New year, new exception. The last one was BF4 in December, but i am actually reviewing a game i have played! Don’t hold it against me, but there simply is a lot to say about Elder Scrolls Online and i do have this blog space. Besides, if i don’t get to break or bend the rules a bit from time to time, where would the fun be! In essence this might actually not really be a review as such, strictly speaking you see, but more my current experience of playing the game. No exceptions needed after all!
Developer: ZeniMax Online Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Release Date: April 2014
Platforms: PC (Xbox One and PS4 to follow in June)
So Elder Scrolls Online then. Mannander reviewed the last installment in the Elder Scrolls franchise, Skyrim, back in early 2012, after having not-played it. And his opening line was a strong one:
In all likelihood, the green-lighting process for The Elder Scrolls V was a very short meeting. They only needed to look at the progressive increase in sales between each sequel to validate the potential for yet another instalment. It’s no secret that publishers like money just as much as the next guy.
The exact same thing could be said for Elder Scrolls Online, the first MMO in the franchise developed by ZeniMax Online studios. After the huge success of previous titles, in particular Skyrim, it made sense to greenlight an MMO. Clearly the audience was there and as World of Warcraft has shown, there was an interest in MMOs, even monthly subscription based ones.
So has ESO, as it’s come to be known, succeeded? Has the game delivered a worthy installment in the Elder Scrolls franchise and have ZeniMax Online created a potential rival to World of Warcraft? These questions are actually not as easy and straightforward to answer as may seem. I will try to give my thoughts on each of the elements of the game, in an attempt to find answers to these questions.
Is this an Elder Scrolls game?
The first question and probably the easiest question to answer. Yes, i truly believe it is. From the moment you create a character and are dropped into the open sequence of the world, the game feels like an Elder Scrolls game. Everything you come to expect from the franchise is there. Story driven quests, great VO (including Michael Gambon and many other amazing actors), fantastic character development and a great element of exploration (including searchings crates, sacks, urns etc.) – the game literally is full of great content that all helps tell another chapter of Tamriel. It is not surprising to find some weak areas, considering the scope of the game as a whole (and also the VO can be a bit hit and miss), but the game provides a lot more depth than many other MMOs did at launch. And lets not forget it just launched, it did does not benefit from 10 years worth of content like World of Warcraft right now.
As with Skyrim, quests usually have a deeper meaning, a story and always some VO attached to them. The player gets to meet new characters and while not all are as well developed as those characters linked to the main story, they all have something to say. Rarely do you have to go out and just kill stuff or go on a random delivery quest, and if you do, there is a reason for it, and that reason makes sense. Questing feels interesting in ESO and quests are a main way of peeling back layer after layer of the story.
And story is what Elder Scrolls has always been really good at. ESO is, thankfully, no different. There is the main story of course, involving the mysterious Prophet. There are also 2 other main story threads linked to the fighters and mage guild, which have chapters as the player progresses and levels up (every player can do all quests, these are not linked to classes). But more than that each new region has it’s own storyline, which the player can discover and participate in. From dealing with a plague that threatens a village to preventing an all out war between allies, the player’s actions are comparatively small, but add up over time. This makes it believable how one person can achieve so much, and it also makes the game addictive as there is almost always a “oh i wonder what happens next” moment.
The story at times is also quite mature and, like players of Skyrim might be familiar with, is not afraid to shy away from more controversial story elements such as slavery and racism. On several occasions you can make decisions along the way that are based on your views on these issues, either helping people or, at times, condemning them to death. You can even try to teach some characters a lesson and hope that in the future they will be behave better.
As you make your way through the world, learning about the areas, learning about current events and getting sucked into the main story, you also continue to grow your character. A very familiar level up and skill based system is in place, so anyone who has played an Elder Scroll game before will feel right at home. Similar racial traits and benefits as in previous games apply as well. Unlike previous games though you do choose an arch type when creating a character. This is more in line with traditional RPGs and MMOs and not something that was enforced as much in Skyrim for example, but it does make sense in an MMO environment to ensure players can fulfil certain roles in a group, at least to some degree. There is still a lot of flexibility to develop the character over time and plenty of skills to chose from to create a unique set of abilities though, so even hardcore fans should be alright with this approach.
Combat is based on some of these abilities and skills, again heading more into a traditional MMO space, again probably in order to sync up a group and provide synergy and co-op capability. It is up to the player which skills to learn but you can only ever have 5 active in a hot bar (plus an “ultimate” ability). It’s a mix and match of abilities that suit the players style and ideas, and abilities can be used from several trees (though realistically, to get the most out of each “class”, it’s best to focus on 1 or 2 skill trees, rather than spread skill points too thinly across too many skills).
