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Elder Scrolls Online review

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Summary

Our Score:

8

Pros

  • A vast stretch of Tamriel to explore
  • Excellent narrative-led quests
  • Looks and feels like a proper Elder Scrolls title
  • High production values

Cons

  • Combat can be an awkward half-way house
  • Not quite a perfect solo or group experience yet

Available on PC (reviewed), Xbox One and PS4 coming summer 2014

We’ll be honest: when we first saw The Elder Scrolls Online nearly two years ago, we weren’t impressed. In fact, we weren’t impressed at all. It didn’t look like Elder Scrolls VI: Oblivion or Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It didn’t seem to have the authentic The Elder Scrolls feel. What it did look like was another World of Warcraft clone, taking advantage of a big name franchise and its fans, but ultimately delivering nothing new.

Luckily, The Elder Scrolls Online turns out to be much, much better than expected. It looks and feels like an Elder Scrolls game, and departs from the established WoW template enough to distinguish itself. It’s beautifully designed, story-driven, and shows immense respect for the world of Tamriel and its extensive background lore.

There are areas where it lacks polish and places where the technology or the gameplay could be more advanced or more refined, but if you’re an Elder Scrolls fan, then you shouldn’t go away disappointed. As long as you don’t see it as a sequel to Oblivion and Skyrim, TESO is a fine Elder Scrolls take on the fantasy MMORPG.

Like Skyrim and Oblivion it opens with a bang, with your newly created hero awakening in the Daedric plane of Coldharbour as a ghostly prisoner with a shriven soul. Escaping from your hellish cell thanks to the efforts of a group of heroes, you find your way back to Tamriel with the aid of a mysterious prophet.

It turns out that you (along with several million other players) are destined to play a key role in the upcoming battle against the fiendish Daedric prince, Molag Bal, in events that precede Skyrim and Oblivion by the best part of 1,000 years.

From there, it’s almost up to you. During character creation you can choose not just your physical appearance but your race, your class and your alliance – Dominion, Daggerfall Covenant or Ebonheart pact – with the latter choice defining your start zone.

First there’s a new city to explore, then the areas of wilderness around it, before you go on to discover new cities, sail off to exotic islands, and tackle your first dungeons. There are main story missions to keep the plot moving along, but also dozens of quests and side-quests, most tying into an overall story arc that might see you fighting to save royalty from assassination, spoil a truce between groups of evildoers, destroy a witches’ coven or simple prove how tough you are to new friends.

Exploration has always been at the heart of The Elder Scrolls, and it’s something that TESO gets absolutely right. Simply wandering around the landscape, creeping through murky forests and ancient ruins is a thrill, and you can feel free to pick up and discard what quests you like along the way.

Inevitably, you’ll eventually bite off something that you can’t chew, but the game is happy to let you wander off and tackle something else, then come back when you’re ready. What’s more, TESO gives you the chance to rediscover classic Elder Scrolls locations in an earlier period, so you’re free to revisit Cyroldil, take a peak around Daggerfall or tackle parts of Morrowind and Skyrim.

Quest design is another strength. Like Star Wars: The Old Republic or Guild Wars 2, TESO does a great job of making you feel part of an unfolding story, and does an even better job of framing quests in a narrative, so that you’re rarely killing 10 of this and collecting 10 of that, or collecting object X and delivering it to person Y.

Each quest is its own mini-drama, and while the mechanics aren’t that unconventional beneath the surface, the questing doesn’t feel so grind-heavy or mechanical. Again, it feels like an Elder Scrolls game, not WoW with an Elder Scrolls skin.

The combat isn’t quite so convincing, as it’s a bit of an awkward halfway house between the conventional Elder Scrolls system and a standard MMO.

You can play from a first or third-person perspective (the former makes it feel more Elder Scrolls), and attack with one mouse button while blocking with the right, but you’ll also need to use a WoW-style hotkey bar to use spells and special attacks – and with only six slots you could really do with a little more space. It’s a strange decision, especially when timing and positioning count.

You need to be aware of enemies - some will quickly shift position or quickly somersault behind you – and blocking and evasion moves are crucial. Simply spamming away at the hotkeys will often get you nowhere.

However, there seems to be some lag between keypresses and something happening on-screen, which makes the action feel a little divorced from what you’re doing. It’s something you acclimatise to, but it can be a shock if you’re used to more action-oriented games.

Throughout, there’s a great sense of progression. As you gain experience and level up you gain attribute and skill points, the former being used to boost your fundamental health, stamina and magic levels, the latter being used to unlock new active and passive capabilities.

Whether you opt for a more combat or magic-focused class, you’ll find a host of ways to build your character moving forwards. There are plenty of spectacular spells and attacks to deploy, not to mention abilities with which to boost your own offensive and defensive capabilities, or those of any comrades.

