Last updated on December 16th, 2016
Coming from a mostly console-playing background, and never having ventured into an MMO before (unless you count Destiny’s mostly patchwork mosaic of MMO elements woven into a persistent world shooter), I approached this new console version of Elder Scrolls Online with more than a bit of trepidation. Would the game bastardize the Scrolls legacy for me? Would the whole thing be an underwhelming exercise in loot chasing? But as a fan of the franchise, I knew I’d have to dive in and see what the noise was about.
Developed by: Zenimax Online Studios
Published by: Bethesda Softworks
Release date: June 9th, 2015
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One (Reviewed on Xbox One)
Launch Price: 59.99 USD
Writing a review for a game this big takes time. After many weeks (full disclosure) I am not even close to being finished. But I have seen enough to know that ESO can be an entertaining juggernaut with only minor flaws. My first 30 minutes in-game left me feeling a bit “meh” at times. Entering the first section of the Coldharbour “tutorial”, inside the prison, I saw dozens of other human players, all wearing the same prison issue jammies and toting greatswords, and became convinced I was going to hate this. My knee-jerk reaction was that it seemed almost oppressively crowded, running counter to the “lone warrior” vibe of other Elder Scrolls games. This feeling persisted even as I worked my way to Auridon, the first social hub city of the Aldmeri Dominion faction questline. Mobs of human players sporting outfits consisting of loincloth and pauldrons, hawking lore books through headsets, or greeting new people with shouts of “yo yo, can you hook a brother up with some gold”, while amusing, pulled me out of sense of immersion developers might have been trying to create.
After many weeks (full disclosure) I am not even close to being finished. But I have seen enough to know that ESO can be an entertaining juggernaut with only minor flaws.
In hindsight I can see that much of what you do in these intro areas, including major questlines, is a continuation of tutorial themes, getting you oriented, subtly explaining how each of the crafting systems works, and pointing you toward banks and stables. A half dozen hours in, I was still trying to warm up to the game. Then I ventured out into the larger world to explore. And it just clicked. This was the Elder Scrolls experience. I felt like I’d arrived home.
Questing and Combat
With nothing but a map and radar indicators, I started looking for trouble. And trouble I found. Moving further away from Vulkhel Guard, crowds thinned until I was only crossing paths with one or two people at a time. I was about to get my first spanking at the hands of a bear, when another random player charged over the hill and lent a hand with some healing spells and a few well placed fireballs. The whole thing ended in less than ten seconds, and we went our separate ways. No lobbies or matchmaking. Just two people who joined spontaneously to take down a common enemy. It is a theme that recurs constantly as you play Elder Scrolls Online.
Many of the delves and dungeons, like the open world skirmishes, funnel people together to form makeshift coalitions. While teamwork isn’t especially necessary in trash mob fights, comrades can be a blessing when you’re alone, deep in a delve, trying to take down a mini-boss that might be just a tad OP for your level. Each faction world has a main story thread that propels you forward, binding your adventures into a cohesive route, across multiple map areas. Most quests linked to these are shared between players, and you’ll constantly meet them coming and going, helping one another.
A half dozen hours in, I was still trying to warm up to the game. Then I ventured out into the larger world to explore. And it just clicked. This was the Elder Scrolls experience. I felt like I’d arrived home.
In a nice tip-of-the-hat to longtime Elder Scrolls players, the game also includes three other storylines which are solo in nature. Both the main story, featuring the bulk of star voice talent (Jennifer Hale, Alfred Molina, John Cleese, and Michael Gambon), as well as the Fighter’s Guild and Mage Guild stories, put players alone with these quests. While the depth of the tale isn’t quite on par with much of what Skyrim delivered, there is easily enough to keep solo-purists sated. In addition, each faction area dedicates around ⅓ of its quest lore to one of three central races. In the Aldmeri Dominion, your first two maps offer a lot of story background on Altmer culture, followed by Bosmer on the next two, and Khajiit at the end. Fans of Elder Scrolls lore should love this. I learned more about those three races in ESO than in all other Scrolls games before.
In my first dozen or so hours, I wasn’t sure what to make of combat in ESO. It felt a bit like a hybrid of styles from Skyrim and Dragon Age. Enemies are highlighted with a glowing soft-lock, and then you choose from one of five special skills mapped to the controller buttons (square, triangle, circle on PS4, or X, Y, B on Xbox One), as well as the two shoulder buttons. Left trigger blocks, and right trigger does light and heavy attacks. While it seems simple on the surface, once you begin playing harder areas and enemies, you begin to get a feel for the synergy between skills, as well as developing your own rhythms of attack. Each class has its own versions of DPS attacks, healing, and crowd control. Establishing a balanced grouping is key to success.
