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The Elder Scrolls Online PC Review

The Elder Scrolls Online began development back in 2007, three years after World of Warcraft made its huge splash onto the MMORPG scene. With the money Blizzard is cashing in from that series, it’s understandable for a company to want to take a stab at the genre with their leading RPG. Also, remember that this is a time before Skyrim went on to sell 20 million copies, so it’s not like Bethesda could simply scrap the project after seeing the huge success that franchise had on consoles, especially since it had already been in development for four years.

When I heard about the news from Bethesda, I began thinking of the idea of an Elder Scrolls title entering the MMORPG space. It’s certainly one that came with mix feelings from me. The franchise is known for delivering huge single player experiences that capture the concept of being able to do what you want and explore where you want all on your own with your very capable character. The idea of a large scale multiplayer online game goes against some of Elder Scrolls design philosophies, so I was ready to dive in and see how ZeniMax Online Studios has done with merging the two conflicting genres together and encompassing the ever-changing landscape of the MMORPG and the concept of charging a subscription fee of £8.99 to play for one month.

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The Elder Scrolls Online is once again set on the continent of Tamriel, but unlike previous Elder Scrolls titles, this game doesn’t limit the location to one section of the mainland. The character creation is fairly standard when it comes to comparing it to other titles on the market, but one thing I’m not particularly fond of is that out of the game’s ten races, one of them, the Imperial, is only available exclusively in the Imperial Edition of the game, meaning that this class is unavailable for anyone who wanted to pay for the basic game. That practice is rather awful. I don’t mind having preorder incentives or special edition collectibles, but to lock out a class as a special only release isn’t something I’d want to continue to happen in this genre, or any game for that matter.

Anyway, back to races, which anyone who has previously ventured somewhere in the land of Tamriel will have seen before. There is the likes of the Khajiit, the cat like beast race, Orc, the reptilian Argonians, Dunmer (Dark Elves), Nords (FUS RO DAH), Bosmer (Wood Elves), Altmer (High Elves) and the various human races of Breton and Redguard. Each race comes with a special bonus, so if you have an idea on how you want to spec a character, then it helps in the beginning to pick a race that favours that stat. A strange decision is that if anyone buys the game (not preordered) then their race selection is locked to certain factions, but if you did preorder the game, then races can be part of any faction, and depending which faction is selected will determine the starting area.  You are free to shape the look of your character, as The Elder Scrolls Online allows changes to skin colour, torso size, chest size, arms size, and so on. It’s what you have come to expect in a recent released MMORPGs.

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Where there is a bit less selection is in the classes. There are four options to pick from, Dragonknight, Nightblade, Sorcerer and Templar, and each class is fundamentally based around a type of playing style.  Dragonknight is the damage dealer, Nightblade is the speedy and stealth assassin, Sorcerer is the magic caster, and Templar is a sort of paladin healer, using spells to burn foes and heal friendlies. Classes are one thing The Elder Scrolls Online splits away from the typical MMORPG clichés, as players are not locked into a play style. Usually in an online RPG the class you pick comes with restrictions, and you are often forced to stay with that role unless you make a new character. In The Elder Scrolls Online, the game is less harsh on making you commit to a play style. This allows for the use of any weapon and armour. Yep, you can be a Sorcerer and wear some beasty heavy armour to look like a badass or be a Dragonknight and run around in a soft, silky robe. It’s up to you how you want to play your role, as these classes are just pushing you in a general direction.  That doesn’t mean that classes are simply throwaway names, there is some importance to them, as just like race and faction, classes come with a their own skill tree set, so while you can play as a cloth dressed Dragonknight, you won’t be able to summon minions to help you fight or use the power of the sun to burn your foes to a crisp.

Combat is one area that captures the essence of a game like Skyrim, and makes The Elder Scrolls Online different from any other MMORPG. There are options for first person or third-person views, with the latter crafted better than what the single player titles have often included. There’s no doubt that the first-person view feels more natural for this game, and since that’s something of a trait of The Elder Scrolls games, it makes sense that it’s like that here. Combat was never really a strong point of Bethesda’s main RPG series, but it had a sort of dumb fun behind it, as you wildly swung your weapons around giving no care in the world. This is a similar experience in The Elder Scrolls Online, with melee attacks coming in either a normal or charged variety (done by holding down the attack button) and being able to block with the other mouse button, but enemy levels will determine how much you can get away with being reckless.

