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Elder Scrolls Online: The Truth of the Game
Elder Scrolls Online had a very unique situation when it came into creation. It was from a long line of highly respected games that was now expected to be transformed into an MMO. Sure World of Warcraft came from the popular RTS games but ESO was a bit different. Where WOW went from a strategy game to an RPG, ESO essentially took their first/third person fantasy RPG series and took it online.
Just this fact alone is the root of a lot of the flak this game receives. Many people had a preconceived notion of what this game was supposed to be. Everyone was always hoping for a multiplayer Skyrim so ESO looked like it could be just that. However, that is not to be. Since this is an MMO, many features typically in an Elder Scrolls game had to be peeled back while also adding different features in to accommodate its status as an MMO.
Ever since the start of beta weekends even, did this game start to receive heavy criticism. Its almost surprising as well. Most MMO's have a huge amount of hype surrounding them but ESO's start was more of a quiet bang. And now almost a month after its release and all the reviews and youtube videos have been thrown out there the results are in and it's a resounding cry of "average".
So after playing the game for a month and reading/watching several other reviews out there, I was really inspired to counter some misinformation about the game and list out what this game does right and what it does wrong.
Is it an Elder Scrolls Game?
Before I list out Pros and Cons I first wanted to tackle a major issue which people seem to have with the game: If it is even an Elder Scrolls game at all? Keep in mind, Bethesda may own the Elder Scrolls license but Zenimax is who made this game. I'm sure Bethesda had a lot of say in its development but at the end of the day this MMO was not made by the usual creators of the Elder Scrolls franchise.
When I first logged into ESO, I was actually fairly impressed. It really did feel like I had just entered into a new Elder Scrolls game. You start as a prisoner (as you always do in a Scrolls game) and are making your escape from the Molag Bal's realm. Once escaped you find yourself in a town from the faction you had picked and are told to do as you please. The game suddenly opens up and you can just run around aimlessly picking up quests and doing a bit of exploring. It really did feel like a real Scrolls game at first. But as you level a bit you start to realize that you can't exactly go where you want to and you need to level on a set path.
But how about the world itself? Did they get the aesthetics of Tamriel right? I would argue yes. The various architecture, natural formations and magical constructs you find throughout the game are incredibly reminiscent of the Elder Scrolls series. Even the creatures in it might bring back nostalgic memories of Morrowind and Oblivion as they did for me.
In terms of exploration, it is still there in the form of map locations, lore books, and skyshards. Like Skyrim, every major location will have a map marker and when the icon is black, there is still something to be done there. When the marker turns white, this means you have fully explored/completed any related quests. Finding all these locations and clearing them all certainly brings me back to my Skyrim days doing the exact same thing. Lore Books and Skyshards are simple objects hidden throughout the world which are worth finding for leveling the mage's guild skill tree (lore books) and getting skill points (skyshards).
Surprisingly, the Elder Scrolls staple of becoming a vampire is still in this game as well. Werewolves also make their return despite only being available in Skyrim. The process of becoming a Vampire/Werewolf is pretty neat. You must find a vampire/werewolf in a high level zone and get bit by them. Once infected, you have the choice to either cleanse it or become a full fledged vampire/werewolf through a quest. You can also get a player who has leveled up Vampire and Werewolf to bite you as well to convert you.
Once you have become one of these creatures, you gain a new skill tree line that has several powerful abilities to use. However, there are downsides. Vampires are incredibly vulnerable to fire damage and there is a lot of it in the game. Werewolves take increased disease damage and the majority of the skills tied to werewolf require you to actually be in your werewolf form.
Despite the game being more linear than the typical Scrolls game, I still find it to very much be one, at the very least in style.
I wanted to mention this briefly because the misinformation about this has gone crazy. Many youtube reviewers out there like ProJared and AngryJoe seem to be under the assumption that it is difficult to obtain a mount in the game. They say that gold is hard to come by and mounts are obscenely expensive.
It is true that mobs only drop 1 or 2 gold but they seem to ignore the fact that loot that you can vendor is also dropped and that quests give hundreds of gold in reward. Around the early 20's in level is when you would be able to afford the basic mount without really trying to farm cash for it. The mount only initially increases your speed by 15% but the mount itself also levels up as you feed it daily where you can choose to increase its speed, stamina or carrying capacity.
The more expensive mount simply starts with 10 more stat points than the basic mount, making the difference negligible over time. Horses also have stamina but this doesn't mean anything. A horse can still sprint with no stamina, lacking stamina only means you will be knocked off if hit by something.
