Chris Capel goes once more into the Oblivion breach, dear friends
My Standard MMO Disclaimer: this is a review of the current build of The Elder Scrolls Online. MMOs more than any other game can change wildly with every patch, of which there will be many, so a year from now many of the problems I mention in the review may have gone. Likewise the score is only for the game as it stands as I write this. Feel free to use it as a general guide later on, but don't blame me if the game's actually better or worse than my review states when it goes free-to-play in October okay (probably)? Right, let's get on with it.
It's fair to say that I don't think any MMO has been released under such an air of hostility, indifference, nervousness or outright apathy as The Elder Scrolls Online. Since the first awkward reveal made it look like the most generic MMO ever Zenimax Online have obviously worked hard to make the game actually feel like an Elder Scrolls title. I'm going to get it out the way immediately: The Elder Scrolls Online is a hugely enjoyable game, now one of my favourite MMOs that I'll be playing for a good long time, and it really feels like Elder Scrolls. However each of those points have caveats, plenty of people won't get on with it as well as I have, and it depends on what you want from an MMO or the follow-up to Skyrim.
This is going to go well.
First of all a warning that in no way impacts the score but you need to know about it. First off £49.99/$59.99 is the standard price for the game, unless you fancy dropping twenty more for the Imperial class and an early horse. After that it's £8.99/$14.99 a month for a subscription. Not quite as bad as The Secret World but I still feel Bethesda are being wildly optimistic, nevertheless just paying for a game is your choice dear reader and I won't criticise. What I will criticise though is Bethesda's baffling decision to force players to buy a subscription before their free 30 days run out or they've even played the game. Let me underline. You cannot play Elder Scrolls Online at all, not even your complimentary month, without setting up a subscription or using a paid time card (which are in short supply). While the subscription is apparently not charged until the 30 days is up and you can cancel at any time, time card owners are out of luck. Presumably this is all to stop players just using the free 30 days and then leaving, but I'd rather Bethesda managed this with regular quality content and player trust rather than force. Rant over, let's get to the game.
It's a few hundred years before even the first Elder Scrolls game Arena and Tamriel is torn by war. The Empire has fallen and three factions from opposing corners of the world seek to conquer Cyrodiil and take the Ruby Throne. The Aldmeri Dominion are the elves and Khajiit of the south-west, the Daggerfall Covenant consist of Orcs, Redguards and Bretons in the north-west, and the Ebonheart Pact incorporates Nords, Argonians and Dark Elves from the north-east. What they don't know is that Molag Bal, Daedric Prince of Domination, is using the war to further his own ends and conquer Tamriel for himself, but from his clutches a hero has escaped and will live to thwart his plans.
Already we have a typical MMO problem: the story doesn't take into account the fact that there are millions of "chosen ones" running about. The idea of hunting down and vanquishing an evil witch who's tried to take over a kingdom through demonic rituals (as one early Aldmeri Dominion quest asks you to) kind of loses its gravitas when there's a queue to murder her. I'm often happy for the assistance but it's hard to take any of the story in ESO seriously. I went into a group dungeon with three other people and we had to occasionally sit and wait while a two minute conversation happened in front of us before we could move on (and that would happen several times in that dungeon). Star Wars: The Old Republic smartly incorporates whole groups into conversations, but ESO treats quests as if there was just one player rather than several - or many. Consequently this makes exploring as a group not very fun.
It's a frustrating problem and it's probably ESO's worst. Zenimax Online obviously couldn't figure out how to tell a big fantasy story and dish out engaging quests while incorporating dozens of other players. Mechanically all the MMO aspects of Elder Scrolls Online work quite well but they never sync up with the various stories. Which is annoying because the quests themselves are generally all pretty good, even well-written and occasionally amusing. They do occasionally lapse into silliness, like the time I was asked to find someone's squad when they were on the beach directly behind her (being helped by about a dozen other players), and voice acting veers between good and utterly awful (or phoned-in in the case of Michael Gambon as The Prophet), but in general I enjoyed taking on quests just for the weird twists they'd take.
Which is lucky, because questing is the primary thing you'll be doing in ESO. It's extremely annoying at first the way the waypoint system babies you (one early quest asked me to "grab a rat around the beach area" and the game put a waypoint on my map, highlighted the rat and put a huge marker over the rat itself) but thanks to the decision to not make enemies killed count towards your XP and the relative lack of anything interesting to loot in any area I was actually thankful for the waypoints so I could get through quests more quickly. Which brings me to the caveat - if you enjoyed doing just the quests in Skyrim instead of screwing around, going to random locations, searching for cool loot or just seeing all the land, you'll enjoy ESO. If you like the rest of those things, you may not.
Fortunately Tamriel itself is well-realised and interesting. In my early preview of the game I was worried about how drab everything looked, but fortunately in the final game this isn't the case. While a bit more flat and less expansive than Skyrim all the places I went to in Tamriel at full graphics settings looked pretty damn good, and more importantly full of life (just finding the Frog Races in Skywatch was a great moment for me). One wonderful touch is that after you've gone through a quest to clear a town from enemy invaders the town will actually clear of enemies and return somewhat to normal - other players coming through will seamlessly see enemies and the town in ruins, but you'll see it peaceful. Nice.
