Is The Elder Scrolls Online a true Elder Scrolls game? This is the question of the year. Many of you know that I am an Elder Scrolls purist in that I only play single-player games and don’t touch MMOs. In that regard, I know what Elder Scrolls means to me. I know what I expect to see in a game carrying the “Elder Scrolls” name. This entire article will be dedicated to answering that question. You will find no vague generalities here.
A Change Of Heart
First things first: why did I have a change of heart? I promised you an explanation on Episode 98 of Elder Scrolls Off The Record and here it is. I must make it plainly clear that I did not change my mind because of everyone telling me I was wrong. External pressure was simply not a factor. Period. I purposefully stepped away from the beta for a solid chunk of time so that I could clear my mind of any lingering thoughts.
In previous tests, I always felt rushed. I could never slow down and play the way I wanted to play. I had to fight. I had to quest. It was simply awful. I decided to go back in with a slightly different plan of attack. This time, I’d completely slow down and play at my pace, without that rushed urgency. I also wanted to give ZOS another chance. I think they deserved it. What followed was a complete reversal of experiences. Once I settled in, I discovered that I truly could play the game in my slow, deliberate, exploration heavy, and most importantly, SOLO playstyle.
And so, I created a Bosmer Nightblade of the Aldmeri Dominion. I’m wearing a mix of heavy and light armor with a bow as my weapon of choice. I’ve invested heavily into the bow, heavy armor, blacksmithing, enchanting, and woodworking skill lines. All of this has slowly come together to provide me with a truly awesome experience.
All this preamble leads to the fairly straightforward and obvious question. Below are my thoughts on what I liked and didn’t like as I attempt to answer one question – as an Elder Scrolls purist, is The Elder Scrolls Online a true Elder Scrolls game?
There’s A Lot To Like
Yes, you can play entirely solo. The first thing I did was completely filter out every single chat option so it never popped up showing other people chatting and killing my immersion. I can’t stress enough how much I truly despise chat. The fact that I could completely shut it off and relegate it to nonexistence made me happier than you know. I never felt the urge to team up with anyone in order to progress the story. That’s not hyperbole. It’s what I genuinely feel when playing this game. It’s truly wonderful. You can play entirely at your own pace. Yes, it’s literally that straightforward. The fact that I’m saying this – the player who takes his sweet time, blatantly ignoring quests – should carry some weight indeed.
Every single thing I’ve done in this game, I can do by myself – never once feeling compelled to group simply to access a certain game feature. That just does not happen. Everything I have done - everything I have done – I have accomplished playing solo. Not once did I find anyone following me around, pestering me to trade, or pressuring me to join up, thus assuaging my biggest complaint and fear about MMOs. My experience has cemented one fact – I was, and will remain, completely solo. The solace is spellbinding and beautifully serene. Classic Elder Scrolls indeed.
Have you played the Elder Scrolls games? Well, first person functions exactly like the single player titles, and in some instances, it felt even better. I never feel the need to go into third person, a perspective I truly loathe. You see your hands a lot more than in the single player games – looting, opening doors, drinking potions, etc – all of which greatly add to the immersion. The combat looks pretty cool in this perspective as an Elder Scrolls purist would expect. However, first person is not entirely perfect, as you shall see further below.
The map is truly a thing of simplistic beauty, one that fits perfectly into the Elder Scrolls universe. It maintains that gloriously authentic parchment feeling harkening back to Oblivion. In all the games I’ve played, Oblivion’s map is simply my favorite. The map in ESO comes pretty damn close. It’s extremely elegant, minimal, and simple to use. Want to set a waypoint? Simply point to a spot on the map and hit the F key. A blue dot appears both on your map and on your compass, leading you to your waypoint. It just makes sense.
The map also shares similar POI iconography with Skyrim. For example, you can see that the icons for caves and wayshrines look pretty much exactly like they do in Skyrim, further convincing you of the continuity and authenticity of the series.
In short, it looks exactly like the HUD in Syrim. All you see are the compass, crosshair, and journal updates – which I toggle off. Your health, stamina, and magicka disappear when not needed – just like Skyrim. Most importantly, the limited hud keeps your focus on the world, anchoring you in the authenticity of the experience.
The importance of this consistency in design cannot be overstated. So many people were introduced to Elder Scrolls through Skyrim, so their experience is obviously influenced by it. That ESO embraces that design continuity and improves upon is truly astounding and a testament to their dedication to the franchise and its core fanbase.
The combat most definitely feels like Elder Scrolls. ESO features real time, active combat, similar to the combat found in Oblivion and Skyrim. It’s actually pretty good. Left click initiates your attack, right click to block. Additionally, if you hold left click, you’ll charge up your attack – just like in the single player titles.
You also have limited slots, which makes me very happy. Combing this limited slot system with the active combat forces you to approach each encounter with care and foresight. You’re not sitting there simply clicking 1, 2, 3 over and over and over again. This is something I absolutely loathe about MMOs. I’m extremely happy to report this is not the case with ESO. It’s not Call of Duty.
That screenshot should speak for itself. I purposefully took that as storm clouds were rolling into Auridon to show off the gorgeous HDR lighting (high dynamic range). I’m really impressed with ZOS’ use of really concise ambient occlusion (which looks to me to have color bleed?). The textures are very sharp, grass sways in the wind, very competent antialiasing and oh yeah, the water has incidence refraction. I won’t talk about this too much just yet. You’ll have to wait for my separate graphics analysis where I will take a deeper look at the tech powering ESO. Just take my word for now, it’s a pretty game.
The sound design is quintessential Elder Scrolls. Beautifully scored music accompanies you on your adventures. The wildlife around you feels genuinely alive, immersing you into the world. The weapons all sound authentic, well, as authentic as a fire staff can sound. The voice acting is superb. I constantly find myself invested in the lives of the NPCs, largely attributable to the top notch performances. When I met my Queen for the first time, I hung on her every word. It’s truly commendable work.
The defining moment for me, however, occurred when I was only a few hours into the game. I was still feeling out the systems and looting barrels when out of nowhere, Watchman’s Ease from Oblivion courses through my headphones. I stopped and just listened, taking in the beauty of my surroundings. It was truly magical and just so incredibly emotionally moving.
Everyone knows my playstyle. I explore a lot. It’s the majority of my game time in this series. So believe me when I say that exploration is genuinely rewarded in ESO. I gained 3 skill points purely from finding Skyshards, meaning I found 9 since 3 Skyshards awards 1 skill point. You really are encouraged to go out and just wander. 80% of my time has been spent aimlessly wandering. I found a pair of boots that had an exploration trait, giving me an extra 10% xp gain from exploring. This conpletely surprised me, as I was not expecting this at all. In short, the exploration genuinely feels like Elder Scrolls…but it’s not all roses as you’ll see below.
The character creation in ESO is mind bogglingly robust. It’s just so much much more detailed than past games. There are simply so many options to sculpt your appearance exactly how you want. The depth and breadth here is truly commendable. I myself spent no less than 35 minutes creating my Bosmer. Surprising, I know.
Not everything was to my liking, however. On Page 2, I tell you exactly what I didn’t like.