“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” J. R. R. Tolkien’s moving words from The Two Towers seem, strangely, to epitomise the world of Tamriel. It is a world many are still in love with, but its most recent instalment, Elder Scrolls Online, has left many disappointed. I’ll be looking at why this is and whether ESO deserves such hard treatment, or else to sit alongside the classic Elder Scrolls games, worthy of its title.
For many gamers, there is a huge emotional attachment to Tamriel. It has its own distinctive lore and mechanics, but perhaps most importantly of all, it has its own unique feeling. Playing an Elder Scrolls game is entering a mood. It is no surprise to me that everyone’s favourite Elder Scrolls title always seems to be the first one they played. The first time they stepped into the magical world of endless possibility and felt the huge world opening up in a way no other RPG series really seems to capture.
“It is no surprise to me that everyone’s favourite Elder Scrolls title always seems to be the first one they played. The first time they stepped into the magical world of endless possibility and felt the huge world opening up in a way no other RPG series really seems to capture”
Whether it was emerging from the sewers in Oblivion or waking up on a boat in Morrowind (or even coming around in a wagon headed for the execution block), anyone who has played an Elder Scrolls game knows about that glorious feeling of freedom you get after the tutorial is done. Sure, Dragon Age: Origins gave us an engrossing story and characters, but it didn’t offer the ability to pick a compass point and walk for five hours through wilderness and towns and caves. It didn’t let us kill virtually anyone we wanted, or steal, or alternatively live a quiet life picking flowers. Even Dark Souls, huge though it is and offering its own kind of unique delving exploration, did not provide us with a world as expansive and free as that of an Elder Scrolls game. There is hardly anyone to talk to in Dark Souls, and when there is someone, they are usually insane. Though this builds the grim-dark atmosphere of a despairing world beautifully, it does not offer much variety. Dark Souls is also more “tiered”, as certain areas would prove impossible for starting players to get through. These areas are unlocked later in the game, meaning it has a more linear dimension. I’m not saying this is inherently bad, I’m merely distinguishing it. Dark Souls is one of my all-time favourite games, but it doesn’t create that sense of infinite possibility as Elder Scrolls.
So, where does Elder Scrolls Online sit in the glorious pantheon bestowed unto the world by Bethesda? In many ways, ESO cannot be compared to its predecessors. For a start, it was made by a different company: ZeniMax. Bethesda take merely an advisory role. It’s an MMORPG, drastically changing the genre, as every previous Elder Scrolls title has been a single player adventuring experience. Given that Elder Scrolls VI is likely in the pipeline for this generation of consoles, it might be considered an extra; a fun distraction, and not a true Elder Scrolls title. The game has come under heavy criticism; you have only to read online forums to see numerous claiming the online element destroys the verisimilitude of the world (it is hard to believe you are fully immersed in a fantasy universe when players are jumping around like brightly armoured frogs). Others have criticised the combat mechanics. I could link articles, but really, they are not hard to find. The majority of reviewers slate the game. It is also clear it has not been as big a financial success as Bethesda hoped, with the company having recently run the “Million Reasons to Play” campaign, trying to motivate players to start up – incentivising with a payout of $1,000,000 to one lucky winner. These kinds of tactics feel slightly desperate, and do not give the impression that the game devs are confident in the artistic merit of their game.
If you’re still reading you might be sensing a “but” coming. Your senses have served you well, because I’m a firm fan of this game and believe it has real merit, not just as a good RPG, but as a good Elder Scrolls game.
Firstly, Elder Scrolls Online game is huge. I mean, colossal. If you thought that grasping Skyrim’s icy wastes was difficult, welcome to a world of diverse sprawling landscapes in which all of Tamriel’s provinces are accessible, including the mysterious Black Marsh and Elsweyr. After 50 hours of play, I hadn’t explored anything outside of Morrowind save for one small island to the north of Skyrim. What’s more, the landscape is a joy to behold: rendered in stunning high-resolution graphics and with a lighting system that actually surpasses that of any of the original games. I can stare for hours at the beautiful mists rising off the valleys of Bal Foyen, the sun perforating the fog with spears of crystalline light. The provinces feel characterful and distinguished (there is no point in having a huge map if it is boring and repetitive). Morrowind’s sparse, ash-haunted landscape (and blooming fungal trees) makes a sharp contrast to the verdant, British-Isles-greenery of Cyrodiil, a lusciousness which proves deceiving. Cyrodiil is perhaps the most dangerous of all the provinces as it is the only location where players of opposing factions can openly attack one another.
For those who are real nerds you will notice that all those old ruins you delved into in Oblivion are fully functioning castles in the time-period of Elder Scrolls Online whereas the great cities Bruma, Bravil and Kvatch (good news for a change…) are yet to be built. This detail is a neat homage for all those who loved Oblivion, and allows the game to tread some new territory without stamping on the old.
“If you thought that grasping Skyrim’s icy wastes was difficult, welcome to a world of diverse sprawling landscapes in which all of Tamriel’s provinces are accessible, including the mysterious Black Marsh and Elsewhere”
Size isn’t everything. The content of the game has been well thought out. Skyrim’s central failing, at least from my perspective, was that its quests were boring and, for the most part, badly written. After you had done a few you felt like you had done them all. This made the game feel smaller than it actually was. For Elder Scrolls Online, the content is back to standard. The dialogue is sharp and witty, but with enough pathos to make you engage seriously with the world. There is a real danger with all MMO games of grinding fetch quests, or worse still, “kill x amount of x”. Thankfully, though there are examples of these, they are few and far between and often self-referentially comic. An example of one fascinating quest in Ebonheart is an investigative mission to discover which of the townspeople is poisoning a sacred hist tree. Two opposing Dark Elf factions believe the other is doing it (for various reasons) but slowly as you uncover more information, you understand a third party is pulling the strings.
