“The Elder Scrolls Online” (Xbox One) Review

(originally published 7/22/15)

The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited attempts to combine the accessible action-RPG elements of the Elder Scrolls series with traditional MMO mechanics, many of which may be new to the series’ console fanbase. The result is an experience that can be grindy and repetitive, but is a worthy time sink for Elder Scrolls fans.

Taking place 1000 years before the events of Skyrim, there are two overarching stories in ESO. The first involves your individual quest to recover your soul from Molag Bal, whom you’ve been sacrificed to. You soon become wrapped up in a quest to foil his plans to meld the realms of the human world of Tamriel and his Coldharbour, while recruiting allies to aid you along the way. This storyline has plenty of potential on paper, but is incredibly uninteresting. Most of these missions take place in the dreary, unappealing world of Coldharbour, and the expository dialogue does a poor job of explaining what the hell is actually going on.

However, the second questline is much more interesting. Three alliances across Tamriel (the Daggerfall Covenant, the Ebonheart Pact and the Aldmeri Dominion) have united the various provinces and their races to fight for the central land of Cyrodiil. Whichever race you pick at the beginning of the game (barring an expansion pack allow unrestricted alliance/race mixing) determines which faction you’ll be fighting for. This also dictates which side of Tamriel you’ll be starting on, the characters you’ll bring for your fight against Molag Bal, and most importantly, who you’ll be representing in the game’s PvP.

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The single-player questing boils down to completing a set of quests in every single area of every single zone of your alliance. There are some side quests and delves to tackle along the way, but they’re pretty ancillary to someone who isn’t a completionist. This grind is where the ESO experience begins to appeal more to a player’s obsessive-compulsive desire to complete things rather than their excitement for going on new and exciting missions.

While the amount of lore and detail in the fully-voiced quests is admirable, they lack the intrigue that stops players from skipping through conversations as fast as they can. It’s possible to become emotionally invested in quests that you pay attention to, but in an MMO that’s meant to be played communally with friends, it’s difficult to maintain that level of focus.

Despite the quests themselves being lackluster, the sheer size of the explorable world is enough to tolerate the grindy missions as an excuse to delve deeper into the humongous playspace. Almost every province of Elder Scrolls lore is represented and playable to some degree. To fans who have dreamt of journeying around Tamriel with their friends for years, there is a huge amount of real estate available for the game’s initial release.

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The combat in ESO is an attempt at mixing Elder Scrolls action with the stat-based combat and ability bars of a traditional MMO. And the result is… an uncomfortable mix.

It’s not bad, but with only two readily available ability bars to utilize, combat can become extremely mundane past level 25. Few enemies need to be tackled with unique strategies, so you’ll find yourself using the same combination of hacking and spell casting for every daedra you face.

Some of this monotony can be levied by playing with friends. And while this makes combat a little more interesting, ESO does a poor job of making players who’re questing together feel part of a team. It seems more like you and your friends are doing the same quest alongside each other, rather than tackling it together as a group.

This problem is negated somewhat by the group dungeons which realistically require a team of four to complete, but the non-veteran dungeons still don’t do much to challenge teams who communicate on a minimal level.

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The character building in ESO is freeform and unrestrictive for an MMORPG. Players can spec from four initial classes each resembling the standard tank, DPS, rouge and healer MMO archetypes. However, it’s possible to create any type of character build with each of these four classes.

Along with class abilities, every class can use every weapon and armor type. This allows for an insane amount of character freedom via the various skill trees. It’s possible to create any type of build you can imagine, from a simple Breton super-healer to an Orc healer-firemage with a bow.

The crafting is another element that ESO brings from its previous single-player games. Alchemy, enchanting, provisioning, etc. are back and are fun professions to pursue as you gather materials from your journey. Being able to make a good meal or craft a quality suit of armor can give you and your guild a good edge on your competition, and the pursuit of ingredients or other materials adds another layer of texture to exploration.

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While a vast amount of effort is put into PvE questing, in most MMOs, it’s more of a means to an end, which is the PvP. ESO is no different, and its versus mode offers one of the most one-of-a-kind gameplay experiences I’ve had in years.

In the context of the story, Cyrodiil is landlocked between each of the three alliances. This middle ground is heavily coveted, and players are sent to conquer the various castles and fortifications in the name of their alliance. Along the way, you’ll lay siege to enemy strongholds, fight hordes of player-controlled enemies in open combat, and capture elder scrolls to give your army stat bonuses.

The campaigns in Cyrodiil are unforgiving. Wit and good strategy will get you decently far, but nothing beats sheer numbers. There are no mechanics that benefit struggling alliances in campaigns where they’re losing ground. The dominant armies stay dominant, and while this can be frustrating to overcome without dozens of other players ready to raid, it makes actually taking enemy forts feel that much more gratifying when you fight for them tooth and nail.

Representing and fighting for a faction also gives you a sense of pride. While the initial choice of which faction you’ll fight for seems trivial, after spending hours conquering forts for your alliance and fighting against enemy forces, it makes you feel a part of something. Great games are able to draw out real emotions for something fictional, which is what ESO emphatically accomplishes.

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If nothing else, The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited is a great time-sink. After well over 100 hours, I’ve finally finished the main quest and am still ready for more. The shallow combat can make PvE questing a monotonous chore, but it all pays off when you’re laying siege across Cyrodiil in the name of your alliance.