Zenimax Online Studios' pledge to bring The Elder Scrolls experience online has unearthed a variety of reactions. This wildly popular, open-world RPG series has traditionally found its success by delivering an immersive single player experience through player agency, dynamic questing, unique story lines, and unparalleled presentation value. While many gamers have been excited to experience an MMO entry in this prestigious franchise, a number of fans have also lamented the possibility of crucial series elements being lost in translation. After spending a fair amount of time in the beta, I can comfortably say that The Elder Scrolls Online is awkwardly trying to walk a fine line between what it means to be an MMO and what it means to be an official entry in The Elder Scrolls franchise. While there is much about TESO to celebrate, I'm nervous that the initial release will let both series fans and MMO players down.
The main campaign takes place on the continent of Tamriel, roughly a thousand years before the events of Skyrim and about eight-hundred years before Morrowind and Oblivion. Daedric Prince Molag Bal appears and attempts to subjugate the many races of Tamriel by pulling everything into the realm of Coldharbour — a plane of Oblivion. As the hero of this story, you will once again begin as a prisoner, and eventually have the opportunity to save Tamriel as a part of one of three warring factions. Naturally, there are a number of subquests that take place outside of the central narrative, but even the smallest of quests have been designed to add context to the current plight of the realm. All of the story-related NPCs I have run into have been equipped with high quality vocal work, and are prone to talky, politically motivated requests. In terms of both narrative and overall questing presentation, TESO certainly lives up to established franchise standards.
In many ways TESO succeeds at matching the high presentation values of the core franchise. Tamriel's environments have received quite a bit of care and detail. They don't hold a candle to what we've seen in Skyrim, but in terms of MMOs they're top-tier. Your character models and armor sets can be highly customized and look downright gorgeous, although there were instances in the beta when both were subject to bugs. The music is also very atmospheric and the sound design echoes what we've previously witnessed in the series. So far I haven't heard anything that stands up to the Dovahkiin theme, however, there's still much in the game to discover and I won't ignore the possibility that an epic track exists.
"You will have to focus almost all of your efforts on levelling, as going too far, too soon will see your character dead fast."
Many fans will be pleased to note that combat is nigh identical to that of Skyrim. Expect fast-paced hacking and slashing, but also a much greater focus on heavy versus light strikes, blocking, and counter-attacking. More advanced combat will require the intelligent use of abilities and magic, being aware of your environmental surroundings, and knowing when and when not to be stealthy. It should all feel immediately natural, as Zenimax Online Studios have added familiar UI and allowed combat to occur in first-person perspective. Combat is so fluid and dynamic that there were times I completely forgot that I was playing an MMO. That's not to say that the game wasn't trying desperately to remind me though.
TESO takes a lot of cues from other MMOs, specifically older ones such as World of Warcraft, Everquest, and Guild Wars. There is a solid mix of solo and group questing, which is fine, but the pace at which you can do anything in the game's world is determined almost solely by your character's current level. You will have to focus almost all of your efforts on levelling, as going too far, too soon will see your character dead fast — thereby neutering the exploratory nature of the franchise. If you were playing a classic MMO like World of Warcraft, you'd likely take this as an opportunity to level grind and possibly farm for loot drops. Sadly, because the game was designed to be "grind-free," most enemies only pop up when there is a quest-related reason for them to do so. While this may not seem like a big deal at first, the lack of enemy exposure greatly affects your overall character progression, combat proficiency, and even the basic economics behind using loot to upgrade your arms. The underlying limitations set upon you by this awkward combination of grind-less MMO innovation and traditional MMO staples actively works against both your in-game development and the non-linear, free-form structure that has made The Elder Scrolls franchise popular in the first place.
To that point, levelling and looting are only rewarded once or twice every hour, and both ultimately feel less rewarding as a result. This weird balance can be adjusted before or even after TESO sees an official release, but I can guarantee that the game won't last long as a subscription-based MMO if the dynamic doesn't change.
Non-quest gameplay is also sadly lacking in variety. Questing in TESO generally requires running to a random location for twenty minutes, killing a specific enemy, and running twenty minutes in the other direction. Rinse and repeat. To some, this will simply represent the traditional MMO approach. However, this isn't just an MMO — it's an entry in The Elder Scrolls franchise. Previous installments demonstrated several ways to spend your time in-between quests. As the hero of this adventure, you could search an eerie crypt for no reason in particular, bankrupt a town through your master thievery, or help an NPC with a problem that technically isn't even a quest. There's a great sense a freedom outside of questing that stops the narrative's progression as feeling as though it's on-rails. TESO, sadly, appears to be on-rails.
There are a few other missteps that didn't sit well with me. One of the playable races, the Imperials, has been blocked off by a pay-wall. Only owners of the Collector's Edition are allowed access to this race and its armor set. Loot drops are frustratingly antiquated, as they aren't shared. An entire party may see the same weapon or item being dropped from an enemy or chest, but only some members will get to pick it up while others wait for that same drop to (hopefully) respawn. Finally, enemy AI is only smart enough to run up to you and start attacking. Personally, I was hoping for some to be able to dodge and possibly counter, but there doesn't appear to be much variety in how they approach your character. I found that I could dispatch nearly anything the same way.
Is TESO going to be a great MMO? It's hard to tell at this point. It certainly has the pedigree to become a dominate franchise in the MMO space, but so did Star Wars: The Old Republic. Both MMOs feature clear gameplay issues, created by attempting to both innovate and adhere to MMO conventions. Both MMOs have high presentation and a few choice elements that really work in their favor. Both MMOs have been exceedingly expensive to develop. My only hope for TESO is that, unlike Star Wars: The Old Republic, the team at Zenimax Online Studios can tweak a few of the game's more broken design elements at or soon after release. If not, TESO's transition to a free-to-play model may be inevitable.
The Elder Scrolls Online is due out for Windows and OS X April 4, 2014, with PlayStation 4 and Xbox One editions due in June 2014. There will be a monthly subscription fee upon release of $14.99 (USD). The PlayStation 4 version will not require PlayStation Plus, but the Xbox One version will require Xbox LIVE Gold in addition to the monthly subscription fee. There's no doubt in my mind that a great experience, that lives up to the franchise name, is hidden away in this game. It's just a real shame that playing TESO in its current state makes me wish I was playing Skyrim instead.