Combining one of the most time-consuming gaming series with one of the most time-consuming gaming genres, Elder Scrolls Online may well become the biggest time sink in gaming history. But is it worth the effort?
The story of Elder Scrolls Online follows a war between three alliances—The Aldmeri Dominion, Ebonheart Pact and Daggerfall Covenant—all vying for the Imperial throne, while Molag Bal, Daedric Prince of domination and slavery, tries to take over the world by pulling it into his realm of Oblivion. Just like Skyrim’s civil war during a dragon apocalypse, petty mortal concerns are given far more priority than one would think. Nonetheless, the world is rich and vibrant, with the greatest variety of locations to explore of any Elder Scrolls game to date. I rejoiced when I encountered an entire village of Argonians, and seemed to laugh almost constantly on the island full of Khajiit, where quests were tailored to their chaotic nature, sense of humour, and love/hate relationship with moon sugar.
Character creation seems more detailed than ever before, but a little unbalanced in its options. For example, there often isn’t much of a dramatic difference between the minimum and maximum settings on any of the appearance sliders. This is especially true with female characters. With the possible exceptions of Argonian lizard people and Khajiit felines, I found that no matter how thick the neck, no matter how square the jaw, no matter how flat the nose, I could not manage to make a female character look ugly. Their muscles didn’t seem as large as their male counterparts, either; in fact, the only body morphing option that did seem to have significant depth for female characters was the “chest size” slider. Character creation being all about the player injecting their own creativity into the game, I felt more than a little frustrated at having my choices limited to what gamers are expected to want.
The problem extends to race choice as well. While I accept that the different kinds of humans and elves have their own genealogies that influence how they can look, that shouldn’t extend to my choice of tattoos and hair styles. It’s understandable that Bethesda would want players to have avatars that visually reflect their race’s alliance—so as to create a certain “them versus us” camaraderie in Player vs Player (PvP)—but that shouldn’t mean that a Redguard couldn’t style his hair like a Dunmer if he felt like it. A possible solution would be to unlock all styles for all races—again, possibly excluding the Argonians and Khajiit who have more specialised physiology—and simply have a symbol pop up telling the player that they are looking at what is traditionally a Nord tattoo.
Players are also required to choose a class for their character, with the options being Dragonknight, Templar, Nightblade and Sorcerer, and more coming soon. The last three on that list seem quite a bit like the archetypal Warrior, Rogue and Mage, but the classes don’t restrict your choices as much as in other games. Within each of those four classes, there are three branches of unique skills, so if players want to specialise they already have twelve options to choose from. None of these classes prevent you from using any weapon or armour combination you like, either, as the Elder Scrolls series is practically synonymous with open-ended skill choices.
Combat is easy except for when it isn’t, with seemingly endless spawns of weak enemies being broken up by the occasional apocalyptically difficult one. Against these foes, you basically have the choice of coming back at a higher level, or coming back with other players to take it on together. Skyrim had enemies that were too tough to kill at lower levels, but these were mostly giants and mammoths that would leave you alone unless provoked; they weren’t quest enemies you had to fight while still learning the ropes. Elder Scrolls Online’s enemy balance of one strong foe in a sea of weak ones feels like Bethesda forgot they were making a multiplayer game for much of the development, and then very hastily buffed up a few quest bosses to force players to interact.
Such interaction can be rewarding, however, if in rather unexpected ways. Bethesda has included a nice touch, where if you open the inventory screen, other players will see your character as digging through a bag for an item. Similar animations play out when looking at the map or your journal, too. Not only does this increase immersion, it also means that if you team up with someone who suddenly stops in their tracks, you should only have to look at them to know why. And there’s no need to fear any of your allies stabbing you in the back while you rummage for a potion, as friendly fire is disabled outside of PvP.
The experience system seems a little backward. The Elder Scrolls games’ usual method of player advancement is to have players use skills to improve them, and with every improvement they gain experience to their next level. This deepened the role playing by forcing players to use the skills they wanted to improve, rather than simply killing a tough enemy, levelling up and suddenly knowing more about alchemy. By contrast, Elder Scrolls Online gives players experience when they kill something, complete a quest or find a new area, and then skill improvement is rewarded to whatever skills’ abilities and items you have equipped at the time. The change is disappointing, not least because there appears to be no particular reason for it.
