The Elder Scrolls Online is the most anticipated and largest scale MMORPG since Star Wars: The Old Republic was released in 2011. With the worlds of Skyrim, Morrowind, and Daggerfall already available in a single player format with varying forms of technical achievement, The Elder Scrolls Online seeks to make all of Tamriel available to players–from Hammerfell to the Black Marshes. It is a devilishly ambitious undertaking, and developer Zenimax Online–not Bethesda Game Studios, who have been responsible for all previous Elder Scroll outings– provided its first taste last weekend of a mixed product that both exceeds expectations while failing to scratch that same itch the Elder Scrolls games have long been known for.
The Elder Scrolls Online attempts to bridge the gap between previous games set in Tamriel and the gameplay style of an MMO. In many ways Zenimax is successful, delivering a gorgeous and impressively well crafted world, but certain issues keep The Elder Scrolls Online painfully tied to the idea of being, “just another MMO”, as the game fails to aggressively assert itself as something unique and different. That’s not to say this is a World of Warcraft clone, Elder Scrolls Online has plenty of things that are all its own, but when it gets down to brass tax, the game focuses more around grinding out levels, quests, and upgrades than it fosters the exploration that has always been the signature joy of the Bethesda Game Studio classics. While the game may fail to channel the spirit of Skyrim or Morrowind, The Elder Scrolls Online succeeds in creating an experience that sucks you in and blissfully passes in the time in a mad flash as you see your character strive toward powerful improvements. The pacing of the game is fantastic and addictive in its own right.
Character creation is very similar to Skyrim in terms of cosmetic construction. Players can use sliders to determine everything from eye width to forehead slope. It is a faithful touch to the game, but not overtly necessary; I like being able to customize colors and hair styles, but I couldn’t seem myself spending a lot of time agonizing of the width of a character’s jaw. Nonetheless, the options are there for those who want them. The biggest departure from previous Elder Scroll ventures is the selection of class and alignment. While choosing races players align themselves with either the Daggerfall Covenant, the Ebonheart Pact, or the Aldmeri Dominion. This determines what your starting zones will be and what territory you will explore. It is difficult to say that one character can wander through the entire map, at least it unclear how to take your characters from one faction of Tamriel to another, we will have to see how deep the rabbit hole really goes.
Selecting an alignment is not the only difference in The Elder Scrolls Online, players will also have to select a character class. My options were Templar, Dragonknight, Sorcerer, and Nightblade. This selection will determine your available skill progressions. The classes are pretty self explanatory. I played as a Templar and was happy with my selection. Health potions are hard to come by in the game and playing as a Templar gave me the ability to heal myself while still being able to deal a decent amount of damage. This was important as health potions were hard to come by and were relatively ineffective in battle. Thus, I had to rely on my healing magics to save me when I started running low on health. I did not get a chance to play as the other classes, but a few other players in the chat expressed frustration while playing with the Sorcerer who seems best suited as a support character and difficult to progress without a party.
The starting zone sets the table for the Elder Scrolls Online’s story, after being executed, you awake in Coldharbour, a dimension in between Oblivion and the mortal realm. In this world of the undead, a powerful mage named The Prophet contacts you and guides you to your escape. Upon coming arriving in Tamriel there are two zones which players must explore, most likely on their own, to start the game. These early solo quests feel very much like the same old Elder Scrolls, journeying through beautifully detailed worlds, taking in the gorgeous vistas. Visually The Elder Scrolls Online looks as good–if not better–than Skyrim. The art is absolutely stunning and when you aren’t battling the dozens of baddies the world has to offer, stopping to smell the roses is rewarded with incredibly beautiful views. This game is every bit a pretty as advertised, even with its massive expanse.
For as big as the world is and a beautiful as it may be, the Elder Scrolls Online lacks variety. The first starting zone for the Daggerfall Covenant was a desert island, which is a fantastic change of pace for the traditional fantasy world of the series, but after the initial starting zone things started to look painfully similar. Journeying through Hammerfell yielded occasional changes in landscape, like hills and swamps, but while playing to level 20 everything looked fairly similar. I am sure that once you get further into Redguard territory and the Alik’r Desert, the settings would look distinctly different, but in previous games each city felt like it had a distinctive influence and culture, I have yet to get that sense from The Elder Scrolls Online.
It is also difficult to explore these areas as the territories are packed with easily killed enemies for mining experience. There are no quiet walks in The Elder Scrolls Online, rarely is there time to simply observe your surroundings, more often than not you are battling your way through hordes of baddies, trying to make it to the next town. Encounters happen often and it takes away from any feeling of solitude. That might be the point, this is a Massive Multiplayer game, and a party is something that feels strongly encouraged by the game’s pacing. I never felt like I was stuck or needed to mindlessly fight for experience, but when playing alone you will need every quest, side quest, and everything in between to make sure you are leveling up enough. Even with doing every quest available, I still found myself in difficult battles. I was not the only one, people were pretty consistently trying to partner up to stand a better chance against certain bosses. This should be less of a problem when more players are around, it also might be easier to level up when Zenimax Online puts the finishing touches on items to find and crafting abilities–both were not fully fleshed out in the beta.–but nonetheless The Elder Scrolls will boast a healthy challenge.
For all that challenge there will be good equipment to make it worth it. While I found myself trying to scrape together funds to upgrade my armor early on, drops coming after level 10 started to yield impressive upgrades. That being said, you will still have to scrape and save, even at level 20 I still was missing a mount, one of the more expensive items in the game. While the game is difficult, leveling up feels well paced and rewarding. My powers grew at a steady rate and I was always unlocking more abilities or making my abilities more powerful. Part of this level curve is learning of The Elder Scrolls Online is different from its predecessors. I’ve played every Tamriel game since Morrowind, and my fair share of MMOs, but figuring out the inner-working of crafting, experience, and your skill trees takes time. Unfortunately, a misstep can leave you feeling a bit lost. By the time i figured out how to mine and start smithing I was in a zone where I could not find any materials my low smithing level was capable of using, meaning I would have to backtrack to restart my mining career. Traversing the world isn’t difficult, and there is a pretty easy-to-use portal system, but because the world doesn’t feel dynamic it can grow tiring.
With such a small slice of The Elder Scrolls Online available in the beta it is impossible to tell how the final product will shake out. The stability of the game was very impressive and there were almost no interruptions due to server troubles. In the end, people who are hoping for more of the classic Elder Scrolls experience will probably be disappointed as elements from the Bethesda Game Studios classics don’t translate all that well into the MMO mechanics. Those who are anxious for a new, meaty MMO to sink their teeth into, should be able to scratch that itch. Boasting impressive voice work, drop-dead gorgeous art, and a faithful translation of a beloved video game world, The Elder Scrolls Online is an addictive wormhole that can steal away hours of your life.
Look for The Elder Scrolls Online April 4th, 2014 on PC and June 2014 on PS4 and Xbox One.