I enjoy MMO's. I've played more than a few in my day, although I don't consider myself a power player. I still play Guild Wars 2 and I love action RPG's like Diablo and Path of Exile. I also adore the Elder Scrolls series. I've played Arena, Daggerfell, Morrowind (plus expansions), Oblivion (plus expansions and a buttload of mods), and Skyrim (plus expansions and a buttload of mods). So when talk of an Elder Scrolls MMO started swirling around on the internet, I wondered if it were true, and when a beta might become available.
Beta signups were made available in January of 2013, and I signed up on the very first day. I practically forgot about it until I received my beta key via email some ten months later. I was working an Xbox One launch event during the beta weekend, and so I gave my beta key to an MMO-savvy friend of mine. He wasn't very impressed, but he's also not the same kind of MMO player I am. I love the lore, the setting, and the experience, as opposed to just becoming the most well-specced and destructive character. I wondered if I would get to play the game before its release. Imagine my surprise when a second closed beta rolled around. I downloaded the client, patched it up, and got playing.
As this was a beta, I'm going to refrain from talking about UI crashes, login issues, and other things. I'm only interested in talking about the core gameplay, which strikes the most bizarre and frustrating contrast I have ever seen in any game. Every time I had something good to say about the game, it was inevitably followed by, "...for an MMO." And any time I had anything bad to say, it was similarly followed by, "...for an Elder Scrolls game." This duality wound up permeating every single facet of the entire experience, from character creation to questing, to combat.
The game starts like every MMO (and Elder Scrolls game for that matter), with character creation. It's a surprisingly robust creation set (for an MMO), as you get to use pretty much all the physique options from Skyrim (plus a few new ideas). But this is also where the game falls at the first hurdle. A cursory look at elderscrollsonline.com shows a prominently-featured video touting the ability to play any way you want to. In Skyrim this was certainly true, as there was no class to play as. You were given a few abilities based on your race and birth sign, and away you go. But Elder Scrolls online drudges up the class-based roleplaying specter of Elder Scrolls games past (notably Morrowind and Oblivion) and forces you to choose a class out the gate. Not unusual for an MMO, but a significant step back for Elder Scrolls. This had me scratching my head already. Picking one class locks you out of a number of abilities, but this is certainly a way of focusing gameplay, and encourages creating multiple characters, so I suppose it's not all bad. The choice of race is also quite important as, like most MMO's, you are also choosing your faction. Choice of race does not affect your ability to join the Fighter's Guild or Mage's Guild, but it would have been kind of interesting to join the Altmeri Dominion as a Nord, for example. Going against the grain and allowing you to play as an upstart rebel against your own race would have been cool, but very unconventional.
Once you've created your character (I went for a wood elf shadow), you're spit out into the tutorial area. You awaken in a jail cell in the Oblivion hell-plane run by Daedric prince Molag Bal, whose minions back in Tamriel are sacrificing people's souls to the dark god. Their souls wind up here, in his fancy little prison, where they labor until they go insane or some such. There are a few interesting characters that you run into in this introductory section, but suffice to say, you have to free a man named The Prophet form some magical chamber, whereupon he assists you in getting back to Tamriel. You fall from the sky near a Khajiti Island (for me, a wood elf anyway) in the South Summerset Isles, and your quest begins in earnest.
From here, it's a pretty good idea to start questing. As in most MMO's, you find the people with floating symbols above their heads and talk to them to get a quest. It's a tried-and-true mechanic, but feels out of place in Tamriel. You go to a quest-giver, they give you a quest, and then you follow the icons on your map (or compass, thank god) to fetch said item or kill said enemy, and return for reward. One thing that actually sets the questing in TESO apart is that all the quests are given by legitimately interesting questgivers. They're all fully-voiced, animated, and quite lifelike (for an MMO). The voice acting is on par with Skyrim, and while the quests are the same asinine "go here and collect three of something" busywork quests we're all used to in MMO's, they're competently written and feel at least somewhat related to overall events. One thing I really enjoyed was how some quests felt almost like true Elder Scrolls questlines, with intrigue and even a bit of player choice, such as one quest where I had to break into an embassy to recover a stolen treaty. I could choose to knock the guard unconscious with moon sugar in his drink or forge a letter from his beloved in town. That was pretty good player involvement (for an MMO), but your minimap shows you where all those options are; so there is no chance of failure which is a bit of a letdown. The questline eventually turned into a fight for the survival of Mistral (the city in this questing area), and once the danger was over, I went on to the next questing area.
