It’s a tough ask to follow up any game, let alone one of the most confident and successful RPG series of the last 20 years and, in Skyrim especially, arguably one of the very best games of the 360/PS3 generation (in spite of the PS3 version’s obstinate woes). But to introduce not just multiplayer to the proceedings, but mass multiplayer at that, is to range Elder Scrolls Online not only against its celebrated and much-liked predecessors, but a veritable titan among games; by which, of course, we mean World Of Warcraft.
Blizzard’s MMORPG may be half the game it used to be in terms of player numbers, but the last we heard there are still six million people roaming the lands of Azeroth. Given that in November the oldest among them will have adventured there for ten years makes the World of Warcraft’s persistence all the more impressive. Even with the might of Elder Scrolls now ranged against it, it’s hard to imagine Blizzard’s flagship game failing any time soon.
Will we still be playing Elder Scrolls Online in a decade? As it stands today, almost certainly not, which isn’t to say Bethesda’s online debut doesn’t deserve to survive long into the future, only to point out in the extraordinarily long life of an MMO, a lot can and invariably does change, often beyond the game itself. We’d likely have said the same for WOW’s chances back in 2004.
The truth is that even after five-ish years of pre-production and development The Elder Scrolls Online was never going to be as evolved as World Of Warcraft when one’s just crawled from the MMO swamp and the other’s been swinging in the treetops for an age already. Comparing new and long-established MMOs is rarely a wise thing to do.
Tell you what though, Elder Scrolls Online isn’t as far down the evolutionary ladder as might be expected. The amount of content in the game is impressive, not just that there are plenty of places to go (a good 50% of Tamriel is immediately accessible with the rest held over for the inevitable expansions) but also that there’s so much to do, most of which take its cues from offline Elder Scrolls. The quests are fully-voiced, the breadth of crafting is satisfying and familiar, exploration is encouraged and the combat systems, while just a little stymied due to the nature of multiplayer gaming, is evolved and fluid. But it’s the breadth with which you can discover your own path rather than be forced down character progression routes designed to suit the play-styles of others, is one of the many ways in which it doesn’t feel like you’re playing yet another MMO.
There are only four player classes to choose from – Dragon Knight, Sorcerer, Nightblade and Templar (effectively warrior, wizard, rogue and cleric) – but thanks to skill progression being based around actions rather than experience point grind, its possible to develop highly potent and flexible hybrids for most eventualities. Add in guild and racial skills trees and you’d be hard pressed to point out a more versatile or layered character progression system.
Of course the triumvirate of DPS, tank and support are key, and the closer you can fit your build to one of those three roles the more successful you will be when you invariably square up to other players in the central PVP realm of Cyrodiil. What’s refreshing is how far you can simultaneously develop your character to do the things that you enjoy, which if you’re an Elder Scrolls fan first and an MMO player a distant second, probably means heading out in various different directions and seeing where you end up and with whom.
Unfortunately for those hoping otherwise, there’s no getting around the fact that Elder Scrolls Online is an MMO. Once the stirring and familiar Game Of Thrones-ey theme subsides and your carefully sculpted character emerges from the traditional get-out-of-jail tutorial, your arrival to the shores of Tamriel will only be partially familiar. For example if you side with the Ebonheart Pact, you’ll start not too far from the lands of Morrowind, a place we’ve not been able to explore with this fidelity before. Unfortunately, the wonder of being amongst all that strange medusae-like flora and fauna after so many years since is tempered by all the renovations than have been made to accommodate the masses; the streets being too wide and the cities too spread out to be practical for the local population.
Of course it’s all the people running about the place that are to blame, talking to the same NPCs you are, taking on the same quests, collecting the same rewards and often getting in your way just a little too often for it to feel like you’re the hero in the story. If there’s one thing guaranteed to break the spell in an RPG, it’s someone running about in bra and pants calling themselves Bumface. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could lop their head off for crimes against immersion, but alas.
For many people buying into Elder Scrolls Online, all that meta-silliness is par for the course, and its for them that this first online chapter is more directly aimed and who will more likely enjoy the subtle changes from MMO convention that Elder Scrolls diehards will find more jarring. Things like the need to put a little more effort into finding quests rather than have absurd signposts above NPC heads. Similarly since the raw materials needed for crafting are a little more tricky to locate than in most MMOs, those who prefer the domestic delights of making clothes or forging weapons will have to travel a little further out than they may be used to in other online games. Then there’s the fairly inconsequential XP gain you receive from battle, meaning that instead of farming mobs, you’re compelled to work through the various stories to progress your character to its level 50 goal. The aforementioned skill trees aren’t perhaps as easy to grasp as the system in, say, Guild Wars 2 or Rift, but that doesn’t make them any less worthy. Time will tell if people do end up gravitating to the usual flavour-of-the-month builds, but the potential is there for character development to be more diverse than we tend to get in most fantasy MMOs.
Where the game shines, diversity and breadth of content aside, is in spite of the MMO concessions made, how much of Elder Scrolls – and what has made Elder Scrolls so enjoyable for so long – remains in place and so pushes vast-scale multiplayer gaming just a little bit further than we’ve seen before. The attack/block combat system is easy to overlook as an innovation because it is so familiar and established, but when you eventually find yourself toe-to-toe with a character directed by another human being, it feels that much more natural and evolved. True, PVP is often a frantic mess of flailing swords and axes and occasionally marred by lag (and/or whining), but the thrill of applying skills earned via hours in Oblivion and Skyrim to multiplayer objectives is undeniable. The likes of Mount & Blade, Chivalry and War Of The Roses offer a better melee mechanic, but not on this scale, nor with such persistence.It’s also worth pointing out that The Elder Scrolls Online is a very attractive game. Much has been written about the worry that perhaps it doesn’t quite come close to the fidelity of Skyrim, which is true in the case of the PC’s high def texture pack, but it’s not far off the mark. Given the expanse of the landscape and the potentially vast numbers of players milling around, the Elder Scrolls Online’s graphics aren’t just as good as most offline RPGs, it’s easily the most graphically accomplished online game we’ve played and one that performs well on relatively modest hardware.
A few launch hiccups aside, the issues that are and will continue to dog Elder Scrolls Online are entirely down to perception. If your hope for a sixth Elder Scrolls was always for a sequel set across a hitherto unexplored region of Tamriel; a game in which you could be the focus and aspire to be the sole hero, developing exclusive and ancient powers along the way, then Elder Scrolls Online was never going to cut it. Likewise if you’re the kind of veteran MMO gamer who has to hit the level cap as quickly as possible to forever grind raids to attain the best gear, TESO’s slower pace and exhaustive content may well feel tiresome and laboured.
Sure, there’s a case to answer for whether a subscription is appropriate, or perhaps that the PVP could have been riven from the solo-centric questing (which might have better appeased the two target audiences), but the game is what it is and in spite of being stretched a little between two RPG mindsets, the supporting structures of content and mechanics are solid enough to lift the game above most of it’s peers, be they offline or on. Whether the game might bring together the mindset of the solo quester in line with their nemesis, we have to admit to remaining sceptical, but then so few developers have tried to bridge the gap that you have to admire the attempt. What Bethesda has succeeded at doing is making online role-playing that little bit more accessible, while offering massively-multiplayer fans the access to a world they’ve likely been as keen to explore as any other in the history of gaming. That the development team has been able to retain the mechanisms of play together with the depth of the content in the face of a breed of gamer whose capacity to consume is unrivalled, is perhaps the game’s biggest achievement. Now all Bethesda has to do is keep up the pace.