MMOs are a weird sort of thing. Some portion of the players want social interaction in virtually every aspect of the game, while others want to do their own thing for the most part, with the option of fiddling about with social interaction when it suits them, or as necessity demands. I fall into the latter category myself, as I play MMOs as single player games, except when it comes to three things: Trade, PvP, and Dungeons. From what I’ve seen in the first 20 levels of The Elder Scrolls Online, it seems to cater to my style almost exclusively. It’s not as exciting as it sounds, though, as MMOs absolutely need to recognize that they’re multiplayer games in order to function, and TESO likes to forget this fact.
That’s not to say that TESO is anything short of a great game and stellar experience. By the time you hit level 20, you’ll likely enjoy playing through well over 100 quests, each of which has fully voiced dialogue and even occasional moral choices to make (although I’m skeptical that your choices carry any weight in game). You’ll probably do dungeons in a small group, PvP in Cyrodiil alongside dozens of other players, and even explore entire continents all by your lonesome. What’s odd, though, is that throughout all this, despite the constant banter going on in Zone Chat, you’ll rarely feel connected to the other players. TESO feels a lot like a multiplayer Skyrim mod. It seems to have been designed as a single player game, with the multiplayer content being tacked on, but still exceedingly well done.
Starting with character creation, the detail put into The Elder Scrolls Online is uncanny, which should be no surprise to fans of the Elder Scrolls franchise. Between the ten playable races and a seemingly endless supply of appearance customization options, you’ll be able to create virtually any look you want in game – from reptilian Argonian to sleek and furry Khajiit to your standard, stoic almost-human. Each race comes with its own unique traits, as well as racial skill trees to sink points into as you progress through the game. If you’re any kind of min/maxer you’ll do well to check out your race options before committing to a race/class combination, to ensure that your racial skills complement your class choice. Classes are fairly minimal in The Elder Scrolls Online, with only four options available; Dragonknight, Sorcerer, Nightblade, and Templar. Though that may seem restrictive at a glance, the open system for skills in game will allow you to tailor your character to your own playstyle as you level up to some extent. It’s not quite as open as Skyrim, though, since you’re still restricted in what abilities you can develop and use by your initial class choice. You can’t play as a Nightblade and decide to start summoning Daedra minions like a Sorcerer. You can, however, play as a tanky sort of Sorcerer with heavy armor, sword, and shield. You’ll still never really be as good a tank as someone who chose a tank class, but the option is there to tinker with if you so choose.
Once you get past character creation – something that’ll take some players a minute and others an hour – you’ll have to run through the tutorial. Taking you to Molag Bal’s plane of Oblivion, Coldharbour, TESO begins its story in true Elder Scrolls fashion: escaping imprisonment. After learning how to move around and swing your weapon, you must help an old man known as The Prophet escape from his cell. He will then in turn help you pass through dimensions to escape Coldharbour. This is the first of the main story quests which, up to level 20 at least, all revolve around The Prophet. Unfortunately, the main story quests are fairly sparse, with a new quest only becoming available every few levels, with each typically lasting 20-45 minutes. They can be a little irksome, too, with unskippable non-cinematic animations sometimes dragging on for several minutes, like when you’re asked to follow The Prophet for what seems an eternity, as ghosts of the past banter amongst themselves. This is going to be a treat for the sort of player that reads every lore book they encounter, but if you’re trying to get to the end game as fast as possible – or simply don’t care about the story – it can be quite trying. Even with the story being more or less forced upon you, they’re still typically fun to play through, often taking you into the past through the perspective of another character. It’s a great twist on storytelling – allowing you to experience the story, rather than just read or hear about it.
The Elder Scrolls Online doesn’t believe in quest hubs like you may be accustomed to from games like WoW. While it may be slightly frustrating for the most serious power levelers out there to have to go out and find the quests they need to level up, these quests are fairly bountiful and sufficiently interconnected to keep you from having much by way of dry spells. From level 1-20, you’ll typically have no less than three quests at any given time, sometimes having as many as 8 or more. Whether you consider this a pro or a con for TESO as a whole, the fact remains that this is something of an innovation for MMOs, and still executed quite well, which is laudable. As long as you’re not ignoring Points of Interest on your compass in a rush to complete your active quest, you’ll rarely find yourself with nothing to do. It’s fun and engaging to have to explore for your quests, but like the unskippable and un-AFK-able story quest animations, there could just as easily be an option to grab quests the old fashioned way, ie. En masse.