Throw in a choice selection of mounts, pets, arms and armour, with new gear being dished out for completing certain quests, and TESO gets another Elder Scrolls principal correct: it makes you feel like you’re becoming more bad-ass, without putting your nose to the grindy old grindstone.

Visually, TESO might come as a slight disappointment. Whack the detail options up to maximum on a half-decent gaming PC, and you’ll see some awesome wilderness vistas, and the architecture, props and creatures are never less than beautifully designed.

The lighting effects are a step on from Skyrim and Oblivion, with some nice atmospheric fog and sunlight effects too. Yet draw distances aren’t always what they could be, and TESO can’t quite match the detail or the majesty of Skyrim.

It’s a very good-looking MMO, but not necessarily a cutting-edge RPG.

On the other hand, it’s hard to fault the production values. There’s an awful lot of dialogue, with familiar names including John Cleese, Michael Gambon, Bill Nighy and Jennifer Hale. The close-up animation is actually an improvement on Skyrim’s, and the orchestral store is just as stunning.

There’s also lore everywhere you choose to look, with books, journals and letters all to be read if you can find the time, each one either giving you some tip on combat, crafting or spellcraft, or filling in some detail of Tamriel’s extensive history.

It’s not flawless. While the servers seem fairly stable we’ve encountered plenty of downtime during the early access period, and you’ll sometimes see weird things like horses skidding around the cities with their legs unmoving, or find a skyshard – a vital collectible – that doesn’t seem to activate.

The monsters have their unintentionally comic moments, too. Bethesda has wisely chosen not to make them too active, so that you don’t get swamped by a mob on entering a new area, but it’s sometimes possible to pick off a whole group one-by-one while their chums stand idly by. It might be necessary, but it’s not always convincing, and it spoils an otherwise very worthwhile stealth mechanic.

Most of all, TESO can seem an odd halfway house in the early stages. You can play through extensive chunks of the game completely solo, as if you were playing an Elder Scrolls game that just happened to involve other people.

Often this works brilliantly, and you’ll still find yourself getting involved in ad-hoc parties, as you all work together to complete the quest you just happen to all be doing at the same time. This sometimes makes you feel like you’re ganging up on the poor little monsties, but it certainly makes life easier and more enjoyable.

Then, however, you’ll find yourself alone and unable to deal with certain situations, and find the going all but impossible without some friends.

Now, TESO actually has some great group-finding features, including what appears to be a handy auto-grouping tool. You actually have to assign yourself a role – tank, damage dealer and healer – and this should help everyone find a party and play a useful role. Yet with so many people soloing through the early stages we’ve still struggled to find other members to take missions with.

This isn’t a disaster. Many MMO-players play with established groups, and joining guilds and generally behaving in a friendly manner helps. And even if you are playing solo, you can usually find something else to do, or look and listen for signs of battle and then lend a hand.

It’s early days yet, and as more people get more involved in the game, such things usually improve.

In fact, the point about early days is very important. This is a new game, and those of us playing it are still only scratching the surface. We’re still working our way through the first set of quests, we’re still mapping out the territory, and we’ve barely got to grips with crafting, guilds or what the various alliances will come to mean.

We’ve yet to get stuck in to the PvP content. What we can say right now, though, is that this is a very promising beginning. It’s both instantly engaging and intensely absorbing, and should pull in both MMORPG fans and Elder Scrolls fans without any trouble. To make sure, we’ll come back with an update in the next few weeks.

The big question, of course, is whether it will succeed long-term. Like Star Wars: The Old Republic, TESO has adopted a pricey subscription model, this time charging £8.99 a month, and we all know how well that worked out there. In its favour, there’s a lot of content already here and the promise of even more to come, and Elder Scrolls fans have never struggled to spend months inside the game, or to come back for expansion packs and DLC. You’ve done the groundwork, Bethesda, you just need to provide players with enough incentive to keep coming back for more.

Verdict

If you had The Elder Scrolls Online down as another MMO turkey, think again. This is a good Elder Scrolls game and a solid MMO, even if it can’t quite scale the same heights as Skyrim or provide such a satisfying experience for solo players.

Still, there are other, more social pleasures to be found here, the story-led questing works brilliantly, and Tamriel is a great place to explore. Whether you’re a lapsed WoW veteran or an Elder Scrolls fanatic, you’re unlikely to go away dissatisfied.

Read more: Best games 2014

Overall Score

8

T.J. Kenny

September 28, 2013, 10:48 pm

will it still support mods?

Steve Lambert

September 30, 2013, 1:57 pm

This is my problem with MMORPGs — I just can't afford to spend £8.99 a month. For that price it'll have to be the only game I play in the little game time I get, just to feel like I'm getting my money's worth.

