The continent of Tamriel is one of the most lore-rich realms in the world of video games. It has a vast chronology that rivals works of great fantasy such as The Lord Of The Rings or the Forgotten Realms D&D setting.
It’s also incredibly creative. To give an example, when you’re wandering about any Elder Scrolls game, take a look up at the night sky. It’s a beautiful sky (especially if you’re playing Skyrim), dominated by two large moons and lots of little stars.
Except, they’re not actually stars at all. They are, in fact, holes in the fabric of the world, torn by ancient gods who escaped the world when they realised that the very effort of creating it could destroy them. The sun is a very large hole torn by Magnus, the most powerful of these gods.
But it’s the moons that will really creep you out. You see, the two moons are, in fact, the corpse of Lorkhan, the missing creator. So yeah, every time you look at the moons in Skyrim you’re looking at the eternally rotting corpse of a long-dead god.
Rather than contributing to the creation of Nirn, some of the Aedra built their own realms, the planes of Oblivion. These gods became the Daedric Princes, and if you’ve ever encountered one, you’ll be fully aware of just how terrible they can be.
So in this world abandoned by its creators and threatened by demonic forces enters the humans and the elves. There used to be dwarves too, but they all mysteriously disappeared in a single incident and nobody’s ever quite figured out why.
All of this might seem like so much world-building to no end, but it actually provides an important backdrop to The Elder Scrolls Online or TESO. You see, one of those Daedric Princes, Molag Bal, The Daedric Prince of Domination, has decided that, due to a weakening in the fabric of the boundaries between Nirn and the planes of Oblivion, he can now draw Nirn itself into his own plane of Oblivion, Coldharbour. Coldharbour is an exact copy of Tamriel, except everything is dark and twisted and the ground is always muddy. He’s using devices known as Dark Anchors to achieve this, and if he succeeds, then things will not go well for the people of Tamriel.
You start out, as with all previous Elder Scrolls games, in a cell. This time it’s a cell in Coldharbor, because you’ve just been killed and your soul has been claimed by Molag Bal himself. Fortunately, you see a vision in your cell, a man known only as the Prophet appears before you, explaining that you are the one that can stop Molag Bal from succeeding.
After this happens, Commander Shepard shows up and frees you from your cell. You then work with her to free the Prophet and escape Coldharbor. Once you’ve done this, you’ll end up in Tamriel.
Where you end up depends on your choices at character creation. As you would expect, TESO has very involved character creation, and almost all the options you would expect in an Elder Scrolls title are available to tweak. You start out by choosing your race, which can be any of the nine races of Tamriel. The races each belong to one of three factions: The Ebonheart Pact (Argonian, Dunmer and Nord), Aldmeri Dominion (Altmer, Bosmer and Khajit) and Daggerfall Covenant (Breton, Orc, Redguard). The Imperials, who occupy the contested central region of Cyrodiil, are not part of any faction, and cannot be played (and, let’s face it, they’re just Nords who moved further south anyway.)
After choosing a race you choose from one of the game’s four classes: Dragon Knight, Sorcerer, Nightblade and Templar. Four classes might seem like a limitation, but this is Elder Scrolls, and flexibility in developing your character is basically a series trademark.
After you fight your way out of Coldharbor, you’ll find yourself washed up in one of three locations, depending on your faction. I found myself on a snowy island off the coast of Skyrim, a location that seemed both familiar and fresh at the same time. From here, I moved on to the Morrowind region, re-imagined and looking amazing since its last appearance in an Elder Scrolls game.
This is also the point where I came to a sudden, rather worrying realisation. Keep in mind that I played a beta, and things might change between this version and the final release version in April. As it currently stands, however, Elder Scrolls Online simply isn’t very fun.
The big problem is that, in bringing the Elder Scrolls series into the online realm, Zenimax Online Studios have had to make compromises. Lots of compromises. Don’t expect to be able to go into a house and just randomly steal items, or put buckets over people’s heads or any of those kind of shenanigans. The near-total interactivity that made the series famous in the first place is gone.
I can understand the need to limit this in order to provide a balanced online environment. The problem is that it is such a core part of the Elder Scrolls experience that altering it in any way completely changes the feel of the game. Suddenly, I wasn’t playing an Elder Scrolls game anymore, I was playing, well, an MMO.
