To say that Elder Scrolls Online is the best game ever would be really pushing it (because as we all know, it's impossible to make "the best MMO ever"), but it’s the opinion of this one unbiased gamer that it’s definitely a fantastic entry into the Elder Scrolls franchise and the MMO industry. It should be noted that this is just my opinion, though -- other folks will have different opinions, as is the norm for many MMOs released these days. So take what I’m about to tell you with a grain of salt, but I strongly urge folks to forget about what they read about or experienced in this game during its beta. From someone who’s actually tested it early on, it’s gone through so many leaps and bounds. Zenimax Online Studios has improved the experience ten-fold and delivered as best an effort as they could for an MMO. Whether that effort was good enough is left to the gamers to decide.
When you start your first character, you're required to play through the tutorial. It does a good job of teaching you the basics of the game (combat, how to block, how to exploit your opponents when they're dazed, etc...) and takes you through an interesting sequence where you're being led by Lyris Titanborn (played by Jennifer Hale, of Mass Effect fame) to rescue the Prophet (played by Dumbledore!) from his prison. Once you rescue him, you're taken to your faction's capitol city. Now, it used to be that they took you to your faction's starting island but some time between when I last went through the beta and the full release of the game they decided to change it so that you're started off in the first major zone for your faction. However, you do get a quest to go to the starting island in the main city, and you have the option to go there. It's highly recommended as not only does it formally start off your faction storyline, but you also have the opportunity to collect the islands' skyshards -- more on those, later.
I don’t really have much of a complaint, here. The starting islands felt railroad-esque that deviated little from the storyline, and it does color a slightly poor perception of the overall game. Thankfully this is “sort of” fixed by spawning new players in the middle of the beginner city in the much larger, open-ended zone, where they’re basically free to do as they wish in true Elder Scrolls fashion -- to a certain extent, of course.
From here, the game definitely opens up -- though it does so accordingly based on your character level. A lot of people will complain, and probably already have complained, about this. As a series, the Elder Scrolls games emphasized the importance and the attractiveness of open-world exploring right from the get-go. In ESO, that encouragement is still there in the form of searching for farming nodes, better-quality crafting areas, hunting down treasure chests and Skyshards, and running around in the many public dungeons peppered throughout the game world. However, you will be at the mercy of higher-level monsters and enemies if you venture too far off of the “beaten path.”
If you actually think about it, this was pretty much similar to how Morrowind played out. Although you could go anywhere at any time, there were areas with enemies who could eat you alive if you were unprepared in terms of character skill level and gear. It wasn’t as obvious as an MMO, but it was still there regardless. The same idea could be applied to ESO, except there is a hard-coded difficulty based entirely off of level-based elligibility. (I don’t know what I just said, but it fits in…)
The PvE content is saturated with plenty of quests and exploration opportunities and won’t leave you without anything to do. The main storyline is typical of Elder Scrolls, and has a few twists that you could see coming from about a mile away. I won’t spoil the story for those of you who are genuinely interested in playing the game, though.
Aside from the primary storyline, you also have the faction-specific storylines as well, and also the Fighters Guild, Mages Guild, and the Undaunted questlines. Then there are region-specific quests and quest lines -- most of which have story tied into them. Each major town and village on your map will have a questline related to it. Like I said, this pretty much saturates the game with plenty of quests for you to do. Exploration ties into this as you have to go out and actually look for these places in order to be able to do the quests for them. Generally if you follow the roads, you’ll find some good questing hubs appropriate to your level. You'll also have plenty of public dungeons.
The public dungeons, however, do have a massive flaw -- in that, being public-access with a boss at the end of them, there is bound to be folks farming that boss. In most of the starting zones' public dungeons, you'll get a lot of these. Most of them are blatant bots, but others are there to farm for potions, soul gems, or the rare blue-gear drops.
Group dungeons are an entirely different affair from modern MMOs. The "holy trinity" of Tank, DPS, and Healer is still in the game, if slightly altered. For the first time through, the first dungeon for your faction will be extremely difficult if you stick with the known ideas of MMO group mechanics. Here, tanks are only expected to deal with the larger enemies while the DPS deals with the mobs surrounding them. It all boils down to your personal skill level. Movement is key, as well as utilizing all combat mechanics the game has taught you. I've had more fun running through dungeons in ESO than I have in any other MMO, to be completely honest, mostly due to its complexity and depth.
Character development in this game focuses more on what you want your character to be, rather than build your character based on the pre-conceived notions of your determined class. For example, as a Dragonknight (which many may perceive as the plate-wearing Tank/DPS) can be specialized into using the Restoration Staff and Light Armor to provide healing, or can be specced into being a walking nuke wearing plate with the Destruction Staff tree. The choices are limitless, leaving you to decide what you want your character to be. There will, most certainly, be optimal builds but for the entirety of the game you're encouraged to build your character how you want to build them.
