The Elder Scrolls Online Review - IGN (2023)

The Elder Scrolls Online Review - IGN (1)

The Elder Scrolls Online Review - IGN (2)

ByLeif Johnson


Mar 31, 2014 10:30 pm

Regardless of whether you assume the guise of an orc or an elf, Elder Scrolls Online is the story of an adventurer in search of his or her soul. It's a fitting setup for a beloved single-player franchise that finds itself taking its first shaky steps in the unfamiliar massively multiplayer roleplaying game genre, and just moments past the character creation screen you can feel it struggling to reconcile its heritage with its new duds. Just as the adventurer tries to learn the truth of their past, ESO itself struggles with its identity through each leg of the lengthy leveling content.

It's important to view ZeniMax Online's creation as an MMORPG first and an Elder Scrolls game second. Expecting to kill random NPCs or find the free-roaming exploration of a game like Skyrim amid its traditional zone-based progression? It'll always let you down. The good news is that, despite some substantial launch bugs and underwhelming graphics, it exceeds many expectations and captures the Elder Scrolls experience about as well as an MMORPG realistically can.

A Guided Epic

It takes a while for the pieces to fall into place over the course of its 100-hour main story, but in time it delivers an experience that's at least as worthy of the Elder Scrolls name as any of the three most recent single-player games. (It suffers from the same occasional cliches, too.) It presents its own unique twists and cameos of important figures from Elder Scrolls lore, as well as a final boss encounter that both exceeds the challenges of some of the single-player games and points to what's in store in the promising Veteran content that comes after 50.

As in Skyrim, it's the quests you find from random townsfolk and Dunmer guar herders that make up the bulk of the PvE experience, as well as stories from series favorites such as the Mages’ and Fighters’ Guilds. They're fully voiced to a degree that puts even Star Wars: The Old Republic to shame, although the quality of the delivery from the limited voice actors ranges from adequate to robotic (particularly for some male Argonians). The catch? If you’re unaccustomed to the conventions of MMOs, you may bristle at the sight of other adventurers undertaking the same clandestine dealings with the same sketchy Breton landowners. These stories written for a singular hero but delivered to a crowd are a spot where ESO seems to hold onto its single-player beginnings more than it probably should.

Good thing, then, that the quests themselves capture the essence of Elder Scrolls. The series' signature quests, which tend to send you into caves and ruins to seek out important relics or slaughter some bandits, match up with traditional instanced MMO design well. You do a lot of killing and fetching, yes, but it's rarely more intrusive than venturing into Skyrim's Korvanjund to cut through dozens of draugr to pick up a toothy crown. Puzzles and investigative missions add further spice, as do quests that affect how NPCs relate to you later down the road depending on your decisions. Further complementing the experience is a soundtrack that generally captures the spirit of Jeremy Soule's celebrated work for the franchise, although it's a shame that the score for the login screen represents Soule's only direct contribution to the project. In spirit, at least, ESO swims in the same low-fantasy vibe that makes Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim, and the rest so appealing: you're generally asked to dispatch mundane threats like bandits rather than spending too much time caught up in matters of world import, so when those come along they’re more interesting.

If only it looked better. It's clear that ZeniMax Online tried to walk a fine line between Bethesda Softworks’ realistic graphics style and the low-spec-friendly art of World of Warcraft, but the effort resulted in an unsatisfying hybrid look that seldom inspires the taking of screenshots for their own sake (as I tend to do in better looking MMOs). It's strongest in the dungeons, where Ayleid ruins exude more gloom than their cousins in Oblivion, and the doors on Nordic barrows glisten with more detail than their Skyrim cognates. But out in the world, buildings assume a gangly appearance that is better suited to stop-motion Tim Burton films, and common objects like trees often look as though they were lifted from 2002’s Morrowind. If the direction excels, it's only because its earthtone palettes represent a more realistic experience than its festively colored MMO competitors, making it feel a little more grounded.

Climb Every Mountain

ZeniMax Online partly makes up for such shortcomings with a world that encourages rummaging through every crate and nightstand and exploring every mountain path. It's worth doing so not only for the discovery of Skyshards that grant skill points or new quests hiding in remote hills, but also just for the pleasure of stumbling across the sight of NPC mages flinging spells and epithets at each other or random travelers engaged in deep commentary on the legality of skooma. Books and scraps of paper conveying lore and skill points lie in wait everywhere, and a Kindle-like interface goes a long way toward making up for the unfortunate inability to hoard them and stash them on the shelves of a personal home. In a smart move, ZeniMax even kept most quests ungated by level, which means that you can tackle quests 20 levels above you if you have the skills (or the help) to pull it off. It's rough, but it does help recall the unfettered exploration of the single-player games.

Securing help in such instances is key to getting the most out of ESO, and working with other players generally improves the experience. Combat gets difficult, for instance, particularly in the veteran levels past 50, and thus assistance from a random player often comes as a godsend when you're swarmed by three enemies or attacking the many world bosses that grant boatloads of experience. As a bonus, I've found many helpful and generous members of the community, particularly once you venture out of the early zones with their (typical) rampant spam from gold sellers. As for the rest? The majority of them outside of guild and party chat seem strangely quiet and aloof for an MMO, which I've attributed to an uncommon number of genre newcomers owing to the series' single-player heritage.

Unfortunately for those of us accustomed to the genre, ESO's multiplayer components don't always work as well as they should. Heavy phasing means you often can't help out a player who's on a quest you completed long ago, and particularly in these crowded days so soon after launch, the open-instanced public dungeons get so packed in early levels that they lose all semblance of challenge. At times, the open-world multiplayer content just feels lazy. ZeniMax attempts to recall the variety of dynamic events in games like Guild Wars 2 and Final Fantasy XIV through its Dark Anchors, but they quickly lose their appeal as they look the same regardless of whether you're in Skyrim or Glenumbra.

