|System: PC*, PS4, Xbox One|
|Dev: ZeniMax Online Studios|
|Pub: Bethesda Softworks|
|Release: April 4, 2014|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Blood and Gore, Sexual Themes, Use of Alcohol, Violence|
by Sean Engemann
Tamriel is not the same place you remember. It's a heck of a lot bigger, sporting every fantastical venue you can imagine, and oh yeah, there are other players roaming around. The Elder Scrolls Online takes the insanely popular open-world RPG series that has in every game past presented a sprawling world to a singular player, and opened it up to the masses. Because of this the game incorporates certain familiar conventions that follow the MMO blueprint, but you will be happy to know that in the end it's an Elder Scrolls game above all else.
The story opens up in a very customary fashion for veterans of the series, having you take the role of a relatively nondescript commoner being put to the sword for obscure and unjustified reasons. However, in The Elder Scrolls Online your execution holds true and your soul is sent to Coldharbour, a plane of Oblivion, for an eternity of enslavement. You are then given the first glimmers through a vision that your fate is not sealed, followed by an exodus back to the mortal realm. But the land of Tamriel is having troubles of its own.
The grand distress once again pits mortals against the deities, as Molag Bal, the Daedric Prince of domination and ruler of Coldharbour, has literally anchored the world of Nirn with Oblivion in an attempt to merge the two planes and control them both. Yet despite this apocalyptic event, a war of mortals rages on between three factions, each comprised of three races of Tamriel.
This becomes the very first decision you make at the character creation screen. Each faction--the Daggerfall Covenant, the Ebonheart Pact and the Aldmeri Dominion--has a different starting location and a different campaign, each one easily taking over a hundred hours to complete. So there's certainly no issue with the game's replayability. There are only four classes to choose from, however active and passive skills are not strictly associated with your class, but also with each weapon and armor type, your race, crafting professions and guilds you're a member of. It's a robust and original advancement system that allows for players to suit roles for both solo and allied play. As such, acquiring skill points becomes the most important mission of all. Leveling up, completing certain quests, and locating rare Skyshards will award you points to spend. Using abilities or plying your craft within a certain skill line will raise its overall experience level, which in turn unlocks new powers both active and passive. The game rewards players for being meticulous and thorough explorers, as checking bookcases could grant an immediate level increase in a skill line, or searching objects could yield recipes to add to your crafting book.
It's a daunting task, considering the size of real estate you have to cover. Each sprawling zone is packed with secrets to discover and vistas to behold. Arid deserts, frigid northlands, fortified cities and marshes filled with mile high toadstools are just a fraction of the variety that awaits. A realistic time cycle as well as interesting weather patterns showcase the game's lighting and natural effects. Seeing ash fall from the sky instead of rain in the volcanic land of the Dunmer is a nice example of an added touch. The overall environment animations are extremely subtle, making the world feel a bit rigid, but considering the scope of explorable land, this is to be expected. Characters still walk with a stiffness that Elder Scrolls games are famous for, though the detailing and customization is beyond anything we've seen in the past.
You'll not venture far before spotting a highlighted arrow above an NPC's head indicating a quest start. Quests are by far one of the biggest reasons The Elder Scrolls Online stays true to its roots. Dialogue is scripted with incredible depth, pulling from an encyclopedia of lore that is unchallenged by any other RPG. And we finally have an Elder Scrolls game with a sizeable cast of voice actors, all of whom fervently deliver their lines. You'll be sucked into the plight of every new quest giver and stay hooked as the missions grow deeper with each objective achieved. Yes, there are a few fetch quests in the mix, but even those are neatly tied into a grander narrative, giving them more substance and pertinence.
Of course you're never tied to a linear progression. You can stray off course at anytime, following distant markers on the HUD compass to see what surprises await while enjoying the ambient melodies that fill the air. But remember, since this is an MMO, casual strolls around the countryside are a bit more hazardous since monsters are placed in great numbers to accommodate the many players traveling about. If you're looking for the peace and solitude cherished in Skyrim, you won't find it here.