‘The Elder Scrolls Online’ is a world worth getting lost in | review part 2

Image: Bethesda Softworks

For those of you completely unfamiliar with Elder Scrolls Online,  this ESO Leveling guide from Killerguides.net might be a good place to start. Also see my initial impressions of the game in my previous post.

It’s been almost two weeks since the official release of Elder Scrolls Online and thus far all indications are that this has been one of the smoother launches in recent online gaming. In fact, anything less would haven been a surprise. The launch is a reflection of the level of refinement and attention given to just about every aspect of the game itself. Publisher Bethesda and developer ZeniMax Online know they have a great game, and the last thing they need is some technological snafu keeping or discouraging players from experiencing it.

At this point in the game, which for me and likely all the but the most argent power-levelers is likely still relatively early, the most intriguing aspect remains the various possibilities available to each class. While most MMOs have made an effort to pigeonhole its classes into specific roles, even streamlining the player’s opinions into a one or two choices per advancement, ESO goes in the complete opposite direction by allowing players nearly unlimited customization options for development.

There are of course traditional RPG roles, groups will always want a tank and a healer and won’t get far without some damage dealers, but the true innovation behind the classes is that each one can take on these roles with near equality. Character growth comes through use. While this means that your character may become stuck using a specific weapon or skill type because it is most useful at the time, it also makes the player’s tendencies and preferences become the character’s strength. Still, it’s easy enough to switch to another weapon or skill set, through refunding skill points or simply switching their use.

Image: Bethesda Softworks

My Nightblade started as a bow-wielding assassin type before switching to dual daggers and even a double-handed axe swinging healer. Same goes for armor. Much like Skyrim, armor is a matter of personal choice, with different benefits guiding how the player may choose. Upon reaching level 15, and unlocking the ability to switch weapons on the fly, it’s become surprisingly easy to begin a fight with a long range heal-over-time attack, an arrow shot, closing in with a pair of quick damage daggers, and finishing with one big move which dispatches the enemy while healing instantly. Best of all, I’m not limited to only my Nightblade in order to accomplish this effect (although she is my preferred character so far). The way in which each class can blend its own abilities means that players aren’t limited to only one or two classes if they want to tank or heal, they can choose any class. It really is entirely up to them.

Yet freedom always has a downside, and for classes in ESO it’s in knowing how to most effectively build a character. In-game descriptions are kept minimum and never so explicit as to say “pick this to heal better,” thus min-maxing is difficult without experimentation. Nonetheless, there is a lot of fun to uncover in these experiments, including possible combinations that may otherwise be frowned upon as less than optimal, which making exploring the character almost as much fun as exploring the world.

In terms of exploration, Tamriel is a land of constant surprises. Sometimes this can be a touch frustrating. I’ve had several experiences with running through a location on my way to continue a quest before encountering a gang of bandits that chase after me, tossing blades and doing damage, until I finally stop to confront them which is always when they tether back to their spawn point. But mostly this new and vast world is a complete wonder. Even the most inauspicious locations can hold memorable quests.

Image: Bethesda Softworks

One of those I’ve been most impressed with so far came extremely early (in terms of how big the game is) when on the island of Stros M’Kai I was tasked with helping with a major heist. I recruited a team, each member having their own miniature quest line, before completing the main mission. What was most impressive is that I wasn’t required to recruit these different members, but doing so sure made the final mission a whole lot easier with each added member fulfilling a specific role. This type of freedom is nothing new for single-player games, but it’s extremely rare in online games where there are always plenty of quests to choose from, but few choices in how to complete those quests.

Of course, there’s always a ton of things to do and see and interact with. From wandering merchants to people just milling about in a field, it’s clear that just about every NPC has a purpose. There is still a central narrative developed at certain increments throughout the game and a more regional main story to follow, but often side quests, literally picked up at the side of the road, prove just as intriguing and reward as the big important ones. At times these stumbled-upon stories can even provide insight into things that become major development in earlier games such as Oblivion and Skyrim which are chronologically hundreds of year after this one.

There is also a sense of accomplishment in seeing the landscape change as a quest progresses. Although the graphics aren’t on par with Skyrim, the landscapes, vistas, textures and architecture are still gorgeous (my favorite of the starting locations begin those of the Aldmeri Dominion, with its forestry and elfish inspiration) and is understandable considering the variety of machines any MMO must be capable of running on in order to expand its population beyond just owners of bleeding edge gaming PCs.

