The Elder Scrolls Online: How the Fantasy Game Keeps it Real

Posted February 17, 2014 in
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If adventuring isn’t really your thing, it’s perfectly possible to spend one’s online experience becoming Tamriel’s greatest arms dealer or potion brewer.

The Elder Scrolls Online
Reviewed on: PC
Also on: OS X, Xbox One, PS4
Street: 04.04 (PC/OS X) 06.30 (Xbox One/PS4)

I’ve been slaying monsters and gathering experience points in the digital field of video game nerdery for long enough to see several MMORPG’s (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) come and go. Based on what I’ve seen, one does not simply develop and publish an MMORPG without some serious groundwork. Take Blizzard’s fantasy cash cow World of Warcraft for example. Before revolutionizing the online gaming scene, Blizzard spent a decade developing the world of Azeroth with their successful Warcraft strategy series. When they rolled out World of Warcraft, Blizzard already had a solid fan base that was willing to plunk down 15 bucks a month for the privilege to run around Azeroth raiding dungeons and beheading Murlocs. Though Bethesda might be a little late to the MMORPG table, it definitely has established the groundwork to become a serious online competitor.

The Elder Scrolls franchise got its start the same year that Blizzard’s first Warcraft game hit shelves. The first two games, Arena and Daggerfall, enjoyed moderate sales on PC, but it wasn’t until Bethesda developed a successful relationship with Microsoft that The Elder Scrolls became an RPG staple in every video game nerd’s library. Morrowind, the third installment in the series, enjoyed enough success on the original Xbox that the game’s sequel, Oblivion, became one of the Xbox 360’s most anticipated launch titles. During Oblivion’s first week on sale, it sold over 200,000 copies. When Skyrim, the fifth chapter in the series, was released in 2011, it sold over one million copies—effectively proving that The Elder Scrolls has the fan base to gain a significant piece of turf on the MMORPG scene. In April of this year, Bethesda will release The Elder Scrolls Online, which will allow players who have spent 20 years with the world of Tamriel to see it through the lens of an MMORPG. After spending two weekends pushing a Dark Elf Dragonknight named Virax to his physical and emotional limit, it’s safe to say that The Elder Scrolls Online is going to be everything fans of the franchise—and MMORPG’s in general—are hoping for.

After sinking who knows how many hours into Oblivion and Skyrim, there are things that I have come to expect from an Elder Scrolls title. For example, I still want to be able to customize the exact shape of my character’s chin, nose, and forehead. With the transition to an online game, I was concerned that these things would either be overly streamlined or done away with altogether. Once I launched into the character creator, I was pleased to see that the almost absurd amount of character customization was still present. Now that I was about to interact with real-life players, I took a bit longer than usual to create my character. It was important that Virax the Dark Elf looked completely unique, but he also had to be easy on the eyes. I was a bit worried to see that the developers had included a character class, as one of the things that make The Elder Scrolls unique is that your hero doesn’t have to be pigeonholed as a fighter or wizard if you don’t want him/her to be. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if more classes show up along with the inevitable game expansions, currently the game features three classes to choose from: the Dragonknight, who is basically a brawler that can use magic to bolster said brawling skills; the Nightblade, who functions as a rogue/thief/assassin; and the Sorcerer, who is more proficient with The Elder Scrolls’ vast library of magic spells.

Once I felt comfortable with Virax the Dragonknight, it was time to kill some stuff. The game opens in Coldharbour, which is a nasty-looking place somewhere within the hellish dimension of Oblivion. Right off the bat, I was glad to see that the control scheme felt exactly like that of Skyrim, so it was easy to pick up and play. After being visited by an apparition who called himself The Prophet, I set off on a prologue quest to bust him out of Coldharbour and get back to the real world. From a story and continuity perspective, this threw me a bit. Throughout the course of my gameplay, this Prophet dude was always showing up to give me quests that were part of an overarching storyline. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good storyline when I’m playing on my own, but when I know that a zillion people are starting their game with the exact same quest that I’m trying to accomplish, I feel a bit cheap.

Once I fled Coldharbour, however, it was completely feasible to totally abandon the Prophet and his doomsaying in favor of simply wandering around and seeing what terrors are plaguing the continent of Tamriel. There are a lot of entry-level mini-quests to complete: “My basement is full of skeevers, can you kill them?” or “I need X amount of Nirnroot for a potion, can you find them?” This is all good and well, and at this point has become part of RPG canon, but I can’t help but think that my overall experience would be improved with a little bit more effort on the writers’ part during these beginner quests. As your character progresses through the game, the quest journal fills up surprisingly quickly, which is enough to make you forget about how those lazy townsfolk should just buck up and kill their own skeevers. For those who are a bit more entrepreneurial, The Elder Scrolls Online has retained its characteristic crafting system. If adventuring isn’t really your thing, you can spend your time harvesting rare materials for the crafting of magical potions or powerful weapons. These can then be traded or sold to other players, so it’s perfectly possible to spend one’s online experience becoming Tamriel’s greatest arms dealer or potion brewer.

Once a player reaches level 10, the option to switch to the game’s player vs. player server opens up. During character creation, the player’s race will result in placement within one of three alliances. This alliance dictates who the player fights for and against during PVP. The PVP experience is surprisingly vast and sophisticated, and it’s a great place for more strategic-minded players to hone their skills. Campaigns against other alliances can be carried out as stealth missions or full-fledged sieges, complete with catapults and battering rams. The objective of each campaign varies—smaller campaigns might result in the taking of an enemy keep, where larger campaigns are dedicated to capturing Elder Scrolls or becoming emperor of a large territory.

Based on the fact that Bethesda has been developing the world of Tamriel since the mid-’90s, The Elder Scrolls Online offers a lot to gamers. It offers an almost overwhelming continent to explore, several fun and rewarding ways to spend your online experience, and it retains the elements of the single-player games that players have come to expect. Time will tell as to whether the game will fully rise to the standard that Blizzard has set with World of Warcraft, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see The Elder Scrolls Online become a serious contender in the world of online gaming.