|System: PS4, Xbox One, PC|
|Dev: Bethesda Software|
|Pub: ZeniMax Online Studios|
|Release: April 4, 2014|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p|
by Sean Engemann
MMORPGs have become such a saturated genre, most gamers barely give a new entry a second glance. Unless of course it's The Elder Scrolls Online. With the launch just around the corner, there are quite a few people preparing their credit cards and bank accounts for the new subscription. Being so close to the release also means beta sessions are in full swing.
Running around Tamriel this past weekend has allowed me to inspect the features that blend the traditional single-player gameplay into an MMO format. I've found ESO to be more the latter than the former, which unfortunately strips away many of the elements that made Skyrim, Oblivion, and the other games of the series such unique experiences.
The most obvious example comes from exploring the world itself. Your hero's feet will get plenty of exercise, but boundaries both from landscapes and fixed zones prevent you from attempting to climb every rocky outcropping you spot in the distance. The scale of the world is also diminished. You'll rarely stray from the road and feel lost in untamed lands, or bask in the serenity of an open plains with nothing but mammoths stomping a mile away. Creatures are all systematically placed in clusters, allowing multiple players to find a target. They fall easily, deliver you their bodily goods, and then respawn, just as you would expect from an MMO.
Much of this closed beta session was to provide a stress test on the servers. There were plenty of players scurrying around the countryside, hopping from quest to quest in quick succession. I attempted on several occasions to form a party, but all were too busy with their own personal chores. Apart from a small experience boost, there's very little incentive to team up. The brunt of the quests are all the standard affair of finding a person or object (usually in close proximity), performing a mundane task, or killing a set number of creatures, then returning for your reward. The game offers a sliver of lore and interweaving plotlines, but most quests function independently. And they hold your hand the entire way. Quest givers have a marker over their heads, and the objectives are either directly indicated on the map, or displayed within a specific radius. You then follow the arrow on the HUD compass and sprint to the target. It's a shame that this has become the standard model, with the thrill of stumbling into a gripping side quest like in Skyrim all but lost. I received a crushing reality check at how a gamer gets transformed in an MMO. After being disconnected for a brief maintenance, I returned to find that all the objective markers were gone... for everyone. The chat box was filled with outrage over people crying like lost children who didn't know where to go, which caused a heavy sigh within me. I couldn't help but wonder where our sense of adventure had gone.
I've also found little strategic value in pairing up with another player. Your character has an impressive amount of skill customization, with weapons upgrading with use in typical Elder Scrolls fashion, and new ability unlocking after meeting certain skill thresholds. Any class can use any weapon, and many of the combat skills are adequate enough to serve for solo adventuring. You'll kill enemies faster when in a group, but the encounter is not more gratifying because of it.
NPCs have also leaned towards MMO conventions. Many of them provide menial replies, and the rest usually offer only a brief chit chat. You won't find much in the way of subversive activity between warring families, or secret societies looking to overthrow the government. Sure there's a share of deceit and bravado amongst the citizens, but you often play little more than the role of a grunt to be tasked.
Crafting plays a significant role in ESO. There's more opportunities to ply your trade, and more satisfying rewards for sticking to it than you'll find in Skyrim. But again, some Elder Scrolls elements have been stripped way. In this case it is the acquisition of materials. Only a fraction of the florae and faunae can be harvested, houses cannot be scraped clean and NPCs cannot be pickpocketed. Once you've filled you inventory with materials, then it's off to the workstation, which again is laid out like your typical MMO, with dozens of other players crammed around all the different profession stands clumped together in a common area.
I frantically scoured for the one Elder Scrolls staple that gave me peace--books. Luckily they are spread around for us to find, and filled with interesting stories and sometimes skill improvements. ESO also keeps track of every book you've read, as well as a healthy achievements list to build reputation scores. Soul trapping enemies in gems to recharge magic items was another series staple that gave me a little Elder Scrolls endorphin release.
There's no doubt that hundreds of hours could be spent scouring Tamriel, with plenty to see and plenty to do. However, in my brief time with The Elder Scrolls Online, I always felt more like I was playing a cookie-cutter MMO with a dash of Elder Scrolls, rather than a deep single-player experience with a few multiplayer elements sprinkled in. There's little besides the source material that separates this game from every other MMO on the market. My opinion may change as I delve further into the gameplay, but my initial impression does not leave a satisfying taste in my mouth.
Date: February 10, 2014