I only harp on this point as I found several reviewers making a big deal out of it when it is not at all. Mounts are not that expensive and you'll be surprised at how little you actually use them anyways.
1. Leveling/Skill System - Without a doubt the best aspect of Elder Scrolls Online is the skill system. Unlike traditional MMO's the majority of skills you can obtained are shared between the 4 classes. Each class has 3 unique skill trees but every other tree is tied to weapons, armor, racials, pvp, and guilds. This means a mage could build itself as a tank or a Templar could wear cloth and act as a mage. It is also possible to gain enough skill points through questing, leveling, and getting skyshards to get every skill. Keep in mind, only 5 actives and an ultimate can be slotted at a time though, so there is no button bloat from this.
2. Combat - This is action based, skill shot combat. You can dodge, block, and even do charge attacks by holding down your attack key. It feels very similar to an Elder Scrolls game. A lot of abilities feel like they have a lot of impact as well. A stun really feels like a powerful hit and area of effects feel really satisfying to cast. Nothing seems delayed and outside of a few weak feeling strikes, the combat is entirely solid.
3. PVP - Although there is no world pvp or traditional battlegrounds, the pvp is amazing. To pvp, you go to Cyrodil where a 3 way war will always be waging. Throughout the land there are forts, resource nodes like farms, and outposts to take and the battles that take place in taking them are on an epic scale. Each faction also initially holds Elder Scrolls. The scrolls give you various buffs but if one faction is able to capture all the scrolls, that factions #1 player will be made Emperor. The Emperor gains a lot of power and even has its own skill line.
The battles in Cyrodil are typically large scale. Assaulting keeps requires a lot of siege equipment and a lot of bodies to defend it. You would think this kind of gameplay would make individual contributions not feel like much but surprisingly each player can make quite the impact. Since everyone can stealth by sneaking, you can have small groups go around ganking reinforcements that trickle in or take smaller control points.
The only game out there that has similar pvp is Guild Wars 2. The area of Cyrodil is probably 3 times the size of GW2's World vs. World zone though and from my own experience with both games. I'd say ESO does the siege battles much better.
4. A Ton of Content - The most typical reason why an MMO will fail at launch is the lack of content to keep people interested. This is one place where ESO shines. First off, leveling takes awhile. 1-50 will take your average person about a month to complete but 50 is not the max level. After 50 are veteran ranks 1-10. Hitting rank 10 will take about just as long as it took you to initially hit 50. Character progression will really push you to keep logging in as well. Even after hitting max level, there are still skyshards and lorebooks to find, different equipment types to level, and trade skills to max out. Not to mention pvp to sink hours and hours into as well as heroic dungeons to do at max level. And there is even more content to come in the near future.
5. Crafting - The crafting system is pretty robust and engaging. It takes the base system of Skyrim's crafting and expands upon it greatly. You mainly level your craft by deconstructing armor/weapons while also learning various traits to apply to your own crafts through research. When crafting, you decide what type of item to craft, how many resources you want to use to increase its power, you apply a trait, and even a style to it. Style is racial based and you can learn new racial motif styles through books that you can just come across throughout the game. Leveling these crafts can take quite some time but it makes leveling it all the more gratifying. Each trade skill also has its own skill tree that you can put points into. So as you level your trade skill you start to gain some nifty perks to improve the experience.
6. Dungeons - ESO has some of the best dungeons I've ever played in an MMO and I play A LOT of mmo's. The reason for this is all in the pacing. Trash packs are large and feel a bit hectic but are fun to clear through. There is no crowd control to throw out but each trash pack can still be quite threatening. Bosses are also frequent. In most dungeons, there is a boss every 2-3 trash packs. This makes dungeons flow beautifully. They have a nice balance on what kind of enemies you are engaging so nothing ever feels redundant.
7. Story - Finally the stories in ESO are generally quite interesting. The main storyline follows fighting the Daedric Prince Molag Bal. That aside, quests in general can entertain you with story alone. I'd actually argue that this game has better storylines than any other Elder Scrolls game out there. This is partly due to how linear the game is, but the story just works so much better in this game than say Skyrim. So if you do play, take the time to listen to the story and not just power through it.
1. Business Model - This will turn a lot of people off before even considering buying the game. It is a $60 purchase with a $15/month subscription fee. There are also a few in-game purchases with more to come I'm sure though it is limited to buying a mount or upgrading to the collector's edition at the moment. Yet they already did some money grubbing by locking the Imperial Race into the collector's edition (which is $20 more) and also if you had either pre-ordered the game or bought the Collector's Edition you also were not restricted in your race choice when choosing your faction. These do not bode well for the future of the game.
