In some ways, it's elder alright
It's been a long month in The Elder Scrolls Online, full of ups and downs.
At first, ESO wowed me unlike essentially any other MMO before it. Similar to Lord of the Rings Online but with much more bravado, the opening act of the game seeks to deliver a core Elder Scrolls experience that's worthy of the name, and at the start on a high-end PC, the world is just as astonishing as Morrowind, Cyrodiil, and Skyrim were for the very first time.
Although, once you reach level 15 or so the game slows down considerably, and the blemishes start to become more apparent. I enjoyed a lot of my time with The Elder Scrolls Online, but it's clear that it needs some more work before the console version drops.
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)
My experience with ESO started off very promising. Its early game is one of the best in MMO history, because it establishes a clear-cut goal, enemy, world, and cast of characters to actually care about (if only marginally, although I'm a big fan of Michael Gambon's performance as The Prophet). Every five levels or so you'll acquire more story quests that draw you further into the game's core storyline, and all things considered the writing is about on par with the rest of the series.
Combat is also well done, and the absence of an auto-attack is no doubt polarizing to some, especially in an MMO. But in first-person, it really feels like an Elder Scrolls combat system. Hits have an impact, and there's a lot of strategic choices involved, including dodging, blocking, counter-attacking, and choosing the right ability for the job. The leveling system is also more open-ended than most, and I really enjoyed experimenting with pretty much every type of build my heart desired.
Instead of leveling the exact same way as someone else, I could instead choose to be completely and utterly different, and it was rare when I saw another player with the same skill choices as me, if ever. It's a weird mix of a traditional Elder Scrolls game and the MMO genre, but it worked, and most of the solo-instance dungeons are fine because hey -- it was acclimating you to the game and its world, which is totally understandable.
Quests though, are very vanilla, to be frank. Although there is the occasional spooky ghost and interesting monarch that actually dole out said tasks, most of them are "kill this enemy," or "deliver this item." I'm talking hundreds of them, and they comprise the vast majority of the roughly 150-hour quest from level one to 50. You'll also have to compete occasionally with other players when hunting down objectives.
As someone who grew up with the MMO genre and is used to immersion-breaking quests where multiple people are hacking away at a major enemy, it doesn't really bother me much. For those of you expecting a 100% Elder Scrolls experience though, it will feel jarring and foreign. When I said it was a "weird mix" of multiple genres, I mean it. Dungeons are also very well designed by a team that knows how to handle them.
Right from the get-go dungeons aren't just boring fodder to run because you need to run them -- you'll actually have to pay attention and adapt to enemy and boss strategies. Dungeons also tend to have massive amounts of enemies pull at one time, preventing tanks from just picking up one or two in the lot. As I mentioned previously though, the dungeon finder tool needs a complete overhaul, as it's utterly useless at the moment and unreliable. There's also no incentive for anyone else to go back and do them, so you could be waiting hours to find a queue.
That's not the chief problem I had with the leveling process, though. My biggest disappointment with ESO is how much of a slog mid-game became. For the first 20 levels or so, it's smooth sailing with a number of dungeons to work through, environments to explore, and plenty of quests to grab. But once you start completing more and more and work your way up to level 25, you'll find yourself running into a cap of sorts, where things not only start to feel like a grind, but it actually becomes one. One of the things that contributes to this feeling are the pitiful world events.
Mainly in the form of Dark Anchors, these events are similar to Rifts in the MMO Rift (and FATEs in Final Fantasy XIV), but a lot less fun and rewarding. Since the party/group tool is so bare-bones, you'll have to resort to shouting across world channels to assemble a posse, and once you actually win, you might get a marginally better item if you're lucky. Whereas other MMOs have options if you aren't into questing all of the time, The Elder Scrolls Online's XP choices are rather slim in terms of actual returns. It constantly funnels you into questing to a fault.
Crafting is great in theory (both the rewards and the process are quite fun), but the game really needs an Auction House at some point in time. ZeniMax has gone on record telling fans to go to a third-party website to establish trades instead of an in-game solution, which is pretty absurd. There are Guild Stores and a few options in terms of hitting up chat, but the response from ZeniMax regarding trading has been disappointing so far.
Once you reach the level cap, things pick up in some ways, but in others, they drag on just as much as mid-game. At level 50, you'll reach the "Veteran Rank," which allows you to further rank up past 50 -- basically a new maximum level cap within the cap. It's almost like a prestige mode in a first-person shooter, with all of the rewards and shortcomings that come along with it.
You'll be running on a new XP system, earning "Master Points" by way of Master Dungeons, PVP, adventure zones, and otherworld content. At the moment, Veteran content is fairly slim. You can venture into the other two factions that you didn't choose and start working your way to the new cap, but it feels very grindy, and since a lot of the quests mirror the ones in your own faction, there's not much incentive to keep going.
Craglorn is the first major update coming, adding a new zone for Veteran Rank characters, as well as two 12-person dungeons -- but right now I don't see hardcore fans sticking around for much more than a month after they've mastered everything. It's admirable that ZeniMax does have a plan, and on paper the Veteran system is pretty incredible, but it needs content sooner than later.
PVP is hit or miss depending on how well your team decides to work together, but the developers don't reward you enough to entice you into playing until you're at Veteran Rank. Often times when people aren't using teamwork on a particular server you can't get anything done, and the world PVP zone of Cyrodiil is too big if the fight is underpopulated. In other words, it just feels like roaming around a big, empty world.
Another cool thing about endgame is that if you actually persist with Skyshards (items you can find hidden in the world that grant skill points), you can get practically any skill you could possibly want. Rather than re-roll or even re-level a character in some MMOs, one skill-heavy character is capable of more gameplay variety than most -- again, if you can put up with the leveling slog and justify the subscription fee.
I think right now, the most prudent thing to do is to wait for ZeniMax to iron out all of The Elder Scrolls Online's kinks (including how it handles post level 50 content to make it less grindy), and play the console version of the game. Not only will it arrive with all of the updates from the PC version in tow, but it'll also have full native controller support -- which feels more natural than a mouse and keyboard in this instance.
Personally as an MMO player, I think I'm mostly going to be putting my time in the near future into Final Fantasy XIV and WildStar until that happens.
The Elder Scrolls Online reviewed by Chris Carter
Slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy this game, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.
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