For years, fans of the “Elder Scrolls” franchise have dreamed of fighting side by side with friends in the fantasy land of Tamriel. With the release of “The Elder Scrolls Online,” they get their chance.
The new online game is remarkably faithful to its predecessors. From the lore to the gameplay to the graphics — and even the glitches — it definitely feels like a familiar foray into the medieval world created by Bethesda Softworks.
Of course, the mechanics and dynamics of cooperative and competitive play have been added in the transition from a single-player title to a massive multiplayer online game. And the minor tweaks are countless. However, it seems that Bethesda really didn’t make any major changes to its basic formula. And that should make fans happy.
What hasn’t made many of them happy is the $15-per-month subscription fee.
For the past year, gamers have been eager to point out that practically every other online multiplayer game is now “free to play,” relying on advertising or on fees that unlock special items and experiences. Of course the MMO king, “World of Warcraft,” still gets away with charging a monthly subscription fee, so the fee-haters’ argument will fall flat if “ESO” manages to reach similar status. While that might be a tough dragon to slay, I believe it is possible.
Gamers want enthralling stories and enjoyable gameplay. Fortunately, “ESO” has both covered — though it doesn’t actually break any new ground in the second category.
“ESO” starts off with a much richer heritage than “World of Warcraft.” Bethesda can draw upon the lore developed for five deep role-playing games filled with fascinating people, nations and creatures. “WoW” had only three strategy games that were fun, but comparatively light on mythos. In addition, the folks at Bethesda are skilled at developing games that offer more than 100 hours of captivating gameplay. Because of this, I don’t think providing interesting content should be a major concern.
That was evident during the first weeks of availability. Despite playing the game for almost 100 hours since its beta phase, I feel like I’ve only dented the surface. I’ve played extensively in only one of the three warring alliances and have just dabbled in the others. Each has a unique set of missions and environments, so there’s plenty more for me to explore as I create new characters and join other alliances. And Bethesda is already advertising that more adventures are on the way.
Players start the game by creating a character, which involves coming up with a name, choosing gender, race, alliance and career path and determining physical characteristics. The races are the usual suspects for Tamriel — several nationalities of humans and elves, feline Khajiit, reptilian Argonians and rugged orcs. The career possibilities consist of dragon knights, warrior-monks known as Templars, stealthy Nightblades and magic users. The character-creation mechanics give you an excellent amount of control over your avatar’s physical characteristics. My only gripe concerns the relatively limited number of hairstyles and beards.
Upon creating a warrior or wizard, you are cast into a prison in another dimension known as Coldharbor, which serves as a tutorial level. After learning the ropes and escaping your incarceration, you are transported to a location that’s determined by the alliance you selected.
Since I have the “Imperial Edition,” I was able to create a high-elf dragon knight who was part of the Ebonheart Pact — an unusual combination because high elves are normally part of the Aldmeri Dominion. Since I was part of Ebonheart, I started in the town of Davon’s Watch. There, my goal was to circumvent the nefarious schemes of the rival Daggerfall Covenant.
The war among these three alliances is the primary motivator behind the game’s action. Each of the three aims to take control of the imperial city of Cyrodiil. Many of the single-player and small-group missions touch on this theme. And the player vs. player mode hinges on this conflict.
Combat is handled like that in most PC role-playing games — mouse clicks and hot keys initiating different kinds of attacks. As long as your connection isn’t lagging, the attacks unfold smoothly and efficiently.
Although you select a character class at the beginning, you aren’t prevented from using weapons and certain skills associated with other career fields. For example, my dragon knight has joined the mages guild, so I have a few magical tricks up my sleeve. This sort of diversity is similar to the system that Bethesda used in “Oblivion” and “Skyrim,” though it’s not quite as versatile. As a dragon knight, I’ll never have access to Nightblade, mage or Templar’s most distinctive abilities.
As in most role-playing games, you gain strength and abilities as you acquire experience and increase in level. So, you can learn to breathe fire, forge better swords or be more persuasive when talking to nonplayer characters, depending on which career path and guilds you choose. New levels come at a pretty steady pace if you keep on top of your missions. Simply wandering through the countryside and killing zombies and demonic Daedra isn’t enough — though it is fun.
Nonplayer enemies tend to be relatively well balanced as long as your character is at the right level for a particular area. For example, if you’re level 4 and face off against two or three level 4 or level 5 bandits, you should do well. If you’re level 15 and bumble into an area geared toward level 20, you’re going to die. One of the problems is that it’s way too easy to bumble. From experience, I know that there’s a level-appropriate set of adventures somewhere, but it sometimes can take an hour of repeatedly dying and respawning to find it.
