WARNING: This review will wholeheartedly document the journey of a complete and utter noob.
So the time has come… the next stage of BETA testing for The Elder Scrolls Online has gone public. I must admit, this was a game I’d not particularly reconnoitered with interest over the year – partly because MMO’s aren’t my thing and partly because of Skyrim’s successful longevity. I still have many miles to go in that chapter of the Elder Scrolls saga, therefore Elder Scrolls Online to me would prove to be a brief dalliance into an unknown realm that I had very little knowledge of/interest in.
Getting set up was as easy as 1, 2, 3 – a pleasant surprise for me, as historically the PC games I’ve invested in have demanded too much from my machine and therefore have either not worked or have been a slow, laborious chore to play. I am undoubtedly a console gamer at heart, however the slick load times and a simplistic character creation menu meant that I was suddenly being swayed to the ‘other’ side.
I opted to call my creation ‘Meaty Tackler’ as that’s also the semi-humorous name of the 5-aside football team I play for (well, Marston’s Meaty Tacklers to be precise). I had every intention of making Meaty Tackler an investable character, however when I realized there wasn’t an option to have my hair in a quiff Elvis-style I soon abandoned that line of thought. Therefore, Meaty Tackler became a Templar Wood Elf with a ginger Super Mario moustache and ‘no gear’ because I thought it’d be funny to see my elf run around his pants. What happened next stunned me.
I was thrust into a genuine Bethesda Elder Scrolls game. No if’s, ands or buts – this wasn’t some cheap knock-off MMO, this was a believable, immersive Elder Scrolls game. I couldn’t believe my luck. I also instantly recognized some of the voice talent on offer – I hope the majority of players recognized The Prophet’s voice; he’s the one and only Albus Dumbledore/Michael Gambon. Normally I’d rinse through the oodles of NPC chatter but the clearly high standard of voice acting on offer earned my respect and attention. This was continued by my comradery with the Nord half-giant Lyris Titanborn, voiced by Jennifer Hale – and eventually meeting up with the cheerful Cadwell played by the emphatic John Cleese. This abundance of talent, may I add, all available to the player before they’ve even finished the tutorial.
I worked my way through the tutorial, which didn’t take too long at all. Here we discovered the general plot outline – your character has sadly been sacrificed by the evil Molag Bal (Malcolm McDowell) who schemes to enslave all the mortal souls of Tamriel, with you now existing in this weird hellish state of limbo called Coldharbour. With the help of The Prophet, a blind, mysterious Dumbledore wannabe – you learn your way around the game’s fairly simplistic MMO set-up and transport yourself into the real world of Tamriel. From one Coldharbour to a sort of warmer-harbour, you wake up on the deck of a ship. You gather your thoughts, take a deep breath and leave the docking station in the glorious sunshine with the promise of adventure ahead of you.
This is immediately where I began to lose my way. Perhaps I’m not accustomed to the MMO way of things, however as soon as I stopped having my hand held I lost all sense of direction. I was a free agent, I could do whatever I wanted – Meaty Tackler could get high on leftover bits of cheap red wine and join a guild if he wanted to. And that’s exactly what he did. I stumbled into the first town I could find, already at this point Level 5. I had a look around all of the available buildings before deciding to see what the Mage’s Guild was like. It was here I joined without any hassle, spoke to a few friendly NPC faces and was given one of my first quests – to explore an empty ruin north of the town to discover some new intel. Now we were cooking with gas!
As I left the guild I discovered my first online pals, a couple of fellow BETA-testers who scrambled around the town like headless chickens. I pursued them for a while – typing random things into the chat box in an attempt to get them to talk to me/be my friend. When I say random things – I mean the truly outrageous ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’ sorts of things. Suffice to say they ignored me and carried on their questing. This may be because I did something wrong, or it may be because I was playing on a special press server reserved for only select members of the UK press. While at first I felt very privileged, I soon began to feel extremely lonely and found that talking to a world full of repetitive NPC drones really began to grind my gears.
I ignored some of the more blatant story-progressing quests and decided to complete this first assignment for the guild, thinking it would help progress my characters stats. As soon as I took 10 steps north of the town I encountered a floating beastie (level 6) who killed me in 3 hits. Suffice to say, I probably needed some armor and a better weapon. Did I heed that warning? Nah. With a cheeky tap of the ‘R’ key I found you could respawn exactly where you died with a slight degrade to your inventory – not that I noticed it whatsoever. I continued northwards, ignoring every dangerous looking enemy I encountered and pinging arrows at things like snakes and rats and monkeys (the latter of which I felt very sad about killing). Eventually I discovered the forgotten ruins and entered. The graphics were fantastic, taking me immediately back to Oblivion on the Xbox 360, and I felt fully immersed in my press-only, lonely, meddlesome Mage quest. I was certainly ill-prepared, only knowing 2 spells and having no real weapon or amour to speak of. I managed to kill one dark creature before I was ambushed by 4 others and was repeatedly murdered. That, ladies and gentlemen, was where I called time on my BETA experience and decided to write this review.
I can see the very evident pros and cons to The Elder Scrolls online. The music and voice acting have been developed and produced so carefully with real passion and heart that this could easily be a grade A title on a console (which I believe it will be in a few months time). Graphically, ESO harks back to the very best of the Bethesda Elder Scrolls games, with similar enemy designs and a wonderful, polished appeal of Tamriel and its many dungeons. I’ve heard for many hardcore MMO gamers this game is too basic, it feels like a watered down version of Skyrim – which is probably, for me, exactly why I enjoyed it so much. Granted, it’s probably a very entry-level MMO title but it serves its purpose and I appreciated it for not over-encumbering me with gallons of text to read through and revise. The character progression was fabulous and I enjoyed being free to roam a world with other gamers – despite the general lack of press BETA testers. I imagine tackling those forgotten ruins in a team would take the pressure of a solo adventurer and therefore makes the thrill of the game more apparent – working as a group to complete objectives. Sadly, despite all the positives for the game I can’t help but feel it’s very steeply priced. The £50 initial price seems fair and reasonable to me in this gaming economy, however the subscription free rings to me a massive no-no – it’s exactly why I avoided games like these in the first place. There also doesn’t seem, at the moment, to be too much content to justify that monthly fee – and I’ve also heard a lot of content is locked behind a pay-wall, which many faithful gamers take as an insult. So while I would definitely sink more hours into Elder Scrolls Online (and look forward to) I can see it requires some work before it becomes a real World of Warcraft killer. Good job Bethesda team –Meaty Tackler certainly enjoyed his stay.