A single-player game blown open to allow for expansive massively multiplayer moments? Is this an impossible task? After many tens of hours spent questing in Tamriel, we've discovered the truth of the matter.
We won't pull a fast one, M'aiq the Liar style. It won't all make for happy reading. Just like any MMO on launch, The Elder Scrolls Online currently comes with its fair share of problems. But no amount of critical word sorcery can disguise the fact that this is an MMO with unprecedented storytelling ability. Are you a recovering Elder Scrolls lore hound? Start rejoicing now.
Gallery: Elder Scrolls Online review
Fans of Bethesda's seminal open-world fantasy series will be glad to hear that the very first thing you're tasked with, creating your avatar, is a sumptuously deep and involved affair. The game's nine races (ten if you count the Imperials, only available with the collector's edition) are spread out across three different Alliances. While you may savour deliberating over the overhang of your beer gut or the angle of your cheekbones, it's this choice of Alliance which dictates your early game experience.
Whichever faction you mingle with establishes your starter zone, your home city and also, crucially, who you get to adventure with in-game. If you're just starting out, be sure to reach out to your friends before you make your choice, otherwise you may not be able to meet up for PvE or PvP exploits.
On the surface it's a huge shame that race is tied to alliance like this. Tradition dictates that our first Elder Scrolls character be an Argonian, so we pipped for the Ebonheart Pact. As such we were unable to meet up for PvP adventures with another friend who, in similar obsessive ritual adherence, had gone for a Redguard and been tied to the Daggerfall Covenant.
What we quickly realise, however, is that this division is all to the benefit of the world. And what a world. Tamriel is not only vast, but so full of content it's actually unnerving. Being a member of the Ebonheart Pact we start out our adventuring in the misty mushroom-filled miasma of Morrowind, with an optional trip to the craggy climes of Skyrim's Bleakrock Isle on the cards should we so desire.
You know how in Skyrim or Oblivion you could be happily wandering along and find yourself distracted by quest-laden NPCs running up to you or the sight of age old ruins promising treasure cropping up on the horizon? Well that's exactly what you can expect here. Zenimax seems hugely concerned with rewarding exploration, to the point where it's easy to forget what you were doing before said distractions reared up.
An example. As we push through towards Deshaan, on our way to meet the Fighter's Guild leader Sees-All-Colours, two other players dart across our path. They zig-zag through a series of rocks off the roadside and up, towards a moss-covered, stone rotunda. We tag along.
In TESO, players can seamlessly join up with each other to tackle foes, mini dungeons and other tasks without having to navigate clunky menus or Looking For Group (LFG) systems. While not as fleshed out a feature as Guild Wars 2's Dynamic Events (crafting item nodes, for example, will disappear after a single player uses them) this is still a welcome element of exploration.
"TESO will sell you on its world with a near constant stream of well-told stories"
We follow our new Sorcerer and Templar pals up and into a trapdoor to one side of this rock-strewn recess and find ourselves delving into Mephala's Nest, one of many mini dungeons hidden away for you to discover. We plunged through the whole thing together and ended up tackling a few more local hotspots before remembering our original Fighter's Guild task.
The beauty of this world isn't necessarily tied to its visual representation - the environments, for instance, can be very hit-and-miss. The dusty sandscapes of Hammerfell and the sun-kissed tropics of the Summerset Isles are a delight to feast your eye globes upon. Dunmers, Argonians and Nords, however, find themselves trudging through the murky and muddily textured areas of northern Morrowind.
It's with a near constant stream of well-told, sharply written and pleasingly winding stories that TESO will sell you on its world. From compact, tightly woven narratives that take you minutes to resolve, all the way to multi-threaded epic yarns spread across entire zones and involving huge casts of recurring characters. At one point we help a ghostly woman on a hilltop, attempting to reunite her with her lost love... only to find him in ghostly union with another woman. Awkward!
