The Elder Scrolls Online review
The Elder Scrolls is a traditionally single player series; despite the grand scale and epic story lines of Skyrim and Oblivion, players have always travelled through Tamirel alone. That changes from today, as The Elder Scrolls Online launches on PC and Mac. We've been on a mission to see as much of Tamriel as possible, having extensively played the closed beta and starting again with a Dark Elf Dragonknight after our stats were reset for the retail release. Even so, this is very much a review in progress; there's a huge amount of content to uncover and experience, and it simply wasn't possible to see it all in time for launch day. We'll be updating this review as we get further into the game.
Set 1,000 years before the events of Skyrim, TESO doesn't focus on one particular area of Tamriel; it includes the entire continent, and each location should be instantly recognisable to Elder Scrolls fans. Depending on your choice of starting faction you begin the game in either Davon's Watch, the Summerset Isles or High Rock, which all featured heavily in previous games. To anyone not familiar with the series, however, many locations will feel like typical fantasy fare. There are few recognisable landmarks and a lot of open ground, although towns and cities are densely populated and as the servers fill up there will be plenty of other players filling up that space.
Expect crowds around quest-givers in the early game areas
The familiar health, magic and stamina bars that sit at the bottom of the screen are just one of many elements designed to make Skyrim and Oblivion players feel at home. There are no hit markers, damage numbers or status icons filling the screen, and you have the option to play using first person view. This instantly sets TESO apart from other MMOs, making the combat feel more visceral and the varied locations even more outlandish. We only ever used the third person view when joining larger groups, in order to get a better perspective on the battlefield when fighting raid bosses.
Combat in general is a lot more involved than other MMOs, forcing you to choose the right skills and move around the battlefield rather than standing in one spot spamming your abilities as soon as cool down timers expire. This works best in dungeons and during larger quests, but becomes a tad repetitive when fighting the easier enemies dotted throughout the main game world.
In other areas, TESO benefits from leaning more towards MMOs than to the Elder Scrolls franchise. The inventory system is much easier to use than it was in Skyrim, having been designed specifically for a mouse and keyboard rather than a controller. Items are colour-coded to indicate rarity, so you can quickly identify your most powerful or valuable equipment without having to constantly check statistics or enchantments.
However, in trying to capture as much of the Elder Scrolls games as possible, Zenimax has missed a few staple MMO features. There's no mini-map, only the franchise's signature compass at the top of the screen. There's no auction house for trading items with other players. You can't play on a controller, despite Xbox One and PS4 versions being in the works. The one saving grace is that with mod support, enterprising gamers are already patching these holes; a mini map mod was even available ahead of the official launch.
Only the most important story quests pause the action, otherwise you can skip most of the dialogue
Regardless of your view preference, TESO feels like it was designed as an Elder Scrolls game first and an MMO second. There's a massive focus on story, with even smaller quests forming the basis of a growing plot line. You can skip much of the incidental dialogue, but you'll miss out on a huge amount of lore and backstory, along with the lovingly recorded dialogue. Expect to hear familiar voices when meeting important characters, with John Cleese and Michael Gambon making early appearances. There are more voice actors here than any other Elder Scrolls game, so there's much less repetition.
There aren't many basic fetch tasks to slog through either, even in the early parts of the game. Depending on your choice of faction, you could be defending a fortified city from advancing enemy forces or preventing a rogue wizard from summoning a Storm Golem. However, in an effort to discourage grinding the main way to level up your character is by completing quests, and unless you tackle them in order you could find any missed early game quests are a walk in the park for your levelled up character. This ensures you see as much of the story as possible, though.
You could approach TESO like any other Elder Scrolls game, but expect plenty of other players to get in the way. As the servers gradually fill up, crowds are already beginning to gather around quest givers and objectives, which can be a little confusing when you're hunting for a particular NPC. Quest-specific items are instanced, so other players can't steal your objective, but interactive objects can only be used by one person at a time so you may have to wait your turn to pull a switch or activate a trap.
You'll still need to partner up with other gamers to take on the numerous dungeons, which start getting difficult for solo players very early into the game. These group quests were a lot of fun and require lots of teamwork, so hopefully Zenimax has balanced the later game raids to keep them as entertaining with high level characters.
With the details cranked up to full, the Elder Scrolls Online is a beautiful game
It's only once you start playing as a group that TESO shows its MMO underpinnings. Whereas you could create your character to be a master of any skill in Skyrim or Oblivion, here you're limited by your character class into typical healer, DPS, tank and support roles. There are four character classes to choose from on top of the three alliances which determine your starting point, along with Tamriel's exotic selection of races including the reptilian Argonians and cat-like Khaljit, but it will take a lot of playing until your character feels any different to anyone else using the same class.
Skills level up as you use them, but are again tied to MMO-styled tech trees. This applies to combat abilities and passive skills, such as cooking, smithing and alchemy. Throw in the need for ingredients, recipes and blueprints and it could end up taking a very long time to master a certain skill - particularly as there's currently no way to buy them from your fellow players without talking to them face-to-face.
Zenimax has pulled in beasts from previous Elder Scrolls games, and created monsters of its own specifically for TESO
With an entire continent to explore, Elder Scrolls fans more familiar with the single player experience will have hundreds of hours of content to experience, but Zenimax has of course catered to MMO players looking for big group raids or PvP combat. The alliance war forms an entirely separate part of the game, where players team up to capture enemy castles using battering rams and siege weapons. These hectic battles are likely going to be the meat of the game for many players, and it is currently the only way to return to Oblivion's Cyrodiil, but you'll need to be a reasonably high level before you'll be strong enough to survive on the battlefield - especially considering hundreds of players can be on the map at once.
It's unclear how many people have pre-ordered the game, or will be joining the servers on launch day, but during our time in Tamriel TESO was smooth, with no major lag or connection issues. This is crucial for the first person view to create convincing gameplay, as swinging a broadsword to no effect, with damage magically dropping off your enemy seconds later would quickly break the immersion. Hopefully the servers will hold up under the load - we'll find out on Friday and will update this review accordingly.
Even based on the small section of the game we've experienced so far, it's safe to say The Elder Scrolls Online will appeal to fans of the series and MMO players alike. Whether the subscription model works out remains to be seen, however; £40 is undeniably a lot to ask for a game that then charges £9 a month to keep playing. We'll be playing a lot more of the game over the next few weeks to see whether high level raids and PvP can justify that price, so if you aren't already convinced to pick up the game make sure to check back soon.