In my ever-expanding quest to spontaneously review the Elder Scrolls series with a complete disregard for chronological release, today I’m taking a look at The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO for short).
First thing’s first; This is an MMO, not an RPG. While you can play solo, the game is always multiplayer, will remain to be a grind and often puts player retention above interesting stories and gameplay. So if you’re picking this up expecting to play Skyrim multiplayer, you’ll be disappointed. In most cases, these are the reasons why I dislike MMO’s. However, I have a soft spot for this game for the sole reason that is still manages to tell engaging stories, and implements some RPG elements, better than the single player instalments in the franchise.
Let’s start with what ESO does right; as an MMO it successfully makes the game feel much more engaging to play with a friend. Me and a buddy once went out questing in Vvardenfell and found a Dunmer who needed help researching ancestral tombs. After clearing a couple of places for him it became apparent that his half-witted Nord companion was accidentally uncovering more information than he was, and he was willing to take credit for her observations. So, in our infinite wisdom, me and my friend decided to push him down a well at the bottom of a subterranean cave where it is implied he probably starved to death. This was hilarious because we chose to do this to him so quickly that we didn’t realise until afterwards that the game had given us every opportunity to spare him.
On another occasion, we were playing a much less interesting quest that involved uniting the armies of the Ebonheart Pact – a military alliance of Nords, Dunmer and Argonians. I can’t remember 99% of it because it was so relentlessly unengaging. However, at the very end of the quest, the three leaders united and started giving big sentimental speeches about their newfound friendship. To celebrate the end of something that had plagued us for so long, I dropped my ultimate ability on top of the leaders; a humongous ring of fire. 99% of the time, this ability is unable to harm friendly or quest essential NPC’s which is why I did it. This was not one of those times. I then proceeded to kill at least three or four dozen soldiers from the alliance who began mercilessly trying to bring me down while their leaders thanked me for my service in the background. My friend spent the better part of this time belly-laughing into the mic before eventually helping me clean out the remainder of the soldiers when she noticed that they had nearly succeeded in killing me. This was a moment that completely justified the entire ordeal we went through to just to experience all of the commotions that followed.
During the main quest for a DLC area, I had to help a clan of sentient crows defeat another clan of sentient crows. My epic battle against the crows consisted of me running up to them, waving my hands in the air and scaring them away. The crows on my side then kept shouting in glee at the massive enemy retreat I had caused. They also alluded to a powerful boss throughout the entire mission that would almost certainly kill me in one strike, only for that boss to be a scarecrow set up by the rival clan. By striking the bucket off of my dormant enemy’s head, I defeat the scarecrow and secured victory for my crow clan.
A lot of the quests in this game are full of charm, have a choice of endings and are clearly made by people who love The Elder Scrolls. Side quests, however, normally seem to be the most creative pieces of content that I would encourage you to engage in first since 90% of the main quests for this game involve undead/daedric invasions with the same old tired routine of just killing the guy who summoned them and defeating an overpowered boss with a mcguffin. That said there are, on balance, much more memorable and genuinely interesting characters to talk to in the main quests than there are in the side content.
Though it does have it’s low points, the story is generally pretty good – although I can only attest to completing it as a member of the Aldmeri Dominion. The way the story is structured is that you do a bunch of solo mission with the undead Emperor of Tamriel and his friends to kill a necromancer who summoned a daedric invasion across the world. Afterwards (or during) you help your alliance of either the Aldmeri Dominion, Ebonheart Pact or Daggerfall Covenant, to win a war engulfing the entire continent for control of the Imperial throne, which has now been seized by the summoned daedra. Having completed your alliance’s questline, you form a peace council where neutral factions like the fighters and mages guild agree to help you counter-invade the realm of Molag Bal, who is spearheading the daedric invasion. This is where the base game’s story gets really good.
Once you enter Coldharbour – Molag Bal’s realm – the game whips out some incredible story and gameplay altering elements that put the single player games in this franchise to shame. Everyone gets scattered upon entering the realm and you stumble upon a lost city. From the city you must go out and reforge the army you entered with. However, each quests normally ends with you having to pick between which soldiers you want to help you – Like whether you want cannibalistic wood elves helping you or giant sentient fish people. Some people you are required to help. Some are entirely optional. And how much you do or don’t do has effects later when you assault Molag Bal.
