It’s taken me a couple of weekends of play to get there, but I’ve finally narrowed down my one big problem with The Elder Scrolls Online. It’s this: I cannot help but find it really boring.
Before I get on with my reasoning for all of this, though, let me give the usual caveats with a preview. This is an unfinished game. It’s an unfinished MMO, no less, which means that I haven’t had nearly enough time to explore absolutely every part of it and give a proper verdict; hell, my exploits took me to around level 13, so I haven’t even had time to explore one character class to anything near total satisfaction. My experience with the PvP was during what appeared to be a stress test period, so that’s probably coloured my opinions somewhat. Likewise, my experience with the PvE is during beta, which means the streets of Tamriel’s cities are a lot emptier than they will be at launch.
With all that out of the way: no, I haven’t really enjoyed my time with The Elder Scrolls Online. I haven’t found much wrong with it – if anything, it’s a well-assembled MMO. It just feels incredibly generic and lifeless, and none of its many systems do much to alleviate this.
Last week, I spent time with my Breton Dragonknight exploring Daggerfall and levelling up. This week I did much the same, only with a bit of PvP thrown in for good measure.
Let’s talk about the PvP, actually. This is one thing which could, theoretically, be The Elder Scrolls Online‘s saving grace, and I am absolutely willing to state that the experience I had with it won’t come close to how it’ll (hopefully) work at launch.
If anything, it’s a riff on the huge battlefronts of Guild Wars 2 or Planetside 2. You’ve got a big, big area stuffed full of forts and mines and the like – the area around the Imperial City in Cyrodiil, in fact – and your faction is battling it out with the other two factions to achieve dominance. You purchase siege weapons, assault forts, defend your own territory, and – in general – try to achieve an advantage over the others.
There are a few neat little twists, though. You can accept missions from your home base which might range from little scouting trips to taking forts. You can attempt to capture (or recapture) the Elder Scrolls themselves, stored in temples close to the home base of each faction, each of which bestows a nice little boost to the faction possessing it. You can try to take and hold the forts surrounding the Imperial City itself; doing so will result in the highest-scoring player on your team actually becoming Emperor and gaining a bunch of new powers, forever. Even when they’re dethroned.
In principle, all of this sounds great. In practice… well, I didn’t really have the best experience with the PvP. I’m sufficiently low-level that I have no mount, so getting to the raging battlefront – an attempt to retake one of our forts from what I think was the dastardly Aldmeri Dominion – involved several minutes spent walking in a straight line, because we apparently didn’t have a frontline camp (which allows respawning at that location) set up yet.
Once I arrived, things were looking up. The front gate was down, so we’d made it into the outer courtyard. We had siege engines set up in there, bombarding the inner walls. I wandered in, dodging the odd arrow or giant rock flung down from the occupied battlements, and admired the carnage. Then a high-level player killed me with three arrows, the first of which slowed me to a snail’s pace.
I respawned at our frontline camp, made my way back towards the castle, and found myself in a fight with another high-level player. He was on low health and backing away, and there were two people legging it after him. I joined in the chase and, because I was coming from the side, I managed to catch up to him before the others. I swung my sword. It passed through him and he froze in place.
I swung my sword again. No reaction. I used one of my abilities to set him on fire. No reaction. Then I was dead, and his model was suddenly halfway through some spinning attack, so I guess a lag spike was the end of me.
I respawned, and once again made my way towards the fort. The front gate was now inexplicably fully repaired, so we’d presumably been forced out of the courtyard. The surviving members of our assault party milled around the outside of the gate for a little while, seemingly a bit confused, and occasionally battling with an AI guard or an enemy player who’d leaped off the battlements. This went on for some time.
Not the best first experience with PvP, you might say. I’m not quite sure how the level difference is being treated; I know that the game raises your stats to compete with other players, but not your skills, and I have no idea how much of an impact the armour and weapons you have will make on this. In short, I don’t know whether level 12s will be able to compete on an even keel with level 30s. They can at least partake in some of the simpler missions offered by the factions, and I imagine the PvP will be a lot more interesting when more players have an idea of how it works, but… well, that wasn’t an overly auspicious start.
So I went back to questing. I cleared up a couple of outstanding quests – helping out the Fighter’s Guild with the little problem of a kidnapped member, for one thing, and collecting a whole bunch of crocodile teeth – and then I found something a little more interesting.
One of the big problems in Daggerfall at the moment is apparently a resurrected werewolf who was basically unkillable the first time around. In an effort to find out how he was killed in the past, so that we can do it again now that he’s back, I hooked up with a load of mages researching the battleground where he first fell. This eventually led to me going back to the past in the form of the person who slew him, in an attempt to find out what circumstances led up to that event and how it was actually achieved.
Thematically, this is kind of great. It’s fairly interesting. It’s something a little different from Kill 10 Houses or Knock On 15 Bees. It was still pretty damn dull to play through, and not just because his actual weakness is staggeringly obvious and it frankly seems impossible that nobody had ever tried it before.
Part of this is that the combat is just so overwhelmingly dull. You’ve got your six assigned powers along with your basic weapon attacks, but few of them actually feel powerful. Okay, sure, my ability to magically hurl a giant lump of rock at someone and knock them over is great. My sword slash that sets them on fire, though, just feels utterly anaemic. Barring the flaming lines that trail after my sword when I perform it, there’s no real reaction. Smashing someone in the face with a two-handed battleaxe doesn’t send my opponent flying back. It doesn’t even stagger them; they don’t move. The only indication that this powerful, two-handed swing even hurt them is that their health bar goes down a little. Combat just has no physicality to it, which is a bit of a problem when so much of it is melee.
There’s no great excitement to exploring. Once you get out of the tutorial areas the world is certainly rather expansive, but there’s no feeling that you’re forging your own path, even in beta when there are far fewer players around. There’s no feeling of trepidation on discovering a new cave to explore, or finding a mysterious tower standing out in the middle of nowhere. You might find a Skyshard or a lorebook, but it never feels like you’ll stumble upon some great secret.
Early on, at least, there’s also no huge excitement to levelling, as that mostly just means a new point for your stats and a new point for your abilities (and occasionally being able to wear better gear, as – yes – all equipment is level-locked). I suspect there will be some interest in theorycrafting the best builds for each class,
That’s the thing, really. The Elder Scrolls Online does almost everything competently, but nothing interestingly. Combat? It’s present. You have skills. You usually have to pay at least some attention. Questing? They’re largely better, both thematically and mechanically, than the Kill 72 Rats rubbish, but I’ve never felt overly invested in what happens during them. Open mechanics? No. You’ve got freedom in terms of which skills you level, but you’re not going to be wearing Daedric Armour thanks to finding a hidden chest at Level 4. The game doesn’t really force you from quest to quest with the usual breadcrumb trail, instead leaving plenty scattered around for you to find on your own, but it’s still a dangerous idea to wander too far away from areas designed for your level.
What I’ve played indicates that The Elder Scrolls Online is a competent MMO in all the usual ways, taking few risks with design and instead just offering a few twists on the standard MMO template. But I’ve seen no indications that it’s a particularly good MMO, nor is it – lore aside – particularly Elder Scrolls-y. I’m bored with it already, and that’s not a good sign.