[Updated March 17, 2015: The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited was officially released today, meaning that ESO no longer requires a subscription fee to play. In addition, there have been six major content updates since the game's original release, with dozens upon dozens of improvements. I'd encourage you to read my new post on the subject or just go straight to Zenimax Online Studios' own announcement.]
It has been about a month and a half now since The Elder Scrolls Online was released, and it's received generally mixed reviews. Despite some undeniable technical issues and a handful of design flaws, it's a great game and more than a bit underrated in my opinion; if you're a fan of The Elder Scrolls or an MMO aficionado, you owe it to yourself to give ESO a try. I'll explain why.
First, by way of qualifications, I should mention my history with the Elder Scrolls series. I didn't play Arena or Daggerfall, so I haven't been following the series since its inception, but Morrowind captured hundreds of hours worth of my attention and made a huge impression on my taste in games—it was unlike anything I'd ever played at the time, and not even other Elder Scrolls games have quite managed to recapture that magic for me. Oblivion was, at first, quite awe-inspiring, but once the captivating new graphics wore thin, it ultimately seemed shallow and uninspired compared to Morrowind. Skyrim was a return to form, with better and more varied environments, a more interesting story, and improvements to game mechanics all around—in addition to, once again, remarkable visuals. In short, I've been an Elder Scrolls fan for more than 12 years now, so although I don't go all the way back, I have a good basis for comparison.
The Elder Scrolls Online came as a surprise, being announced less than a year after Todd Howard indicated that Bethesda had no interest in an Elder Scrolls MMO. In fact, at that point ESO had been in development for four years, but Howard may not have known and certainly would not have been at liberty to reveal that. At any rate, my initial reaction was extreme skepticism; I doubted that the best aspects of The Elder Scrolls could be preserved when introduced to the MMO formula. As more details were revealed about the game's design and mechanics, I grew more interested, but I after playing the beta I was again left with lukewarm impressions. Still, something about it kept nagging at me, and I couldn't stop watching Twitch streams of ESO as launch drew nearer. Eventually, I decided to buy it just in time for early launch. Since then, I've put in nearly 150 hours, and that number would doubtless be much higher were it not for the obligations of the real world.
There are a few things that the Elder Scrolls Online actually does much better than any of the previous Elder Scrolls games, and if you've any experience with other MMOs, they'll likely come as a big surprise. One is the quests: they're better written, more engaging, and more meaningful than those in previous Elder Scrolls games, and in fact most games in general. The aggressive use of phasing (an MMO technique which allows many players to co-exist in different versions of the same space) allows your actions to actually have a lasting, visible effect on the world, to an even greater extent than I can recall seeing in previous Elder Scrolls games.
When you're given a quest to liberate a city from the clutches of the enemy du jour, for instance, you'll actually liberate the city, cleansing the streets of marauding monsters and opening up new shops and questgivers. Phasing is not a novel concept, but I've never seen it used so extensively or to such great effect, and it really makes quests feel much more worthwhile than the typical MMO tropes of slaughter 10 pigs or collect 8 doodads. Even when the underlying quest mechanic is no more complex than one of those, the presentation in ESO makes it feel much more interesting, and to a large extent, that's what counts.
There are also actual moral choices in The Elder Scrolls Online. The game doesn't yet offer the opportunity to steal from or kill NPCs and possibly face the consequences as previous Elder Scrolls games have (though Zenimax promises that they are planning such a feature), but many quests offer compelling moral dilemmas. Will you allow the willing sacrifice of a loyal servant to cure a Duke infected with lycanthropy? Will you show mercy to a traitor, knowing that your choice could come back to haunt you? Will you use a powerful Necromantic artifact to bolster the strength of your faction's army and possibly save the lives of many soldiers, or will you destroy it lest it fall into the wrong hands and lead to many more deaths?