The gameplay is pretty competent (for an MMO... see?) but incredibly flat (for an Elder Scrolls game). The running and jumping is all fine. Quite a lot like Skyrim, actually. The game can be played from a first person perspective, with a crosshair in the middle and a compass/minimap at the top. Finding new landmarks and areas nets you experience, and you can choose to fight in just about any style you like... sort of. Your inventory is pathetically small (for an Elder Scrolls game), and you're not likely to find anything particularly interesting in that crate in that abandoned house, but it retains some of the charm of the exploration from Elder Scrolls past. The biggest difference from older games in the series is the lack of environmental interactivity. In most of the other games, you could opt to steal a single piece of silverware, or throw a melon across the room. Obviously those mechanics don't transfer well to an MMO, but that sort of interactivity is why people love the series so much. You felt like a small, but sentient part of a larger whole, and then you rise up to become a larger part of that whole. Now, I'm running around and killing stuff sort of like I have before, but there are thirty other people within spitting distance, and I feel less empowered to affect my environment.
Combat is a big part of Elder Scrolls and role-playing in general. This is probably one of the better MMO combat systems I have seen, but it's pretty bad for Elder Scrolls. I was a shadow, so I was thinking daggers and bows. You don't unlock the ability to have a hotswappable weapon loadout until level 15, so I opted for a bow. About 20 hours of relatively focused questing has gotten me to level 7, so this game will certainly be a long grind. It takes about two seconds to take my bow out, and a couple seconds between shots, and abilities that target enemies can't be used at all unless they are directly in your crosshairs. It felt like this odd, sterile, and nonsensically limiting exercise in boredom. The enemies always attacked with identical tactics and never really surprised me, although they are surprisingly animated and lifelike when out of combat. Combat was boring. It wasn't interesting, and I didn't really feel all that powerful, despite mowing down everything in my path. I felt weak, and I felt like my enemies were similarly weak. In Guild Wars 2, you start out relatively weak and you feel weak compared to your enemies. Then, once you've gotten to a certain level, you feel more comfortable questing in new areas that were always available to you, but were far too hazardous for your squishy character. In Elder Scrolls Online, it felt like a nonstop grind at all times in combat. I found myself avoiding it half the time because I didn't even want to do it. It's not the action-packed and improvised feel that Skyrim had. It's a sterile and lackluster puff of smoke rather than an explosive experience. The spells were similarly boring, despite their pretty colors and well-balanced abilities. They just didn't make me feel powerful. Maybe it's more fun as a warrior character, or the magic is better as a caster, but that's counter to the entire mission of the Elder Scrolls series. Combat is supposed to be fun no matter what your approach or style, and it wasn't at all for me.