No MMO would be complete without some kind of crafting to while away the time between quests, and outfit yourself with custom gear suited to your character’s talents. While the first 20 levels certainly lay the groundwork for an amazingly robust crafting system, the fact is that unless it’s your primary focus, you simply won’t get very far along in your professions. You can collect every piece of crafting material node you see, break down every piece of gear you find, and loot every container, and you’ll still only get through a handful of levels in any given profession. That’s not to say that the crafting is bad by any means – it’s one of the most fully fleshed out crafting systems you’ll find – but the first 20 levels worth of crafting are just not terribly exciting. It’s also an incredibly space-intensive hobby. You’ve got such limited backpack space that if you do try to be the jack-of-all-trades crafter, you’ll find yourself with a full bag and full bank very quickly.
PvP is often reserved for the end game, but TESO welcomes you to the PvP area, Cyrodiil, as soon as you hit level 10. Unfortunately, although my experience was limited to 90 minutes or so on one server, it was a ghost town. Whether people prefer PvE content, or are just focusing on hitting max level for the time being, I didn’t see a single enemy player in over an hour of “PvP.” There’s more to do than just fight other players, though. There are mines and farms to commandeer, there are strongholds to capture, and even siege warfare to participate in. Of course, these are all more fun with other players, so the fact that even the most populous faction was ill represented in Cyrodiil during my time there, it might be best to group up before hand, rather than just jumping in and hoping for the best. The PvP has huge potential, and likely just suffers from a combination of too many servers and too few participating players. The fact that you can participate in massive scale combat, lay siege to a stronghold with catapults and trebuchets, and strategically cut off your opponents’ supplies at the source by taking over a valuable mine has all the makings of a very viable source of end-game entertainment. For the first 20 levels, though, you won’t be missing much.
Despite a remarkable level of polish throughout the game, you’ll still encounter the occasional glitch or unexpected server downtime. You’ll run into quest NPCs that just don’t respond to you, forcing you to either come back later when they feel like working, or restart the quest completely. There are a couple of missions which have you challenging soldiers to duels, only they’ll occasionally get struck with Hive Mind, so beating one disables your ability to duel any of the others. Other than a Crossfire-related client crash – which was easily enough resolved, no thanks to the lukewarm, but always in-character Support Team – I didn’t run into any game-breaking bugs, though. Given the breadth of the game, this is actually quite an accomplishment. With as many moving parts as there are in TESO, it’s a small miracle that there aren’t more prevalent and impactful bugs, and by any account, this is one of the best examples of how to launch an MMO.
As before, The Elder Scrolls Online is a genuinely fun experience, but you shouldn’t go into it expecting a traditional single player RPG, nor a traditional MMO. It straddles the line between the two so thoroughly that it’s difficult to liken the experience to one or the other specifically. You’ll see other players in the world, but you’ll rarely feel connected to them in any meaningful way unless you join a guild. Despite the overarching world conflict, they don’t feel like comrades in arms against common foes. This might be in part due to the very “you alone can save the world” main story quest, which doesn’t really lend itself to outside assistance. Sure, you can team up to delve into a dungeon or go PvP in Cyrodiil, but with the primary focus of the early game being the single player experience, they feel more like henchmen than colleagues, and I expect you’ll feel much the same to them.
Levels 1-20 – roughly 25-30 hours of gameplay, depending on how focused you are on leveling – in The Elder Scrolls Online offers a lone wolf, exploration-focused pseudo-MMO. It’s as single player as you can get on a server with hundreds to thousands of other players, and it’s a very Elder Scrolls experience to boot. From the fully voiced quest dialogue to the build-your-own tankmage skill system, the freedom you have in TESO is both a blessing and a curse. While it’s really nice to be able to use every upgrade that drops, you’ll often find yourself wishing for a destruction staff when bows have been dropping exclusively for hours. Leveling up and morphing your class skills is a bit of a slow process, but it is incredibly fulfilling to see your fun-size Imp turn into a big, bad Clannfear. Crafting is almost too robust to really get a good feel for it in the first 20 levels, but the system is clearly a frontrunner in customizable kit creation. Unfortunately, you might run into a situation where the PvP doesn’t stack up, but that’s likely a result of the situation than the systems. The siege engines and command point structure of Cyrodiil looks like it will be able to offer countless hours of manic PvP action, once the servers have been trimmed down or filled up.
Bottom Line: The Elder Scrolls Online is a ton of fun in an outside-the-box sort of way. It can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be single player or MMO, so be prepared for some in-between weirdness, but nothing that really detracts much from the experience. Between Guilds, crafting, PvP, and dungeons, it has all of the makings of a solid MMO.
Recommendation: Just the first 20 levels is almost worth the box price, but whether the subscription fee is worth committing to is still up in the air. It’s not the be all end all of Elder Scrolls by any means, but it’s an enjoyable experience with few serious issues. If you like Elder Scrolls or MMOs, take it out for a spin. As long as you can commit a couple hours a day to it, you’ll more than get your money’s worth in the 30 days that comes with the purchase.[rating=4.0]