But ZeniMax succeeds brilliantly in presenting group content elsewhere, particularly in the Veteran dungeons you encounter after the level cap. They demand a level of coordination and strategy among four players that contemporary MMOs tend to shy from, and the encounters require that players assume rules that tend to rigidly fall under the responsibilities of tanks and healers elsewhere. For the hardcore, these present some of ESO's best reasons for buying into the monthly subscription plan. (ZeniMax has made promises of massive new contents updates every four to six weeks, but we’ve heard that before. The proof will be in the pudding.)

Group activities also abound in the PvP combat in the massive Imperial province of Cyrodiil, which actually takes up much more geographic space than it does in Oblivion. Cyrodiil PvP presents exciting, if familiar, siege-oriented warfare in the style of Dark Age of Camelot and Guild Wars 2, although it also doubles as a sandboxy PvE zone complete with its own quests, Dark Anchors, and public dungeons.

Aim For The Knee

Over the course of 170 hours of gameplay, I've come to love The Elder Scrolls Online’s combat more than that in any of the dozens of other MMOs I've played. Much as in Skyrim, it features active blocking and bashing with the right mouse button, and calculated sword swipes with the left. (Ranged combat feels less satisfying, particularly in the case of bows.) It brings a need for timed actions and careful blocks that's often missing in MMOs. When you bring down your sword on an enemy he crumples to a heap, conveying the sense that you've actually done something aside from pressing a hotkey. When you miss, it's because you actually missed. Smaller elements, such as the need to recharge weapons with soul gems and deliver powerful attacks while hidden, pay homage to the single-player games and, in the same way, make you conserve your resources. Even the spartan UI that puts little between you and the world you’re playing in recalls the ambiance of Skyrim (although heavy modding support means you're free to clutter up the screen as you wish).

ESO wisely complements this setup with a 12 hotkeyed abilities scattered across action bars for two swappable weapons, for both variety and action's sake, and a dizzying number of skill points that allow you to create a character pretty much exactly as you wish. As of my last respec at Veteran Rank 1, I had around 140. The only limits are the skills specific to each of the four base classes, but even then each class can hold its own in each of the traditional MMO roles of tanking, healing, and damage dealing, so there’s ample flexibility. Elder Scrolls lore comes further into play with the option to become werewolves or vampires, each complete with their own weaknesses and strengths.

Honing The Craft

Yet it's in crafting that Elder Scrolls Online most effectively uses its heritage to distinguish itself from other MMORPGs in a positive way. Alchemy, for instance, requires the same level of experimentation as is found in Skyrim, whether it's in the act of nibbling on herbs to learn their properties or throwing together up to three different ingredients to create powerful potions. "Heavy" professions like Blacksmithing and Clothing push it even further, to the point where making new gear involves hours of research or taking gambles on improving gear with rare materials.

It's not without its problems. The biggest annoyance is that crafting materials can easily command the bulk of your inventory and bank space if you choose even two skills, and there's no way to sell your items aside from guild stores or hocking them in zone chat. Trading guilds consisting of around 500 members alleviate some of the stress, but the limited audiences mean that you're never sure which of the five guilds you can join would be the best host for your items. To make matters worse, the UI lacks some key, convenient features. A simple search bar, for instance, would make guild stores infinitely more navigable, but as it stands you have to sift through each individual page in a category. This extends to other aspects as well, such as the absence of a simple, unintrusive method of reporting gold spammers.

But Shor's bones, the bugs at this point remain legion. The popular joke among the community is that nothing makes an Elder Scrolls game more authentic than a slew of bugs—some of Skyrim’s are genuinely entertaining—but the truth is that the worst of them hold us back from enjoying the available content. Early on, a significant quest line bugged for several days in the Ebonheart Pact starting zone of Stonefalls, and it prevented me from accessing so many followup quests that I ventured into the following zone of Deshaan underleveled. The nastiest one I encountered affected the key NPC in the final zone of Coldharbour, restricting access to the bulk of Veteran content for almost a week.

Veteran content presents its own unique problems. Aside from dungeons and PvP, it essentially consists of spending another 200 hours questing through the Veteran-level zones for the two factions other than your own, shattering the sense of shared experiences and "homelands" that's usually so essential in faction-based MMORPGs. At the same time, however, Veteran zones deliver a staggering amount of content. On top of everything else, it adds up to a much greater quantity of content than you typically see in a just-launched MMO.


To be explicitly clear, if you don’t enjoy MMORPGs, you probably won’t enjoy The Elder Scrolls Online. Its strong character progression and combat systems better suit the offline Elder Scrolls games than in most MMOs, but it’s very much a game about adventuring with other players. As a fan of both MMORPGs and the Elder Scrolls series, I found it to be one of the most rewarding games in the genre in years. Even while it’s troubled by some extremely annoying bugs and will probably never look great, I’ve loved my time questing through Tamriel, and I look forward to logging back in soon.Note: Relive Leif's 170-hour odyssey in The Elder Scrolls Online by reading his Review in Progress Journal.

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The Elder Scrolls Online Review - IGN (3)

The Elder Scrolls Online [2014]

ZeniMax Online Studios





The Elder Scrolls Online Review


Elder Scrolls Online is fun, as long as you remember it's predominantly an MMO. Watch out for those bugs, though.

Leif Johnson

The Elder Scrolls Online Review - IGN (5)

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