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While melee combat is close to real-time – I say close, because there is a delay in the motion of hitting an enemy and seeing the damage come off – The Elder Scrolls Online does have some of the more typical time-based skills that have defined the genre. These skills can be assigned to a hotkey, five in total, plus an additional space for an ultimate move, which seems rather small compared to the columns of hotkeys seen in other titles, but this limited amount means you have to pick your skills carefully. It also puts in a sense of fear, since there are quite a few skills to unlock, but since you only get one skill point per level (Max level is 50) or from collecting skill shards, I mostly felt like I should stick with the same skills and improve them. Skills can be reset at a rededication shrine, but this requires gold – the higher the level, the more gold it costs.

Apart from the ultimate move, there is no time limitation on the use of skills. Instead, these moves use either a magic or stamina bar, so you can combine moves together or spam the same one until you’re drained of resources. These skills can buff, deal damage per second or debuff enemies. There’s nothing here really that makes the skills stand out from the crowd but one thing, the improvement of skills the more you use them, which is something taken from the mainline series, and it’s good to see that appear here, supporting the idea that the character should grow strong in the direction the player is using them.

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You’ll be doing a lot of quests, but the game’s quest variety isn’t all that great. The beginning of the story follows true to the series; you begin in imprisonment and must escape with the help from fellow NPC comrades. This also acts as a basic introductory tutorial, learning how to use weapons, skills, items etc. It was nice to see a MMORPG begin with a strong start that clearly explains what you need to do and why, giving an easily understandable goal without a load of filler thrown on top. The Elder Scrolls Online does try to spice its quest line with intriguing story quests, such as throwing you back in time to witness historic events, solving puzzles, curing the injured or helping NPCs during a big battle, but a lot of the side content is the usual “find so many of X item” or “Kill X enemy” that MMORPG players will have done time and time before. The good quests end up getting reused with different coats of paint, so they can end up becoming repetitive. I do like how side quests aren’t simply visible on the map. To find none story-driven quests, you have to explore until a black arrow pops up on your compose to signal there is a side-quest to discover close by. It’s a mechanic that forces the player to run freely in the current zone, rewarding exploring and not just making the game become a point A to point B walkabout and missing out seeing the world.

There is a certain pathway through The Elder Scrolls Online that is clearly imposed because of the level concept. There is no auto scaling difficulty in the game, so exploration is limited to the areas where you are strong enough to survive. This reduces the freedom of going where you want to explore, something the series is known for. The Elder Scrolls Online is just another game that makes you do quests in one area, then says “righto, time to open the door to the next location” and moves you on to do more quests, repeating the process. It’s a generic progression, and it’s a huge shame it crept into a title known for letting players go about on their own self-crafted adventures in a sandbox world.

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Tamriel is a rather vast piece of land, making the world in The Elder Scrolls Online one that doesn’t feel tiny in scope. You can’t visit everywhere, as some areas are locked away, no doubt for expansion packs due sometime down the road. Also, those wonderful open mechanics from the single player iterations are limited here. You can lock pick some doors, you can rob from some draws and you can pick up some random items lying on the floor. What you cannot do is go on a murdering spree or steal a shop’s inventory, as NPCs are invulnerable to your mischievous behaviour, and items are firmly locked to the ground. Some NPCs can die from other dangers, and they will stay dead in your game (but not to anyone else), but this is nothing compared to what it was like before. Again, this is the developers being chauffeured into the limitations of an online game without deciding to go and change the old-fashioned formula of the genre. It’s also a step away from what fans love about the series.

Players will visit various themed locations, such as jungles, fortresses, red glowing volcanic lands, snowy mountains, spooky caverns, large cities and dirty swamps. You even get to visit locations form past games, like Windhelm from Skyrim. There is a good selection of themes, but one thing noticeable is that the world feels emptier compared to Skyrim. I don’t mean empty in regards to players, there’s always loads of other players to see, since the clever use of the megaserver technology means that the world is populated based on density. Everyone is on the same server, but they won’t be seeing everyone at one time, plus it also helps when finding people to play with, since they are not living on another “world.” But what I do mean is that the world is missing detail. Its expression is more barren – less vegetation, buildings, etc., and lacks the graphical niceties that Skyrim included. It also could do with feeling more alive, there’s stillness to the world, it lacks action, like the random events that crop up all the time in RIFT or the random quests that appear in Guild Wars 2.

