The Elder Scrolls Online Preview (PC)

The Elder Scrolls is a series that can easily be reduced into the context of a playground slanging match. For some, Bethesda's seminal franchise is a rich tapestry of RPG finery that some people 'just don't get' while for others it's a game that 'feels quiet, empty, and a bit dead really'.

For the record, I started with the second instalment in this series: Daggerfall. For me, the Elder Scrolls series has been a mixed bag, while I enjoyed the High Rock adventure as an interesting product of its pre-MMO age, in contrast I always felt that Morrowind and Oblivion respectively were missing something: namely a few people to jolly along with into a crypt. Ultimately it all felt a little too vast and lacked the focus that a studio such as Bioware might bring to a game.

"We be serious looking in Tamriel"

And then Skyrim went and changed all that by tidying up the questing and adding just a little more polish. The snow-capped RPG is possibly my favourite videogame ever, and because of that fact, I find it hard to think of the Elder Scrolls Online as anything but a somewhat diminished product at this stage.

While the cross-platformer is still a few months away from release, it's difficult to view Zenimax's online adventurer as anything but Tamriel-Lite. The Diet Coke of fantasy exploration. The Daedra of Compromise.

Ultimately the draw of any Elder Scrolls game is the ability to do whatever you want, whenever you want. You live in this rough-and-ready world of sword and sorcery, plumbing the depths of whatever dungeon you happen to come across, and robbing blind anyone unfortunate enough to have a few shiny coins. It's a game about freedom and while on paper it certainly sounds a good idea to add in a few extra 'real people', the limitations of an MMO conversion isn't a comfortable fit for the series.

Starting out with a healthy selection of lore races, ESO begins much like previous Bethesda instalments: unknown prisoner marked for celestial glory escapes and finally is given freedom. The narrative opens events with a fairly comprehensive, and impressive, initial dungeon crawl that introduces the world and tries to assure people that this is indeed an Elder Scrolls game.

And in all fairness to the developers, this is definitely an offspring of Tamriel. The first person viewpoint is retained, the combat, albeit slightly a step-back from Skyrim, carries on the tradition of flailing weaponry while hotbar abilities and arcade-centric interventions are newer additions to the creed.

Somewhat structured classes will also be something of a controversial addition, with four archetypes of Dragonknight, Sorcerer, Nightblade, and Templar - but as clandestine as those names sound, with a number of skill trees, the core experience of your character will be moulded by your particular play style and choices.

"Relax, it's still the Elder Scrolls"

Pleasingly too, levelling and experience falls into similar brackets of progressing individual skills (with book boosts making an appearance) whilst also aiming for a correct amount of pacing. Most players won't find themselves hurtling through the content in just a few days, and in a world of ultra fast MMORPGs, this is a welcome change.

So far, so Elder Scrolls. In fact, for the first instances, it's hard to see this as anything other than a direct follow-up to Skyrim. The game feels focused, allows for some enjoyable storyline, and also manages to make good use of phasing which notably alters the world as you adventure.

Your character too makes for a pleasing paper doll. Instead of cookie cutter classes and copy-and-paste customization, there is a feeling that your avatar is as familiar and unique to you as it might be in a standalone instalment in the series. Skills can be suitably mutated to fit your own build, and stat points are duly allocated upon the ding of a level progression.

But it's that inching forward in the game that really starts to show some of the perceived chinks in ESO's heavy armour. For all of this added MMORPG pomp, it is hard to escape the fact that Zenimax, try as they might, seem to have been somewhat overwhelmed by the source material.

Instead of the huge rolling landscapes, random dungeons, and incidental details, there is a definite theme park built somewhere within the provinces of Tamriel. Where Oblivion gave you access to all areas of Cyrodil, ESO instead dolls out in meagre portions. Maps are chunks of the game world rather than the actual entirety. And while it would be too much of an ask for the new studio to completely recreate, and in some cases just create, all of the provinces in the Elder Scrolls lore, it only feels like a vague disappointment to be given a blinkered version of the world.

"It's not a Witch King or a Litch, honestly"

And here in lies the rub that most Bethesda veterans have been dreading: The Elder Scrolls is too big. The original developer's 'massive' ethos doesn't convert all that well to the online format. If Skyrim was a game about choice ESO is instead about linearity. It's a somewhat guided tour around the world, or so it feels at this point in development.

Add into this a general feeling of diminished returns, and you have an entry into the series that feels like a middle ground between Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim. It has all the trappings of the Elder Scrolls but might lack some of the heart.

But with this said, this is a closed beta and one that only runs until level 15, any perceived criticisms may well be addressed later in the game, and I for one am praying to the Nine. Enjoyable, solid, and recognizable, but a few doubts linger at this point and will remain until launch in Q2, 2014.


By Voqar (SI Core Veteran) on Feb 12, 2014
Tried beta twice, boring as hell both times. Haven't bothered to continue.

First off, it's a terrible idea for a game. ES is so well known for highly immersive and open/free PvE. To make a game that's got a big PvP component and an MMORPG with typical MMORPG zones, quests, and limits, just does a disservice to the ES name.

There is no immersion with quests weaker than in the normal ES games, with 20 people swarming blatant quest NPCs, with waiting for spawns in dungeons due to there being 20 other people in there with you.

Your decisions won't matter like they do in typical ES. You won't have any impact on the game world. You won't really be free like you normally are in ES.

The next step of ES beyond Skyrim with added co-op hosting ability would've been insane.

Another weak and generic MMORPG, nah. Based on a beloved IP that isn't suitable for MMORPG setup. Nah.

So on top of being a terrible idea for a game, it's just not a good game on top of that. It's pitifully generic with boring everything.

I'm sure they'll sell a lot of copies, since there are a lot of fools around, but I bet their numbers end up tanking in a way that steals the mantle of perceived fail from SWTOR.

A crappily designed, bland MMORPG with a famous IP attached to it is still a crappily designed and bland MMORPG.

As a fan of both ES games and MMORPGs, this game makes me want to vomit, because it's an insult to both.
By The_Tingler (SI Core) on Feb 12, 2014
Can't say I disagree. I was optimistic when I last played it in September (and did the preview then) but have played it recently and it hasn't moved on at all. The areas are far too confined to be satisfying to explore and the quests are too regimented. There's no satisfaction at all if you play it single-player. Hopefully the MMO aspects will draw things out, but I won't be around to see them (unless I review it).
By RolandQuintaine (SI Member) on Feb 12, 2014
I'd still give them a chance.. maybe I'm fool, but I think that after a while this will be a good MMORPG