The Elder Scrolls is undeniably one of the most popular and critically acclaimed RPG series of all time. As a result, fans have developed an expectation when it comes to new releases, so The Elder Scrolls Online has a lot of weight on its shoulders. Developed by Zenimax Online Studios (as opposed to Bethesda), it follows in the footsteps of Skyrim, one of the most critically acclaimed games of 2011, and is the series' first entry in the MMO market, but can it compete in a market saturated with competitors that manage to offer highly compelling online experiences for free?
The first thing people will want to know is whether or not the game is any good and lives up to the legacy the series has established. Another pertinent question is whether the game is worthy of its asking price of $15 a month. After spending a considerable amount of time in Tamriel - exploring as much of the world and combat as possible - I feel it does not quite live up to expectations or justify the price of entry.
Graphically, The Elder Scrolls Online is an attractive game. It's not amazing by any stretch of the imagination, but for an MMO, the quality and scale of the world is very commendable. The lighting is excellent, vistas typically impress, and the texture work is fair. What really lifts the title above being merely average visually is the art style, which is stellar. The continent of Tamriel is beautiful; it's filled with colour and diversity that makes every location feel distinct. From the marshy swamps of Glenumbra to the oddly beautiful wasteland that is Stonefalls, each locale is instantly recognizable and has its own charm. The same applies each piece of armour, weaponry, and face; all are brought to life with a good attention to detail that will make your trek through the world all the more immersive.
Not enough can be said for the music either, as The Elder Scrolls Online boasts a soundtrack that is nothing short of amazing and adds so much to the atmosphere. It ranges from sombre to epic and truly excels the game from a presentational standpoint. It's not perfect - many of the dungeon themes are completely underwhelming and forgettable - but for the most part it creates the feeling that you are important in the game's world, and that the quest you're embarking on is significant. It is backed up by consistently pleasant voicework, with the dialogue for each race featuring small subtleties that serve to distinguish them from one another - a clever touch.
Unfortunately, the overall polish of the game is somewhat poor and detracts from these solid presentational aspects. As this is both an Elder Scrolls game and an MMO, your adventure through Tamriel will be filled with bugs. Audio frequently just doesn't work properly. It often goes out of sync and I've encountered many scenarios where characters simply became muted. Sometimes, actions don't register, such as picking up an item or talking to an NPC, and enemies clip through walls constantly. One particularly game-breaking bug permanently stunned my character, preventing them from being able to attack in combat. This resulted in infuriating deaths on a number of occasions. Another bug reduced the framerate to the point where it was unplayable and I would have to restart the game. I've also come across three never-ending loading screens, as well as frequent inexplicable crashes. And there's a bug that allows players to duplicate items, including gold, which has destroyed the in-game economy. Zenimax is working on fixing these issues, but bugs are currently a major problem.
One of the great strengths of The Elder Scrolls Online is the dichotomy between the three warring factions in Tamriel. By creating new characters for each faction, you're able to see the other side of the conflict and it often sheds more light on the war that's raging. In many ways it was this particular storyline that drove me to explore and learn more about the world. For example, my first character was part of the Daggerfall Covenant, who are portrayed as a very heroic and noble faction. When playing as my second character - who was part of the Ebonheart Pact - I saw a completely different side to the Covenant. This presents a strong incentive to create multiple characters and explore the storylines and locations that are exclusive to each of the three factions.
Individual quest storylines are usually interesting. In most MMO's the storylines for individual quests tend to be dull at best, but most of the stories told in Tamriel are engaging. It's intriguing to learn more about the struggles of individuals in this world which features conflict between various factions. The multi-quest storylines are a particular highlight, informing you more about the lore of the world in a large scale way and, after completing said quests, the pay-off actually feels significant. The quest design itself is a mixed bag though. Some quests are really engaging and involve the player more by establishing a great set piece or actually varying the objectives you'll need to complete. However, the majority of the quests still fall into the typical MMO fare of "Go kill three cultists", or "Talk to this character in that city", or "Find some harpie eggs." The monotony of these objectives is only marginally relieved by the strong narrative elements that I mentioned earlier; you're still forced to complete far too many uninspired fetch quests.
