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As an avid fan of the Elder Scrolls series, dating back to my first encounter with Morrowind in 2003, I was always wary of Bethesda’s commitment to single player experiences versus the siren song of MMORPG’s potential goldmine. Now that Elder Scrolls Online is here, it’s time to see if it’s all its hyped up to be, or if you should stick with Skyrim until Elder Scrolls VI.

Comparing ESO to Skyrim seems fair and yet not at the same time. They look somewhat alike and share a similar art direction, but Skyrim – despite being two and a half years older – looks much better, thanks in part to not having to account for countless other players upping the actor count in any given scene. Another difference lies in the interface. The interface in Skyrim had detractors for being very console-centric to PC users, but the UI in Elder Scrolls Online is just cumbersome. I dislike the amount of right clicking managing my inventory seems to take while selling, equipping or otherwise manipulating items. It’s also generally unattractive with its dark, plain aesthetic and zero visual creativity.

Elder Scrolls Online

The open world is large but largely lifeless, and if I had to akin it to another Elder Scrolls game that it reminds me of, I would actually tab Daggerfall – and not just because I spent the majority of my time with the Daggerfall Covenent. The world, rather than feeling packed with things to see and do, feels largely barren. That’s not to say there aren’t places to go or people to meet, but rather that the large empty expanses, despite treading over supposedly familiar areas, evoke neither the adventure nor the interest that, say Oblivion’s Cyrodiil or Morrowind’s Vvardenfell did. For example, Skyrim in ESO is not nearly the joy to explore that it was in its own game due to its greatly simplified nature. One thing I always wanted from an Elder Scrolls title was the ability to visit all of Tamriel, but ESO fails to live up to my (admittedly high) expectations.

If the world is a letdown, the gameplay can be a turnoff, and I say that not because it’s broken, but because it is tedious and boring as hell. MMOs are largely comprised of fetch or kill-X-beasts quests, but in ESO the drab world combines with uninteresting combat and slow levelling to result in a frustrating experience. No matter your class, the abilities you can use are limited to five at any given time, making most of your available active abilities sit idle and gather dust while you use a select few for 90% of the game. The most frustrating combat mechanic revolves around the soul magic. Capturing a soul requires you cast a soul capture spell on a baddie while carrying an empty soul gem of the appropriate size, which can then recharge an enchanted item or used to resurrect yourself or another player. This bothers me for a few reasons. For one, the gems themselves are next to never found in the wild, requiring you to head back regularly to town to buy more, depending on how you’re doing in the field. Secondly, you have to tie up one of your five skill slots with the soul capture spell that does nothing but capture souls, which resulted in me designating times just for filling gems – I’d put the spell on my hot bar, go fill my newly bought soul gems, and then unequip the spell. Lastly, soul gems are too rare and too valuable; you find yourself debating the value of recharging an enchanted weapon versus the future possibility of needing it in case you die, and I never even considering resurrecting another player because I wasn’t about to spend any of my precious soul gems on them. As someone who’s used to Guild Wars 2’s resurrection mechanic that encourages everyone to pick up downed players, this is frustrating.

Elder Scrolls Online

The story in the quests seemed interesting until I realized that not only could I not remember who was who, I just didn’t care. There are some moral choices to make that can steer the story somewhat but I wasn’t invested enough in any of the people or factions I encountered for the changes to matter to me. Unlike, for example, the Civil War quest line in Skyrim, where I sided with the Imperials and felt committed to fighting for their cause, killing Stormcloaks on sight and raiding their camps on my own, I couldn’t tell who I aligned myself with or did work for in Elder Scrolls Online. Whenever someone would mention another character by name, like I should know who it was, I would draw a blank and hope they reintroduced themselves whenever I found them by chasing my quest arrow so I could try and get back into the story.

I have hardly even mentioned the multiplayer component to ESO, and that’s because Bethesda did a very good job of camouflaging it. Other players are indistinguishable from NPCs at almost any distance and the constant story-tied world instancing locks players apart from one another unless they’re on the same phase of a quest. The open-world PvP in Cyrodiil seemed like it could be a winner but low population counts make finding a good scrap hard to do. This all ties in to Bethesda being caught between pleasing Elder Scrolls fans and MMO fans, and ultimately hurting both crowds.

Very few games I have reviewed here on AAGH have left me as cold as Elder Scrolls Online. Add to all of the shortcomings listed above the $15 a month subscription fee, and I am really disappointed with ESO. It’s not broken, and it’s not really a bad game. It’s just the most boring, tedious title I have reviewed in quite some time. If it were free to play I might be able to give it some recommendation on just getting to see the world of the Elder Scrolls series with your friends, but as it is, I wouldn’t really bother. In fact, if you hold off, I would not be the least bit surprised to see this get the Star Wars: The Old Republic treatment and go free to play in the not-to-distant future. If it doesn’t, then I don’t think it’ll be around in a year or so at all.

Final Score

5.0

Pluses:

Minuses:

+ You can explore a large part of Tamriel

+ Graphics are solid

– Tedious combat

– Uninteresting story

– Unintuitive interface

– Boring world

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