For years, people begged for a multiplayer title in The Elder Scrolls franchise, and their wishes have been granted with The Elder Scrolls Online. Perhaps taking the requests too far in the other direction, TESO is an MMO that takes place 300 years before Elder Scrolls I: Redguard and, as such, about 1,700 years before Skyrim). Three factions are at war to decide who gets to sit on the throne in Cyrodiil's Imperial City.
The Aldmeri Dominion, Daggerfall Covenant and Ebonheart Pact are in a three-way war to decide the fate and leadership of the Empire. At the same time, they're also fighting off a Daedric lord who wants to take over Tamriel and turn the world into his own hellish realm. No kids, it's not The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion again. In Oblivion, you fight Mehrunes Dagon, and in TESO, you're fighting Mogal Bal. See, they're totally different games.
Each faction is made up of three races — and the Imperial humans, if you shelled out $20 for the Imperial Edition. The Aldmeri Dominion, under the gold eagle banner, is represented by the High Elves, Wood Elves and Khajiit, who are desert-dwelling cat-people. Represented by the blue lion banner, the Daggerfall Covenant is made up Bretons, Orcs and Redguards. Finally, with the red dragon on their banner, are the Ebonheart Pact of Argonians (lizard-people), Dark Elves and Nords. They have different racial traits, with some being more suited to archery, magic or melee, but there's not much difference in the way the nine races play, and they all work well for any class.
There are four classes to choose from at character creation. The Dragonknight wields draconic power, earth magics and fire. The Templar is a healer and also possesses abilities of light and sun to damage enemies. Nightblades can siphon health and power from an enemy, and they have shadow magic and assassination techniques. Finally, Sorcerers can summon lesser daedra to fight for them, and they can wield the power of lightning and dark magic.
Unlike in most class-based MMOs, the class choice is more of a guideline than a play style that's set in stone. There's no "tank" class, and even though the Templar's class skills include some healing, anyone can become a healer by spending points on the Restoration Staff trees. You can have a Sorcerer wearing heavy armor and attacking by bow and arrow. Your Dragonknight can prefer a magic staff instead of a more traditional sword and shield. Maybe your Templar prefers robes over platemail. Racial choice seems to affect weapon choices more than class does. A Redguard, for example, is skilled with a sword and shield, so if you choose to play as one, chances are you'll lean in that direction regardless of which class you're playing.
Character creation is very involved, as one would expect from an Elder Scrolls title. You can change the basics, like height, hair and eye color, tattoos and jewelry. In addition, though, the basic body shape can range from Steve Rogers before the Captain America serum to Peter Griffin to Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and anywhere in between. If you choose to play as a female character, your options range more from runway model to professional wrestler to Christina Hendricks; as always in video games, the female "fat" option is more "aggressively Jessica Rabbit" than actually fat. After that, there are a couple dozen sliders to change the shape of individual body parts, and you get to do the same to the face. The chance of running into a character that looks exactly like yours is slim to none.
To change up things from a regular Elder Scrolls game, instead of starting off as a prisoner on your way to be executed, you start as someone newly executed. Yep, you're dead at the beginning of the game, and your ghost is the prisoner in a plane of Oblivion called Coldharbour. You meet a prophet who says you're the Chosen One and introduces you to Lyris Titanborn, who follows you around and screams when she (constantly) takes damage from a trap or enemy.
The combat does a really good job of balancing what's expected from an Elder Scrolls title and standard MMO fare. There's no auto-attack, and attacks with all weapons can be powered up to "heavy attacks" that deal significant damage. Attacks can be blocked, and if an enemy blocks your heavy attack it stuns you for a few seconds, and vice versa. Some attacks, like ones that do area-of-effect damage, can't be blocked and must be dodged. All of this combines to make the fast-paced, action-oriented combat that so many current MMOs say they have but few actually deliver. It's a constant dance of dodging and blocking and attacking, and that's before you bring spells and special abilities into the picture.
You need magicka to cast spells, and you only have a limited amount of it, which is shown as a blue bar on your UI. Spells do more damage than basic attacks, and they provide added effects like knockdowns, but the magicka limits mean you won't rely so heavily on spells. You'll have to think tactically about how you fight. Do you cast a spell to kill an enemy faster, or do you hold on to the magicka in case you need to heal?
