“I’ve traveled all across this great land of Tamriel and back again, conquering evils, righting wrongs, uniting an empire, defeating would-be gods, becoming a hero… if you’re a hard core Elder Scrolls fan then check out ESO — it’s awesome to see this world fully fleshed out.”

The Elder Scrolls Online

Platform(s): Xbox One, PS4, Windows, OSX
Release Date: April 4, 2014
Developer: ZeniMax Online Studios
Publisher: Bethesda

I’ve traveled all across this great land of Tamriel and back again, conquering evils, righting wrongs, uniting an empire, defeating would-be gods, becoming a hero. I love The Elder Scrolls games. Over the course of my TES, uh, career(?) I’ve logged approximately 9 hundred million  hours of gameplay across half a dozen games — the bulk of which divvied up among Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim. Suffice to say, I’ve also spent a lot of time just messing around in the beautiful fantasy world forged by the talented team at Bethesda. So when I first heard that ZeniMax  — Bethesda’s parent company — was making an Elder Scrolls MMO, my ears (and other parts) cropped up a bit.

Initially, I thought “about damned time!” There’s so much lore, history, and world building from the past 20 years that a TES MMO just makes sense. An MMO practically writes itself with so much content as a launching point.

My second thought was a little more sobering. I don’t play MMOs. I’ve given a few a shot (World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XI), but they’ve never captured my attention for very long. I’m also not terribly keen on subscription models. Perhaps I enjoy a games as whole units rather than an eternal march into oblivion with routine expansions and patches forever and again. Sure it seems great on paper, but completing a game is more up my alley.

I’m telling you this to set expectations for this review-in-progress; or maybe it’s really an impressions piece. How do you even review a game like this? You don’t I guess. Weekly updates,  maybe? We’ll see. Anyway, despite my hesitation for a genre that is known for turning people into desiccated husks, sallowed by the pale monitor glow, I was still interested in this game.

Over the course of this week’s early release, which many players who purchased the Imperial Edition also got to enjoy, I smushed in as much time as possible to get a feel for this daunting game. Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome, but 30 to 40 hours makes a person want to keep playing with so much invested in their character.

As with many MMOs, players can expect all the familiar trappings. Quests are doled out between guilds, guides, and random encounters. You have a variety of crafting skills — Alchemy, Smithing, Provisioning ,etc. each upgradable through experience. On top of that each character type has unique traits and players can choose between a few classes — I created a lithe Argonian Dragonknight, specializing in sword and broad with a few spells focused on containing threats. Finally, there’s all manner of multicolored, flavor-texted loot to pick up, weigh against your current loadout, and then ultimately decide to throw in hopes of finding something better (you know, standard RPG fare).

One mechanic that leans more towards traditional TES is combat. While ESO mostly gets it right, swinging swords and slinging spells feels a bit clunky. Fans of  the series’ first-person shield bashing will feel at home, however, the dice rolls behind each slash and strike are felt more here. There’s some physicality to it, but this is a math game with hidden stats determining a portion of the outcome. I do like the way area of effect and directional attacks are represented, with a red field appearing on the ground in a pie shape or circle depending on type of attack. Dodging out of the way or quickly raising a shield lends more action to the gameplay, giving combat a decidedly TES feel.

However, I’m still somewhat mixed with the whole affair. Yes, Elder Scrolls Online at first glance seems just to be another WoW clone with a heavy wash of Elder Scrolls shellac. And I’m sure many MMO franchises are unfairly compared to what is probably the king of the genre.

The high notes come from the deep lore associated with the Elder Scrolls series. For me at least, it’s the ability to finally explore a bit more of Tamriel. Choosing your faction will grant you access to areas such as Blackmarsh, Valenwood, and Highrock — all rendered out with a unique feel. You’ll also get to live in a time before the major plot points that occur in any of the other games. So if you’re really into the lore, then your mileage will carry much further than someone just looking for another MMO.

Another big plus is the smooth launch I’ve experienced. It’s pretty much a given that MMO launches must be fraught with laggy connections and devs scrambling to get more servers in place. I’ve had the occasional drop out or weird load or lag, but generally speaking, getting in and playing has been a breeze. Of course this could all change when a mass of new players log on but I’m hoping the devs have at least created a nice buffer for the full launch.

Circling back to combat, you can play ESO in first-person nearly all the time (horseback and swimming bump you into third) creating a pretty unique MMO experience. ESO also retains the feel of the series by having nearly every barrel, tabletop, crate, and shelf filled with junk that can be picked up. It’s not as crazy as say, Skyrim or Oblivion, but your inventory can get cluttered. The first-person perspective and how you engage in the world is what gives this game its flavor. This is Elder Scrolls through and through.

But there’s the rub. It’s plain weird to go from a massively deep, solo experience of a game like Morrowind to an MMO in which half-naked lizards and elves bunny-hop everywhere and there’s a small text box for people screaming about gold and selling items. I get it, it’s an MMO, this kind of behavior is expected. And you can play ESO as a solo gamer, as I am for the most part, but eventually you’ll want to team up with a crew and settle in for the long haul. A lot of fans have been clamoring for a place to adventure with friends and ESO delivers. At the same time, some of the charm of discovering the world around you is lost because the hordes of people, all engaging in the same activity, cluttering the experience.

So after this long-winded word vomit of a post, I haven’t come to a real conclusion. MMOs realistically take time to review and change so much over the years that ESO could become…anything, really. Is Elder Scrolls Oniline fun? Sure, there’s tons of quests and places to explore, even with the army of players making a mess of things. I would say if you’re a hard core fan then check it out — it’s awesome to see this world fully fleshed out. But if you’re just an MMO junky, well, you’ve seen this all before.