Crafting Your Character
Crafting has always been a huge part of Elder Scrolls games, and ESO is no exception. It has a depth that must not be understated, and requires such an investment of time and resources that pursuing all six categories is impractical for a single character. I learned through various restarts that it’s better to choose ones you feel will benefit your character’s needs. My main is a templar that uses both staff types, so woodworking is important. I put ample passive perks into this category. It’s also important to “research” items, which is to say, to unlock traits which can be applied to crafted gear. The catch is, while the first one takes only 6 hours in real time to finish researching (it does this in the background after you initiate), this time double for each successive one. Since there are 9 in total for each armor category and weapon, the wait for the ninth one is 64 days (yes, in real time). To say that crafting requires investment is an understatement.
Naturally, crafting means that an in-game economy is also a popular aspect of the game. Players can join guilds for trading and joining PvP (more on that later), and can buy and sell anything from crafting mats to swag armor and weapons. Savvy players can quickly accumulate gold through buying low and selling high, as long as they know the market. Thus far Zenimax Online has done a good job not monetizing too many crafting items, effectively killing the in game economy. As long as only cosmetic items are sold in the crown store (real money marketplace), this balance should be maintained.
Comrades can be a blessing when you’re alone, deep in a delve, trying to take down a mini-boss that might be just a tad OP for your level.
I knew going in that a selling feature of this game (and bane to the MMO purists) is the fact that no matter what “class” you choose, morphing into multiple roles is always a possibility. I’ve taken both a Templar and Nightblade to high levels and found that this is true for the most part. A Nightblade can be either a death dealing shadow lurker with bow and daggers, or a crowd controlling blood mage healer, depending on your skill point allotment and gear. Similarly, raising stats in different armor types can help the build (because of passive bonuses to health, magic, or stamina), which is why it’s a good reason to raise all of them in the early going, so you aren’t too far behind in late game. The only thing that can have a minor impact is your racial bonus. My Nightblade was a Bosmer, so she made a much better weapon user than magic user, but enchantments and other buffs more than make up for any racial deficiency.
Connectivity at launch, no surprise, was a bit of a mess for a few days. After the first week, I experienced few problems, and the game continues to be mostly stable. It will hang occasionally on load screens, or crash outright, but this is rare. My progress always saves automatically to the servers.
Dungeons and Multiplayer
There are two kinds of dungeons in ESO (three if you count the delves, but I don’t, simply because they’re short and easy to do solo). Public dungeons, one per map area, usually contain a quest and a skyshard. You enter alone or with a few friends. Enemy concentration is higher, so you’re often meeting twice as many targets in trash mobs. Surviving these alone is possible, but very much a frustrating grind. Having one friend in your party (at least) is advisable. These dungeons often have unique environments and are larger than regular delves and caves. 4-player dungeons, on the other hand, are extremely tough and require a group that is balanced for damage, crowd control, and healing. They are also some of the most fun to be had in ESO. While there is a “group finder” for matching up with other solo players or small groups, expect long waits in a queue and a lot of confusion as to where to go to meet up if nobody is using a mic.
PvP is a big part of the ESO experience. There is a lot of info about how it works on the Fextralife wiki, so I won’t retread that ground here. Suffice it to say, if you venture into Cyrodil, bring plenty of friends from your guild. Four players in a balanced group should be able to explore without much trouble, as long as they know to go the other way if they cross paths with a mob. PvP definitely does not feel tacked on, and I know people who have reached high levels with their character doing nothing but PvP. Massive battles in which two sides are separated by a fortress wall have a grand-scale feel, and can be a lot of fun, especially when people start breaking out siege machines. Choke points, however, are another story. This becomes victory by attrition, writ large, with combat that is chaotic and frenetic, rather than dynamic. I was playing as a healer most of the time, and that’s precisely what I did, spamming heals to our group. Belonging to a large guild and having some friends to play with makes PvP much more interesting, and I can see it providing excellent end-game content on an unlimited scale.
4-player dungeons, on the other hand, are extremely tough and require a group that is balanced for damage, crowd control, and healing. They are also some of the most fun to be had in ESO.
While opinions of ESO may vary to a degree, it’s hard to imagine any RPG or MMO fan deeply hating it. There are simply too many fun elements woven into the game that compensate for smaller flaws. It’s easy to compare this game to Destiny, in that both games are attempting to meld elements of MMOs into something new and fresh. Whereas Destiny had major issues with lack of story and painfully small game world, ESO delivers both of these as a counterbalance to many “grind” aspects of the genre. Both games could use some fine tuning as far as matchmaking options, but I suppose that’s to be expected as social gaming on consoles continues to evolve. In any case, ESO should win the hearts and minds of many casual players who are new to MMOs, having just enough hand-holding to make the experience pleasant, and still be rife with challenging content.
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