Fifty years from now, when our grandkids clamber up onto our laps and look at us with big doe eyes and say, “Tell me about the history of MMORPGs.” We’ll have to look those young, naive children in the eye and lie about what a sad year 2014 was.
It wasn’t terrible, but the year was punctuated by several releases that were, well, uh, less than stellar. Unfortunately, The Elder Scrolls Online happened to be in that number. MMOs have a tendency to limp out of the gate and built momentum over time, and as launch day neared for Bethesda’s sacred franchise, things weren’t looking good.
Which is why you might be surprised to hear that despite its launch woes, The Elder Scrolls Online has been trucking along ever since. The little MMORPG that could announced it would be dropping its mandatory subscription fee just in time for its console release. And, a week before the Xbox One gets its first real taste of an MMORPG (PS4 already has Final Fantasy XIV), I’ve decided to take on the noble quest of explaining why The Elder Scrolls Online isn’t the doom and gloom so many people make it out to be.
The Kinks In Questing Have Largely Been Worked Out
Launching an MMORPG is like giving a delicate flower you spent years doting over to a horde of screaming, roughhousing children; they will destroy everything beautiful about it in minutes. It’s not the children’s fault, of course. They’re just doing what children do. But the sheer volume of players that surge headlong into your servers will make them buckle, and all sorts of problems will present themselves in a million ways.
At launch, The Elder Scrolls Online was kind of a mess. During the beta weekends, Zenimax Online Studios clearly didn’t have a solid vision for their game as they made massive changes like making starter islands mandatory, and then optional. Not only that, but the game was built on a foundation that encouraged role-playing, something that was severely hampered when you were one of 300 half naked characters trying to talk to the same town guard.
Things got even worse when you walked into a cave to confront an evil necromancer and just as he finished his epic speech those 300 naked characters pounced on him before you could even get a sword hit in, forcing you to wait until he respawned.
I think you get the point: the stitches in the game were showing, and they weren’t pretty.
The good news is that, with time, some dedicated patchwork, and with the playerbase spreading out so zones don’t look like hurricane relief centers, The Elder Scrolls Online feels like a much more fluid and interesting experience.
Going back to Tamriel, whether on the console or PC, is probably going to surprise you with just how cohesive it feels. Quests have been tuned properly, the new player experience is much friendlier and more instructive, and overall the game is starting to possess a polish that it was sorely lacking in earlier months.
Questing and Pacing Are Unique and Worthy of Attention
In a genre dominated by quests that are as substantial as eating packets of Splenda and calling it supper, The Elder Scrolls Online still feels like a game in a league of its own. Quests rarely fall into the archetypes we have all come to know and hate, and the attention to narrative and world building are both welcome additions to the genre. The Elder Scrolls Online does a fantastic job of getting you involved in the game on a deeper level than hoping the axe you get for beating a necromancer to death with 300 comrades gives you +1 to damage.
But most of all, Elder Scrolls Online is a game that benefits from sitting back and taking things slowly. I don’t know about you, but I find the madhouse grind to endgame that many MMORPGs encourage to be absolutely exhausting. A lot of the time, that grind is encouraged because—surprise, surprise—the actual content pre-endgame is hot, filthy garbage on a summer day.
Leveling up to the cap in The Elder Scrolls Online actually has substance to it. The questing is interesting regardless of level, and the world is absolutely littered with points of interest that you’ll want to visit regardless of what you might find.
It’s refreshing to play a game where you don’t feel like you have to invest 70 hours just to start doing cool stuff.
The One-of-a-kind PVP Adds a Whole New Element to the Game
Player versus player combat is a time honored tradition of just about every MMO out there. It varies from game to game, but whether it takes place in an arena or out in the wilderness, players are always scrambling for opportunities to beat the other team’s necromancer to death with 300 of their friends.
The Elder Scrolls Online‘s unique Alliance vs Alliance vs Alliance mode is truly unlike anything offered by most contemporary MMOs. Not only is this a fully fledged PVP mode, but it takes place on the massive continent of Cyrodiil (the setting from Oblivion) and pits you in a three way fight for the Elder Scrolls. What makes this system so incredible is the massive battles it encourages, as armies meet to capture fortresses and keeps in epic conflicts worthy of anything portrayed in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.
Server lag still presents an issue during these fights, but overall the experience is far smoother than it was at launch. Cyrodiil isn’t just a massive battleground either; it contains a wealth of quests, dungeons, and things to see and do when you aren’t actively skewering people.
Joining up with 300 other players and laying siege to keeps full of necromancers with catapults and ballistae is a very unique experience, and the chaotic melees that unfold once the walls have crumbled is always a great time.
Further more, Zenimax Online Studios have made tweaks to the AvAvA system by introducing special instances for players who are below level cap, meaning you won’t feel significantly outgunned by veteran champions.
The Justice System Helps Evoke More of Skyrim
When The Elder Scrolls Online launched and people were raging and discussing the game at length, a large portion of the dissatisfaction with the game could be summarized by people having expectations that differed from the final product. Simply, people wanted Skyrim Online, and instead they received a game much more akin to traditional MMO sensibilities.
I’m not going to bother weighing in one way or the other, but Zenimax Online Studios are obviously aware of how their game disappointed Elder Scrolls loyalists and have been working hard to bring to the table something to change their mind. The justice system is one way in which they are doing just that.
Tamriel feels significantly more flexible now that players can pilfer and murder their way across the countryside. Non-player characters can be pickpocketed and attacked, and there are consequences to having sticky fingers when rummaging through someone’s things.
Eventually, a bounty system will be rolled out where players can also be tasked with taking the unsavory players of TESO to task, but until it launches, we’ll refrain from commenting on it.
Veteran Ranks Will Soon Be a Distant Nightmare
The big problem with The Elder Scrolls Online is that, right now, getting to level cap is like climbing this big beautiful mountain: You take your time, you enjoy the sights, and look forward to reaching the top. Then, when you finally crest the last rise and stand on the summit, the clouds clear and you realize you’ve only made it a third of the way. Taking your time and enjoying things is great and all, but I mean, come on. We need to start endgame some day!
Veteran Ranks were a fancy way of leveling up beyond the level cap, and earning ranks required experience that your character could gather through a variety of means. The big problem being that, for a long time, the best way to earn the experience required was by running through the leveling content of the other two faction zones.
This was a huge problem, especially if you liked rolling alternative characters, since you were basically replaying the same quality of content over and over. Furthermore, the experience gains were imbalanced in such a way as to push players towards this content over the other options like running dungeons, pledges, PVP, and more. No fun.
Zenimax Online Studios have slowly been rolling out a series of changes that will eventually culminate in the whole Veteran system being beaten to death by 300 developers in front of a cheering crowd. That moment hasn’t happened, but we’re a good chunk of the way there.
The Champion system will be the Veteran Ranks’ much more attractive and cooler brother that we’d way rather hang out with. It introduces a horizontal account-wide progression system that allows you to plug points into various skill trees that offer passive bonuses. We’re also expecting it to eventually re-balance the endgame to make it far more approachable for players not wanting to spend their days as Tamriel’s butler.
If you’re like me, you can’t wait to waste the summer away in a basement and then spend the winter lamenting how pale and sickly you look. It’s really the greatest time of year. So if you’re looking for that perfect game to help you achieve a skin tone that would make 16th century nobles swoon, The Elder Scrolls Online is certainly a promising proposition. So put away that sunscreen and those pink shorts, you have a fantasy world that needs saving.Related: Column, Console, Listed, MMORPG, Playstation 4, The Elder Scrolls Online, Xbox One