Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Elder Scrolls Online

My introduction to The Elder Scrolls series was the 2002 title Morrowind, the third main game in the fantasy series. After racking up 250 hours on it and playing its expansions (Tribunal and Bloodmoon), it became one of my favourite games of all time. Starting back in 1994 with Arena, the series has been a staple of the RPG genre, and in recent years its popularity has risen greatly. However, after a great entry in the series with 2006's Oblivion, I felt that the most recent game, Skyrim, diluted the franchise in an attempt to target a broader audience. I enjoyed Skyrim for what it was, but the series has lost a level of atmosphere, detail and depth that it once had, something I don't think it'll ever get back. The latest Elder Scrolls title aims to not just give the player one landmass in Tamriel to explore, but rather multiple areas. When it comes to providing rich atmosphere, an engaging story and in-depth gameplay, does The Elder Scrolls Online deliver?

Developed by ZeniMax Online Studios and out now for PC and later in June for PS4 and Xbox One, comes The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO), the first Elder Scrolls title to venture into the overstuffed world of the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game). The Elder Scrolls titles have always been a one-player experience, but with the ongoing rise of multiplayer games, I guess it was only a matter of time until it happened here.

For anyone who has played the previous games in the series, TESO opens up like all the other games, with your character at the lowest point in their life. In Skyrim the player was saved from losing their head at the hand of the executioner by the return of the Dragons, and in TESO... well, the player isn't saved at all, they die. Once deceased, the players soul is sent to Coldharbour; a plane of Oblivion that is ruled by the Daedric Prince Molag Bal. Despite being dead your character escapes the realm of Oblivion and comes back to life. However, Molag Bal has a grand and deadly scheme already in motion, a plan in which he seeks to merge Nirn (the mortal world, basically) and Coldharbour together as one. This will give him dominion over Tamriel and spell doom for every race that inhabits it. Of course, that's the overarching story in TESO, because as you probably know already, in these games there's plenty of other tales unfolding throughout the experience, both big and small.

Once in the game the player is able to create their character. Starting off with choosing a race, the player by default has nine different races to pick from. If you've purchased the “Imperial Edition” of TESO you unlock the Imperial race, a moneymaking idea that is frankly appalling. But even if you can't do that, the choice here is pretty varied. Sure the races were extremely different back in the day (Argonians not being able to physically wear helmets in Morrowind, anyone?), but nonetheless it's an important decision that will greatly impact your TESO experience. Choose wisely as depending on which race you choose you'll not only start in a different area of Tamriel, but you'll also join one of three warring factions; the Daggerfall Covenant, the Ebonheart Pact and the Aldmeri Dominion. Once that's done the real fun begins, as the player is able to tweak just about everything to create their unique TESO character. From having the tools to resize their entire body and its limbs, giving them a unique skin tone or body tattoo, to the extremely flexible face creation tools, TESO's character creation is the best in the series yet. Your character will look utterly unique!

When it comes to levelling up (whether that's via combat or even reading a book on a shelf), combat, NPC interaction, quests and exploring, TESO quite effectively replicates the formula that has worked for the series previously. That's probably easier said than done, as anyone who has played Skyrim, an utterly solo experience, will slip into TESO with ease. I've always had trouble getting into MMORPG's, but TESO just felt completely natural. The world presented is wonderful, though the term “less is more” started to ring true. While it looks the part at times, a smaller, more detailed world might have been a better approach. Instead we're given a world that, unless there are some other nearby players, feels a bit cold, uninspired and, well, lonely! That said, assuming you have friends to journey with, the experience is incredibly fun and thrilling, as the idea of questing across Tamriel with friends is something many of us have only dreamed about. With many of the main cities of Tamriel recreated in TESO, exploration can be quite a treat for those players who are up on their Elder Scrolls lore. 

Problems with TESO arise at certain points though. For instance once you hit level 10 you can travel to Cyrodil to take part is a huge PvP battle. The sight is rather incredible, seeing hundreds of real players rushing into battle. But these battles, and any battle that comprises of around 8 or more real players, ends up just being messy, chaotic and a chore to trudge through. It’s at these times in which you'll have preferred if TESO went for a more classic MMORPG friendly battle system. On top of that there are a whole bunch of bugs to contend with, from important NPCs that won't give you further missions to quest items being unobtainable. Sure these problems will be patched eventually, but when I dish out money for a new game I kind of expect it to be finished...

TESO is subscription based, meaning that beyond actually buying the game you'll need to pay a fee to play it. That comes in the form of either a 30 day, 90 day or 180 subscription fee, with a 30 day one setting you back $15/€10/£9. Is it worth it? Well I'd say definitely give it a go, as even if you only play it for a month you'll get some great playtime out of it. That said if it does strike a chord with you, there’s enough scope to be able to devote a massive amount of time to it. While the developers will try and make you buy all kinds of extra crap ($15 for a horse, for instance), the baseline game is awesome, and though it may have some pretty erratic gameplay hiccups, it's a great attempt at claiming the MMORPG market.

Though I do see it going free-to-play eventually, as it stands TESO is a very worthy time sink for any player or non-players of The Elder Scrolls. It may follow more in line with Skyrims ethos on the series, but beyond my own opinions, that may be a good thing for many players out there. TESO is a fun, robust and a new take on the often boring and bland world of the MMORPG.

The Elder Scrolls Online offers great adventure and gets a 4/5, [★★★★☆]

Denis Murphy

The Elder Scrolls Online at CeX

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