Of course, to improve skills you’ll need skill points. These are in constant short supply, but that serves as incentive to push on to the next level, or hunt down the rare skyshards for a free point. The limit of five hotkey slots for skills, as well as the opportunity to evolve skills with new abilities as they improve, encourages players to focus on their favourites, rather than try to use everything available to them. With such wealth of options in skill development, the odds of encountering another player with the exact same character build as you is extremely low.
Crafting is deeper than ever before in an Elder Scrolls game, but not all versions of crafting appear to be equally useful. Provisioning, for example, is an easy skill to grow with the masses of cooking materials you’ll stumble upon in your travels, but the end result isn’t all that useful. The early-game food items provide one of only six minor buffs that last for half an hour each and can’t be stacked. I would call it a watered-down version of alchemy, except that the actual version of alchemy is the exact opposite. I struggled to find many alchemy ingredients at all, which made each failed experiment a costly mistake. Enchanting fell somewhere between the two in terms of abundance of supplies and potency of the creation, but all the ones I was able to make could only be applied to jewellery, which seems conspicuously absent from the game. Crafting for profit is ineffective as well, because created items are generally worth less than the sum of their parts.
The only subsets of crafting that really seem worth the effort are clothing, blacksmithing and woodworking, which differ only in the types of equipment they let you make. Equipment crafting is almost fiendishly detailed: you start by choosing what you want to make, such as an axe. You then choose the material the axe shall be made from, the most basic of which is iron. Then you determine the axe’s strength and level restrictions by choosing how much iron to use. Then you choose a racial style, which is purely cosmetic and requires unique items—for example, flint for Argonian and moonstone for Khajiit. Lastly, you can choose to add an additional characteristic to the weapon, provided you have learned any, and of course have the requisite jewel to imbue it. Even then, the weapon’s journey is not over, as you can improve it with special items, and add any enchantments you’ve found or created. And then of course, once you find higher quality crafting materials, it’s time to do it all over again. Despite the staggering detail, I found these creative options—particularly choice of racial style—extremely appealing, and I was always trying to scrape together a few more moonstone to complete my Khajiit’s armour set.
Unfortunately, scraping together items makes up a large portion of Elder Scrolls Online. Given that a single piece of armour may require a minimum of six pieces of refined material, and given that creating that refined material requires a greater quantity of the relevant raw material, gathering enough of that raw material could be a lot easier. Not only are natural deposits of ore and plants used for fabric depleted for a time once another player harvests them, slain animals often do not drop any hide at all. This results in hours of trudging back and forth, waiting for deposits to respawn and hoping that the next wolf you kill will be worth the effort. Perhaps the scarcity and competition for resources is meant to foster some kind of player-to-player trading system, though surely there are more pleasant ways to encourage cooperation.
Fortunately, Elder Scrolls Online offers a solution. Any items you put into the game’s bank will be available for any of your other characters, but even if you’re just playing the one, the bank is invaluable. Not only is it a handy place to dump items you want to hold onto but don’t really need to carry around all the time—for example, crafting materials or weapons and armour with characteristics you want to research—you are also able to use these items when crafting or researching without having to withdraw them from the bank. This also means that any crafting materials you do have in excess will be available for any of your other characters. For example, races of the Aldmeri Dominion will spend the early game in areas with plenty of animals to slaughter for hide, but comparatively little of the other resources. The bank is a simple yet elegant feature that cuts down on a lot of back-and forth, and helps to mitigate grinding as well.
The music strikes the right balance between memorable and background noise, so that players may find themselves humming along without being driven mad by repetition. The main theme is somewhat reminiscent of Pirates of the Caribbean, while I noticed one or two pieces picked and remade from Oblivion, fitting considering that game also involved a Daedric assault on Cyrodiil. When grinding takes its toll, and the game starts to feel like nothing more than a series of numbers going back and forth, you can count on the music to breathe life back into the experience.
Anyone who’s seen Elder Scrolls Online’s game case on Coming Soon shelves will know that Player versus Player is the major drawcard for this game. This is where the conflict between the three alliances comes to a head, and thousands of players compete and cooperate to capture the Imperial City. Unfortunately, due to time constraints and server issues, I have not yet reached far enough into the game with any one character to gain access to Cyrodiil, and by extension PvP. Expect a dedicated PvP review in the near future.
Having over a dozen hours gained twenty levels across four characters, I know I have not even scratched the surface of Bethesda’s gargantuan offering. What I don’t know is if I’ll be playing to see anything more than the plot play out in a variety of pretty settings as I progressively upgrade my weapons and armour. Unless the combat balance is redressed to give a more generally exciting experience, I don’t see myself sticking with Elder Scrolls Online to the end.