We've cursed more over the course of the last twelve days than in our entire adult lives. Lines have been crossed and less than human sounds have been uttered as our fists have come crashing down on our desk. A metal letter tray from IKEA has been twisted beyond recognition. Reviewing The Elder Scrolls Online has been trying, because in spite of enjoying our time in Tamriel with other people, it's painfully clear that Zenimax Online Studios weren't able to finish the game in time for launch.
Now it should be noted that the genre is such that a few bugs always seem to linger. When you create a massive open-world populated by massive numbers of players and there's a subscription fee - it's sort of implied that it's a work in progress. But The Elder Scrolls Online stands out from the crowd as far as delivering an unfinished experience at launch goes.
Never before have we encountered such issues with a game client. It's like owning an old and well maintained classic car, as when The Elder Scrolls finally works the way it's supposed to, the time we spend with it is largely enjoyable, but at the same time there's always that feeling that something could break at any time.
We were invited to try an early beta version last summer, and as such we knew we shouldn't expect a classic Elder Scrolls experience from the game. The emphasis is on "Online" rather than "The Elder Scrolls", and even if components such as the iconic compass, a levelling system where you advance by doing, and dialogue choices that impact the world around us - it doesn't take us long to realise the structure here is that of tried and tested MMORPGs.
It becomes obvious as we've made it through the obligatory starting phase where we, as a Dark Elf Nightblade, escape from a prison with a blind man and then teleport into the greater Tamriel. Unlike other Elder Scrolls titles we cannot explore freely at our own pace. Instead we're more or less trapped in a closed-in terrority until our character has reached a specific level. This forces us to play for hours in an environment that we don't like, grinding on quests that we're not emotionally invested in, only to gather enough strength to progress to the next zone.
Thankfully we're not set in our ways and we quickly learn to accept the somewhat more linear structure, but unfortunately it doesn't end there, as there are more things to annoy you if you want this game with Elder Scrolls in its title to play like other games with Elder Scrolls in their titles. We can no longer pick up things and move them, the physics engine is completely replaced by one that's of a more classic MMO type, the towns appear devoid of life, and the brilliant narrative has been replaced by short, predictable quest chains with anxious NPCs that are quickly forgotten.
Short, predictable quest chains, that often can't be complete as a result of bugs. Here's an example: The other day we ventured out to a ruin so we could place a crystal on a pedestal so one character would leave the soul of another character alone (sorry, about the hazy recollection, but we've already forgotten most of the details). The road there could have been hard as it was lined by troops of ghosts, but as luck would have we were joined by a few other players on the same quest.
The enemies fell in mere seconds before we reached a door that separated us into an instance each. Some bosses you can only face alone or with a formal group of players, while other battles can be joined at any point for a more spontaneous battle. This boss proved too difficult for us, and despite dying in the last room of the whole ruin we were reanimated at the closest "wayshrine" a few hundred metres away in the nearby forest.
We had to start from the beginning, but this time without any assistance as the others must have done better against the boss. Inside the ruins the enemies were back, and when we finally reached the endboss again, he decided to stop fighting and lay down flat on the ground. There was no way to kill him and no way to leave the room. So we were left with no option but hit ctrl+alt+del, kill the client, reboot and take on a different quest, full of frustration after our loss of progression.
A lot of the cleared quests have dramatic impact on the world around us. In a nearly empty village the population have taken ill and we accept the task of finding out what's behind the outbreak. It turns out that a blacksmith has poisoned the drinking water with venom from a spider as she was the losing party in a love triangle. She admits her actions and runs off into the forest. Some time later she returns with a small army, and once it's been dealt with and people start to return to health, the empty town goes through several stages until ultimately ending up a rather enjoyable place to return to when it's time to buy or sell items.
In similar fashion we happen upon a town where there is simply too much thunder and lightning for it to be considered safe by any definition. Turns out a mage is conjuring up the bad weather at the top of a tower so we go there and stop him by hurling from his tower to the ground. The town quietens down, traders venture out and open their stalls and it feels like we've made a difference. And we did so in our own way.
After a few hours of gaming we notice that it's at its most enjoyable when we're not looking at the quest journal or the map, but instead simply set out in a random direction and stumble upon the adventures. It's never as free and seamless as in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (once again, because we're locked into locations that match our level), but there is almost always something to discover or experience, whether it's a wormhole that drops in enemies from another dimension, or simply a locked chest to pick.