Many of the major missions have some connection to the wider conflict among the alliances. Spies might be poisoning a town’s water or an army might be attacking a city. Others focus on local problems, like giant bugs infesting local mines or an elf who thinks a ghostlike creature is his reincarnated wife. Some are very complex and challenging, involving multiple mini-quests. Others are more mundane, like gathering ingredients so the local apothecary can mix up some medicine or finding a hungover warrior’s missing pants. Quests are scattered all over the map so there’s always a reason to explore — one of the elements of previous games that helps make “ESO” so fun.
Most missions unfold in public areas. This means that other avatars are always nearby, completing their own quests. This can be helpful, but sometimes can get a bit odd. For example, if I’m trying to knock down a big boss, I’m usually quite happy to receive a helping hand from another wandering warrior. Everyone gets his own batch of loot after the battle, so there’s no fear of losing goodies to interlopers. However, since the battle unfolds in a public area, the boss needs to reappear to confront the next batch of adventurers. The result is that Mr. Baddy is sometimes resurrected beside me before I can even loot his treasure chest. Although there’s no need to fight him again, it doesn’t seem quite right.
And those hovering adventurers can present some irritating problems of their own. For example, if you’re gathering certain items as part of a quest, you will need to be quick or others might grab the goodies from under your nose. Or, they might unintentionally interfere with a puzzle.
In addition to the missions in public areas, you can team up with friends and tackle private areas. These usually present tougher enemies and better loot. They can be very fun and very lucrative.
The third option is the player vs. player mode. In this, the three alliances struggle for control of resources, fortresses and magical Elder Scrolls, with the ultimate winner of the campaign crowning a new emperor, aka its highest-ranking player.
The battles occur on an immense map that’s dotted with castles, lumber mills, mines and farms. Action can pop up at almost any point since each location holds strategic value. Fighting ranges from small-time bushwhacking to full-blown sieges, complete with catapults and dozens of warriors. It’s a mix that will be familiar to fans of “Guild Wars 2,” but it’s still enjoyable.
You can join the struggle for Cyrodiil after reaching level 10. Your level will be boosted temporarily to the maximum — level 50 — so you’ll be somewhat competitive. However, you’ll keep your regular abilities, weapons and armor, so don’t expect to live long if the action gets hot. Even though it’s fun to jump into the middle of a castle siege, it’s best to start off by taking easier missions, such as scouting out enemy territory.
It’s also wise to travel with a friend, because solo trips can easily turn deadly. Twice, I died in heavy action and tried to rejoin the fray by galloping across the countryside only to be waylaid by groups of enemies waiting for unwary travelers.
Aside from the fun of participating in large-scale battles, the big benefit of this mode is that the experience and gear you acquire can be carried back to the regular campaign.
Graphics and glitches
The graphic presentation is similar to that of “Skyrim,” realistic rather than surrealistic or cartoony. The environments are well designed and attractive, though they lack the feeling of grandeur that’s conveyed by the expansive vistas of “Skyrim.” And it’s hard to avoid a feeling of deja vu when exploring buildings, because there is a very limited number of floor plans for houses, inns and castles.
If you have a computer that can handle the “ultra-high” graphics setting, you’re likely to be impressed with the detail and textures — at least by MMO standards. However, since I’m “the console guy,” I don’t have a computer that can handle that setting for anything other than quiet strolls around town. Combat requires quick action and that’s not going to happen unless I knock the settings for my computer — new but very average — down to “medium.” But even in that setting, the graphics are respectable.
However, visual glitches are relatively common. Don’t be surprised to see a riderless horse scoot across the ground without moving its legs, or watch your avatar lean over and be absorbed by a nearby rock, or see an enemy back up and go inside a wall, or run toward an open area only to have a tree suddenly materialize right in front of him. Some of these issues are caused by graphics bugs but others are undoubtedly caused by laggy connections and my “medium” settings.
Other bugs have more serious implications for gameplay. In several cases, I’ve encountered quests that couldn’t be completed because certain elements wouldn’t activate. These are easy to spot because you’ll see four or five other avatars circling the item in question or jumping up and down on top of it. In most cases, Bethesda has eventually corrected the problem — once about an hour after I discovered it. I’ve also fallen through the ground and into the game’s digital “basement” and gotten firmly stuck in a glitched part of the landscape. Both problems require using the fast-travel function to escape. I love Bethesda’s role-playing games, but I have to admit that I’ve come to expect these sorts of glitches.
The game carries a mature rating for violence, blood, drinking and sexual themes, though they are very low key compared to most M-rated games.
Bottom line: “The Elder Scrolls Online” is fun, deep and satisfying. It doesn’t break a lot of new ground, but it does almost everything well.
Platform: PC. Coming to Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in June.