Aside from just having a load of folks randomly swarm in to "assist" you with your quests there is proper group stuff scattered around the world. Group Dungeons require you to meet up with three other people and tackle a tricky encounter. I have to say I'm impressed with the community and group options, as the first time I did one of these dungeons I simply filled in "need some help with Banished dungeon" on the group page and I instantly found myself in a four-person group who were all friendly, discussed helpful tactics and never rage-quit. That's exactly what I want to see. There's also Public Dungeons with higher-level enemies but any number of people can go through, some special powerful monsters to find, and the excellent Dark Anchors. These appear at certain points on the map and are visible for miles around as a massive gateway to Molag Bal's realm opens up in the sky and you and anyone around have to spontaneously work together to kill all the monsters spewing out and seal the portal. I've done loads of these and they never stop being amazing, and community-wise almost make up for the baffling decision not to have an in-game auction house [Side Note: fortunately the community has actually stepped up to create their own auction house, but it's hard to see the announcements for it through all the spam and gold farmer bots in the chat window].
Then of course there's the PVP. After reaching level 10 you can warp to Cyrodiil (which has been modelled almost entirely from Oblivion, except with obviously far less things to find) and take part in the Alliance War. Each of the three Factions holds a corner of the giant triangular map (with the Imperial City in the centre) and have to fight to take areas. You're sent by various AI Generals on quests based on Scouting, Bounty (kill enemy players), Battle (participate in a battle), and Warfront (full assault on a base). With help from various player guilds you can meet up, launch all-out attacks on bases or castles (even with siege weaponry!), and attempt to reclaim the Elder Scrolls. It's a hugely impressive effort that's one of the big delights of Elder Scrolls Online, and some of the skirmishes I got into were truly epic in nature. Be warned though, only high-level players should apply as a mere Level 10-ite will literally get cut down in one hit making the huge journey to a battle extremely pointless. As often happened to me.
Of course if you have no interest in PVP you may well be done with Elder Scrolls Online in a month or so (depending on how much you play). The wonderful thing is every Faction has their own unique set of locations that are wildly different with their own wide range of quests, so you'll have to play through ESO three times to explore all the land -and there's still a lot of Tamriel's map for Zenimax to fill in (a group area called Craglorn should be out soon for a start). Nevertheless once you've done all those quests if the War doesn't float your boat you may put ESO down and never return. Still, that should take a very long time, and if you do like the sound of an epic continuous online fantasy war against hundreds of other players then Elder Scrolls Online could represent your ultimate game (once you've logged the requisite thousand hours needed to level up enough to play it properly of course).
I find myself really drawn to ESO as a mostly lonesome MMO player, as while I may criticise the non-multiple-player feel of the quests I still loved going through them and I loved getting help in them from the many friendly players. However I think I mostly love the combat. I've never properly played an MMO from first-person and after taking ages to implement it Zenimax Online have it feeling just right. LMB slashes, hold it to charge, and RMB to block. Additionally number keys 1-5 can have spells or special moves slotted in them, and while I initially resented only getting five slots it forces you to focus and you're not just prodding numbers in combat like you do in World of Warcraft or so many copycats. What seems like simple combat as well soon shows that there's actually tactics involved, with appropriately timed dodging, shield-bashing to interrupt enemies, and watching the ground for any sign of special attacks, not to mention crouching and hiding whenever you don't fancy fighting. It's actually quite satisfying, and the fact that all players who take on an enemy get equal loot encourages players to help others out. It's actually quite a well designed system, just don't expect to have as much luck on your own in combat as a healing Templar as you would as a warrior-mage Dragonknight.
Dark Anchor attacks are the best
I'm not going to mention the many bugs I encountered (most of which could be fixed by logging off and logging on again, including the time I couldn't use a portal to Hell) since this should be expected as this is an MMO launch, but I do have to mention the lag and the loading times: I barely experienced any. I don't know how your experience will be but I'm used to The Old Republic freezing me in place or my wheezy wireless connection stuttering like mad, but I can't recall a single time I experienced any lag. That's utterly unprecedented for me in an online game. Just wanted to share that.
THE ELDER SCROLLS ONLINE VERDICT
The review’s already gigantic and there’s no way I’ll mention everything I want to, so I’ll keep things brief in the summary. If you’re after a more single-player-quest-focused MMO with an Elder Scrolls feel, with a helpful community that will rush to aid you at every problem, and don’t mind that a lot of the quests are just a matter of following waypoints then you’ll enjoy Elder Scrolls Online. If you particularly like the idea of a giant online fantasy PVP war as late-to-end-game content then certainly get it now. If however you don’t like PVP, think Elder Scrolls should be about doing what you want in a massive open country and can’t stand the idea of just doing SP-feeling quests over relatively short distances then this MMO may not be for you. I thoroughly enjoyed my time and I will continue playing after this review, but I’ve had to ignore how much classic Elder Scrolls has been left out and how ill-suited the quests feel for multiple players. Nevertheless the quests are fun, the world still good to explore, the combat great, the community wonderful (apart from those damn spambots) and the Alliance War a wildly ambitious and impressive experiment. Elder Scrolls Online is, by the skin of its teeth and a lot of hard work from Zenimax, a success. Phew.
TOP GAME MOMENT
The moment a Dark Anchor rips open the sky, plants giant metal hooks into the land, and a spontaneous mix of adventurers have to group together to repel the monsters and close the gate. Amazing.