look even more like shit then it already does. The Elder Scrolls is NOT a MMO!
  • pamela-bailey-rhodes - May 6, 2014 10:54 a.m.

    I really could care less about the game. I just know we were charged $59.99 for this game and we didn't purchase it and our bank and ourselves have been unsuccessful in getting in touch with them. I reached them once and was told they would take care of it, then they said they coudln't find any info on us or our bank but they sure had the info to deduct funds from our bank. They won't answer phones from us or our bank so we are now filing disputes and fraud charges because they won't even TRY to fix it. Were told by our bank other gaming companies will quickly refund money if this type of thing happens because it is so common but no this company, they're trying to keep our money that doesn't belong to them. BEWARE because this company has our money and won't let go of it and we have no game , never did, never wanted it. Don't do business with them.
  • Pharstar - May 6, 2014 3:05 p.m.

    Just plain boring even only after 30 levels just plain ran out of things to do. The game is over run by bots. Which begs the question are they working with or against goldfarmers. The coding was good but after a while there were so many bugs I just quit playing. The game was advertised as being an intuitive "reactionary" game but even I with 120m p's download and 20mbps upload ISP and a brand new $2800 gaming pc over clocked at 4.2 ghtz my abilities only went off when I commanded them literally 20% of the time. Literally. Do not get this game. It is trash.

Showing 1-20 of 21 comments

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