I should also point out the pacing of leveling. The game encourages you to take your time to reach the level cap (which is level 50, and then ten "Veteran Rank" levels). I like this in an MMO, as it not only makes it feel like the money you spent was worth the time put into the game, but you don't set yourself up for disappointment when you reach the end-game so quickly that you're basically left all alone. This is an aspect that I really sort of missed from MMOs, where the drive was the enjoy the game rather than rush to the end-game. A current trend in many MMOs is to allow players to farm dungeon queues, which gives out massive experience bonuses for being in a group, and for completing the dungeons with very little actual effort. In ESO, dungeon runs only give out a plethora of experience for the first run through and the completion of its quests -- afterwards, the only point of running that same dungeon over and over again would be to gather crafting materials, farm for rare gear, but certainly not to grind out experience points. Many will cry over this, but this is probably one of the most crucial things about this game with it being an MMO -- it discourages dungeon farming for quick and easy levels, thus forcing players to find other means to do so. It should be pointed out that you're still playing an MMORPG, here. You should be enjoying the rest of the content instead of forcing yourself to grind EXP just to reach the end-game.
PvP in this game harkens back to the days of Dark Age of Camelot with massive Realm-vs-Realm-vs-Realm campaigns that last 90 days each. Cyrodiil is its own zone that you can teleport in and out of (if using the queue system for it isn’t cool enough for you) at-will to join the fight going on. Battles can get pretty big when you’re comparing it to modern MMOs. The end-game PvP goal is simple: Control the Imperial City’s forts, become the Emperor. Becoming Emperor takes a lot of skill and dedication, as only those who occupy the top ranks of the leaderboards for each campaign will get the honor -- and only if they’re online at the time their faction captures the six keeps surrounding the Imperial City. Problems I’m facing right now in PvP is the lack of balancing. For my campaign, Wabbajack, the Daggerfall Covenant (which is comprised of the Bretons, Orcs, and Redguard) is more than often dominating the entire map during the twilight hours of the morning when no one in the Aldmeri Dominion (High Elves, Wood Elves, Khajiit) and the Ebonheart Pact (Nords, Argonians, and Dark Elves) is online.
If PvP isn’t your thing in the PvP zone, you can adventure around and search for some Skyshards--
Oh yeah, I completely forgot about the Skyshards. Well, they’re pretty important. Exploration is encouraged to find them, and most are tucked away inside public and instanced dungeons. Collecting three gives you one skill point. So, leveling from 1 - 50 gets you a Skill Point for every level, then there are the ten Veteran levels which I think give you one skill point for each level. Then there are the ludicrous amounts of Skyshards peppered throughout the game’s numerous zones. Also add to this the fact that leveling up your PvP rank also gets you Skill Points with each level-up -- AND Cyrodiil has a plethora of Skyshards, alone. There’s a respecialization system in-place, but you’re probably not going to use it. It costs 100g for every point you’ve spent in your character’s career. That gets ludicrously expensive in the higher levels if you’re not satisfied with how you built your character. Thankfully, you’re given more than enough skill points in your adventures that it really doesn’t matter.
Now, the only real issue I have with the game stems from its social interaction features. Unfortunately, as is mostly the case for modern MMOs today, the game has no chat bubbles. Many of you will think this a non-issue, but I should point out the following: I am a roleplayer. I take part in the roleplay communities of just about every MMO released to date. As a matter of fact, I won’t stick long with a game if its roleplaying is either non-existent or completely shut-in to the point where even becoming a part of it is too much effort. Compared to everything else that this game needs, though, chat bubbles are such a little thing. The game needs a better report function to get rid of those nasty bots, a change that shows character names instead of account names in guild chat (without the use of addons), a global auction house system that doesn’t require being in a guild, and a variety of other things.
Speaking of which, now to discuss the principles of economy in this game. Essentially, it’s all player-driven. The Auction House system that prevails in just about every MMO to date is changed be be more guild-focused in an attempt to encourage more player interaction in order to swap trade goods, equipment, or a variety of other valuable things. Auction House trading is confined to guilds with more than fifty members in their rosters, called the “Guild Store.” This, as a result, has encouraged the rise of a lot of different “trading guilds” with their own centralized economies and price fluctuations. However, this does very little to discourage up-front and personal trading -- though it’s highly recommended to look for one of the large trading guilds as soon as possible.
That all being said, the game definitely isn’t without its flaws. The combat system could use a lot of improvement. They did a lot to fix the “floaty” animations since the beta -- it definitely feels like there’s impact whenever you’re using certain weapons. They added in a first-person mode that would function well in combat if they would ever add an FOV slider and true collision with NPCs, other players, and so on -- however, as it is right now I can’t really get the hang of first-person view due to most fights being extremely hectic and disorienting.
One of the more obvious problems with this game is the amount of bugs -- some of them not very game-breaking, others that outright block/prevent progression in critical quests. Zenimax Online Studios is, however, very quick on responding to these and getting fixes out for them as soon as they can -- for what seems to be a lot of folks, though, that doesn’t seem to be quick enough.
Would I recommend this game, though? I absolutely would, if you spend a lot of time playing MMOs and are a fan of the Elder Scrolls series as a whole. Forget about the opinions you’ve read from cynics during the beta phase of the game and try it out for yourself, if you’re willing to spend the money on it.
I can tell you honestly that I went into the game without any expectations and now I’m currently sitting on a total of four days, twenty-three hours of played time (combined playtime since the start of the five-day early access) with a level 31 Dragonknight of the Ebonheart Pact. I’m enjoying the pacing of the leveling content and the amount of polish the game has as a whole. There are obvious bugs, here and there -- some of them preventing progression in quests -- but the overall package has proven to be one of the smoothest, most engrossing MMO experiences I’ve had the pleasure of playing in recent memory.