Crafting on the other hand is very much in line with Skyrim. The usual crafting professions can all be picked up and there is a good amount of depth and usability for each one. Raw materials are gathered, items gained through quests or explorations can be de-constructed, traits can be researched and new items can be crafted, imbued and improved – it’s all there and it’s deep and meaningful. A good variety of skill points also tempt players to invest in crafting rather than combat skills and at least early on in the game that can be a tricky choice.
To round all this up the game presentation is very good as well. On a top end PC the visuals look stunning in places, and audio and visual effects are very good indeed. As mentioned VO is probably among the best in any game and the music, as always, is simply stunning. Carrying many of the familiar themes from previous games, the orchestral soundtrack is a perfect fit to the world. Animations range from truly horrible to very good indeed – depending on the context and character. Main characters and player characters are generally animated quite well, while some of the weirder creatures seem to slip and slide a lot.
All in all the entire game is a great package and for the initial purchasing price it offers a great installment in the Elder Scrolls Franchise. I like to think of it as a Skyrim on steroids, as it potentially holds more content and it certainly has a much bigger area. So as a game, as a single player game, ESO certainly is worth playing. But is it a good MMO. Is it worth investing 10 USD/Euro every month to keep playing it?
Is ESO a good MMO and can it rival World of Warcraft?
This is much more of a subjective question, but my gut feeling is: no.
I have played the game for about 3 weeks and i am well on my way to reach the current max level. In all this time i grouped once to clear one of the tougher dungeons. While the dungeon clearing itself was not necessarily a bad experience (and the game certainly has some interesting concepts with regards to group dungeons), it was also not really a pleasurable experience and it felt more like a chore than something fun to do.
I have not seen any higher end content or any PvP content, so i can’t actually comment on either of these, but i know for a fact that i will not bother doing another group dungeon again (the only exception being if i was forced to by the main story, towards the end).
And there is a very simple reason for it, and it’s almost painful to say it: it’s too cumbersome to find a group quickly. Over the last 10 years World of Warcraft has shown us a transformation. At launch people sat in cities and used public channels to find groups for dungeons. After finally finding the right people at least 2 had to run to the dungeon to summon the rest. It was tedious. Blizzard, over time, responded. Nowadays you open the “Looking For Group” tab, press a button and 5 minutes later you will be ready to join a group which has all the right classes. You press another button and you are transported inside the dungeon.
In short: the game has become a lot more user friendly, as has the interface. Elder Scrolls online feels like the developers never once looked at World of Warcraft, of simply failed to understand why the game works and is so popular. Elder Scrolls Online has taken us back in time about 8 years and made it harder to get into some aspects of the game, to enjoy certain aspects of the game. And it does not stop with the grouping tools.
The entire user interface in Elder Scrolls Online is horribly designed and extremely cumbersome. It feels like you are wrestling with it, as you try to do what you want to do. As far as i can tell it’s also not customizable. Trying to do any kind of social interaction becomes a chore, even just typing in guild or party chat involves several clicks and button presses. Navigating the group, guild and PvP pages in the interface is a tedious experience, to the point where i just don’t want to do it. It feels slow, sluggish and unresponsive. Some elements, like the PvP tab, also lack proper explanation and guidance.
But i think the worst of the lot is the entire trade and banking system.
You see, there is no Auction House as such. A feature which has been a core staple in MMOs for some years now, pioneered by World of Warcraft, is not present in ESO, a game which is heavily focused on crafting and actually provides a meaningful use for crafting (unlike large parts of World of Warcraft, where many crafting aspects feel utterly useless). Apart from using general chat as a trade channel (something i have not seen since the early EQ days), the only option to realistically trade is to join a guild and utilize the guild trade.
Guilds have an internal auction house. Guild members can list up to 30 items for sale and browse items listed by other members. Considering any player can join up to 5 guilds, this is in theory a decent idea. But it very much depends on the success of a guild. If you have 500 members or more, you might get a decent selection of items to chose from, and you might get some competition, regulating price. But if your guild is rubbish, or you chose to be part of a smaller friends guild, chances are you won’t have much choice or much of a market, and spamming general chat will be one of your main ways of selling things.
Of course you can join several guilds, but you never see an entire listing of all guilds. You manually have to switch between listings for each guild. To make things even more cumbersome there is no way to specifically search for a specific item (i.e. “Iron Ingot”) – you can only narrow down searches based on crafting materials, but that still can leave you with pages of listed items.