If you know your Elder Scrolls you will no doubt be happy that you still improve the abilities you use, down to the smallest detail. If you wear medium armour your medium armour level will rise, and if you fight with two knives your dual wielding will improve. Since we're dealing with an MMORPG you can also add various attacks that you can bind these to keys 1 through 5.
By using abilities of a specific type - such as Nightblade's "Assassination" - you will be able to unlock better abilities, and upgrade the ones you already have. At level 15 you will unlock the ability to switch weapons and ability on the fly with simple a press of a button, which opens up for even more options and tactics.
It works wonderfully well. We began our careers as an archer wearing heavy armour until we realised that stealth assassinations with two knives was more fun. High endurance proved important so we placed a couple of points as medium armour bonuses to get more out of the abilities. If you're looking for an MMORPG where you can really build a unique character, you will love this aspect of The Elder Scrolls Online.
One of the most unique aspects of the game is the option of playing it from a first-person perspective, or from a third-person perspective where the camera is placed a little behind the character. Sadly combat in first-person proved a frustrating experience for us, and it was nigh on impossible to gain an overview when three or more enemies surrounded us. Camera problems become obvious when we tried to make precision jumps or step through a door, and soon we settled on playing it a bit zoomed out - like other MMORPGs in other words.
Starting at level 10 you can teleport to Cyrodiil, the province where The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion took place, to partake in some PvP action. This is where the three factions; Aldmeri, Ebonheart and Daggerfall, face off in glorious combat to gain control of forts, mines, and mills, and literally gain Elder Scrolls that gives bonuses to the entire army. The idea is that the two losing factions should work together and then stab the other in the back - a great idea in theory, but so far we haven't seen any great examples of this.
Perhaps it's too soon in the life of the game for players to take up PvP in larger numbers, or perhaps we made some poor choices in the difficult to decipher PvP menus? At any rate, there is potential here, and regardless of the greater schemes it's no less impressive to see tons of players face each other with ballistas and abilities even if we belong to the category of players who prefer the synchronised strategy of boss battles over the chaos of PvP combat.
If you read our first week journal, you'll be familiar with the horse and the concept of feeding it every day in order to evolve it in the area the food represents. One week ago we wrote that the horse was too slow and that it was overtaken by a small Elf, but we're happy to report that it has improved a lot in this area after a week-long diet of speedy apples. If we hadn't been lucky enough to have the Imperial Edition we would have had to save up the rather large sum of 17,200 gold to buy our first horse (or 42,700 for a prized stallion), but with the Imperial Edition it only cost us a single gold coin.
Strange, but not as strange as when two players typed in /flute in short succession, while the soundtrack was playing and we were talking to a quest-giver. It was completely impossible to hear (and hard to focus on reading for that matter) a single word of what the quest-giver had to say. These sort of minor annoyances and mistakes should have been rooted out a long time ago during the beta, but as it is now it remains and soils the experience.
How do we sum it all up in the end then? It's a tough one as The Elder Scrolls Online offers both highs and lows. One moment we're enjoying it tremendously in a dungeon with just the right level of challenge with other players. The next moment we're yawning as four new characters we've never seen before are presented in a short piece of dialogue where the characters appears to switch voices all of a sudden. One moment we're taking in stunning vistas accompanied by the best music the series has offered to date. The next moment we're violently kicked off the server or find ourselves stuck on a loading screen for the fourth time in a day.
The Elder Scrolls Online offers something unique for those who treasure exploration and want to immerse themselves in the rich history of Tamriel, but the game is far from finished at launch. And what is finished is often not very engaging or captivating, which results in long passages that you have to endure in order to enjoy the really rewarding content.
That's not how an MMORPG is supposed to work in our opinion, and we've got a feeling in our guts that we won't spend any major amount of time with it now that we've reviewed it. This in spite of a tempting system with veteran levels from level 50 and a constant current of new content from Zenimax Online Studios as they're eager to prove their longterm approach.
Give it a shot if you have one or more friends who love Elder Scrolls and have no issue putting up with equal parts frustration and enjoyment, while you also contribute some money to the continued development of the game each month. We're sadly forced to conclude we weren't given what we'd been hoping for, but we remain hopeful that the genre has a bright future with games like Wildstar, Everquest Next and World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor on the horizon.