Hands On With The Elder Scrolls Online: the Good, the Bad, and the Lovely

The Elder Scrolls Online's dual nature will please some fans while frustrating others. Which will you be?

Editor’s Note: Jason is a member of the press who is authorized to report his experience. Please note that the NDA remains in full force for all ESO beta testers. Do not publish information related to your testing experiences unless you have express permission from ESO. We now return you to your regularly scheduled article. 

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The Elder Scrolls Online is one thing and another. It’s an MMO and an RPG, a themepark and a sandbox, a single-player game and an online adventure.

This dual nature is both its biggest strength and its greatest weakness.

 Instead of making each side happy, it’s highly likely that it will piss each side off that it’s not 100% what they want

As I told a friend while playing in the press beta last weekend, ESO half-appeals to MMO fans and half-appeals to Skyrim fans – and, as is the case in the MMO world, instead of making each side happy, it’s highly likely that it will piss each side off that it’s not 100% what they want. That’s the nature of the MMO industry: With so many options and long-entrenched preferences, people are more likely to find something they dislike that gives them a reason not to play than they are to find something they like that gives them a reason to play.

But ESO isn’t totally unlikeable. It takes a little work to figure it out, but it can be an enjoyable game, if you let it and are open to a new way of doing things. It’s a mix of point-to-point themepark and go-anywhere, do-anything sandbox. Whether that’s an intentional design decision or something that happened by accident, we’ll likely never know. But you can still enjoy the game, regardless of the developers’ – or other players’ – intent.

The Secret Tamriel

One of the most open-ended progression systems you’ll find in any MMO

As I was playing, I couldn’t help but draw numerous parallels between The Elder Scrolls Online and The Secret World. Both games have some point-to-point direction, but you’re encouraged to explore, to go off the beaten path and find things to do outside of quest-givers.

Take the screenshot above, for instance. Your first instinct is to go to the city and explore there. That’s what you do in MMOs, right? Find the set pieces and scour them for enemies and loot. But did you notice the backpack nestled between the rocks on the right? There are spots like this all over the world of ESO, as well as partially obscured crafting nodes and other hotspots. Having no minimap enhances the need for exploration and encourages looking at the environment instead of icons.

There are occasional riddles to solve, clues strewn haphazardly along the landscape with no way to guide yourself except by your wits. Skyshards, which give you more points to spend on skills, are also hidden away, with no indication as to where to find them. And it’s got one of the most open-ended progression systems you’ll find in any MMO.

With all that flexibility, of course, can come confusion and frustration.

Ignore that other guy and play the way you want to.

Chat will be filled with people trying to progress as quickly as possible, asking “Where’s the hidden treasure chest?” and “What’s the best build for a Breton nightblade?” That’s fine, and if it’s how you want to play the game, go ahead.

But I go back to The Secret World for one last bit of advice. When browsing the forums a few months after it came out, I came across one guy who said he rushed to the end, ignoring all the complex storyline and plot elements and was “kicking myself” for it.

If you’re a longtime Elder Scrolls player, you should know that it’s not just about following the main storyline and moving directly from one quest giver to the next.

Pretty much everyone has taken “time off” from the main story to explore Skyrim (or Cyrodiil or Morrowind) and just “see what’s out there.” That’s hard to do in an MMO, where you get the feeling that if you don’t advance as quickly as possible, you’ll fall behind. There’s a guy with shiny armor and a flaming sword! I have to get that, and soon, or everyone will know what a failure I am!

Or… maybe you don’t.

Maybe it’s best to treat ESO like a single-player game in this regard. Ignore that other guy and play the way you want to. If that’s fast and progression-minded, that’s fine. If it’s not, well, that’s fine too. Elder Scrolls games have always been about the journey more than the destination, and I think ESO is meant to be played that way too.

A fighting chance

Just like how people who love The Secret World will still grouse about the combat, fighting in The Elder Scrolls Online takes some getting used to. It might not be for everyone, and I’ve yet to sample large group encounters, but there is a certain amount of skill one can utilize in ESO.

I played a melee character in my earlier play session and liked it enough to give it a positive review, but in the intervening time I’d heard enough complaints about the combat in ESO that I thought I’d give it another shot.

Upon further review – and like everything else in ESO, it seems – it has its good points and its bad points.

While you’ll do some blocking, especially if you’ve got a shield, as I did most of the time, this is the aspect of the game that probably feels the least Elder Scrolls-like. Sure, there’s active combat and no tab-targeting, but the strikes lack the kind of impact you expect from a game like Skyrim, where when that Nord smashes down on you with his warhammer, you just feel it. It probably would have taken a more complex physics system than an MMO can handle to do justice to that kind of combat, but it’s a notable omission.

It devolved into a kind of mad, chaotic, free-swinging scrum, which is realistic and not entirely unappealing

Still, you can get used to a rotation of skills and strikes, and the give-and-take of fighting an enemy, at least in one-on-one encounters. I did group up for a while, to run a few quests, and when we encountered multiple foes, it devolved into a kind of mad, chaotic, free-swinging scrum, which is realistic and not entirely unappealing – and, for anyone who stormed Whiterun in Skyrim, very much in line with Elder Scrolls gameplay – but might be a detriment to people looking for very rigid, tightly controlled, trinity-style MMO gameplay, where the tank controls everything in a nice, neat spot and leaves the DPS and healers unmolested.

Personally, I think MMOs need a little more chaos.

Especially in PvE, so that encounters aren’t just the same few steps repeated over and over until loot drops. We got a decent look at how this can work in a recent dev video and I look forward to trying more formal group content in the future.

Leave your expectations at the Oblivion Gate

Focus on what the game is, instead of what it isn’t, and you’ll do fine.

There’s plenty to like in The Elder Scrolls Online – and plenty to dislike, if you’re of a mind to do so. Despite ZeniMax’s best efforts and desires, it won’t be a game for everyone. It’s going to take patience and willingness to accept that some things will be different – not necessarily bad, but different – from what you’ve come to expect from the Elder Scrolls and from MMOs in general, and that’s a risky proposition. Forcing players to spend $60+ to find out if they’ll like it or not makes things even riskier. People will look for any reason to not invest money and time into an MMO, and there certainly are plenty of hurdles to jump through before you can appreciate ESO.

But I think there’s a solid game there, if you have the patience and will to find it.

Being a fan of the Elder Scrolls universe helps, but it also helps to go in with as few preconceptions as possible. The Elder Scrolls Online is an MMO and an Elder Scrolls title… and it isn’t. Focus on what the game is, instead of what it isn’t, and you’ll do fine.


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Jason Winter
Jason Winter is a riddle wrapped inside a burrito, smothered in hot sauce. Mmm... burrito...