It is not hard to imagine that everyone who has played and enjoyed an Elder Scrolls game has at one point or another thought “wouldn’t this be great with friends?”
The Elder Scrolls Online has arrived and given an answer: a definite yes!
But being one of the most expensive PC games out there, with a game purchase and a monthly subscription fee, the question becomes: is ESO worth it?
That answer depends on just what you’re looking for and expecting from it. ESO is not groundbreaking in any obvious way. It is a solid MMO, with smooth and enjoyable gameplay, an expansive and varied world and a ton of promise. But what may matter more for its success are not people looking for the next WoW, but people looking for the next great Elder Scrolls game, and this is it. ESO isn’t just an MMO with Tamriel plastered on top; it IS Elder Scrolls designed for multiplayer and feels like it from the moment the game first loads up.
The music of Elder Scrolls has always been a strong point, and ESO’s soundtrack does not disappoint. While there is a lot to say about how good ESO is, the coolest thing just might be that the songs you can hear played by bards in the taverns ingame are composed by Malukah! (Here‘s my personal favorite. You can also hear an original song she made for the game by watching the credits from the login screen or checking out the video below.)
Character creation will be familiar to anyone who played Skyrim. Unlike other Elder Scrolls games, ESO requires characters to choose a class, which gives three skill lines that are unavailable to characters of the other classes. All other skill lines, such as weapon and armor types, are open to everyone, allowing creative builds and character concepts.
After the Oblivion/Skyrim style tutorial introduction (which can be skipped with subsequent characters) you’ll find yourself in one of three starting areas and the world wide open before you. There’s a main story to follow. It is interesting and very rewarding, but not strictly mandatory. First you may find yourself wandering around town, snatching everything you can find from every barrel and crate or reading through every book in every house or even striking out into the wilderness to explore. There is plenty to find and do all over the place.
Each of the three starting areas offers a different environment and experience. The Aldmeri Dominion will feel the most “new” to longtime fans, offering a glimpse of the elven homeland of Summerset and the inner workings of the Thalmoor; the Ebonheart Pact, with Skyrim and Morrowind-esque landscapes, feels the most reminiscent. The Daggerfall Covenant feels the most grounded in the alliance war.
There are twenty zones, not including the Imperial lands of Cyrodiil which serve as the PvP area (but also includes quests and places to discover and explore) and taken all together, ESO seems to be a little larger than Skyrim (though I have only had time to see the first two areas of each alliance so far and I am making this judgment based on those) though not quite as tightly packed. However, more interesting than what is already on the map are the areas that are not ingame yet. The heartlands of Summerset, Skyrim and Morrowind are not there yet to explore, leaving a lot of room for potentially great expansions, along with areas that have been at the top of Elder Scrolls fans’ wish lists like Elsweyr.
Questing and exploring is very enjoyable. The graphics are high (if not quite hi-def Skyrim) quality and the environments are absolutely beautiful. The setting and storyline are quite dark, with a main plot involving a daedric invasion of Tamriel. Quests will occasionally present tough choices with real consequences. The world is unexpectedly alive, with non-player characters that seem quite busy (if you don’t pay too much attention) and sometimes even have different greetings or reactions depending on completed quests or choices made.
Overall the story fits very well with the existing Elder Scrolls lore. It is nice to see some familiar, if not so friendly, faces like Mannimarco.
The gameplay, a mix of action RPG and FPS, is good but not new. Likewise, the PvP will feel familiar to Guild Wars players, with large scale battles for castles and keeps that offer a variety of roles for players, from support to running siege weapons, fighting on the frontlines or scouting territory under enemy control. New or not, it is fun and very easy to hop right in (once you’ve unlocked Cyrodiil at level 10) and find a fight to join.
The crafting system is nearly identical to Skyrim, with some extras like the ability to add “traits” to equipment, such as increased stat ratings or faster attack speed, as well as magical enchantments.
As great as ESO seems so far, it is not without its shortcomings and problems. The lower level areas are absolutely infested with farmer bots and goldsellers spamming chat. There are bugs (but what would an Elder Scrolls game be without them?) including falling through the ground and quest triggers that just don’t work right. Those seem (so far at least) to be very rare, however. While the voice acting is well done, sometimes it can become tedious like having to hear a banker’s greeting every single time.
Though they have managed to include just about everything expected from an Elder Scrolls title, there are some things that are missing. There is a Fighter and a Mage guild, but no Thief guild or Dark Brotherhood (assassin guild). All weapon and armor type skill lines are available to all characters, but the same cannot be said for magic beyond Soul Trap. The schools of magic from previous games are not included except as lore and most kinds of spells are part of the different class skill lines.
Some game design choices are not necessarily bad, but at least odd. Joining guilds is account-based, not character, and you can be a member of up to five guilds at any one time, though you can have up to eight separate characters. Also, there is no game wide auction house, but rather a system of guild stores with a search function that leaves a lot to be desired. Banking is also account wide, with all characters on an account sharing one bank with 60 slots by default. That can be something of a convenience, but also a major limit on storage space, especially with the hundreds of different materials to collect and store for the various crafting skills.
The biggest problem at the moment is the crowds that always end up around public dungeon bosses. While some areas are instanced specifically for you, (usually pleasantly challenging boss fights) the vast majority are open to anyone who happens to be around. This can be nice for the spontaneous group-ups, but not so nice when you reach the boss and find a half dozen or so bots all standing around or the guy 20 levels above the area waiting for the respawn and having to compete against them for loot or quest/exploration credit.
But they are trying to deal with this and it must be said that the customer service is usually top notch (I had a real, live, American person on the phone with me at 5am on launch day when i couldn’t get the game to load) and having a GM show up in a dungeon to banhammer away all the bots is very satisfying.
In the end, to MMO players in general and diehard Elder Scrolls fans alike, I highly recommend checking out ESO. It is a great chance to explore Tamriel like never before: with friends!
(On a sidenote, if you are wondering if the special “Imperial” edition is worth the extra $20, having a horse available pretty much right away on every character is a major convenience, as the ones available with ingame currency are very expensive.)