Magicka is one of your three basic stats. Health controls how long you can survive in battle, and the third, Stamina, determines how long you can sprint and how many heavy attacks you can use in combat. Every time you level up, you gain one point to apply to a stat and one skill point to apply to a new spell or class ability.
The quests are pretty standard, though they are all fully voiced. Kill 10 rats, bring me their tails, and deliver this rat-tail bouquet to someone. There aren't real quest hubs, though, and you'll stumble across most of them while doing the main questline. It works well enough for the setting, but it also feels a little arbitrary. It's easy to take a different path and miss a quest or two, and some are thrown at you so obviously that it doesn't make sense why they aren't just given to you at the outset.
The guilds you find in every Elder Scrolls game can be found here, too. You can join the Dark Brotherhood, Fighters Guild, Mages Guild, Thieves Guild, and a group of adventurers who call themselves The Undaunted. Each guild unlocks additional skill trees for you to learn, as well as armor and weapons. You don't get to become the leader of each guild as you do in the single-player titles, but perhaps it makes sense that the Fighters Guild doesn't suddenly have 200,000 new leaders.
While you're traveling through the world, you'll see crates and barrels everywhere. They dominate most landscapes and are found around every dock and merchant in Tamriel. These are individual loot; if you and another player are in the same area, you can each grab the items from the crates. Most of the stuff in them can be used to make basic food like Aged Meat and Wine Grapes. Chests are first come, first serve, as are all crafting nodes in the wild. Flowers for alchemy, ore deposits, and other such items are only yours if you get there first.
As I always point out when I review an MMO, crafting is very important to me. A good crafting system can elevate an otherwise mediocre game, and bad crafting can reduce my interest in what could have been a great game. TESO ... falls flat. There are six crafting skills: Alchemy, Blacksmithing, Clothing, Enchanting, Provisioning and Woodworking, and you can level all of them simultaneously. With Provisioning, you find ingredients in every crate you stumble across, but you don't start with any recipes, and you have to find them in the world. As such, you end up with a surplus of meats and grains that you have no use for, since you've only found one recipe for wine. With the rest, you start out with a few basic recipes but have to hunt for the materials in the wild. Each race has an armor and weapon style, and at the beginning, it's the only style you're able to make, though you can eventually learn other styles. To make armor of a certain style, you need a specific material. To make some heavy armor boots, for example, you need a Moonstone (for a Khajiit) or Starmetal (for a Redguard). These style materials are very rare drops from the crates and barrels in the world, and the drops can be any of the 14 types, so finding the piece you need is frustratingly unlikely.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the player vs. player system. I'm generally not very fond of PvP, though I know it's a necessary system, especially in a game where the premise is about three factions being at war. I actually had fun at PvP in TESO. The objective is to form as large a group as possible and roll slowly over the entire land of Cyrodiil until you can claim the throne in the name of your faction. To do this, you're given siege weaponry like ballista and trebuchets to turn enemy buildings into rubble and then turn their troops into paste. It reminded me a lot of the PvP in Warhammer Online (but with catapults!), which remains one of my fondest MMO memories. I could see myself sinking a lot of otherwise productive hours into shooting holes in the sides of keeps, and this is the highest praise I can give PvP anywhere.
While TESO has lots of different elements to try, and all of them are pretty good in their own way, the game wasn't resonating with me as much as I'd expected it to. I love the Elder Scrolls series, I've sunken hundreds of hours into Skyrim alone, so why is this one not sticking? The answer is a lack of mods. I have modded everything there is to mod in Skyrim. I've made the graphics prettier and the combat more dynamic. I've added interesting sets of armor, new races, and even new quests. The base game is still there, but I can add to it as much as I want. TESO doesn't have that option, and that's why the game feels like it's missing something, like it's a waste of potential. I understand that's not everyone's cup of tea, and most people never mod at all, but without it, TESO feels like an unfinished painting. I can see what it could be, but it's all rough shapes with no detail.
All in all, The Elder Scrolls Online is a pretty good game. It's not outstanding, and it's not terrible. Once it's less new and the developer has had time to polish and clean it up a bit, it may be a good game, but I think there was so much effort put into making it feel like an Elder Scrolls title and so much effort was placed in checking off every bullet point on the MMO checklist that they forgot to make the game stand out from the crowd. And when you've paid $60 plus a monthly subscription fee for a game, it should.
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