Review: 4 months after release, The Elder Scrolls Online still comes up short
Platforms: PC now, PS4 and Xbox One eventually
Reviewing an MMO at launch is always a tricky matter, as what a player experiences at that time may be in no way indicative of what the game will be like in the following weeks, months, or years after launch. In addition, the number of bugs and issues at launch can sometimes make an MMO frustrating. Because of those reasons, we decided to give Elder Scrolls Online an extended review period. Now, having played the game for several months and giving the dust of launch time to settle, I feel comfortable saying that ESO is still lacking in some key areas.
Similar to other Elder Scrolls games, ESO features a story starts with you being an unnamed and voiceless player character stuck in a bad way. In Oblivion you were stuck in a prison and in Skyrim you were in a horse-drawn cart. ESO goes one step further and begins with you in a prison for the dead that also doubles as the tutorial area. From there, the game’s story centers around a mysterious figure that helps you escape the prison.
The story plays out through the game every five or so levels and also serves to segue you from one zone to another. Aside from the main storyline, there are also important zone stories that are loosely connected and guild stories that progress as you go from zone to zone. As in Star Wars: The Old Republic, the various stories are brought to life thanks to full voice-acting. Few MMOs take this route as it adds considerable production costs, but it makes the quests feel like less of a grind.
The downsides of ESO’s fully voice-acted dialogue, however, are that the speaking characters are essentially talking heads with no movement or action being played out, and can sometimes feel boring. The story at times can drag on and the characters aren’t particularly engaging, which isn’t helped by the hit-and-miss voice acting. I’ve speed-clicked through my fair share of quest dialog boxes. Overall, the story and its cast of characters are merely adequate.
As the first game in the Elder Scrolls series to be an MMO, certain aspects of the typical Elder Scrolls experience had to be sacrificed in order to make the jump. This game ditches the open “world at your fingertips” feel and becomes a bit more methodical with exploring and level progression in order to work as an MMO. At the same time, the developers had to take care to avoid being too much like other MMOs or else risk being branded yet another World of Warcraft clone. Unfortunately, the middle ground the developers took was to take the worst qualities of both MMOs and Elder Scrolls games and combine them in ESO.
ESO features the generic and bland combat of Elder Scrolls and mashed it together with a grind-happy MMO environment. To start with, the level progression system is fairly standard and you have to constantly kill creatures and complete quests to level up. The quests in ESO aren’t particularly innovative, consisting of the usual fetch, kill, go here, and etc. found in other MMOs.
What I truly loathe about ESO however, is the combat system. It is a grotesque combination of hot-bar based abilities and basic attack and block actions mapped to left- and right-click respectively. Abilities seem to be on a time delay and actions aren't executed immediately, and the whole package feels frustrating and clumsy in a way that it's hard to believe anyone can find satisfying.
Crafting is fairly tedious, and leveling a profession boils down to making several dozen copies of an item, disassembling them, and then repeating the cycle. Aside from crafting you also have gathering, which isn't very enticing either. Once you do level up your crafting and want to recoup your gold by selling high-quality items, you'll discover that the game lacks an auction house. Instead, ESO has a Guild Store system. That's like an auction house, but it's only for members of your guild.
The game allows you to be in up to five guilds per account, possibly because they realized that not having a faction-wide auction house is a terrible thing. Ultimately, it is a system that prevents you from becoming a crafting magnate with a monopoly on goods. For players who strive to be the richest on the server, ESO certainly doesn't make it easy or rewarding.
Graphics are one aspect that I had relatively high hopes for, as previous Elder Scrolls games have all had amazing visuals for their times. Unfortunately for ESO, it just doesn’t seem to be the case this time around. It does have good particle and water effects, but those are outweighed by the clunky character animations and mundane aesthetic. If I could describe the game’s use of color in one word, it would be "earthy."
The primary color behind everything seems to be either a brown or green, with black and blue playing large roles in certain zones. In addition, someone seems to have moved the color saturation slider way down. Like the story, the graphics are merely adequate and far from memorable.
One area of ESO's graphics that is deserving of some limited praise is in their scalability. You'll definitely notice a huge difference playing the game at its minimum settings compared to playing it on a more powerful PC.
As was the case with Skyrim, ESO's user interface is another weak point. It is once again very minimalist, but that's the very thing you do not want in an MMO. MMOs should give players more user feedback – not less. Exactly how much damage did that imp hit you for? What debuffs do you have on you right now? Exactly how far are you from the quest objective? Instead of freely giving you this information, ESO clams up and forces you to explore unofficial mods and add-ons -- many of which are no longer updated because their creators have lost interest in the game.
Here are the criteria I consider most important when judging The Elder Scrolls Online:
Similar to previous Elder Scrolls games, ESO features a story that is serviceable though not particularly compelling.
ESO tries to blend its single player roots with the standard trappings of MMOs, but unfortunately it falls short for both types of players.
The game’s visuals can be alluring sometimes, but those times are few and far in-between.
From the outset, it is clear that ESO wants players familiar with previous Elder Scrolls to feel at home. Unfortunately for veteran MMO players, the game’s systems are too simplistic and do not give enough feedback to the player.
The Elder Scrolls Online isn't a terrible game, but its shortcomings make it impossible to recommend, especially considering the diverse options gamers have in the MMO marketplace. It's possible that future updates will make the game worth revisiting, but quite a bit of the core gameplay would need to change for that to be the case.
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