Elder Scrolls 6 might feel like it’s aeons away. To be fair, it probably is. Bethesda is remaining staunchly quiet on the topic of when we’ll next be visiting Tamriel, but if you’ve got an itch that no other fantasy RPG quite manages to scratch, you’re not alone. Over 200 hours in Skyrim might not put me in the truly dedicated class of players who have racked up thousands, but it sure has fostered a great fondness for the behemoth open-world RPG in my daedric heart.
In dire need of a fix when it comes to chatting to elves and getting embroiled in the latest crisis enveloping the Mages’ guild, I decided to try what has been - until now - unthinkable: Elder Scrolls Online. Like many who have walked Whiterun’s streets, I’ve never dabbled in MMOs. Yet with no Elder Scrolls on the horizon I was curious to see whether it would satisfy my questing needs. Does it match up to what I want from an Elder Scrolls game? Does it feel like an adequate stand-in for Elder Scrolls 6? I decided to find out - and here’s how it measures up.
YES - it’s got the makings of a worthy substitute
Stepping into the world is like getting hit in the face. No, scratch that, I did get hit in the face with a glimpse of the future. Faces don’t look like rubber masks anymore, with smooth and slightly sweaty elves looking out at you from Mournhold, or the scales of an Argonian dappled with moisture from the falling rain. I’m not going to exaggerate and say it reaches Witcher 3 levels of pretty, but it’s a damn sight better than the sadly outdated Skyrim visuals that are soon to be showcased on the Nintendo Switch. More importantly, it shows what Elder Scrolls 6 could look like. Deep in the back of my mind, the itch is beginning to be scratched. Slightly.
ESO gives you free rein with the sheer number of quests waiting for you in the wilds and the city streets (a bit of advice before you jump in: start the main quest, Soul Shriven in Coldharbour, as soon as you load up ESO. Starter islands ease you into the fantasy world surrounding you, and it helps to fight creatures your own level instead of rapidly finding yourself being killed over and over by the same high-level enemies). Once you’ve got a handful of levels under your belt, cities from Bleakrock to Mournhold are just waiting for you to arrive. From treasure hunts to a deadly plague that needs to be quelled, the quests on offer range from the happily mundane to the extraordinary. Because it’s so big there is the danger that some locations could suffer and feel empty. Yet there’s always something going on. Environmental set-dressing goes a long way: seeing NPCs queuing in Mournhold to get to the registrar, or entering a crammed inn pushes you deeper into the world, believing that every city is really lived in.
Tackling those quests the same way you did in Skyrim won’t exactly work either. Due to the character creation system requiring you to pick a class, there are two brand new offerings thrown into the mix alongside the predictable Templar, Nightblade, and Sorcerer archetypes. For anyone who’s into smashing the living (soon to be ex-living) daylights out of someone, there’s the Dragonknight. Powerful fire magic means they can conjure flame chains and lava whips out of thin air, or unleash massive scorching waves and burn anything in their path to a crisp. It’s an altogether more hellish slant on the usual knight/melee archetype, so if you usually enjoy the good ol’ sword and shield you won’t be forced into a vanilla experience.
Waiting in the wings is also the Warden class. It’s basically a druid, with power over nature and the ability to summon a bear to fight alongside you. A very destructive, very angry bear. Until you level up enough to unlock summoning the toothy mammal, however, other ethereal creatures attack those around you, as you frantically heal via sprouting giant patches of mushrooms and turn your skin to ice to stop a few of those especially painful blows. It’s no longer up to players to manipulate skill trees to create custom classes from the relatively simple mage/knight/thief classes of Skyrim, and the exclusive class-based spells sneakily encourage you to try different builds. There’s some real effort to give players a new experience in a way they won’t have gotten a chance to try since Oblivion’s slightly overwhelming (there are 21 of them!) pre-built character classes.
I’m not going to skirt around the main reservation people have about ESO. You do have to share the space with other people. But that’s not a bad thing. On more than one occasion someone saved my skin as I tried to take down an especially difficult enemy. You’ll develop a weird sort of courtesy when you’re playing too: don’t stand in front of doors, move off to the side if you’re going AFK for a while, and help out others instead of sprinting past the fights going on. It doesn’t take long to get used to the other people going about their business. Gazing at their armour might even ignite a spark of ambition in you, to find out where they got their pet or mount, or how on earth they manage to walk around with three orbs circling around their head. Think of it as if you’ve been given a strong dose of sibling rivalry.
NO - it doesn’t quite feel the same
The same life lessons apply to Elder Scrolls Online as they did to when you were eight years old and being told off for not letting your sticky-fingered younger sibling touch your stuff. You have to share. Running around all the towns and clustered especially closely around the wayshrines, other players are unavoidable. You can turn off their name tags as a way of immersing yourself a little bit more into the world, but it doesn’t quite do the trick. There’s no avoiding a mage riding past on a camel made out of rocks and lightning… and then looking sadly at your own ordinary, not-crackling-with-energy horse and feeling a little bit put out. Random, non-quest-based chests will disappear if a player unlocks them before you, and if you’re freeing spirits from a curse as part of a quest and someone gets there before you, you have to run off and find another one. It’s a tad frustrating at times and can end up being a race between players. It certainly breaks your immersion if you’re going for a lone wolf kind of thing, or even if you simply want to do your quests in peace.
Which brings me onto my biggest nitpicky point with ESO - and yes, I know it’s an MMO. I know you can’t avoid other players, because the whole point of the game is that you can see everyone having fun. And I’m happy for them, I honestly am. All I’m saying is that for people who are used to the solitude of playing Skyrim alone, seeing people speed through the same dungeons or leap ahead of you in a quest will be an odd experience. It’s not something you can sidestep. But it is the whole point of an MMO. So if the idea of someone sprinting past you with their toy Dwarven spider skittering behind them while you’re attempting to roleplay makes you recoil in disgust, ESO isn’t for you. Having said that, they do help you out every so often, especially when it comes to delving into a level all on your lonesome. The odd stranger saved me from a couple of scrapes when I unintentionally pulled multiple very angry mobs, so what at first was a jarring introduction to the world of online multiplayer ends up being a welcome dash of camaraderie.
Unfortunately NPCs don’t experience the same heart-warming bonding experience. Ever done that quick-save massacre trick in Skyrim? Well, it’s kind of still a thing in ESO. Multiple times as I was galloping around towns I found inexplicable corpses littering some areas, with their eerie doppelgangers walking around and acting like everything was normal. I’m going to assume that other players ushered these innocent citizens in the great beyond. It’s an odd reminder that you’re not alone in the world and other players are a lot more powerful than you - a reality which us single player-campaign lovers are sheltered from.
TL; DR - is ESO worth it?
So, like many things in this world, the answer to whether ESO is for those who are angling for Elder Scrolls 6 isn’t black-and-white. If you value your solitude (and no, I don’t mean the city), then ESO straight-up isn’t for you. Others share the space, so you’ll run into them during quests, exploring, and when you’re taking it easy in one of the main towns. But the world is crammed full of things to do, with convincing, memorable characters scattered everywhere. Bluntly put, it’s a chance to see a brand new side of Tamriel. Turn that down if you want, but just remember how long that wait for Elder Scrolls 6 will be...