Presentation matters more the longer you plan to spend in a game world, and The Elder Scrolls Online demands a tremendous amount of your time. It feels like an MMOG from several years ago, an artefact of a time when players expected to invest hundreds of hours to reach a level cap and an MMOG wasn’t just a new game to dabble in but a new world to occupy. The game’s pace is glacial, and your progression as a player painstaking, incremental. Where most recent games in this genre trip over themselves to provide a sense of impact and achievement, TESO hopes you’ll settle for some slightly more elaborately embossed shoulder pads.
This more grounded approach to MMOG design is warranted by the Elder Scrolls name, which has always favoured low-fantasy realism over flair. TESO’s great weakness is that this aesthetic choice doesn’t mesh well with the structures or technologies of the MMOG. The result is a game of drab, flat landscapes – greenish fields and brownish wastelands that players scurry over in pursuit of gormless NPCs with arrows above their heads. The Elder Scrolls’ setting, which is traditionally most effective when picked at by a player with the freedom to pursue their own agenda, is derivative and drier than ash when dictated to you directly. MMOG combat, typically a game of numbers, is a poor fit for a gameworld that you are being asked to think of as alive.
Strong emphasis is placed on narrative. Every player participates as the hero in the game’s central plot, which has you track down a band of scattered heroes to save Tamriel from the Daedric prince Molag Bal. Every other task you perform has a narrative context, too, but these feel discordant with the reality of play. Your character is sometimes given choices about the outcome of quests, but otherwise you are led by an objective marker that prescribes your every action. You are told that your character’s soul has been stolen, but the game takes this notion further than the developer perhaps intends. Regardless of your choice of race or faction, you are a cipher: you frogmarch down linear questlines through a narrow series of indistinct zones, always being told that what you’re doing is important, but never convincingly.
Presentation is TESO’s major flaw, but it does not represent the full extent of its offering, and there is skill evident in the design of many of the game’s underlying systems. Character customisation, for example, benefits from the extensive freedom afforded to you. Although you must select a class from a set of familiar archetypes at the beginning of the game, you aren’t required to follow a prescriptive levelling path after this point. You can specialise in every set of armour and weapon type in the game and, in Elder Scrolls tradition, the continued use of particular gear or types of skill lets you unlock new abilities that can be freely mixed and matched. The trinity of MMOG roles – healer, damage dealer, tank – still applies, but you arrive at them in your own way.
Zenimax Online Studios has correctly judged that the most engaging thing about character development is the journey itself, and built a system that encourages creative problem solving. It may not be obvious why an ability that surrounds your character in protective rock armour is superior to an ability that offers a chance to deflect an incoming spell, but unpicking decisions like this one is satisfying.
Player-versus-player combat fares well, too. TESO’s three factions battle over fortresses in Cyrodiil, a central province that doubles as the game’s largest zone. Here, a series of regular quests with scaling rewards help provide ways into competitive play for solo players, small groups and large guilds. While a lone wolf might be tasked with scouting a distant lumber mill, a whole faction might take on the job of stealing an Elder Scroll from a well-protected enemy fortress. Siege weapons are readily available and provide a sense of scale and spectacle that the game is otherwise lacking, and the engine capably flings around dozens of onscreen players without lag. In this environment, you forgive the short draw distance and dull landscape because your focus is on the people around you, which is precisely where it should be in an MMOG.
The game’s biggest failing is that it does not allow the presence of other players to enhance the rest of the experience. You’ll still have a better time if you play with friends, but that’s true of almost any cooperative game, and the presence of other humans is otherwise a hindrance. Minerals and herbs will be snatched up while you clear nearby monsters. Quest objectives will be hoovered up before you can get to them. Chests to be lockpicked – one of TESO’s clearest gestures towards its singleplayer cousins – devolve into a beacon for players to get in the way of each other.
All of this is more realistic than giving each player their own instance of the world to loot, admittedly, but it is also frustrating, and in its own way it traps the player in a different kind of solipsism. Everybody is out to build up their own character, and their interactions with each other are a matter of self-interest first and foremost. After clearing a ‘Dark Anchor’ – the closest thing the game has to a public quest – the vast majority of players will go their separate ways in silence. This isn’t an isolated problem as MMOGs go, but nor is it a compelling argument that a multiplayer environment is the best way to present this world or these characters. Players who seek the traditional fantasy MMOG experience may find something of value in TESO, because it has evidently been built with them in mind. But it is difficult to imagine many others investing hundreds of hours in a place this bland, in a formula this familiar, and in a game this demanding of both your time and your money.