The Elder Scrolls Online
You know it makes us want to shout
PC, PS4, Xbox One
The Elder Scrolls Online isn’t Skyrim. It looks older, sounds older, and plays like it’s older than 2011’s award-winning RPG. It’s a different game from a different team, a team that would probably prefer its game to be judged as a separate entity. Zenimax Online’s Matt Firor has said on multiple occasions that TESO is its own game, with its own aims and ambitions. That’s fair enough from the perspective of the MMOG veteran for whom the famous licence is of passing interest. But it would be wrong to think that comparisons with Skyrim won’t be rife or won’t matter, and this is no Skyrim.
The interface is minimal by MMOG standards and clear effort has been made to mimic the look and feel of TESO’s singleplayer cousin. But this surface similarity only helps to emphasise the ways in which the games differ. In Skyrim, quest markers – if you choose to use them – often point to distant targets, to caves and temples half a world away. Following the arrow is an invitation to travel, not to do what you’re told. In TESO, the same markers are used to lead you from doorway to doorway, NPC to NPC, and ‘secret’ to ‘secret’. Even after a dozen hours, quests rarely take you far from the person who tasked you to complete them. Like many MMOGs, the world is compressed to the extent that lost relatives, invading armies and elusive monsters are all little more than five minutes from the villager they concern. Layering Skyrim’s visual shorthand on top of this dated substructure doesn’t do the game any favours.
Most troublingly, completing the main questline – which is broadly the same for each of the game’s three factions, although it takes place in different areas – is necessary
to unlock new zones along the critical path. It is disheartening to be dropped into mainland Tamriel only to find your progress to the next area insurmountably blocked due to a locked gate. If you create a Nord character and want to visit TESO’s take on Skyrim, you’ll need to complete your quests in the order they’re given. There’s little leeway for wandering off the beaten track.
The disappointing linearity particularly stings because, unlike a number of the game’s other problems, it’s not a result of trying to marry two divergent schools of game design. Freedom of exploration is a common quality of both The Elder Scrolls and MMOGs. It’s one of the rare areas where they agree, so its absence here is a comprehensive letdown.
Combat is inconsistent, but fares at least a little better. The game is skill-based in the sense that you have to target melee attacks as well as ranged attacks and spells, although it is not freeform enough to allow you to strike one enemy by accident while aiming at another. As in many MMOGs, players are free to clip through both enemies and each other as they fight, reducing combat’s sense of weight. And further exacerbating this problem is a lack of feedback, which affects melee characters in particular.
Magic users feel better, and we’ve found that a hybrid of heavy two-handed weapons and offensive magic is the most satisfying way to play. There is plenty of depth to be discovered, too: players are free to mix and match skills and equipment from any of TESO’s disciplines, and uncovering unexpected combinations of powers is rewarding. The sorcerer, for example, can attack enemies with a lightning blast that strikes again if the enemy passes below a certain health threshold while the spell is
It would be wrong to think Skyrim comparisons won’t matter, and this is no Skyrim
active. Combining this with high-impact melee is an enjoyable – and loud – playstyle, and skill ‘mutation’ allows that lightning blast to be improved with an area-of-effect explosion later on. This mix of freestyle levelling and theorycraft is an example of an area where the game’s component parts come together to work well.
Despite some striking lighting, though, TESO’s world looks notably less impressive than the previous game in the series. Draw distances are short and characters suffer from stiff animation, especially in conversation. The level of detail in the environments and the inclusion of a full firstperson mode should impress players used to the relatively abstract worlds of WOW or Guild Wars 2, but it won’t do much for somebody who sets their expectations against Skyrim.
While charitable players may well find something to like here, there’s no escaping the fact that this is a product of compromise. In trying to look like something it isn’t, TESO invites comparisons it cannot live up to.
Areas not visited in previous ElderScrolls games evade the comparisons that are unflattering elsewhere. For an MMOG, this can be a technically impressive game
Conversations mimic past games in the series, but are frequently linear. Players will occasionally be given the option to ask further questions, but it’s rare that characters are deep enough for you to want to do so
ABOVE Firstperson mode is well implemented and helps to give the game a sense of identity, but can be fiddly when trying to fight multiple opponents. Combat requires a degree of mobility that favours thirdperson view
TOP Limited draw distance and verticality prevents the game from matching Skyrim’s sense of scale. Key locations tend to be fairly close together, too, giving the world a truncated feel. ABOVE Group encounters are rare at early levels, with the first instances showing up after hours of play. In general, this is the area of the game that will feel most familiar to MMOG players
LEFT The Fighters’ Guild focuses on battling Daedra. Public quests revolving around so-called ‘Dark Anchors’ mimic the form and function of Oblivion Gates
Icons on the map are used to draw you over to various viewpoints, and these show off the game at its best. There’s no disguising the linearity of zones, however