I look across the Alik'r desert from atop my steed. The arid ground below its hooves has been cracked by the sun's intense heat, and only husks are left where vegetation once thrived. I see a shrine in the distance signaling a friendly oasis, but it's lonely here, and I long to catch a ride on the hot breezes that blow past. It's a pensive moment, and I savor it, for I must believe that a grand adventure waits for me beyond that shrine, beyond the rocky plateaus that wall in this desert, beyond the Arabia-inspired dwellings that dot the sands.
The great wonder of The Elder Scrolls Online is that sights like these can inspire gleeful anticipation. Such grand vistas must harbor unknown secrets. Such vast landscapes must also have room for a story of your own crafting, a story you can share at the inn after a hard day's journey across deserts and mountains. The great disappointment of The Elder Scrolls Online is that many of these sights and sounds are weak facades that cannot hide how clumsily the game tries to join two disparate halves that cannot form a whole. One half, the single-player fantasy experience, does not provide the emergent adventuring for which the series is known, hobbled as it is by the online environment. The other half, a bog-standard massively multiplayer role-playing game, is hampered by The Elder Scrolls Online's tendency to punish you for playing with others.
The Elder Scrolls Online goes out of its way to sell its peculiar coupling of incompatible parts, however. When you first load up the game and enter character creation, rhythmic strings and kettledrums crescendo until they are joined by French horns and virtual choristers. The famous Elder Scrolls theme begins to play, and you turn your attention to choosing a race from this famed fantasy universe, from the haughty High Elves to the feline Khajiit. Then you choose from one of four classes and begin to customize your character, using all sorts of sliders to make your fanged Orc dragonknight look as fearsome as possible, or to make your pale Nord sorcerer look so angelic that she might have floated down from the heavens. This is a great start. You feel the energy. You're ready to make a name for yourself on the continent of Tamriel.
Once you depart the introductory dungeon, the possibilities seem endless, at least at first. Daggerfall was the first major city I explored, and I roamed the streets taking on quests and chatting with the townsfolk. During dialogue, the camera closes in on your conversation partner just as it does in single-player Elder Scrolls games like Skyrim and Oblivion. Every line is spoken aloud, and conversations demand your input. The game wants you to pay attention, and at first, I eagerly listened. Amazingly, none of these people wanted me to go clear out a cellar full of rats, or murder 10 ladybugs. Instead, they wanted my help solving mysteries and activating golems built by the long-extinct Dwemer race. These were quests I could get behind.
Unfortunately, in leaving behind the usual questing cliches and focusing on lengthy conversations with non-player characters, The Elder Scrolls Online creates different kinds of problems. As you move from one place to the next, you hear the same few actors over and over again, which might not have been such a sin if their voices weren't so distinct and recognizable. Even if you've never heard Troy Baker's voice in another game, you'll soon come to know it in this one, given how many characters he plays. A great actor can disappear into a role, assuming the role is worth disappearing into. Alas, the game's creaky writing isn't about developing characters; it's about advancing plot and pouring volumes of lore into your head. There's no chance for an actor to build a character when dialogue is written in long, bone-dry sentences better put to paper than delivered from an actor's tongue.
You could levy the same criticism against previous Elder Scrolls games, of course, but such conversations weren't the crux of the prior games' storytelling. Instead, the greatest stories that emerged were the ones you created for yourself by taking advantage of the games' interlocking systems. The Elder Scrolls Online by its very nature limits the kind of fun you can make. You can't murder random shopkeepers and incur an entire village's wrath. You will never mourn for a trusted follower, such as Skyrim's Lydia, when he or she falls in battle, for there are no followers for hire. In theory, you can head off in whatever direction you choose, but enemy levels don't scale to your own, so the overall direction of your adventure is just as gated as in any other MMOG.
And so you move through Tamriel in more or less the prescribed direction, trudging through one long-winded tale after another instead of conjuring one to call your own. Luckily, many of these tales are intriguing ones. During my travels, I stumbled upon a village with a terrible secret, and once I uncovered it, I was asked to determine whether I would lead the villagers to freedom, or insist they remain under a terrible curse. I led the Fighter's Guild to a renaissance after revealing a plot that threatened to undermine its power. My favorite moments were those in which I saw a story come to life rather than hearing it read to me from a script. I watched a former comrade morph into a terrible monstrosity and looked on as a brave young woman martyred herself for the greater good. In The Elder Scrolls Online, actions speak louder than words. It's too bad that the people of Tamriel would usually rather talk.