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Player versus environment is a big part of The Elder Scrolls Online. The developers have made the game accessible to people who just want to take on quests solo – time can be spent completing quests and taking part in dungeons without the need of help. Other players will always be around you, so if you’re in a boss fight and they happen to be doing the same quest, then you’ll both be able to fight the boss. This makes the fight a breeze; since the boss is created for one person doing the solo quest and doesn’t scale up if other people are with you. It comes across feeling like the game is uncertain in what it wants to be, as it overlaps between the single player and multiplayer aspects, but never being great at either one of them.  Instance dungeons are made for groups, up to four initially, but opens up once the level 50 cap has been hit, and are quite fun to take part in, because even though people can take a typical role of DPS, Tank, Healer, you often find people switching around their style, due to the open nature of building a character, so everyone ends up doing a little bit of everything to support the team. Dungeons include the typical sub bosses and final boss at the end, with large waves of enemies in between.

Player vs. Player is a big feature of MMOs, and it’s certainly here in some capacity under Alliance Wars, which opens up in Cyrodiil when the character hits level 10 and is the only PvP available at the moment. The large area of Cyrodiil is up for grabs, with the leading faction having to defend its fortresses from the invading opposition. Fighting in PvP is actually rather fulfilling, thanks to fighting other humans who have the same almost real time attacks and instant usage of skills. Metre management becomes a big issue to staying alive and killing any warrior who has an eye for you on the battlefield. A sense of scale can be felt during these wars, since large players are battling with foes on this massive map, but what’s even more exciting is that taking down enemy fortresses requires the use of alliance points, gained by successfully accomplishing small quest or killing enemies, which are then exchanged for siege equipment, like catapults, to help your side have an advantage in smashing through the defensive walls. Strategy is rather important in overcoming the defenders, and stealing key structures is vital to cutting off supplies and nullifying enemy advantage.

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As for the end game content, once level 50 is reached the veteran feature unlocks, allowing you to hit more levels and gain more skills, but also giving the player the option to go visit another faction’s dungeons, which are previous locked away. Veteran experience builds towards receiving special items when hitting the criteria. Master dungeons unlock and are harder versions of existing dungeons, but are given new quests to do and new areas to see.  The Elder Scrolls Online doesn’t have loads of end game content, but patches are coming to update this with new dungeons and quests for veteran characters.

From when your eyes first see the opening screen it’s instantly obvious that this is an Elder Scrolls title. The colour palette, the modelling and the environment all look like they could have been rendered in previous games – that dark, muddy, visual fantasy style. It’s certainly not an ugly title, but there is a visual flair missing, due to the more realistic, less cartoony, representation that this old series has always gone for. NPCs come fully voiced for every piece of dialogue, which must have been a huge script for a game of this size. There are some shortcuts taken, as various voice actors are reused for multiple NPCs, and some of the quality of these voice overs border mediocre and lifeless, kind of how their faces look when you stare at them during conversation.

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The Elder Scrolls Online is a title that is stuck in this middle ground between wanting to be an Elder Scrolls game and wanting to be a MMORPG, and the issue with that is that it never fully accomplishes either styles of play. Playing the game with a single player approach is totally possible, but it’s more mundane than playing Skyrim, while participating with a group doesn’t work all that well for the quests, unless you specifically take part in the dungeons made for groups. In all honesty, the saving grace is the PvP, and while it only offers one mode, it’s a ton of fun to play when the battlefields are packed with players. In the end, I wonder how many players will stay subscribed with the game, because while I had fun in parts, the asking price of £8.99 a month for end game content is not something I am seeing worthwhile, especially with the game’s focus on single player, which itself is a mixed bag of interesting and repetitive quests, can be beat during the 30 days you get with the game, making the investment questionable unless you really enjoy the PvP or repeating the veteran dungeons. With better MMORPGs already out there and seemingly more great ones coming, The Elder Scrolls Online is using the name to appeal to its large fan base, and I have no doubt some will enjoy, but for the rest, this game is an vacillating anomaly in a packed market.

6 out of 10