Later on we face off against a Daedric beastie that takes on the form of the recently deceased in an adept retelling of John Carpenter's The Thing. Only here we get sub-plots involving slave-trading plantation owners, cruel revenge and cold-blooded murder. Tamriel provides a seemingly endless collection of tales that you can tap into and share.
Compared with many MMOs, combat here feels more physical, with hits landing with an easily readable series of thwacks and grunts. Essentially you attack and defend through mouse clicks, just like you would a traditional Elder Scrolls game, though now you have access to six extra abilities at any set time.
Exchanging blows with foes is more active an experience than many MMOs, too. Area-of-effect attacks are projected onto the ground via throbbing red circles, cones and rectangles. Double tap a movement key and you can roll out of the way of incoming blows. These physical tussles aren't as smooth as those found in Guild Wars 2, nor as immediately varied at their base level as those found in the woefully underrated Tera.
"The more you play with your character, the more rewarding combat becomes"
Also, a quirk of using the mouse to aim your attacks rather than using a target locking system means that you're all too often left staring at screen-filling obstructions. If your opponent is standing on higher ground, on the arch of a bridge say, then by aiming at them the camera will find itself ensconced in the grass behind you. Likewise, when battling in a dungeon, beware of stalactites when aiming at smaller foes at your feet.
"But what about the first-person camera?" you may be inclined to ask. Well, about that... It's great for getting a close look at the world, but as an alternative viewpoint for combat it's almost essential not to use it. To be effective in a fight you need a wide view of the battlefield - especially true when grouping up with friends.
The more you delve into TESO, and the more you play with your character, the more rewarding combat becomes. Skills are tied to all kinds of things, from the race you choose, the class you plump for and the weapon you happen to be wielding at any given time. Our main character is a Nightblade with a skillset based on dual-wielded daggers. We unlocked abilities which allowed us to teleport over to foes, deal devastating damage to those with low HP and even to siphon the energy from them to fill our own, often ailing, health bar.
A little later, we'd tweaked ourselves into a light armour-wearing archer, with a fiery bow charged with Soul Gem energy. We learned how to pepper enemies from afar, dealing huge damage while our heavily armoured chums took the brunt on the front lines.
Later still, we found another calling. With a powerful staff looted from a dungeon run, we could lay down walls of fire before ramming foes into the air and then nailing them with our previously learned health-sapping skills. The sheer variety on offer is glorious, especially once you get to level 15 and unlock two weapon sets which are interchangeable, along with their skill bars.
It might have been unwieldy, but crafting in Skyrim was still a huge part of the game for many. An axe you put together yourself was easier to become attached to. In TESO you can still build your own gear, but now you're able to keep hold of it for longer, thanks to an improvement system that rewards you for delving into its intricacies. Using the materials that you find through adventuring, you're able to research new traits and upgrades for weapons.
There's an element to crafting that we don't like, however. Unlocking skills, whether those be crafting or combat, eats up your skill point resource, which stocks up upon levelling or by discovering Skyshards in the world. Having both crafting and combat tied to the same points pool means you'll often have to pick one over the other.
As such, many of the useful skills that crafters will enjoy using, being able to see nodes in the world more easily, for example, won't get picked until you're well into the game. That said, you're able to re-spec all of your skills once you make it to your faction's main city, so this isn't necessarily a deal breaker in the long run.
SLIDESHOW: The Art of Elder Scrolls Online
Unfortunately, while much of what we've discussed so far has been positive, there are many elements that could be deal breakers, especially for MMO veterans. First, looting. You tap the E key to loot a corpse/chest and the R key to take all the items inside. Be careful though, as R is also used to bash out your Ultimate combat ability, which takes an age to recharge. These can be reassigned and we recommend you do so.
Either way, you still have to painstakingly open huge numbers of (largely junk-filled) containers in the world. It may be instinct for ES vets to open every chest, crate and barrel upon entering an area, but before long you'll find yourself wilfully ignoring all such containers in TESO. Modders have already been hard at work to fix many of these oversights, along the way inserting a mini-map to replace the absurdly unhelpful in-game compass.