Image: Bethesda Softworks

Players of previous games should definitely enjoying seeing the earlier versions of locations such as Daggerfall and Cyrodiil, yet even those new to the series should find the abundance of lore engrossing. Individual stories provide enough drive, with varied quests and even time travel, even without touching the main narrative. And, of course, there are always books scattered all over the world to fill in the blanks if one chooses to do so. Personally I’ve only ever played Skyrim, so seeing Molag Bal, who I’d only encountered through secondhand accounts and a rather mediocre mace, play such a huge role in the story is illuminating. It’s funny/creepy to know that 1000 years later my Dragonborn was fulfilling favors in this demon’s name.

However, this is also where the concept of massively multi-player works a little to ESO’s detriment. Not only is it harder to tell a single concentrated story with sweeping results, but it’s hard to feel like a true hero when there are thousands of others running around. During the first quest, as the Prophet (voiced by Bumblebore himself Michael Gambon) expounded that as the soulless one I and I alone could free him, I couldn’t help thinking that all these other figures running through the underground prison were being told the same thing. It’s nice to have a stranger’s help when killing monsters or taking on the evil spirit threatening to destroy a city, but it breaks immersion when three other characters are also the lone conqueror or savior.

Of course, this can easily be remedied by grouping with these other players and making “I” into “we.” ESO makes grouping very easy and very natural. There is always the traditional option of spamming the zone chat with “lf group” or “lf healer” but it’s very simple to make a quick pick-up group for just one or two quests. While I’m primarily a solo player, I’ve enjoyed joining random groups to accomplish a handful of quests in an area before parting for our own fortunes. If anything, groups and the social aspect of the game could use a bit more emphasis as ESO continues, including the difficulty in finding and specializing in one specific role within a group, but the foundation is definitely there.

Image: Bethesda Softworks

As with any new game, there are a few places where ESO can improve. As stated before, servers are extremely stable (I have yet to experience a crash), yet there are a few bugs here and there. Lag is especially prevalent within major cities and a particularly nasty problem occasionally makes it impossible for my character to move or attack during combat, which hasn’t been too bad since most of the time there is another player who conveniently comes to my aid.

I suspect this will be worse as players level and there are fewer occupying the same zone at the same time. Further, I found it the compass based navigation (like that in Skyrim) extremely frustrating. Other players may love the immersion of a minimal player UI, but to me it’s like asking someone for directions and their response is to point in the direction I should go without any notice about obstacles which are in my way. This may be an attempt to emphasis exploration, but it can make it very easy to run into impassable ridge or a horde of undead. Still, these problems are small, the growing pains of any new MMO, and will hopefully be worked out with time, updates and an already increasing number of user-created add-ons.

Player-versus-player combat is another major area which time will decide upon. All of PVP content takes place in a single zone, the contested land of Cyrodiil, and it is huge. Game maps make it clear Cyrodiil is the largest individual zone currently available, and it feels that way. In my limited PVP experience, I rode for a few minutes before encountering a rival player… and was promptly killed by that player while fending off an NPC guard, then had to spend a few more minutes riding back. Nonetheless, PVP combat is intense with other players, NPCs and siege weapons to contend with. For many other games, Cyrodiil alone would have been enough to fill an entire release. For Elder Scrolls Online, it’s just another part of an enormous world. All the same, fans of pvp will find much to love, with mission objectives, 90-day domination campaigns and the ultimate title of Emperor to contest for. With only one emperor at a time, it’s guaranteed that competition will be fierce and elite players will lose weeks of sleep.

Image: Bethesda Softworks

Ultimately, Elder Scrolls Online plays like the product of years of careful dedication. It’s not only the culmination of its own series, but also all of what has been learned in over a decade of MMO development and innovation. It includes the best conveniences and conventions of other games in the genre, refines them, and continues the deep exploration and customization mechanics which are hallmarks of the Elder Scroll series. It’s debatable whether any MMORPG can ever offer absolute freedom, but ESO does its damnedest to accomplish just that without tearing away the exact elements which make it an MMORPG. This is a game worthy of following in the much heralded series. and a world more than worthy of getting lost in.

After all, whether it’s a new quest line or a distant mountain, there’s always something to find.

Author’s Note: I apologize for the delay in posting this review. Initially I had hoped to play the game on my own PC, however once the computer was returned after two weeks of repairs I found that the manufacturer replaced the failed hard drive and ignored my request to fix the problem which caused the hard drive to fail. The next day the computer had to be returned again and will remain out of my possession for another week. I didn’t want to leave this review unfinished while waiting.

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.