The Elder Scrolls Online review: other people

ESO is missing the spark that got us lost in Skyrim and Morrowind

Game Info
Platform Win, Mac, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Bethesda Softworks
Developer ZeniMax Online Studios
Release Date Apr 4, 2014

Editor's Note: With The Elder Scrolls Online, Bethesda Softworks and developer Zenimax Online Studios aren't aiming at MMO fans alone. Instead, ESO is being heralded as a full Elder Scrolls experience. This isn't surprising in the wake of Skyrim's massive success, but it does raise a question: can an MMO provide an experience compatible with the expectations of the more than 20 million people who bought Bethesda's last RPG? And will MMO fans be similarly satisfied?

With that in mind, we're trying something different with our review of The Elder Scrolls Online, bridging the gap between the two points of view in question. On one side, we have Polygon's resident Skyrim devotee, Justin McElroy. On the other? Polygon's most dedicated player of MMOs, Phil Kollar.

Justin McElroy, Elder Scrolls Fan

My fear, when I first heard about The Elder Scrolls Online, was shared by a lot of fans of the series, I'd imagine. Could an MMO game really capture the spirit of a sprawling, thrilling (and often lonely) open-world adventure that I'd grown to love the Elder Scrolls series for?

After some 40 hours of playtime and over 40 levels split between different characters, I can now give the concrete and unqualified answer to that most pressing question:

... Sort of?

The Elder Scrolls Online is the newest entry in the series, but as it's set in the Second Era (as opposed the the Third Era seen in the first four main Elder Scrolls games) it's actually the earliest, chronologically speaking.

At the risk of overburdening you with lore, ESO is specifically set during The Interregnum, a rocky part of Tamriel's timeline. Not only are all of the continent's factions vying for power, but a Super Bad Dude (and Daedric Prince) named Molag Bal is attempting to fuse his slice of Oblivion, Coldharbour, with the mortal plane.

Luckily, this opens the door for an enterprising young adventurer (and several million of his closest friends) to set things right.

ZeniMax Online has certainly nailed the Elder Scrolls scale. As a member of the Ebonheart Pact, I've spent nearly all my time since the official launch in Morrowind, a province in Tamriel's northeast. I feel like I've seen just a fraction of this area, which itself comprises a fraction of the whole of the content. This is a massive, massive world.

That scale also brings with it a fair amount of repetition. Though there's a ton of really beautiful geographical variety, architecture is frequently reused, providing an unnerving sense of déjà vu. I'm often able to competently navigate a building I've never before entered because I recognize the layout from the three to four times I've explored that same structure before.

There's a fair amount of repetition in quests as well. In my time in Tamriel, as an example, I've encountered no fewer than three quests that required me to locate, herd or retrieve guar, a domesticated pack animal in the Elder Scrolls fiction. People of Tamriel, I'm begging you: Keep a closer eye on your guar. We adventurers have better things to do, I assure you.

There are, however, some excellent one-off quests that would be right at home in a traditional Elder Scrolls game. Slowing down to read the text for each quest (anathema to many MMO players, I know) frequently pays off with some surprising twists and even a few laughs.

There are, however, some excellent one-off quests that would be right at home in a traditional Elder Scrolls game

One of my favorite recent quest tasked me with winning the approval of three demigods by solving a puzzle that activated a clockwork knight, killing said clockwork knight and then solving a murder mystery. When I'm sucked into one of these well-constructed mini-adventures I almost forget my place and feel, for a moment, like I really am the sole hope of Tamriel all the quest text keeps insisting I am.

I say "almost" because that spell is usually shattered by the unavoidable side effect of playing an MMO: All the people.

Solving a puzzle where I had to activate specific columns of light might have been cool if seven other players hadn't been madly circling around me attempting to do the same. Climactic boss battles at the end of quest lines are robbed of more than a little drama when three other players swarm my target and kill it after I've got but a few decent hits in. The remainder of that drama is dispelled completely as I watch players line up to repeat the slaughter time after time in the hopes of collecting whatever loot the enemy has to offer.


The effect is rather like riding Pirates of the Caribbean, watching animatronic Johnny Depp clunkily return to his hiding spot after you've passed so he can prepare to surprise the next boatload of tourists. And at this early stage, several quests are just broken, so you're often left staring at Johnny Depp's lifeless face as you wait for the ride to start back up again.