2. Bugs/Glitches - Every game has its bugs but the ones in ESO are incredibly frustrating. Many of these bugs revolve around quests breaking. Where one step in the quest will just simply not be able to be completed. This means you'll just have to move on and hope it gets fixed later. If you are a completionist like me, it will drive you bonkers. This happens more than you think it would with every zone having 2 or 3 of these. That said, a lot have been fixed and this issue will probably disappear eventually.
3. Lack of Interface - Zenimax set out to make this MMO feel like an Elder Scrolls game as much as possible, you can really tell. One way they did this was to make the interface of the game really basic and in doing so, it really hurts the game. Although there are some positives to this, the main negative which is glaring is the lack of numbers the game gives you. There are no damage numbers or HP/Mana/Stamina numbers at the ready for you to see. All this does is frustrate you as your are never quite sure if one ability is better than the other or if minor effects are even working.
There is also no buff/debuff bar anywhere. The only way to tell is to go into your character menu to see your own buffs. Debuffs on the other hand are purely visual. So say if you put a fire damage over time effect on something, it will start burning so you know your DOT is there. However, some of these visual indicators are not obvious, and once you have multiple people applying effects to a target, these visual indicators are no longer even helpful. What can be one of the most frustrating issues due to the lack of interface is probably stuns and immobilizes on your character. The game does not really indicate to you if you are stunned so suddenly you'll just not be able to do anything. Sometimes stuns last a couple seconds while others can last up to six. You'll never know though, so you'll just sit there waiting.
You can mod the game to get some of these much needed features but the fact remains, they should just be there in the first place.
4. Linear - This is probably one of the most disappointing aspects of ESO, it is so very linear. What at first seems like an open world adventure soon turns into a set path of questing. Sure you can technically skip quests and go find random ones in the world but the way the game was designed, doing so will just hurt you. Quests are your main source of gold and equipment upgrades as well as experience. Some quests can even give you skill points as rewards, so skipping them just really hurts you. You'll need to do the majority of the quests in a zone anyway in order to be the appropriate level to move on to the next area. There is also no choice in where you go next in terms of zone so it is a straight shoot through the game.
This makes making alts incredibly dull. There is literally no variation in how you can level up, so it will be a repeat over and over. Even making an alt in a new faction doesn't help much since one of the ways you level veteran ranks 1-10 is to do all the other faction's quests. Reallt this linearity is the antithesis of what an Elder Scrolls game should be.
5. Questing - This is admittedly a much more subjective Con on my part but I found that leveling up came down to a pretty simple formula. Individually, the quests are pretty good. They all have fully voice acted story lines which can range from dull to incredibly interesting. Yet my gripe comes from the actual quest mechanics. What you are doing from the very start of the game is what you'll be doing at the very end. The stakes are never really raised either. You can have some pretty epic quests early on just as much as you can have pretty dull ones in the end game. Everything becomes pretty samey.
This also includes all the mini-dungeons you can find. Each mini-dungeon boils down to a square that you run through, grab the skyshard, and kill the boss. The games content does not get varied up much at all and I eventually found myself getting quite bored of the leveling content towards the end. Again, take this point with a grain of salt. This could just be me.
6. No Economy - Finally, this game has no economy. There is no traditional auction house. Instead there are guild auction houses which sounds cool in theory. Think of it, player run auction houses with various trading guilds competing with each other. Sounds like a bit of fun. However, this can never be for the simple reason that guilds are limited to 500 members. This means that no matter what, you can't have a unified economy in the game. You can join up to 5 guilds at once so what many people do is just join guilds for trading but since there is a cap, people are often kicked for inactivity or even for just not posting things for sale even if they are buying. This makes gold almost worthless. After getting your mount, all you really use gold for is repair bills and travel fees.
Do I recommend it?
If you are a MMO fanatic like I am or an elder Scrolls fan, then I certainly think this game is worth your time. And if you like it, it really is worth the subscription fee as there is a lot to do. Yet I can't really recommend it to most others.
It is fun for awhile but it can get stale if you play it too much. To really enjoy this game I feel like you must take it slowly but this also means the subscription fee can be a huge offset for a lot of people. And for every really fun aspect of the game, there is a frustration coupled with it.
And the last few times that I've played at the end of this first month I have been seeing a shockingly fewer amount of players. I will not be surprised if this game goes free-to-play, or at the very least, the loss of the subscription fee in the not so distant future. The systems are already there for them with an in-game store ready to go.
So all the reviews out there giving this an average rating are pretty accurate. I'd still say its a fairly unique experience but not one to write home about.