The usual kill-20-wolves quests might be uncommon in The Elder Scrolls Online, but the game ultimately finds its own themes to repeat. There always seems to be someone wrongly imprisoned in stocks. People never want to open their doors in the midst of an emergency. There's always a local leader being controlled by some cult or another. But even when you're tired of chatting it up with ghosts who always seem to be stuck in this plane of existence for some reason, the game tries so very hard to keep you in its thrall. There is no minimap to clutter your screen, only a full-screen map and a compass that identifies areas and objects of interest. Your six-slot action bar disappears when you aren't engaged in combat, and by default, players and non-player characters are not identified by floating names or icons. "This is not a game--this is a life," The Elder Scrolls Online seems to say. And when I'm combing a beach for treasure or facing a Daedric monstrosity, it's the only life I'm aware of. When you keep things simple, the game makes it easy to be in the moment.
The game's creaky writing isn't about developing characters; it's about advancing plot and pouring volumes of lore into your head.
Of course, such a life is only an illusion, and the game is intent on smashing that illusion to pieces at every turn. Many quest lines end with you making a decision that is then reflected in the world around you; for instance, you may choose to save one group of NPCs from a fire and sentence another to burn, thus leaving only one group for you to interact with later. As long as you keep to yourself, the illusion is complete, and the game's phasing technology has you seamlessly entering instances that reflect the path you followed. Join other players, however, and you tear off The Elder Scrolls Online's thin veil. You and a buddy might enter a region only to have your teammate turn invisible, leaving behind a wandering icon. You might initiate battle, only to discover that your friend doesn't see the same enemies and thus can't help fight them. I was so annoyed by such moments that I rallied others to my side only when I wanted to clear a dungeon or fight one of the elite monsters that pepper the landscape. The multiplayer half just doesn't play nicely with the single-player half.
The single-player half is hardly innocent in this family squabble, however. A quest that puts you in another character's sandals and sends you back in time to witness tragic events of the past is initially engaging. But seeing three other players standing there, all portraying the same character, kills the scene. Breaking into a house only to be surrounded by a half-dozen other would-be burglars destroys any hope of role-playing as a surreptitious thief. Witnessing a bunch of other people performing the same tasks is hardly a new phenomenon in MMOGs, but The Elder Scrolls Online's attempts to personalize the narrative progression make the immersion-breaking foibles all the more jarring.
That isn't to say that the game doesn't provide opportunities for players to come together, with four-player dungeons leading the way. It's easy to find a group and get into a dungeon once you've reached the appropriate level, and you can find success even if your party has an atypical assortment of classes. My first runthrough of the Tempest Island dungeon was with two other damage dealers and a healer, yet we fared rather well against the area's bosses, one of which kept us on the move as it dogged us with a roving lightning storm. I like this dungeon for the way its tropical marshes contrast with its wooden bridges and stone sanctums, and for the imposing atronachs you battle as you venture through it. I don't like the way a quest giver in the dungeon will walk away in the middle of dialogue because another player finished the conversation first, forcing me to reinitiate the exchange. Nor, for that matter, do I like every dungeons' overall tendency to create narrow choke points in high-action areas. (Hello, limited camera angles!) Maps don't always feel designed around how players actually use those spaces.
The action is fine, but it never crackles, in part due to the lifeless animations that make combat look more like a mundane chore than a dazzling display of magic and mayhem. Single-player Elder Scrolls combat has always been somewhat messy, but its real-time nature usually communicates a sense of blade against flesh. The Elder Scrolls Online combines the old-fashioned hotkey combat of games like World of Warcraft with the action-oriented swordplay of games like Tera, to mixed results. You target using an onscreen reticle (though you can get some assistance from your tab key), and you are limited mainly by your mana and stamina bars, not skill cooldowns. You can also block attacks and tumble, but this is not true action combat, so there is some buffer between your key presses and the actions you see onscreen.