The outcomes of these choices are never Earth-shattering (Nirn-shattering?), and their effects on gameplay are varied, but they're more believable and relatable than the choices in most games touted for their "morality systems." There is no omnipotent force here tallying up your Karmic balance and changing the colour of your robes depending on whether you've been good or bad. Instead, your choices may determine whether certain NPCs live or die, or simply how they perceive you. It sounds minor, but as some of the NPCs are recurring throughout the storyline, the results of choices you make early in the game are often reflected later on. More importantly, the moral choices in ESO are often actually difficult because both options have costs associated with them, or because making the upstanding choice means more work or less reward. Such is the morality of real life; it's complicated and difficult because there's isn't always a good option, and virtuous choices often involve sacrifice. Very few games, even among those praised for excellent narratives, get this right, so to see it done so well in an MMO (a genre not known for good storytelling) is a pleasant surprise.
ESO has largely have the same cast of voice actors that have been utilized in previous games, and overuse of some actors is a problem as always, but on the whole I'm impressed at how much content Zenimax was able to include while still providing full voiceovers for all of the NPC dialogue. This is one of the things that I didn't know I wanted until I actually experienced it, but it really makes a huge difference in how interested I am in the story and the quests. I've played several MMOs, including World of Warcraft for more than 7 years, and I've never before bothered to actually read the quest text. In The Elder Scrolls Online, I am not only listening to the quest dialogue, but I'm also taking the time to listen to supplemental NPC dialogue. It's well written and mostly pretty well-acted, and there's a lot of good humour to be found as well. Excellent performances by big names like Michael Gambon, John Cleese and Jennifer Hale make the main quest lines a real pleasure, too.
Of course, all of this would be for naught without solid game mechanics, and fortunately ESO excels there, too. Combat mechanics have always been something of a weak point for The Elder Scrolls series. Each new iteration improves on the last, but conversely, each time one goes back to an older Elder Scrolls game one wonders how he or she ever put up with it. Even as each new game brings significant improvements, Bethesda has never quite captured a real sense of weight and solidity in their combat mechanics. In contrast to (for instance) Dark Souls, where the impact of each slash and thrust can almost be felt through the controller, swordfighting in The Elder Scrolls often feels like swinging a tennis racket through empty air.
Being an MMO, ESO's combat can't compete with the likes of Dark Souls, either... but it feels surprisingly good. It's more fast-paced and dynamic than combat ever has been in The Elder Scrolls, requiring a strategic approach and an attentive eye to take on groups of enemies, particularly in the Veteran Ranks. Weapon attacks feel good, with real differentiation between various type of weapons, and the available abilities are varied enough to keep things interesting.
The skill system in ESO is a nice change from MMO orthodoxy, being a blend of the prescribed, XP-based systems seen in other games and the more open-ended approach that The Elder Scrolls is known for, where skills are levelled up by using them. Basically, there are a few skill lines unique to each of the game's four classes, but there are many more that can be unlocked by any character. Skill points are unlocked in a number of ways, including through levelling up with XP, but how you can invest them is dictated by how far you've advanced each of your skill trees (which happens primarily by using the skills in the tree). It might sound complex, but it's actually fairly intuitive in practice, and it works quite well overall.
Of course, combat has never really been the focus of The Elder Scrolls, so many will wonder whether ESO lives up to the standard of boundless exploration set by previous games in the series. The answer is no; while I find the term a bit distasteful, ESO could fairly be called a "themepark" MMO, and although there's lots of world to explore, character progression through different zones is very linear. In that respect, fans who enjoy The Elder Scrolls primarily for the open world aspect may be disappointed. But there are a few ways in which I think ESO makes up for it.
The first is delves, or public dungeons. These are much the same as the dungeons, caves and ruins one can explore in other Elder Scrolls games. They are littered across the overworld, and although they often offer quests, no quest or NPC interaction is typically required to access them—they're best found through exploration. In MMO terms, they're similar to instanced dungeons, with a miniboss at the end that may drop higher-quality loot, but they're open to everyone and designed to be completed solo. They're surprisingly effective at breaking up the routine of solo levelling, and they do a lot to make ESO feel like a real Elder Scrolls game.
Second, and more importantly in my opinion, is the diversity of environments in ESO. This is another thing Bethesda has never been very good at: they pick a single province of Tamriel with a single type of terrain and geography, and while they do a marvelous job of realizing it, their single-minded focus can lead to game worlds which become stale over time. Morrowind and Skyrim had enough variation that this wasn't a huge problem, but Oblivion was terrible for it; everything looked the same, to the extent that exploring eventually felt pointless.