Before I get to what I loved about the experience, I need to talk about the two things that absolutely infuriated me the most. I need to talk about these two things in particular because they saw such amazing improvement from Oblivion to Skyrim. In my opinion, Skyrim has a fabulous leveling system. You use certain skills, and then those skills level up as you use them, just like skills and abilities do in real life. Spend hours honing your bow skills, and you see real and marked improvement in your ability to use a bow. It's elegant, simple, and very easy to understand. Second, I need to talk about crafting. Now I know that crafting is a huge part of MMO's, and it's usually INCREDIBLY convoluted as to how it works, but there is often a sort of glue that holds the concepts together somewhat. First, I need to discuss levelling. Like Skyrim, when you level you get to choose to dump a point into stamina, health, or magicka. That's where the similarities end. After that, you have a few drop-down menus for weapon skills, racial skills, guild skills (if you have joined one of the NPC guilds), and class skills. These skills range from new abilities to improved skills. That's standard fare for MMO's. What infuriates me about the leveling system is how arbitrarily the skills increase. On one occasion, I picked a flower (more on that later) and my bow skill increased. On another, I shot a deer with my bow and my light armor skill increased. There is no continuity between the skills you use and your increased proficiency with them, which makes the entire system meaningless. Now, on to crafting. This one is huge to me, because it removes one of the most unique elements from the entire franchise and adds one of the most frustratingly common in its place. In Elder Scrolls, how cool is it that you can wander into a field and just pick flowers? Pick 'em all you want and go make potions out of them? It's pretty awesome, isn't it? Well kiss that goodbye, because that's been replaced with damn resource nodes. Yes, the flowers you pick for alchemy are nodes now. And, because the art team is undoubtedly used to making the kinds of flowers they normally put in Elder Scrolls games, the nodes are almost always completely invisible, surrounded by a plethora of grass and shrubbery. I ran around staring at the ground to find plants to harvest, and it was tough as hell to see them. Yes, there are wood nodes and ore nodes that are a little more conspicuous, but the plant nodes are almost invisible, and you will repeatedly confuse environmental elements like mushrooms and shrubs for nodes when they are just ornamentation, despite the fact that some mushrooms are collectible. It was so frustrating to find alchemical ingredients, I spent a skill point on a skill that illuminates them when I am within 20 meters. After an hour of using that ability, I had found three nodes meaning they are scarce as hell, taking most of the fun out of ingredient hunting (one of my favorite Elder Scrolls diversions). Once you have your resources, making heads or tails of the confusing crafting menus is another challenge. I couldn't figure out what I had the knowledge to make, how I got that knowledge, or what ingredients were even necessary for certain items. I figured out pretty easily that deconstructing items at crafting stations would yield some pretty necessary crafting items, but it was much easier to improve equipment than it was to craft new gear. Enchanting and alchemy (my favorite disciplines) were just impossible to figure out. I was only able to successfully make a couple potions. Enchanting didn't make any sense at all. I couldn't deconstruct magical items, and the process required glyphs of some kind, and despite having a full set of them, I couldn't get them to work. In all, these two systems have taken dramatic steps back not only in the Elder Scrolls, but in MMO's in general.
Now for the things that I did like. The graphics were certainly the best I have seen in an MMO to date. The environments are varied, consistent, well-defined, and very dense. I know that some graphical compromises have to be made for MMO's as they tend to be more CPU-bound than other games, but my rig was able to handle the game on ultra settings while getting 45-60FPS which tells me the game is quite well optimized. The character models are emotive, interesting, and quite stylish. The voice acting is top-notch as well. The game plays well, the controls are simple, and the interface feels Elder Scrolls-ish. The game uses its setting well, utilizing the lore and racial strife of the time period in Tamriel's history with care and attention. From a straight visceral check-the-boxes perspective, this game does literally everything right.
So this brings me to my point:
That's exactly how it feels. It's a by-the-numbers, check-the-boxes MMO shell over the Elder Scrolls mythos. You can go to Elderscrollsonline.com and view all the videos and read all the developer interviews where they talk about how they're eschewing convention to deliver a true Elder Scrolls experience that the fans want, but none of that feels true to me. I'm a true Elder Scrolls fan. I've played all the major releases. I still play Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim all the time. The attention to detail, the sense of place, and the freedom that the series offers you is unequaled in single-player RPG's. But this MMO effort feels more like Kingdoms of Amalur than Elder Scrolls. More like Guild Wars. More like Rift. It feels more like everything BUT Elder Scrolls, because it didn't bring anything FROM Elder Scrolls but its world, and that world isn't enough to carry a game by itself. Who is this game for? The Elder Scrolls fans will likely hate it, and the MMO fans might not find enough to keep them interested. It's a bold undertaking, one that I sincerely does well. I want to love Elder Scrolls Online. I want everyone to love it. But I don't. I just don't love it. I don't even really like it. I want to so badly but I simply don't. It delivers almost none of what made me fall in love with the series, but it delivers some of the things that I love about Guild Wars. And worst of all, it got to a point where I quit Elder Scrolls Online and played Guild Wars 2 instead, because I almost feel bad watching Elder Scrolls follow in the footsteps of others instead of blazing its own path, as its players have for over fifteen years. I will probably buy this game when it comes out, but at $15 per month, I expect a few marathon sessions for maybe three months and then I'll deactivate my account. This isn't Elder Scrolls, no matter how much we may want it to be. And that's a damn shame.