The Elder Scrolls Online releases in a few short weeks, and I had the privilege of being invited to the beta test several times in the past couple of months. When I logged in to my first beta weekend, I was greeted with client crashes and game-freezes, just within the character creation stage. Pushing past these problems, I tentatively poked my high-elven ears into the starting area, and I was nearly overcome with excitement. This is the game I had been asking for since I finished my one-million-and-twenty-first playthrough of Oblivion, and it was finally happening. Then I spent roughly two hours watching my character fly up into the air as she tried to teleport to Tamriel through a broken portal dangling several hundred feet above, before plummeting again and again to be dashed against the rocks below.
As I progressed through the land, I busily filled out bug reports and laughed with other testers about the Microsoft Sam voices that the NPCs had, about falling through the world and being suspended in limbo, and about how excited we all were for the game to be finished so that we could give it a proper playthrough. I slogged through broken quest after broken quest, farmed the random monsters and unnecessarily-aggressive wildlife, and finally got to a high enough level to participate in the pvp arena.
Sure, the broken bits were annoying, but that’s what you sign on for as a beta-tester, and it’s why people will tell you to shut up in zone chat when you start bitching about not being able to finish a quest. As I prepared for this weekend’s test, I thought, “Oh boy, I can’t wait to see the almost-finished product!” How young I was, how naïve.
The thing of it is, is that this game is bad. And no, I’m not talking about the broken parts- yes, there were plenty of quests that were still broken, two weeks before launch, plenty of problems with the interface, and plenty of problems with the servers. No, that’s not what I’m talking about, because even if you put aside the fact that this game is supposed to release in 2 weeks and should probably be pretty close to being a finished product, the bottom line is that I was still a beta-tester, and that I had still signed myself up to deal with this shit. Besides, I love Bethesda, and I would really prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt.
What I’m talking about is something much more far-reaching; this entire Elder Scrolls Online experience is just inherently terrible. Yes, the races are from Elder Scrolls, the places are from Elder Scrolls, and the lore is from Elder Scrolls. But this really doesn’t feel like an Elder Scrolls game. Where is all of the wonder of the series, the excitement? Where are the interesting characters, the irresistable plot hooks? ESO is just a cookie-cutter MMO wearing an Elder Scrolls skin.
I remember playing Oblivion and Skyrim. When I stopped to look at the clock, I’d realize- whoops, I had just spent the entire day exploring Tamriel, and that I’d better get to bed so that I could wake up and jump right back in. I lost weeks of my life to these games, maybe even months. While playing ESO, however, I found myself checking the clock and being disappointed that I had only been playing for 20 minutes. “Bah”, I’d think, “you can’t write about it if you don’t play it. Keep going.”, and I’d force myself to farm some more. There was no wonder, no joy, no fun to be had at all. This game was like WoW, without all of the colorful bits to keep your attention. This game was gray WoW, with none of the character.
I guess the problem lies in the MMO experience as a whole. As a fellow reviewer pointed out, in the Elder Scrolls games usually you are the hero, the one who must save the world. In ESO, you’re just one of a million-million other puds running around trying to be the hero. You’re not special, your character is not special, and if you just walked into the ocean the NPCs would be perfectly content to give that “Rough up the homeless” quest to the next million guys in queue behind you. The story doesn’t need you, and, at least to me, a hero who isn’t needed isn’t much of a hero at all.
So the story is out, the novelty of the setting is out- what’s left? The gameplay. Oh the gameplay. Well, if you play other MMOs and you love the “keep clicking until either of you die” mechanic, you’ll love this game. If you’re not one of the millions who loves to hoard numbers to throw against the evil numbers in order to raise your numbers further, you’ll probably have a problem with ESO. There’s about as much skill involved in this game as there is in learning how to press the buttons on a calculator. You quickly figure out which abilities are useful and which ones are shit, decide on the order in which to use them to maximize your clicks, and then you presumably repeat this about 4-billion times until you reach the end game all the while tearing nearly-identical but barely-superior items out of the hollowed chest cavities of the beasts of Tamriel with which to replace your own items.
The one bastion of goodness I found in this game was the pvp. The first time I played, I realized that I was a loser. Not for the regular reasons that my exes are wont to remind me of, but because I had chosen the yellow team, the team with the least number of players on it. This only becomes important when you enter the Cyrodiil battle arena-type thing, where the three teams are constantly fighting each other for control of important locations and numbers are literally the entire strategy. To be fair though, what we yellow-teamers lacked in numbers, we more than made up for in retardation.
Fast forward a few months, and I tentatively pop into Cyrodiil for another taste of destruction. It turns out that ESO put a cap on how many of each team can be in the arena at once, and set up a bunch of parallel-dimension Cyrodiils to accommodate the thriving masses. Apparently a leveled playing field was not enough, however, and we yellow-teamers were still sucking our thumbs and drawing on the wall in feces while the red and blue teams divvied up our women and property.
Despite being on the losing team for the entire time, I quite enjoyed the pvp. There is something intensely satisfying about charging across the plains of Cyrodiil on my steed, accompanied by dozens of my compatriots as we set up a siege camp and fire trebuchets at the walls of the evil blue team even as we burn their screaming bodies in the streets. My only real complaint here is the latency (which I assume, or at least I hope will be fixed when all of the servers are running at launch time), as well as the total disorganization of everything. The ‘looking-for-group’ feature is all but ignored while zone chat is filled with people looking for groups and asking how to leave this godforsaken landscape. If you’re part of a raiding party, you can receive pings on the map to direct you, but informing your team of the incoming 100-man red team raiding party becomes problematic when your screams of “DEFEND ALESSIA!” are overcome by hundreds of people whining about not having a group.
In all, I am supremely disappointed that I can’t just tell you, “Yeah dude, play this game, it’s amazing!”, and while I don’t want to write it off expressly, I will tell you this: if you already pay monthly for an MMO, you can get much the same experience as ESO if you just play that and blast the Dovahkiin theme through your headphones. This game is a pile of cookie-cutter MMO trash. Sure, it’s Elder Scrolls-flavored trash, but that doesn’t mean you should eat it. If anything, maybe try it out for the pvp, but don’t get your hopes up. I might try it out in a couple of months, hoping the crack team at Bethesda has managed to inject some life into this sad husk of a game, but my first impressions have left a bland, uninspiring taste in my mouth.