So should you jump into Tamriel and pony up for the hefty $15 subscription fee? Well, it's complicated.
The Elder Scrolls Online (Mac, PC [reviewed], PlayStation 4, Xbox One)
Developer: ZeniMax Online Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Release: April 4, 2014 (Mac, PC) / June 2014 (PlayStation 4, Xbox One)
MSRP: $59.99 ($14.99 subscription fee, with 30 days included in base game)
Before you start to consider ESO, it's important that you understand how classes work. Currently you have the option to spring for four distinct choices: Dragonknight, Templar, Sorcerer, and Nightblade. Even though you could easily match these up as Warrior, Restoration Paladin, Mage, and Rogue respectively if we're using World of Warcraft comparisons, the way ZeniMax has structured the game is more like a mix of tradition MMOs and Elder Scrolls sensibilities.
Like any entry in the franchise, even if you're a damage-centric class, you can still pick up a healing staff, equip it, and earn a whole new skillset of restoration abilities -- allowing you to use spells of the same type. You can also throw on some light, medium, or heavy armor at any time, and put skill points into either of the three trees to boost your effectiveness with each type. In theory, you could make a Dragonknight that's formidable with a two-handed weapon, heavy armor, a healing staff, and light armor.
Racial skills, faction skills, and guild skills add yet another layer of depth on top of that, making this one of the most detailed MMOs I've ever seen in terms of the customization of abilities and powers. Sometimes I'd just sit and stare in awe at the skill-up menu, wondering what to put my points into. And speaking of points, they're extremely plentiful as finding three "skyshards" on the world map will net you one, and major quests as well as level-ups also net you one each.
While ZeniMax admirably trumps the Tank, Healer, and DPS triumvirate (that's either blessed or plagued MMOs based on your perspective), the fact of the matter is it still exists. Even for low-level dungeons you'll have the option to queue up in the group finder as "tank, healer, and DPS," and all four player parties will still need to follow the trinity in some fashion. So while it does offer up new options similar to A Realm Reborn's class-switching system, it's not that revolutionary or deep. The true test of ZeniMax's vision will be with Veteran content, once people start working their way up to the maximum level cap of 50.
Combat is a bit more pared down from most MMOs, which fits the general Elder Scrolls design that's been employed in more recent entries. Your skillbar can fit five abilities at a time, including a sixth slot for an "ultimate" -- a powerful skill that you'll have to slowly boost during fights for periodic use. While your general pool can surmount to over 50 skills in total, you can only employ six of them at a time -- effectively forcing you to create your own "builds" at any given time.
The good news is that pretty much everything is balanced, so you don't really need to worry about "wasting points" or going for a cookie-cutter build. I'm sure as time goes on people will craft leveling guides and standard builds, but for now I feel like everything I pick up is worth it in some way, which is a good feeling. Once you hit level 15 you can also queue up two builds to switch off between at the touch of a button, which is convenient. A full first-person mode on top of all this adds another layer to combat, and I've stayed in first-person for roughly 90 percent of my time with the game.
Quests (read: the vast majority of the game) are a double-edged sword though. One one hand, there's lots of lore built in here. Fans will love to see big namedrops, lots of backstories on their favorite races and factions, and I know more than a few of you will be excited to step foot in some of your favorite locations. ZeniMax has really stayed true to the core series, and they've filled the game's world to the brim with tiny tidbits that add to the world. You'll be able to find lorebooks in the world, fight alongside famous characters, and embark on a few epic quests that feel right out of a mainstead Elder Scrolls game.
But on the other hand, the quests themselves are still standard MMO fare, which will no doubt turn off those who aren't already accustomed to the genre. The fact of the matter is the leveling process is slow, likely designed to keep you playing for long periods of time to accrue more subscription payments. The good news is there's tons of content there for you to engage in, as nearly every zone has around 100 quests to mess around with. For ZeniMax's first MMO, it's crazy how much they've packed into the world.
But still, you really can't avoid the fact that around half of those are "go here, kill this enemy, or fetch this item" quests that have no real bearing on anything. There's nothing worse than grabbing five boring quests in an area, and fighting with other players to grab the limited amount of objectives. It's not only silly to see tons of people jumping around and warring over inconsequential things, but it's also frustrating, and can sometimes impede progress.
Phasing (which basically puts players in different "instances" of the open world) helps, but sometimes an area can get so crowded that I've actually abandoned a quest. What's odd is that ZeniMax has designed a great deal of quests with phasing in mind (where players can all "grab" the same item or objective without it disappearing), but a heap of them utilize limited-use objects, forcing you to wait around until a quest piece respawns.
There are a lot of great quests in the game overall though, and I really think ZeniMax has achieved the perfect balance of writing and voice acting. Whereas The Old Republic wasted millions on full voice acting, ESO only uses it when it needs too -- namely on story-related quests every five levels or so, or on major questlines.
