In the world of video games, if you have a successful franchise spanning multiple decades, what is the next logical step to milk every last penny out of it? Turn it into an MMO, of course! That's just what the creators of the popular Elder Scrolls franchise have done in their newest offering, The Elder Scrolls Online.
As of this writing, the product is just a few short weeks from worldwide release, and the final beta test is currently in full swing. I logged in a bit earlier to grab some screenshots and put together my thoughts for this review. Even though it's beta, being this close to release I have to imagine it's a pretty good representation of what you'll see at launch.
The graphics are fantastic. Crisp, slick, realistic. While I haven't come across any of the breathtaking vistas that Skyrim served up, ESO's environments are beautiful nonetheless. The atmosphere and ambience are very immersive. The Skyrim locales in ESO look and feel much like the ones from TES 5. Coldharbour is dank and horrible, just like a plane of Oblivion should be. Morrowind is the hellish, ash-covered Australia analogue that it's supposed to be.
Character creation is what we've come to expect from the Elder Scrolls series. There are tons of customization options, such as hair styles and colors, jewelry, and tattoos. Beyond cosmetic changes, you can also customize and sculpt the character's body shape as well. Want a huge, muscled brute? You can do it. Want a short, tubby wood elf? The options are there.
There are four classes to choose from: Dragonknight, Templar, Sorcerer, and Nightblade. On the surface, each class fills a traditional MMO role (tank, healing, dps, etc.). However, once you get into skill customization, those traditional MMO roles go out the window. Each class has three skill trees available, to tailor your character to your play style. Also, any class can choose any armor or weapon, and increase skill with it. Want to be a tank with a healing staff? Done. Maybe a priest with a bow? I played a so-called "Bowplar" myself and found it to be a fairly effective combination. As well, factions that you join over the course of the game (such as the Mages' Guild) offer up additional skill trees to progress through. The possibilities are certainly numerous.
The crafting system is fairly simple, yet filled with possibilities. Every race has their own style for armor and weapons, with each requiring a special component (purchased cheap from the vendor). This leads to even deeper customization options. The other crafts (Alchemy, Enchanting, and Provisioning) are all straightforward and easy to get into. Skill gains are plentiful enough that you don't have to invest a substantial amount of effort to become proficient.
And unfortunately, those are the only positive things I can say about Elder Scrolls Online.
I really, REALLY wanted to like it. But, it's just not an Elder Scrolls game. And it's not a good MMO. It's trying to be both, and it falls somewhere in the middle. The story is somewhat interesting and contains Elder Scrolls elements, but it just doesn't hook me like Morrowind, Skyrim, or even Oblivion did. That good ol' Tamriel charm is missing.
While there is some considerable voice talent (Michael Gambon, Jennifer Hale, and John-THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!-Cleese, to name a few), the script they've been handed is crap. Each of these folks owned their roles and delivered good performances, but some of the lines sound ridiculous. That is, if you can hear them at all. I had a serious volume issue (especially with the Prophet, voiced by Gambon) with much of the spoken dialogue. The ambient noise and music has a tendency to drown the dialogue out at times, causing you to miss fairly important plot points. And the lip synching for the character models is atrocious. Seriously, it's almost like they didn't even try.
One of the great hallmarks of the Elder Scrolls, the open-world freedom, is just gone...replaced with the typical MMO railroad progression. You're locked into a Guild Wars-style 5-slot action bar (with a quick-use item slot and an "ultimate" ability slot)...which works fine for Guild Wars, The Secret World, etc. But this is supposed to be an Elder Scrolls game. We want more freedom...more fluidity. I've heard it said, and I think I agree...we want a multiplayer Skyrim.
I didn't get a chance to get into PVP. From the bits I've read, there are some interesting features. However, you can't start PVP until level 10. And after being able to keep the same character through three beta sessions I've still not been able to grind my way to 10. The main quest is boring. The side quests are boring. Just killing mobs to grind doesn't net you enough experience to make that an efficient method of levelling. And since this is beta, many quests are bugged to the point that you can't progress. One would hope the bugs will be worked out before launch, but in all honesty this latest beta session has been the worst of all in terms of bugs...and the game is less than three weeks from launch.
I also have some minor complaints. There's no network performance meter (having a crap connection, I like to be able to see my current ping).I've always played the Elder Scrolls games primarily in first person. While that's possible here, the game is definitely geared more toward third person. And there's no button to switch back and forth like in the other games. You have to roll the mouse wheel back or forward to accomplish the task.The quest rewards rarely match up to your character. While this may not be a huge issue since everyone can be just about anything, it is pretty lame that my Sorcerer finished the tutorial quest and was rewarded with plate gauntlets and a two-handed sword.While you can fight unarmed, there is no advancement tree for it. Despite the mention of it in the Dragonknight description, there will be no masters of the ancient Akaviri martial arts.There's also no way to preview an item on your character. With as many different crafting styles as there are, it would be really nice to see what something looks like before I bind it to my character forever.However, the final nail in the coffin has to be the price. Pay $60 for the game, then pay a monthly subscription fee. Seriously? No thank you. Either give the software away free (or hell, even go cheap...Like $20) and charge a sub, or sell it for a premium and make it subscription free. If you want both, you're going to fail. Hard. Gamers really don't like setting their money on fire.
So, my final verdict? I won't be playing ESO. Maybe I'll pick it up when it (inevitably) goes free-to-play, but for now it's just not the right game for me. I have a feeling ESO will become the new Battlespire. Hopefully, it won't have any bad implications for the next (real) Elder Scrolls game.