This quest not only featured a lot of great character building, but some really difficult moral choices. Do I let the hist-tree die if it will bring the town together? Do I punish the hist-poisoner if they have been deceived and didn’t realise what they were doing? Are any of these characters telling me the whole truth? Each party has motivations for doing what they did, and deciding who was in the right proved difficult. I sympathised with the hist-poisoner, because they were a three-dimensional character. It also felt much more like a typical Elder Scrolls quest out of Oblivion, a game in which treachery, subterfuge and magic added an “intrigue” dimension to a fantasy universe. In Oblivion, one could join a group of vampire hunters only to discover the hunters were actually vampires themselves, masquerading under the perfect cover. Nothing was quite what it seemed, and though Skyrim attempted to recreate this with its werewolf-Companions twist, it never had the same impact. This might also partly be because there was no way to progress through the Companions questline without becoming a werewolf, making it feel like linear video-game progression as opposed to a truly dark secret. The best RPGs always offer us another way around, which ESO has achieved. Elder Scrolls Online also remains one of the only MMOs which is fully voiced (yes, you will hear some of your old favourite voices from Oblivion and Skyrim, but not so often it becomes dull). The voice acting is most often on point, heightening your involvement with the quest.
Though the combat mechanics are radically different from previous Elder Scrolls titles (naturally, given it’s an MMO) the famous skill-line experience system is welcomely familiar. As you use a weapon, skill or ability more often, you will level up that skill and get access to new abilities in the same line. Along with the old familiars Two Handed, Blacksmithing, Bow and Heavy Armour skill-lines, you will see exciting new class-specific ones: Aedric Spear, for example, in the case of a Templar player. There are four classes: Templar, Rogue, Knight and Mage. Each one has three unique skill-lines, but apart from this distinction, as with previous Elder Scrolls games, it is your character to mould as you will. Although I do miss the long list of classes available at the start of Oblivion, this new system is true to the Elder Scrolls spirit of freedom: if you want to have a huge bulky Nord Templar in Heavy Armour who hangs at the back of the party healing others and wielding a bow, you can. What’s more, you can actually make that work. The only restrictions are relative to your alliance (certain races are locked into certain alliances), although you can purchase DLC that will allow you to circumnavigate this limitation too.
The combat is a hybrid of the MMO ability system and the classic Elder Scrolls combat: there is a block button, for example, but you can counter your opponent with an ability which rains hundreds of arrows down from the sky. Some might find that this dilutes the original roleplay-esque magic of Elder Scrolls; many of the spells from the original games were taken straight from Dungeons and Dragons and worked in much the same way – they were not flashy, but in the right hands, they could give you a serious edge. The new abilities add a certain spectacle, however, and given the setting of ESO is some thousands of years prior to Oblivion, a time of ancient legend, the power of the spells feels proportionate to that epic period.
“Though the combat mechanics are radically different from previous Elder Scrolls titles (naturally given it’s an MMO) the famous skill-line experience system is welcomely familiar”
The community of ESO is also something special. I’ve read a number of negative reviews from PC users who say the community is aggressive and unpleasant. I don’t know whether this is simply because there are more PC gamers (and therefore you’re more likely to meet someone unpleasant) or because console gamers are supposedly more relaxed. Personally, I play console and PC. I enjoy both and have encountered great gaming communities on both. I own Elder Scrolls Online on Xbox One, and the community has been nothing but welcoming, fun and engaged. The player versus player battles in Cyrodiil have been some of the best online gaming experiences I have had in a long time, with players really talking to each other about tactics, but also having a laugh and joke when things go wrong. Many high-level players were prepared to help newbies – and didn’t blame them if a battle went wrong. Perhaps my experience was atypical, but I think it might not be. Sometimes games just get great communities. ESO also makes it easy to play with friends (you can have monster 24-person parties) so if you don’t like a community you can simply create one.
Ultimately, I think what makes Elder Scrolls Online a success for me is that it’s a real RPG. Most RPGs do not go for immersion but instead focus on endless upgrading; the goal of the game is not to inhabit another character in a fantasy world but simply to get the next tier of gear. Whilst progression is important, it can also be wearing. What’s fantastic about ESO is that it offers both. Take a stroll over a sunlit bridge. Kill a guard. Rob a merchant. Spend your time training to get your One-Handed to 100, or be the perfect tradesman, making leather jerkins you then sell to make your living. The crafting system is challengingly in-depth – offering the ability not only to craft armour of different materials but also in different cultural styles. The lore is still at the forefront, and most importantly of all, you can explore to your heart’s content, roaming wild and free.
Is it as good as the first Elder Scrolls game you ever played? Maybe not. But it does capture the magic again. Elder Scrolls games have always been lonely worlds (I imagined I was a solitary god in Oblivion – trapped in time like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day) and perhaps that is why the idea of an Elder Scrolls MMO is so difficult for people to come to terms with. But we should come to terms with it, because it is hugely exciting to share the journey with others. Not only will the game developers and writers to be offering us unique twists, but also the players themselves. A Guild on one of the American servers set out to stop the spread of lycanthropy in the game (killing all the NPCs and enemies that could cause a player to turn). The werewolf players resisted and attacked the Guild when they went on their extermination runs, starting their own mini-war. Their creativity adds to the world of the game rather than detracting from it. Freedom and choice are becoming more and more important in the narrative of video games, and by bringing Elder Scrolls to the MMO format, it is expanding our choice to even broader and more creative horizons.