It's a shame, then, that a huge amount of the overall lore isn't explained very well to newcomers. If you've not played Skyrim or Oblivion you'll probably be forced to read a Wiki in order to understand more about the planet of Nirn, the regions of Tamriel, and the factions that exist within it. It's unfortunate that the lore of The Elder Scrolls, which is so fascinating and deep, is simply not explained well to newcomers. The overarching narrative also tends to be so thinly spread throughout the experience that you'll likely forget the main narrative.
As an RPG, The Elder Scrolls Online is decent if unexceptional. It features the typical customization you'd expect, with a total of nine races to choose from (ten with the special edition), and pretty much every major race from The Elder Scrolls universe is featured. Age, shape, build and skin colour are just a handful of the options you have at your disposal when creating the perfect character. Each race also has its own unique buffs or multipliers, such as increased Magika or health, which adds variety to the gameplay.
A major pillar of the customization comes in the form of classes. There are four main classes: Nightblade, Sorcerer, Dragon Knight and Templar. Each essentially makes up your generic stock RPG classes, such as Mages and Rogues, and within each there are three unique skill lines which can be developed using skill points, which are unlocked by levelling up or collecting skyshards. It's usually better to specialise in just one. For example, as a Kaijiit I specialised in the Assassination skill line of Nightblade, but as a Dark Elf Sorcerer, I focussed on dark magic. Skill points are used to unlock new attacks and abilities for your character, and by using these abilities in battle you upgrade them. Skill points are also used for passive abilities within the three skill trees which are often linked to the character you're building or the armour you're wearing.
If there is one problem with the class system, it's that it's a bit linear. Each class has a variety of abilities, but the manner in which they are unlocked is more linear than in other RPGs. In the same way, using skill points on your character is going to be determined based on what race your character is, so after the initial stage of the game, your path is essentially set, whether you realise it or not.
There's a staggering amount of weaponry and armour in The Elder Scrolls Online. You'll find bows, swords, axes, shields, and many more powerful weapons from both blacksmiths and defeated foes that can be used and upgraded through a similar skill tree to the aforementioned class abilities. These skills are more dependent on what weapons you choose to use in battle and, as a result, are more dynamic than the class specific attacks. For example, using a two handed sword frequently may unlock the uppercut move, which requires that you upgrade stamina as a base trait. The same applies to armour, which can be buffed using skill points and by combining set pieces.
I've never personally been a fan of the combat in The Elder Scrolls series - I feel as though it lacks impact or force and is overly clunky compared to other RPGs. If you liked the combat in Skyrim, you'll enjoy the combat here, because it essentially emulates it. Fans will appreciate this, detractors wont. Zenimax have remained true to the series, but that means the game also exhibits familiar problems; attacks lack impact, so it always feels as though you're swinging at the air and not an enemy; animations don't tie together fluently, so combat moves feel unresponsive, sluggish and clunky; and there is very little strategy to think about when it comes to the combat itself, which is a missed opportunity.
On the other hand, if there is one thing The Elder Scrolls Online deserves credit for, it's how building different classes affects how you tackle battles. As a Nightblade, I often struck quickly and from stealth for maximum damage. As a stealth-based character, I frequently just tried to avoid head-on encounters. Playing as a Sorcerer, I relied more on ranged attacks, taking out enemies from afar with Dark Magic to reduce the amount of damage I received. This makes playing through multiple times as different classes much more interesting because the actual gameplay experience changes, and so experimenting with new classes is a lot of fun.