Think I'll stick to TF2 and the backlog of games I'm yet to finish!

asdf

October 21, 2013, 9:45 am

I like Skyrim single player better than running around online with other players. And the price is way too much for me too. :(

Johnny Young

November 20, 2013, 6:59 pm

You can't afford 8.99 a month? No offense but whatever you are doing, obviously is not working.

Evan

November 21, 2013, 7:47 am

I'll have a word with Simon about a pay rise ;)

ChrisB

November 23, 2013, 1:28 pm

You can afford the game for $60 dollars, but can't pull off a $10 month sub fee? If you can't afford ten dollars you need to not be playing games anyways..

SnookyTLC

November 24, 2013, 7:12 pm

Ugly game world. Way too rown. And tan, and beige, and dun. I feel like when I lived in the high desert, after a dust storm when everything was coated with a fine patina of sand. Brighter colors an richer textures ARE OK. Game needs to use the famous Skyrim texture mods! Also, it was just boring after awhile. Maybe grinding isn't the greatest, but it gives you a chance to try out your combat. There are hardly any mobs to kill, and a whole lot of running from one NPC to the next and hitting the E key. Yawn.

Anna

November 25, 2013, 11:30 pm

That's not fair at all.
He may be talking about a price that looks low (about 10 bucks a month) but really count the numbers up.
Let's say I buy a full price new game, take GTA 5
I save up my cash for a little while and with what I make, one day I say "well i got an extra sixty bucks" so i buy it. I can now play GTA five to my heart's content for the rest of my life.
Now let's say I buy Elder Scrolls online and continue to pay a monthly fee to use it.
I pay sixty straight up (feel free to correct me on the price that's my estimate as it is the standard price for most new games)
Then, for the rest of the time I want to play it I pay ten bucks a month. I don't get to save it, it's coming straight from whatever I make each month. For one year of owning that game you would pay 180 bucks. For one year of owning that game in the U.S. you'd pay 240.
And I still have GTA 5 but I'm not handing out another 10 bucks to Rockstar every month to play it, I get to keep it for life no questions asked and turn it on whenever i want.
I'm not trying to sound disrespectful here, I get that some people find a monthly fee for a really good MMORPG fair, and they want to spend money to play it. But for some people that's money that could be going elsewhere, they might need it to pay rent, utilities, they might need to save for a car or a house or something. So it's just unfair to judge them and say "well you just need a better paying job"
That's why the decision was so controversial, some of us really just can't do it. It's not that the game isn't worth it or we don't like what they did we just can't swing that kind of cash or we have other ways we use it.

Steve Lambert

November 26, 2013, 1:35 pm

I tend to only have money spare to buy a game every few months, usually when a Steam sale comes along. This means I'm usually end up playing games well behind everyone else. Used to be different, but I don't have a whole load of disposable income at the moment.

Steve Lambert

November 26, 2013, 1:42 pm

Absolutely, that's exactly how I have to look at it at the moment. My partner and I have just managed to buy a new flat which needs a fair bit of repair work and decorating here and there, which has to take priority.

Also, it's to do with how often I get to play games these days. If I'm paying £10 every month for a game I get to play for only a few hours it works out pretty expensive!

Steve Lambert

November 26, 2013, 1:42 pm

Hah, please do!

Warrior.9758

November 26, 2013, 5:32 pm

No its an online game. Mods in online games ruin balance and rewards. So lets say your mod improves an ability to instant kill, then it ruins game balance. Lets look at visual mods. One of the greatest rewards in an MMO is being able to equip awesome looking armor (also powerful aswell), so armor mods and such would ruin that.

Ry Pin

November 29, 2013, 5:36 pm

Actually, it will be supporting some mods according to developers

skye

December 3, 2013, 9:06 am

For a casual gamer who plays a few hours now and then because of work/family/RL or w/e other reasons a sub game is just a huge waste of resources.I mean u buy Skyrim for 60 bucks/pounds/euros etc. u get to stretch it out for even 1 year before u get to finish it and maybe buy a DLC or something while with the subscription u will end up paying 3 times that amount for a few hours a day or a few hours once in a while.
No wonder most sub MMOs go F2P or the smart ones go directly B2P and before anyone goes all "but,but,WoW is still sub and has xxx millions of players"remember WoW is mostly played by nostalgics and mature ppl who were in their 20's-30's when it was released.
I will prolly wait for TESO to go either F2P or B2P before i even give it a shot,because can't afford several P2P games at the same time just to play them a few hours once in a while when i'm in the mood...