Maybe it wouldn’t be such a huge loss if there was something to make up for it. Perhaps a dramatically improved combat system, or an incredible, epic story. Something that would allow ESO to make compromises without sacrificing the things that make Elder Scrolls games what they are.
Sadly, this isn’t the case. I mentioned classes before, and I can imagine a few of you are thinking “classes? In my Elder Scrolls games?”. Well, it’s more likely than you think. Unfortunately the classes are much more rigidly defined. If you play a Nightblade, you’ll get access to all these cool Nightblade skills, but you won’t be able to, say, develop your conjuration spells. If you want those, you’ll need to roll a Sorcerer.
Some flexibility is provided thanks to weapons. Any class can equip any weapon, and each weapon type has its own set of skills that you can develop. There’s nothing stopping your Nightblade from equipping a fire staff and dealing out fire damage, for example. The problem, though, is that there’s just no reason to do this. As a Nightblade, my class skills are better served by using melee weapons and maybe a bow. There isn’t a lot of incentive to move out of that comfort zone.
Oh yeah, did I mention skills? This game has active skills, just like most other MMOs. They attach to a little action bar at the bottom of the screen and you trigger them by pressing number keys. Previous ES games have had skills, sure, but most of them were passive enhancements for your character, improving their ability with bows, swords, spells or whatever. That’s not the case here. It’s more Azeroth than Skyrim.
Combat, always the bane of the ES series, is actually a step backwards from Skyrim. That game almost nailed the series’ first-person combat mechanics, and its archery physics were outstanding. Here, however, melee combat seems slow and clunky, and you have to keep an eye out for enemy ‘tells’ that you then use mouse-button combinations to block. While it’s certainly more interactive than, say, World of Warcraft, it’s nothing like the frantic, dynamic combat of Guild Wars 2. Don’t even get me started on how bad the archery is.
The big problem here is the commitment to maintaining support for the first-person view. While first-person view is definitely one of those non-negotiable features of an Elder Scrolls title (just like, I would have thought, environmental interaction, but I digress…) the need to support it here compromises combat. I actually found, oddly enough, that I preferred the game’s close-range over-shoulder camera rather than either first-person or third-person view. The problem is one of targeting. You have to keep a mob in your crosshairs to attack it with most skills, even in a melee situation. If you take your crosshairs away from the mob, most of your abilities will stop working, which is really frustrating. The game definitely needs the ability to lock a target by selecting it with the cursor or some other means.
PvP in TESO takes place in the province of Cyrodiil, the central province of Tamriel that we last visited in Oblivion. Zenimax actually used the same heightmaps as in Oblivion, which makes the zone feel somewhat familiar. Much of the rest, however, is quite different. For a start, all the towns are gone, replaced by fortresses for each faction, and a large number of capturable objectives to allow each faction to gain dominance over the zone. If you remember Lake Wintergrasp from World of Warcraft, then this is similar, but on a much larger scale.
I wish I could be more positive about The Elder Scrolls Online. I’m a huge fan of the series, and have sunk countless hours into the series. Skyrim is a game I played and modded to near-infinity, and I still come back to it today. But all the things I love about that game and its predecessors appears to be missing here. While I can understand the need to make a game that’s conducive to online multiplayer action, I can’t help but feel that the compromises are too great, and the end result is a game that suffers for it. Levelling is tedious, the world feels far less alive than in previous titles and combat is a chore.
The game does have some good points. It looks fantastic, and the locations are as imaginative as I would expect. The voice caste is impeccable, and you’ll hear not just some of the best voice actors in video games, but even a few screen stars as well.
None of this, however, saves it from being a fairly dull experience. To add further insult, Zenimax have chosen a monthly subscription fee for the title, something that has already killed interest in the game from many potential players. I can see this game working well with a Guild Wars 2 style business model, where content isn’t free, but there’s no ongoing subscriptions either, and there is a well thought-out micro-transactions system to support the game.
I worry, too, that the cost of this game, and the potential for it to fail, may put a huge strain on Zenimax as a whole, and potentially prevent any future Elder Scrolls games from being made. I hope this isn’t the case, as I think the series is one of the best examples of storytelling and world-building in the video game industry.
I want, so much, to love The Elder Scrolls Online, but unless it matures dramatically between now and release, I simply can’t.