I watched a former comrade morph into a terrible monstrosity and looked on as a brave young woman martyred herself for the greater good. In The Elder Scrolls Online, actions speak louder than words.
I did come to appreciate the ways of sorcery in spite of the dreary animations, especially once I reached level 15 and could equip a second set of weapons and skills. You can switch between sets during battle, Guild Wars 2 style, but The Elder Scrolls Online's combat is not nearly as snappy as Guild Wars 2's, nor does it offer many reasons to switch sets in the middle of combat. But I liked the variety of magic spells, using destructive staffs that offered a main elemental attack (fire, ice, or lightning), and restorative staffs that opened up healing options when fellow Daggerfall Alliance members needed a boost. I came to enjoy a spell called crystal fragments in particular, not just for the way the crystal formed in midair as I performed jazz-hands gestures, but also for the concussive thud it caused when impacting a spriggan's bark. The spell is particularly dramatic looking from a first-person perspective, though I typically played in third-person because it gave me a better view of my surroundings.
You aren't limited to any given type of weapon or armor, however, no matter which class you choose, and weapon types have various skills associated with them. There's a good deal of freedom in how you spend skill points, which you earn when you level up, complete particular quests, or collect enough of the skill shards scattered around Tamriel. You're limited to five active skills and a single ultimate ability per weapon set at a time, however, and as a result, I stuck with a limited number of skills and purchased many passive abilities out of fear that I would be an ineffective mage if I spread my points too thinly.
You don't have to stick to a particular set of crafting skills either, and you can always spend skill points in non-combat disciplines if you fancy yourself an artisan. It's tempting to dabble in every profession at first, but your inventory quickly fills when you hoard every potential crafting resource under the sun and moon. Inventory space upgrades are pricey, so it's best to choose a few professions and stick to them. Even better, you should craft items that you can personally use, unless you belong to a large and active guild or just feel confident in your ability to sell your wares over the game's public chat channels. The reason? The Elder Scrolls Online does not feature an auction house, which makes for a chaotic economy at best. You can sell your items to members of your guild, but the interface for buying and selling is clumsy, and without game-wide information regarding supply and demand, there's no sense of what a fair price may be. And so I crafted for myself and myself alone, eventually sticking with alchemy and enchantment--alchemy for the fun of experimenting with different flowers and herbs to see what poultices I could make, and enchantment for the sake of hearing my in-game avatar speak melodramatic incantations.
Such drama pales in comparison to the drama of The Elder Scrolls Online's player-versus-player battlefields, of course, which pit the game's three main factions against each other in the grand expanses of Cyrodiil. The PVP instances--or campaigns, as they're called here--focus on the siege warfare that Dark Age of Camelot introduced so many years ago, encouraging factions to infiltrate and capture each other's keeps.
Breaking into a house only to be surrounded by a half-dozen other would-be burglars destroys any hope of role-playing as a surreptitious thief.
Cyrodiil's expanses are so great, in fact, that it can take entirely too much time just to get to the action, even when making use of the PVP's quick-travel system. Luckily, The Elder Scrolls Online is at its best when the PVP action heats up, whether you and your comrades are setting up a line of defensive ballistae at the top of a keep's walls, or going for broke and charging a nearby farm protected by NPCs. It's here that I took to a healing role, using area-of-effect healing skills that allowed me to stay on the move and deal a little damage of my own without having to heal teammates individually. These massive battles are good fun, if somewhat handicapped by the core action's stiffness. The PVP campaigns' bigger handicaps are logistical ones. Just getting out of Cyrodiil and back to the relative peace of player versus environment can be time consuming, and the fact that you can't limit a group search to your own campaign is a drag.
Of course, such issues can be patched, as can The Elder Scrolls Online's other continuing troubles, a few too many broken quests chief among them. I'm less certain, however, that the single-player and multiplayer sides of this fantastical coin will ever complement each other. That's too bad, because when the stars align, I get that special tingle in my brain, the kind that heralds upcoming heroism in the face of danger. It happens when the soundtrack's solo cello climbs an arpeggio and then hangs there knowingly, just as I engage a group of harpies. It happens when I face a decision that has no clear right answer. Hopefully, The Elder Scrolls Online will one day get out of its own way, and stop trying to stifle the very fun it's trying to provide.