Dainen

December 30, 2013, 11:36 pm

I'm so sick of hearing about how people don't want to pay to play. I prefer to pay to play any game that I am currently playing, if it means upkeep and updates, customer service and all around advancement in the game itself... Perfect! I don't want this game to turn out like some EA game that doesn't ever get fixed when something is broken... I don't want a game that works "good enough". This is what you get with Free to Play.
I would even be happy with a system like Star Wars has, where you can pay a subscription fee to have all features unlocked. Or you have to pay a certain amount to do certain things, this is only fair. The game needs to generate revenue to be successful and GROW. If all you want is to pay 60 bucks once and not have to pay anything, well... stick to console games and give up on MMOs, you're not needed here if you can't scrape up 10 bucks a month. Skip Starbucks a couple days.

downwind

January 7, 2014, 7:38 pm

i dont care what the group is doing. ill draw my own map to the goal. id rather sit around and learn the game. the ones complaining are the same ones who madeWOW watereddown welfare.

Farook

January 8, 2014, 1:22 pm

Maybe something along the lines of the Foundry from Neverwinter?

Farook

January 8, 2014, 1:35 pm

Although I understand your rationale, you need to take into account the fact that this is an online game, meaning operating costs for servers and their maintenance, plus any extra content/fixes they plan on implementing.

Personally, I am not a fan of sub, not because I don't have the money but because I don't like that constant feeling, that I need to play to justify the expense. I would like to see a new pricing model, like payment by the hour.

Say the average full time player, plays 3-4 hours a day~20 h a week~ 80 h a month for 9 pounds. I would support a ''sub'' that costs, say 3 (1/3 of the original sub price) pounds, for 15 or 20 hours (so much less time than the actual 1/3 equivalent) of IN GAME time, possibly counted by an in game timer on the top of the screen. That would be a life-saver for the average casual gamer that wants to log, now and then.

Tal

January 8, 2014, 3:18 pm

I hear what you're saying and I agree for the most part, but I think $15/m is too much (i.e. WoW). I played Lineage 2 for about 4 years and WoW for 1.5-2 years. At $15 a month, thats a lot of money, and I wasn't playing it 24/7. When I pay, it feels like I need to get my money's worth and if I'm not playing, it's like I'm just throwing money away. Like many others, RL comes first and prevents me from playing. Now, how do you set a time value for $15 per month? I don't know. All I know is that if I'm paying a monthly fee, I should be using that service I'm paying for and if I'm not, its just a waste of money.
With that said, I liked both L2 and WoW, and I don't mind paying a sub fee to play either (or other MMO's), but $15/m I think is too much, especially if you want to play 2-3 different MMO's.
One F2P MMO that I thought was excellent was Tera Rising. Beautiful graphics, solid mechanics, and a fast paced, manual target (like first person shooters) combat system that I simply adored.

F2P doesn't automatically mean poor quality and P2P doesn't automatically mean high quality. But I do understand your point. It's a tricky balance...

Max Cheng

January 12, 2014, 3:17 am

The rationale is not right here, because you would spend the same amount on coffee. smokes, or anything else you consume outside for the same price and you enjoy those for 15 minutes to an hour and you say 10 dollars for 1 month is expensive? I don't want to argue with you since it is your choice,

Ben

January 12, 2014, 5:34 pm

That's pounds, dude. At least $15 a month in the U.S. That's $180 a year to play a game. Not worth it.

Ben

January 12, 2014, 5:44 pm

$180 a year to play something is ludicrous. This isn't about how much money you have or don't have. It's about paying sensible prices for goods and services. Upkeep doesn't cost anywhere near what they'd like you to think it does; it used to, but not anymore. They're pocketing the vast majority of that as profit.

And as more and more people give up playing these games, your statement of us not being needed here becomes more and more false. Casual gamers are the most needed. The hardcore gamers that play the crap out of these games are the first to get bored and stop playing. If they're the only ones willing to pay (and they are), there goes your market!

Ben

January 12, 2014, 5:45 pm

Guild Wars 2 exists, ya know.

Joe Black

January 16, 2014, 8:11 am

Ok, I'll just jump in in the discussion. IMO, the logic of 15/month is not too much, you spend it on coffee, smokes, ... is not a solid and fair one. It should be more along the lines of: is this worth 15/month? It is not only about whether we can afford it or not, it is also about whether it is worth the 15 or not.
As it is today. I wouldn't pay for the first month. I guess I would even pass on a free month of play. Well, maybe the PVP is worth the free month but the quests' system is archaic. I expect games nowadays to give me more than a linear go to A then B so you can open C. I hate running around just because, especially if there is no logic or if the story is not pulling me enough.
And TBH, with so many MMO with different approaches, I don't have a need to go P2P. I think of all approaches out there right now, I prefer GW2 over anything else (well, I also like some free UO shards where paying doesn't really interfere with playability - But UO is just out of nostalgic reasons)
Anyway. As of today, TESO is a no-go for me. I'm curious at what they can/will change before release date from the current beta.

Anonymous

January 23, 2014, 12:52 pm

That 180$ a year you moron. A 60$ lifetime deal vs 180$ however many year you play it? Gee, which one do you think sounds like the better deal?

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