RELEASE DATE 4 April, 2014 / DEVELOPER Zenimax Online Studios / PUBLISHER Bethesda Softworks / WEBSITE http://elderscrollsonline.com.
The Elder Scrolls Online has endured a bumpy road to launch. When it was unveiled last year, the decision to build the MMO around the World of Warcraft model and then drape it in Elder Scrolls lore, rather than create a traditional Elder Scrolls game that let you explore with your friends, came under fire from fans and critics alike. Furthermore, the game has already been written off by some people, due to Bethesda choosing a subscription-based model when successful subscription- based MMOs are rarer than black rhinos.
Bethesda’s conservative approach to MMO design is undoubtedly (and rather ironically) a risky strategy. Yet having played The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) over several days this month, it’s clear that not all hope is lost for Bethesda’s first MMO effort. Developer Zenimax Online Studios has been hard at work infusing the game with a strong Elder Scrolls vibe, and the result is a game that, while problematic in places, has considerable potential.
Admittedly, the terrible opening doesn’t do TESO any favours. Like previous Elder Scrolls games, your player begins in prison. In this case, Coldharbour Prison, the realm of Molag Bal, Daedric Prince of enslavement of mortals.
Inevitably, you escape, and it turns out there’s a prophecy that marks you out as the most important person in Tamriel, which makes absolutely no sense given that this is an MMO and everyone is following the same story. There are big lumpy dollops of exposition, some perfunctory combat, and a few cameos from A-list actors whose vocal talents greatly outweigh the script they’re reading.
Of course, the Elder Scrolls games have never been strong starters, but normally, the tedium only lasts half an hour before the game cuts you loose. In TESO, there are two further starting areas, through which you have to suffer for upwards of a day before the game relinquishes its grip, and even then the necessities of traditional MMO design mean it never fully lets go. Each area is designed around specific levels, so while you can go to most places if you wish, you’re not going to be able to do much without getting squished.
Although the true freedom that’s the trademark of prior Elder Scrolls games is ultimately denied to you, the illusion of freedom is preserved, simply because the world is so vast. Tamriel’s landmass is divided between three factions, and the territory of the faction we chose to play – The Ebonheart Pact – encompassed the whole of Skyrim, Morrowind and the Argonian homeland Black Marsh, alongside having access to Cyrodiil for the PvP component. We explored a single province of Morrowind, and the variety of landscapes in this one area was remarkable, including forests of giant mushrooms, arid plains dotted with bubbling sulphur pools, and towering volcanoes spitting ash and lava from their mouths. The Elder Scrolls games’ ability to pack a world with fascinating sights was always a strong element, and TESO lives up to that legacy.
It also feels more like an Elder Scrolls game than we anticipated. Quests are often multi-layered, and while they’re initially overly focused on either collecting three things, killing three things or pressing three things, they become more involved, with their own little twists and turns. Furthermore, there are dungeons tunnelling deep into the earth that exist purely to be pillaged, containing unique loot and enemies.
Even combat has more of the Elder Scrolls feel about it than you might expect, although it’s also the most MMO- esque aspect of the core game. Initially, you select a specific class for your character, but these classes are fairly broadly defined, with most of them encompassing a mixture of physical combat and magic, with the ability to pick whatever weapon you prefer. A dual-wielding Dragon Knight, for example, becomes a whirlwind of fire, rock and steel, able to knock down an opponent by flinging a fist of stone at them, before imbuing his weapons with molten metal and finishing them off with a deadly flurry of stabs and slashes.
Combat for all classes is fast and furious, but currently lacks the weight and force to make it compelling. It isn’t dull, especially once you’ve unlocked sufficient skills to create tactics. It’s just a little flimsy. Also, in its attempt to make TESO feel like an Elder Scrolls game, Bethesda may have compromised the multiplayer aspect. For the most part, it plays like a solo game, with players following the same quest lines but not really adventuring together, aside from in combat situations. It doesn’t feel like a game that you’re playing with other people; more a game that you’re playing at the same time as other people.
There are exceptions though. Rifts in the form of huge portals, anchored to the ground by tree-thick chains, require multiple players to close, and some dungeons benefit from multiple players too. Where players really come together, though, is in Cyrodiil, the realm featured in Oblivion, which is now a massive PvP arena.
TESO’s PvP system bears certain similarities to Planetside, being a vast area in which the three factions constantly wrestle territory from one another. The objects of this war are the Elder Scrolls themselves, housed in temples dotted around the country, each of which is protected by a network of fortresses. To capture an Elder Scroll, the faction must work together across the frontline to first occupy the fortresses before attacking the Temple.
These broader campaigns are underpinned by smaller missions and objectives, enabling you to aid your faction’s cause at a variety of levels. So you could simply dive into the thick of battle by attacking or defending a fortress.
Alternatively, you could band together a small group of friends to raid one of the farmsteads that supply these key structures. Or you could brave the wilds of Cyrodiil alone on a mission to scout out a location, or assassinate another player. Although we only spent a little time with the game, this aspect could well turn out to be TESO’s standout feature, as it involves players working together on both the micro and macro-scale, which the PvE aspect lacks.
Frankly, though, The Elder Scrolls Online could go either way. The MMO framework and the Elder Scrolls mechanics don’t always sit well together, resulting in contradictions that fail to serve either half particularly well. On the other hand, Zenimax’s take on Tamriel is just as enticing as any of Bethesda’s prior offerings, and as the game goes on, it feels more and more like Skyrim or Morrowind.
Being able to explore that world with other people is wonderful, although the game doesn’t accommodate that factor as well as it should. It’s a hulking, strangely alluring creation with more peaks and troughs than the Himalayas, and for both better and worse, it does feel like an Elder Scrolls game.