While not all of Tamriel is yet playable in ESO, the game offers the opportunity to visit many different provinces, including several that haven't been featured since the days of Arena and Daggerfall. Along the way, you'll explore grasslands, forests, rocky spires, deserts, swamps, tundra, and more. Exploring new zones is a big aspect of what appeals to me about MMOs, and ESO does a much better job of offering many different types of environments to explore than previous Elder Scrolls games have. (That said, it's not perfect; in particular, I wish the Daggerfall Covenant zones had more variation.)
Having said so many positive things about the game, it should be obvious that I am a huge fan of The Elder Scrolls online, and would highly recommend it to MMO, RPG and TES fans. There are many more good things I could write that I simply don't have time to. However, I would be remiss to not also mention the problems with the game, for there are several, and some of them are significant.
Bugs and performance/latency issues are at the top of the list, unfortunately. Since the game came out, there have been many, many bugged quests, and although I can't recall seeing one recently, patch notes and forum threads make it clear that many still abound. Many class skills are currently bugged; although I don't play one, I'm told that this is particularly bad for Nightblades. Similarly, there is an issue with passives not applying properly after your character dies and resurrects, which is especially annoying in PvP.
ESO offers a weapon switching mechanic, but it's currently quite unreliable because the amount of time it takes to execute is very inconsistent. This often leads to accidental double-switches, or failed switches, which in turn frequently leads to frustrating deaths. And in general, even without a high ping, I've experienced occasional latency issues which, when they occur, make combat unpredictable and irritating. This happens most often in large PvP battles for me, but I understand that latency issues in general are quite common for European players.
PvP balance is another sore spot. Early on, the game was dominated by vampires, and although they've now received a well-deserved nerf, I still feel that their balance could use more attention - not necessarily outright nerfs, but changes, at least. Werewolves, in contrast, are so weak as to be almost pointless. (Both lycanthropy and vampirism are "diseases" which any player can contract.) Class balance is also less than stellar, although I won't go into specifics on that, as it's a more controversial topic. Of course, this is no surprise in a brand new MMO. Even World of Warcraft had remarkably poor PvP balance until at least the launch of the Burning Crusade expansion, a full two years after the main game launched.
Certain game systems, while good in theory, were not particularly well executed. For instance, when you hit level 50 in ESO, you begin levelling through the "Veteran Ranks," and are given an opportunity to experience the other factions' content and quests with levelled up (and generally more challenging) enemies. Think of it as the MMO version of New Game+. As a recovering alt-a-holic, I like that this gives me an incentive to experience more of the game's content without having to roll a new character. But at the same time, because there are few realistic alternative means of reaching max level, I dislike that it almost precludes me from trying another class without having to play content I've already completed. (Experience from monsters is severely reduced in Veteran Rank content, meaning that grinding is not viable. Hardcore players hate this.) The fact that you can't choose which enemy faction to visit first is more than a little bit annoying, too.
There are a host of other, less severe issues, which affect different players to varying degrees. I'm sure many players have "pet" issues which I've failed to mention here. I can't say that these issues don't affect the game experience; in some cases, they can be quite significant. But, like it or not, this is par for the course for a new MMO. I am confident that Zenimax is carefully monitoring the game and taking customer feedback into account. Their progress on bug fixes so far has been acceptable if not stellar (although I'm sure not everyone would agree), but I think it's clear that the game is stabilizing fairly quickly. The upcoming content patch should include a number of major fixes that players have been demanding, which I think will help a great deal.
The Elder Scrolls Online is not for everyone. It's not The Elder Scrolls VI, nor is it the next World of Warcraft. If you expect either of those things, you will likely be disappointed. What it is is an adept blend of those aspects that make The Elder Scrolls great with all of the social, competitive and cooperative elements that underpin good MMOs. Despite its flaws, I think it's an absolutely excellent game overall, and one which will surely appeal to most of its target audience if approached with an open mind. Even if the idea of a $15/month subscription fee is offputting to you, you can easily experience enough content in the first month to make the game well worth its $60 box price. I can't recommend it enough.
Hope to see you in Tamriel!