Next up on our trail of maddening MMO fails is the grouping system. While it's easy enough to join other players in the world without entering into a legitimate party, at the time of writing any attempt to join a group for a specific activity is worryingly obtuse. Upon unlocking a dungeon we spent 90 minutes searching for people to tackle it with. Group roles fall into the Holy Trinity of Tank, Damage and Healer, which itself isn't a problem, but the LFG tool won't allow for specific party posts, leading to a waffle-filled chat window with reams of LFG requests.
Speaking of that chat window, TESO's megaserver tech means that entire continents are banded together into one glorious whole. This means friends won't be split up by their initial choices of server (though they will, remember, by their choice of Alliance, so go figure). The knock-on effect is that the Zone chat window fills with babble in all languages. We're all for everyone gaming together, but a more appropriate way to filter out this chatter would be welcome.
The biggest bugbear we have about the archaic MMO-ness of TESO is that for all of its great stories, the restraints of its genre consistently tear us out of the world. Horses apparate into existence, rather than being actual entities. Stealth has been shoddily shoe-horned in, regardless of randomly respawning mobs.
Death is a big frustration, too, and not because of a loss of progress. To resurrect yourself or an ally you use up a Soul Gem, bought at a vendor and charged up through combat. When you're grouped up with others you feel like you're being punished for reviving those around you, as you're using up an important, finite resource. Dying will damage your equipment, incurring repair charges. Why not just let us resurrect our friends for free once the fight is over?
TESO's MMO nature has one colossal saving grace. Its Player versus Player offering is huge and both highly tactical and superbly chaotic. Spread across the enormous map of Cyrodiil, which is four times the size of a regular zone, your Alliance army of some 800 players must work together to take down keeps, sweep across bridge strongholds and defend contested territories.
One moment had us hooked from the off. We'd received a call to arms through the chat window, stating that a particular keep was under fire and needed aid. We turned our steed around and began cantering in that direction. As we crested a hilltop an army of fellow players - there must have been about a hundred - arched over the horizon and blazed down into the valley before the keep. We veered our course and joined them in the charge, practically screaming inside with the awesomeness of it all.
Unlike the similarly veined player battlefields of Guild Wars 2, TESO's PvP has a better fleshed out teleporting system, ensuring you're never too far away from a fight. There are also quest boards, offering up a variety of tasks, such as scouting or keep defence, to guarantee large numbers of players are drawn towards the most epic emergent moments.
Remember how earlier in this Elder Scrolls Online review we rued how Alliances gated off content? In PvP it all makes sense, as the ribbing flows freely. "Aldmeri Dominion will be the noob Alliance," one particularly vocal fellow Ebonheart Pact member remarked as we prepared to charge their lines. "It's all full of pretty boy elves and cats." Meee-ow.
The quest variety, endless supply of quality storytelling and ability to explore a wonderfully fleshed out world will be more than enough to lure in Elder Scrolls fans. But with its archaic systems TESO somehow manages to sully the experience. Nothing we've seen that's bad can't be fixed eventually.
But equally, the MMO-centric features, PvP aside, have mostly been done better elsewhere. This is not the dream of Skyrim in multiplayer realised. Nor is it the MMO to end all MMOs. It is, for all its faults, however, an enthralling take on an exceptional world. A couple more months in the oven and TESO will be worth every penny. For now, it's only just worth those hefty subs fees if you're inclined to ignore its faults in favour of that remarkable environment.
Due to the evolving nature of MMOs and their communities, plus the well recognised challenges of their early weeks, CVG has decided not to score The Elder Scrolls Online until after the launch period. Expect a follow-up review in the coming months.
Great at telling stories, with a gargantuan world to feast upon, but its MMO failings let it down.
- A near endless supply of well told, involving stories
- The massive PvP element is a standout feature on its own
- Too many of its MMO features are poorly implemented.
- The subscription fee will notbe justifiable for all.