The El­der Scrolls On­line

EDGE - - GAMES - Pub­lisher Bethesda Soft­works De­vel­oper Zenimax On­line Stu­dios For­mat PC (ver­sion tested), PS4, Xbox One Out now (PC), June

PC, PS4, Xbox One

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.

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