Before you MMO diehards skip to the comments to start dismantling my complaints, please understand: I get it. I know that you're constantly suspending disbelief as player after player extracts an identical crystal skull from the chest apparently stuffed with a limitless supply of the one-of-a-kind relics. I know the tormented ghost that you forever free from its cursed existence must immediately return to this plane so the next hero can begin the cycle again. That's how MMOs work. But it has not, to this point, been how Elder Scrolls games work.

With all the care that ZeniMax Online has taken to shove an Elder Scrolls-shaped peg into an MMO-shaped hole, it's puzzling that it hasn't made more use of instancing. Being thrown into a splinter version of the world where I'm the only adventurer is a pretty old MMO trick at this point, and more frequent use of it would have gone a long way towards capturing the spirit of the Bethesda's series.

Phil Kollar, MMO Guy

Elder Scrolls Online had a great opportunity to bring something different to the MMO genre. While the Elder Scrolls series shares the massive open world element common to MMORPGs, it also brings its own set of expectations and traditions that really could have set this game apart.

But rather than an ambitious project that blends the strengths of these two styles of role-playing game, Elder Scrolls Online settles for a much less exciting middle ground - a sloppy mix that waters down what's great about Elder Scrolls while flat-out ruining the best parts of an MMO.

In addition to the same-old string of boring tasks that makes up a huge part of questing (which Justin details in his portion of this review), the game is dragged down by its open-ended approach to character development. A lot of recent MMOs have sought to expand beyond the strict, class-based limitations common to the genre, but Elder Scrolls Online really embraces its legacy here.

You begin the game by choosing one of four classes, but once you're in, you have a lot of freedom to push your character in whatever direction you want. Want your magic-using powerhouse to also wear heavy armor? Go ahead. Want your beefy dragon knight to learn how to heal allies? Yep, that's allowed.

While this freedom to take a character in any direction is intoxicating, it's also just plain toxic as the game progresses and gets more difficult. In particular, the grouping experience - you know, what sets an MMO apart from a single-player RPG - is hurt. In most MMOs, groups are made up of damage dealers along with at least one tank - someone who takes all incoming damage - and one healer, and those roles are generally determined by what class you're playing.

Unless you have friends around the same level who you trust to figure out proper skill paths, it's best to avoid group dungeons altogether.

Elder Scrolls Online's difficult dungeons still require this setup, but since classes aren't pushed down a defined path, most players aren't going to be prepared. Almost all of my group encounters with random players ended up in dozens of time-wasting deaths as my partners realized that they should have specialized in just tanking, damage dealing or healing instead of mixing and matching a bit of everything. Unless you have friends around the same level who you trust to figure out proper skill paths, it's best to avoid group dungeons altogether.


The solo experience doesn't always fare much better. While Elder Scrolls Online's combat certainly captures the feel of a game like Skyrim - especially if played in first-person mode - that feel is squishier and less precise than what I've come to expect from MMOs. Using ranged weapons or abilities and trying to switch between multiple targets only worked for me about half of the time. It wasn't until a dozen hours into the game that I realized the reason for this: It uses a traditional MMO lock-on targeting system but just hides the lock-on.

At least I eventually figured out a reasonable workaround for Elder Scrolls Online's combat. Not so for the game's mess of an economy. While the crafting systems are robust and easier to get into than in many MMOs, the game has no traditional auction house system for buying or selling your goods. The only solution is to join a trading guild, which has a smaller pool of players and extremely limited search functionality.

All of these strange choices ostensibly serve a single purpose: encouraging community. Elder Scrolls Online wants you to make friends, to group with people who you know and can grow with, to form guilds and trading partnerships that are mutually beneficial. It's noble enough in concept, but it ignores most of the progress that the genre has made toward usability in the last five years.

It also forgets the harsh realities of playing an online game, especially one that requires a subscription fee: Not everyone has friends playing, and not everyone gets lucky enough to stumble upon a group of people in-game who have the same play style.


Wrap Up:

ESO is missing the spark that got us lost in Skyrim and Morrowind

We approached Elder Scrolls Online as fans of the series and as MMO lovers, but it came up short from both perspectives. It's missing that spark of magic that enticed us to get lost in Skyrim or Morrowind for months, or that made us happy to fork over a monthly fee just to access our current favorite game. It seems like so much effort was put into forcibly translating Elder Scrolls' style into the genre's norms, but the payoff for that effort isn't there. Even in its best moments, Elder Scrolls Online is merely a competent traditional MMO; at its worst, it flubs even that.

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