As any seasoned fan of the Elder Scrolls series will attest, the long-standing RPG game has always been about choice. Play the way you want to play. Want to be an Argonian using nothing but Destruction and Alteration magicka? You can do that. Fancy yourself a Nord wielding a two-handed Battleaxe wearing nothing but a loin cloth? Have at it.
Other games also give you this feeling of freedom, though you are still on a linear path to the game’s completion. The Elder Scrolls doesn’t do this. Once you leave the designed starter area (The Imperial Prisions in Oblivion or, more recently, Helgen in Skyrim) the entire map opens up to you. Absolutely no pressure is put on your to head to Riverwood and combat the Dragon menace. In fact, I have Skyrim playthroughs where the only dragon I’ve encountered was Alduin’s timely arrival at my chopping block.
When The Elder Scrolls Online was revealed, one of the burning questions was whether the MMO would retain that core gameplay pillar, or if the game would fall into the typical linear constraints of the new genre. While the undercurrent of traditional MMO systems are present, ESO affords a level of freedom found in only a handful of games.
Character Freedom in ESO
Any class can wield any weapon and wear any type of armor. Racial bonuses may influence you to lean a toward a specific playstyle, but they are not a requirement of gameplay. For instance: my Imperial Templar has been built as mainly a pure magicka user, though the Imperial’s racial bonuses would lend themselves as more of a heavy armored, sword and board tank build. Could I have played a Breton or an Altmer for those bonuses to magicka? Sure. In fact, since he’s a pure healer, Argonian would have been a natural choice. But I wanted to play Imperial, and by the game not hindering my choice I have been able to build the way I want.
This level of versatility lends itself well in the end. While you have class skills you can level, you don’t necessarily have to follow them. You have an entire skill line in your weapon tree, as well as guild and alliance skill lines. Eventually you can open up either the Vampire or Werewolf skills, and you can tap into a World magic skill line as well. Each one of these begs your attention, and the sheer amount of customization afforded by this bevy of options truly makes each character feel unique and wholly yours.
Once you reach level 15, you can gain access to weapon swap. This allows you to change weapons in the heat of battle. With this second weapon comes a second hotbar in which to place a whole new combination of skills to accompany your new weapon.
The hot bars themselves have been a point of contention. Single player fans see it as a MMO trope intrusive to the intrinsic Elder Scrolls feel. While the hotbar is limited – you only have five slots for normal skills and one slot for an ultimate – it does have its own feel apart from a typical MMO hotbar. Normal MMO skill cooldowns are nonexistent. Instead your magicka and stamina bars act as a resource pool to fuel your skill. Run out of this resource and your skills won’t work, much like the single player games.
The fact that the hotbar is limited is a great game design touch, in my opinion. Not only does this force you to truly think about your style, it also can be a force to make you change if a build simply isn’t working. Also it is not intrusive, fading quietly into darkness while out of combat, but when it’s needed you don’t have it obscuring your view of the enemy in front of you, unlike other MMO games with their multiple hotbars all over the screen.
One of the reasons the hotbar was limited was so you couldn’t fall into the typical skill rotation other MMO’s combat systems rely upon. Unfortunately, this falls flat in my experience. When playing a primarily melee character, I did find myself relying on my more traditional mouse button attacks. However on my Imperial Templar, as a magicka user I have started to settle into a rotation of sorts for healing: Grand Healing here, then Restoring Aura next, and so on. While managing your resource pool does break this up sometimes, that rotation can still be very present, and you become very aware it is happening. This might cause some fans of the traditional single player camp to enjoy the combat a little less as a result.
A Grand Achievement
The ease of character customization really makes each character feel unique, and I believe the level of character freedom afforded in The Elder Scrolls Online is by far and away its most glorious achievement. At level 15 I felt I needed to add some DPS to my game, as pure healing was only going to take me so far soloing higher-level dungeons. A guild member made me an awesome set of armor, as well as a set of crafted weapons: a sword and dagger of Ashen Grip.
At first I enjoyed this change of pace. I put a few of the next attribute points into stamina and started to focus less on my main role of healing. More and more I started to try and make dual-wielding viable for my character, who up to that point had not partaken in much close combat. I ended up solo healing a group in The Banished Cells around level 18 and I noticed that the past three levels focusing on building my melee style had hampered the magicka skills I’d spent the past 26+ hours building. We ended up wiping on the second boss because I was unable to keep up with the DPS being done to our group as my magicka recovery wasn’t where it should’ve been.
I decided after this to change my style, yet again. Originally I didn’t think this feasible. How could I change again, within a few levels of doing it previously without making the next few levels a complete grind? I resigned to the fact it might be a hard path leveling a for a bit while I chose to use a Destruction Staff. If my main build was going to be complete magicka, my secondary weapon would follow suit. Plus the Destruction Staff was the first weapon I used in Coldharbour, so I had some skill with the weapon.
Since I am also an avid hoarder of skill points found via Skyshards, I slotted a skill point I had handy into Destructive Touch (since the staff had a flame enchantment) and proceeded to grind out a few weapon skill levels. I also went back to my 80/20 light to medium armor choice – light for the magicka bonuses, medium for the armor value boost. By the time I hit level 20 I no longer felt stifled. The couple of levels spent floundering in a dual-wield had cost some time, but thanks to the sheer ability to play the way you choose and the game’s core design to change your style at the drop of a hat, I was able to overcome this. As a result, Eldalye the Templar is a stronger character as a result.
Think about the above scenario for a minute. What other MMO affords this level of customization and on the fly creativity? I fully plan on making an Altmer Sorcerer wearing heavy armor wielding a two-handed sword. Because Elder Scrolls. In any other MMO you are typically restricted to your role based on the class you chose. Play a Guardian in The Lord of the Rings Online and more often than not you’ll find yourself wearing heavy armor wielding a sword and shield. Runekeepers are restricted to light armor and a runestone. The Elder Scrolls Online restricts you to your imagination, and the game is a cut above the rest as a result.
Part 4 Incoming
Originally this review was envisioned as a 4-part series, but chances are we will go much more. In Part 4 of our Review-in-Progress, I’ll talk story, visuals and a portion of the game I hold most dear: the music of The Elder Scrolls Online.
Join us, won’t you?
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