In my eyes, one of the core strengths of The Elder Scrolls series is exploration. Exploring interesting locations, meeting new characters, and finding hidden secrets and quests is a highlight of the series. It can safely be said that the idea of exploration transitions into The Elder Scrolls Online with mixed results. There's plenty to explore, but most of the world is so barren that you sometimes wonder what the point is. The game is content rich, absolutely; there is a staggering amount of content in the game, but most of your time is spent wandering across open areas, populated with nothing but stock enemies, in an attempt to complete a generic objective. Ultimately, the only incentive to explore is either to find a visually interesting new location or complete a quest as promptly as possible to be rewarded with a new weapon or armour. To the detriment of the game, exploration also sometimes confuses the story. Upon backtracking, I would often come to the realisation that I had actually explored further than the game wanted me to and would discover quests that were clearly meant to be tackled earlier on in my travels.
The main problem the PvE aspect of the game is that it doesn't feel like an MMO, rather just a single player RPG that features all the typical MMO tropes like repetitive quests. For most of the experience, unless you already have a group of friends to play with, you're on your own walking around extremely desolate areas with very little player interactivity. You may occasionally stumble across a stranger and help them out with an enemy, which is enjoyable, but aside from that it doesn't feel like a multiplayer game at all. This is partly due to the fact that the in-game messaging system is absolutely dire and so nobody uses it in PvE.
Zenimax is really betting on the PvP-based Alliance Wars to separate The Elder Scrolls Online from the pack. The concept is indeed very cool: Take all three factions of Tamriel, place them in the region of Cyrodill, and force players to fight over various objectives scattered throughout the map. It is, without a doubt, the best part of The Elder Scrolls Online gameplay experience. Witnessing countless players coming together as one in order to storm a keep and grow the reach of their alliance is a sight to be seen. It can drop the framerate a fair bit, but given the sheer scope of hundreds of players partaking in a huge epic battle across Cyrodill, you'll forgive the game for this.
PvP battles require a large amount of co-ordination. Huge numbers of players are really needed in order to capture objectives or defend keeps, as well as to use catapults, rams and trebuchets in order to destroy castle walls and burst through doors. These can be purchased from siege vendors and are a necessity in siege battles. Soul gems are also highly useful as they revive fallen comrades. It's genuinely surprising that players are able to co-ordinate as efficiently as they often do within PvP, especially given the dreadful chat system. It's really thrilling seeing a large battalion of players riding together into battle with very little said to one another.
Frequently, all three factions will clash together in a major battle outside of the sieges. These battles are superb. Watching as teams of players clash and attack enemies creates a high octane, tense combat experience that provides the entertainment somewhat lacking from the PvE experience. It requires that players stick together and attack wisely while in a highly pulse pounding and dangerous situation. Death is punished harshly, but nettings kills is very satisfying when you're fighting real players.
It's unfortunate that lag can ruin PvP. When the servers are moderately full, everything runs perfectly fine and it creates the pinnacle PvP experience. When the servers are full, Alliance Wars falls apart. Lag becomes such an issue that you'll die instantly and have no idea what occurred, or worse yet, the game will just crash mid-battle. This happened consistently, which is really a shame since PvP truly fulfils its potential with more players. That being said, when lag isn't an issue, Alliance Wars is hectic, fast-paced and incredibly fun.
The main thing holding The Elder Scrolls Online back, besides technical problems, is its subscription based model. When I was playing the game I was often thinking to myself, "Can I see myself paying money on a monthly basis to play this game?" And the answer is no, not right now. At times it is fun, but on the whole it's an unoriginal, by-the-numbers MMO with a shiny coat of paint. The world is breathtaking, the stories are interesting, and PvP is a blast when it works well, but the content simply isn't yet enjoyable enough to warrant spending $15 a month and there are still too many technical issues. If The Elder Scrolls Online was free to play, it would be an easy recommend, but unless you are an absolutely devoted fan of The Elder Scrolls, this is one adventure you can wait for.
This review is based on a digital copy of The Elder Scrolls Online for the PC, provided by the publisher.