The game has a lot of voice acting in general, but for the most part these roles are relegated to industry veterans like Steve Blum and Jennifer Hale -- leaving only a few characters to the likes of Hollywood, most notably Harry Potter's Dumbledore himself, Michael Gambon (who does a fine job). Actors like Bill Nighy, Kate Beckinsale, and Alfred Molina are also peppered in for good measure, and only where it counts. As a side note, John Cleese has been heavily promoted for the game, but he's barely in it.
Right now ESO also has the tried-and-true Fighter's and Mage's guild, which both have their own massive questline in addition to the main campaign. Sadly, there's no Thieves Guild or Dark Brotherhood at this time, but ZeniMax already has plans to add more guilds and major factions to the game. While I really enjoy the core quests, there really could be more meaningful factions to even out all of the fetch and kill quests, so these can't come soon enough.
Speaking of menial quests, ESO has a rather odd experience curve that I started to notice around level 15. Simply put, dungeons barely give any experience outside of the first story chain-related clear, and earning XP through PVP is extremely difficult because of the requirement to assemble a group to really complete most of the quests. So basically that leaves you at the mercy of completing world quests, and I found myself running out of them with no real alternative.
Most MMOs provide a substantial XP bonus for dungeons (thus ensuring you never hit a wall), and A Realm Reborn even goes so far as to offer repeatable quests (Levequests), bonus rested XP, a heap of grouping tools, and a fair amount of experience from standard mobs -- ESO has no such consolation. Make no mistake: it will take you a long time to level, even if you're powering through it.
In terms of mechanics, there are lots of little things missing that I take for granted in other MMOs, and eventually, it adds up to some amount of frustration. For instance, there's no real minimap, and players are at the mercy of the "compass," situated on the top of the screen. Remember how in Elder Scrolls games you're generally flicking through a map to see where stuff is? Well imagine doing that in an MMO -- constantly.
The user interface is also minimal, which is a refreshing change of pace from most genre staples, but in some cases, it's too minimal, as the XP bar doesn't display any details, and health, mana, and stamina bars disappear constantly without exact values. There's also no way to mark target orders in dungeons. These are all things that should come standard in an MMO in 2014. If the community is there, mod support will help ease the pain, but you can't guarantee that. For what it's worth, two of the biggest mods out right now alleviate the two aforementioned UI woes.
One of the major shortcomings is the weak dungeon finder tool. In most modern MMOs, you can open up a menu and automatically queue up for any dungeon you'd like. That feature is in Elder Scrolls Online, but it's so bare-bones that it resembles something an MMO would have had nearly a decade ago.
Whereas the standard is to use matchmaking to prepare a group, bring up a prompt, and drop you in a dungeon, ESO simply puts you in an available party where you're standing with no fanfare or bells and whistles. This creates a certain degree of entropy, as players often have no idea what instance they even queued for or what their role is, and drop out of the group constantly. I hope ZeniMax eventually updates this tool so it's actually useful in the future.
Once you're finally in a dungeon though the fun starts. In addition to the two level 12-15 instances I played earlier this week I also had a chance to check out a few more, including several level 20 areas. It's very clear that ZeniMax is educated on the genre (Matt Firor of Dark Age of Camelot fame is legendary), and pretty much every pull is enjoyable in some way -- this goes double for the boss fights.
Early fights are generally tank-and-spank fights with adds (a lack of multi-phase on-the-fly strategic change-ups, sometimes with additional creatures to handle and clear out), but they're fun, and often mix things up with interesting mechanics. For example, one boss channels an ability that makes one party member a bomb, forcing them to run away to mitigate damage before it detonates.
Another creates tons of tiny crabs that fill the battlefield that need to be taken care of with AOE (area-of-effect) spells or abilities. While none of these encounters are rocket science for MMO fans, they're still engaging, and the dungeons themselves are well designed and beautiful to look at. I'm very excited in seeing what Veteran dungeons and raids look like if these early instances are indicative of what's to come.
In terms of the overall server quality, ESO is one of the smoothest launches in MMO history. Not only did ZeniMax employ a "megaserver" solution to allow everyone to play on the same realm, but I also haven't had more than one disconnect -- which was the result of a service patch during the Early Access week period. While there are a few bugs still present during some quests, a lot of them have been squashed by a major update two days ago. It's nice to see ZeniMax staying on top of things.
I see a lot of promise in Elder Scrolls Online. But right now, I wouldn't recommend the game for newcomers to the genre, or those of you who don't really care about the Elder Scrolls lore in general. But for the people that do meet that criteria -- I think you'll have a ton of fun experimenting with builds, roaming around the world looking for skystones and other secrets, and fighting through the game's challenging and well-designed dungeons.
Stay tuned in the future as we stick with the game and see if it has staying power.
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