My character was part of 2 guilds and i have seen items listed in one guild about 500% cheaper than in the other guild. The current ESO system almost certainly will prevent the development of a proper market system where prices don’t fluctuate and you almost always have a guaranteed buyer. Instead the system caters to those who play the market, buying items cheap in one guild and selling at increased prices in another guild. Other players will never find out, as they won’t see price differences unless they happen to be in the same guilds. It is a shockingly bad design and how it ever made it into the final game i have no idea.
To top it all up, all these services are run through the banker NPC and there is no way to “go back” in the menu flow – the only way to switch between services on the same NPC is to exit and start from scratch by interacting with the banker again.
Speaking of banker, expect to spend a lot of time in banks and sorting through your inventory. In order to work better in an online environment, as well as create balance (and a bit of a money sink), EOS has introduced a bag slot limit to your character and your bank. Skyrim, by comparison had a weight limit on the character and realistically speaking no limit in various chests in your own house. You could store everything and you only had to worry about weight when out adventuring. In EOS you start with 50 (or 60?) slots in each bank and character. And that fills up very very quickly. Since the crafting is as evolved and deep as Skyrim, you can expect to collect a lot of flowers, cooking ingredients, potions, runes (for enchanting) and before you know it you are knee deep in wurmcult blood and about to loot an awesome new weapon, only to find out your inventory is full and you need 10 min to sort through what you can actually throw out.
Inventory has not gotten better since Skyrim. You can sort in categories, but it’s still just a massive list, and the user can not sort in any specific way. Again World of Warcraft says hello, where players can organize their own bags and will know exactly where they can find what they want. Expect to literally spend hours organizing your belongings, offloading from bags to bank and throwing stuff out you don’t need anymore. It’s not fun.
Skyrim (and other Elder Scrolls game before it), never were the most user-friendly games ever made, and their inventory and interface has always been lacking. But ESO made some changes in order to fit it into an online environment and create money and time sinks, and that’s only made it worse. Instead of finding clever solutions like player housing (which other MMOs have done successfully, as has Skyrim), they opted for a bank space. Instead of delivering a similarly powerful bank space as World of Warcraft, they created a far inferior experience which is frustrating and time consuming. Instead of delivering an amazing Auction House experience across a mega-server, they delivered guild based trading only. The list goes on, but essentially what it boils down to is this: ESO, as an MMO, simply is not very good. It could be forgiven a lot of it’s flaws as a one-off-payment single player game, but as a MMO with monthly subscription it simply does not compare with what else is on offer.
If ZeniMax Online would have actually analyzed what made World of Warcraft such a big hit, how and why it has changed over the last 8 years and learned some lessons from that, the game could be an outstanding MMO experience and it could truly challenge WoW – it certainly has a lot going for it.
ESO seems to punish players for wanting to use the very aspects which make the game an MMO, the social aspectts. Communication, trading and grouping is made harder for no other reason that bad design. It’s been done better by several games in the last 10 years and ZeniMax Online has no excuse. This cannot be blamed on a rocky start (and it has been a bit rocky), these issues are fundamental design flaws. The fact that there is no auction house, the fact that the interface to find a group is horribly convoluted and the fact that you can’t search for specific items in the guild store, are all designed features and functions. Skyrim was not perfect. Inventory management, HUD and UI and even the skill tree system were all a bit bloated and hard to access, but they rarely ever really got in the way of adventuring. When you have to run to the bank every 45 min to do inventory management, when THINKING about inventory management is the first thing you do before heading out to adventure, then you know the game systems are actually getting in the way of game fun.
I wish there was an offline single player mode, as it would actually keep me playing and probably buying potential expansions. As it is i won’t pay 10 Euro a month to keep playing, i prefer to just boot up Skyrim again.
Ultimately it will come to high end game content to a large degree. If the game holds enough interest and challenge for those who reach maximum level then it could hold a decent amount of people. But with accessibility being extremely poor and another WoW expansion scheduled for later this year and Wildstar lurking around the corner, i fear that ESO will struggle to maintain a viable user base beyond 2014. And this could end up in a downward spiral. Fewer users will mean fewer guilds and fewer members in each guild. This in turn will make grouping and in particular trading harder – which will only alienate even more people.
I would be very surprised if the game has more than 100k paying subscribers by the end of the year and I feel this game will go free to play before the end of next year.
If that happens, i’ll happily pick it up again and pay for new content and expansion packs.
Elder Scrolls MMO Score: 5.5/10 (score of the game as is)
Elder Scrolls Game Score: 8.5/10 (if this was just a single player game in the franchise)