I love massively multiplayer role-playing games. I love Elder Scrolls games. And I love exploring huge fantasy worlds, seeking treasure and gawking at gorgeous vistas that feel at once foreign and familiar. You would suppose that The Elder Scrolls Online is my dream game, an online RPG in which I can join others in daring feats and seeing just how far we can bend the world to our wishes before it snaps back.
Up until a recent beta weekend, however, The Elder Scrolls Online hadn't enthused me. I'd seen the game in action, heard the developer explain its design approach, and played the game myself, and my impression rarely wavered: ESO looked and sounded dated, a product of old philosophies that the genre had outgrown, with clumsy animations and by-the-numbers questing. Over the weekend, I played a good dozen hours of the game, and my outlook improved. Do I still think The Elder Scrolls Online is beholden to outdated ideas? Yes. Am I still as apathetic to the game as I once had been? No.
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What drew me in was the world. Yes, it's a world many of us already know, but The Elder Scrolls Online uses that familiarity to its advantage, easing back on the user interface and allowing Tamriel to fill the screen, rather than relying on labels and markers. By default, you don't see names and titles hovering over the heads of your fellow players, vendors aren't identified as such onscreen, and the hotbar containing your attack icons disappears when you're not engaged in combat. As you roam the wilds and stroll about the streets of the city of Daggerfall, the compass at the top of the screen and a brief quest description are your only onscreen guides. Clearly, Bethesda wants this world to surround you, to be the primary reason you visit. Had EverQuest not appropriated the slogan "You're in Our World Now," it might have been an apt descriptor for The Elder Scrolls Online.
This is where the game excels. The series's high-fantasy tone is front and center. Within towns and villages, banners fly and guards patrol the streets, looking for troublemakers. In the forests, the birch trees are so weathered, you feel you might reach out and tear the bark right from the trunks. When venturing into an eerie graveyard, a steady drone of eerie violin harmonics evokes the danger of undead lurkers; near the vast ocean, legato cellos hark back to the third game of the Elder Scrolls series, Morrowind, eliciting shivers. Ornate windows decorate stone walls, Dwemer (that is, dwarven) constructs spring to life, and orcs look and sound as genteel as can be given their savage reputations. Logging into the game was like going home again, and the minimal interface kept distractions to a minimum. Tamriel is truly a place I want to be.
As I played, however, it didn't take me long to see the downside of the game's focus on immersion, one that was exacerbated by the limited group of players inhabiting the same fields and dungeons. I was approaching ESO as I would approach any Elder Scrolls game: as an adventure of my own, unsullied by the presence of others. I occasionally noticed other players, but there was no reason to interact with them, and the game offered no encouragement to do so. The chat channels were all but silent--again, partially because I was not surrounded by a full contingent of players, but also (I suspect) because we were involved in our own personal agendas and had no need to interact. In turn, I had to ask myself: does this game need to be online at all?
It's too soon to know, even after a dozen hours. However, because I was a lone adventurer, it didn't take long for me to notice that next to, say, Skyrim, The Elder Scrolls Online wasn't stacking up. On one hand, perhaps it's unfair to presume that all of the series' elements should be brought to an online environment intact; on the other, the game is so intent on replicating the tone of the single-player games that it's almost impossible to not make comparisons. Fair or not, I noticed how the online environment dulls some of the shine. There's certainly plenty of exploration value, and the wide-open world beckons you to poke around, but that larger-than-life feel that comes from games like Oblivion and Morrowind is lacking.
The Elder Scrolls Online uses that familiarity to its advantage, easing back on the user interface and allowing Tamriel to fill the screen, rather than relying on labels and markers.
I recall, for instance, the first time I saw a giant silt strider in Morrowind. It towered over me, statuesque and obedient, prepared for me to leap on and hitch a ride to Seyda Neen. In Skyrim, I stood in awe at my initial glimpse of a mammoth lumbering off in the distance--and of course, the first ten minutes of that game were terrorized by a fearful dragon. In such instances, your imagination runs wild. What wonders will this world reveal? By contrast, The Elder Scrolls Online doesn't feel as mysterious.
That's not to disparage the game's production values, or to dismiss its atmosphere, which nails the proper vibe. But the usual Elder Scrolls invitation to go anywhere and do anything has been stifled a bit, instead sending you down a path more akin to other online RPGs. I do admire Bethesda's commitment to the universe, however. When you initiate dialogue with a non-player character, the camera adjusts to picture her on the left side of the screen, while the right side displays the dialogue and your potential choices. Aside from interactions that have not yet had audio inserted, every line is spoken aloud, and characters and tomes dump lore on you by the bucketload. "Never have the elemental spirits refused to answer our calls," says a character called Wyress Helene. "The grass, the trees, the very earth itself--they're dying." Oh yes, this is Elder Scrolls all right.
It did take me some time to realize, however that it was not an Elder Scrolls that would allow me to kill random townsfolks, steal their gold, and then fill their house with dragon bones. The game let me pilfer random goodies from sacks and trays, but I never got to pickpocket a vendor or slash his throat. The very online nature of the game prevents such delights. The problem with that is that I have yet to see how the online nature of the game benefits it, and I may not know until the game is launched and the servers fill with other fantasy buffs.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed my questing time, due to the variety of the locales and circumstances. Bethesda has always done a great job of taking typical RPG duties--kill things, collect things, click on things--and giving them good context so that you don't feel like you are repeating the same activities over and over again. When a dog trotted up to me, I eagerly followed him so that he would lead me to my next objective. When villagers were burnt out of their homes, I went in search of stray victims in need of assistance. I was even transported to the past, where I discovered the origins of a racial conflict that had present day implications. And in many of those cases, I had choices on how to proceed. For example, I could interrogate prisoners so that they would divulge the information I required, or I could order the guards to slit their throats, and then compel the victims' spirits to betray their kinfolk.
Of course, a lot of these quests required that I slash up bandits and wolves with daggers, or fling fire at them. I like that The Elder Scrolls Online provides so much flexibility in how you develop your character. You choose a race and class at the outset, but from there, you equip weapons and armor as you see fit, and earn additional possibilities as you spend skill points and align with certain guilds.
Sadly, the act of beating creatures to a bloody pulp isn't nearly as compelling as you might hope. The battle system resides in an odd purgatory between the action-based combat of Tera or Neverwinter and the traditional hotkey combat of World of Warcraft or Everquest II. You use mouse buttons to perform standard attacks and blocks, and press keys to unleash more powerful abilities, but whether I was dual wielding axes or pointing a magical staff hovering imps, I was typically unimpressed. The combat in Skyrim and Oblivion is messy, but it still delivers some sense of impact and personal control. The Elder Scrolls Online's battles, on the other hand, lack any sense of connection between blade and flesh. The animations are the most culpable criminals in the combat crimes, which perhaps comes as no surprise given that animations are a continuing weakness in the series. Nonetheless, the stiff animations and seemingly random hitboxes make for milquetoast skirmishes.
But here's the thing: I had a lot of fun of playing The Elder Scrolls Online during its most recent test weekend. The fantasy ambience, the beautiful world, and the varied quests kept me absorbed, even when I was so keenly aware of the game's shortcomings. I'm just not sure how long the enjoyment can last. The game seems stuck between two identities: the massively multiplayer journey, and the liberated Elder Scrolls adventure. And I'm not sure that The Elders Scrolls Online can reconcile the differences in a way that satisfies fans of either approach.