Then, in typical Elder Scrolls fashion, you get mcguffin powers and defeat Molag Bal. That part is pretty bad, admittedly, but mostly because of how overshadowed it was by the cool stuff you did in his realm to get to that point. So, all in all, the quests and stories are more than worth engaging in either alone or (preferably) with a friend.
Other content involves dungeons which are the best source of experience in the game – You take on the role of either a damage dealer, tank or healer and then four of you get thrown into dungeon to clear. Most of the dungeons have unique atmospheres and environments, but all of them are plagued by something terrible; reusued enemies over and over again. Seriously, the number of dungeons with named variants of the Bone Colossus is kind of ridiculous. They’re not hard or even that powerful. There are DLC dungeons, but paying money for one of them isn’t really worth the price of addition and, although some questlines do intertwine with them, the only reason to ever buy more is to stop yourself from getting bored of the free ones.
Then there’s PvP… In my whole 305 hours playing this game I have never once engaged in the arena PvP games or the larger war in Cyrodiil. I’ve only ever duelled my friends and, despite me being 200 levels higher than one of them, things always end in a stalemate. I play a tank and he plays a damage dealer so I my build absorbs all his damage while also being unable to deal enough damage back to end the duel.
As far as DLC goes… This is one of those games where there’s so much of it that it’s incredibly overwhelming. But if you are a sensible person, don’t bother buying any of the games loot crates, paying real money for a player home or armour sets. Most of the things can be earned by playing the game as rewards for questing.
There’s also a crap-ton of story DLC. The game will push the Greymoor and Blackwood updates on you the moment you load in. Don’t fall for it – these are the most extensive (and expensive) DLC in the game and should only be purchased once you are certain you like what the rest of it has to offer. Start with smaller DLC instead; The Morrowind DLC that adds Vvardenfell is now free with most versions of the game and is a good place to start if you want to dip your toes into what paid content has to offer. I enjoyed it and ended up buying more, going onto the Clockwork City, Northern Elsweyr and Summerset Isle DLC’s which, again, I really liked. Diverse as the written stories are, however, they all follow the same structure and gameplay loop. With that in mind, don’t buy any of it if you find yourself not liking an area like Vvardenfell because you’ll just be getting more of the same.
The open world for all base game and DLC areas works like this: Tamriel is split into different regions and you can travel to each region either by walking for ludicrous amounts of time through multiple loading screens or fast travel. But you can’t fast travel to every discoverable location and will instead need to discover wayashrines. So far as encouraging exploration goes while also allowing easy access to the whole map after spending a fair amount of time in a given area, this system is a good balance. Although, admittedly, it does feel more ‘The Outer Worlds’ than it does The Elder Scrolls due to the fact most locations don’t feel as fun to explore unless you’re there for a quest or with a relevant NPC.
As far as progression goes it’s pretty good if you specialise in one of the game’s major roles – tanking damage, dealing damage or healing. But jack-of-all trades builds barely seem to play out well. Though they should get you through quest content, you’ll certainly suffer in dungeons – the easiest form of gaining experience – an in against world bosses.
Like most MMO’s it is a grind. Though levelling up is easy due to the high level cap and sheer number of massive experience dumps and boosts the game will throw at you, obtaining gear you want for both practical and vein reasons can be hard. Replaying the same dungeon multiple times until you get the gear you want from it can be a headache, as can engaging in quests to get specific gear if you’re not typically a person who enjoys singleplayer content. By joining a guild, you can get access to these items by buying them from other players without having to interact with them, but what you want will (nine times out of ten) be ludicrously expensive.
Thankfully this game does, for the most part, have a pretty good community. There have been countless occasions where I’ve seen players give up gear they could benefit from to strangers who are looking to complete specific item sets. It’s all very wholesome. And while you will occasionally hop into area only to find some level 3000 player farming enemies like it’s nothing and thus leaving you with nothing to do but passively walk by an area that was designed to be fought it, it tends to be the exception. The larger issue with the community right now seems to be people making bot accounts to farm ingredients for them so that they don’t have to grind when they play the game.
Overall, however, I do really like ESO and I would recommend it to Elder Scrolls fans. I am someone who typically dislikes this type of game, but find myself unable to be too harsh on this one. It’s got some creative writing, a mostly good community and an easy to learn structure.