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The Elder Scrolls Online First Impressions

I’ve sunk a good 40 hours into Zenimax Online’s take on Tamriel, but MMORPGs require more time than others to fully evaluate. It may be too early to offer a definitive opinion on the latest iteration of the Elder Scrolls universe, but I have learned a lot from my time with the game so far. Here’s a look at how this single-player series translates into a populated online world.

Classes And Skills

Players choose one of four broad class archetypes. This may not seem like many options, but each class has three unique skill trees to invest in, allowing you to create a specialized playstyle. Outside of class skills, players have lots of skill trees that can be used by any class. Feel like making a mage who can use heavy armor and a bow while summoning pets? How about a lightly-armored, two-handed weapon user who casts armor and support spells from the front lines? How about an assassination-oriented werewolf blacksmith? The sky’s the limit, and you have plenty of skill points to go around. 

The way things are handled in group combat and interaction, almost any choice is viable and valuable. The skill system is further enhanced by allowing players using skills to “morph” them into higher tier versions as they progress through the game. A damage shield may get the option to explode when it breaks. A stun may be given additional range or an armor buff. There are also a number of “ultimate” abilities – powerful skills that often allow other players nearby to trigger special boosts. The skills system feels like it has a lot of freedom to explore, and respeccing is an option if things don’t end up how you envision them.

Graphics And Sound

This is a stunning MMORPG when it comes to presentation. The world of Tamriel looks brilliant as long as you’ve got the hardware to handle it. Some of the scenery is beyond impressive; Dark Anchors are breathtaking to behold despite the events themselves being rather lackluster. Voice acting from the likes of Malcolm McDowell and John Cleese keeps things immersive during the single-player storyline bits, and generally anyone you meet has something to say. From the beggar in town bemoaning his plight to the enemy in the field alerting his allies to light up the burning oil, the visuals and audio are top-notch.

Story And Quests

Despite some movement outside of a linear quest path and various caves and dungeons to explore, you generally move through each area in a set manner. Within those areas, you choose the order to do things, but your activities are lumped into giant “zone baskets” designed to be completed in a linear fashion. The quests attempt to be something nobler than the “kill 10 rats” paradigm that MMORPGs are infamous for, but in most cases this is nothing more than an illusion; the quests are standard MMORPG fare, and feel stale and boring. Occasional moments of questing feel like they belong, such as a town’s mysterious plague or puzzling through a temple, but the vast majority are variants of the fetch, kill, or courier archetypes. The main storyline quest is a good deal more enjoyable than the traditional quests that players visit regularly along the way, but overall, the questing is lackluster. The zoning baskets do some damage to the presentation of a true open world, as a player may technically be free to go to higher level zones early in the game but there’s not going to be much they can do there. These may have been necessary sacrifices to make the title work as a MMORPG, but they do not get a free pass.

Dungeons And Grouping

Don’t walk into this game expecting the traditional implementation of Holy Trinity (Tank, Healer, DPS).  While it does use these concepts, they’re fast and loose compared to the traditional MMORPG. The title uses a four-person group system that’s unlike the five-person setup players may be used to. The tank can’t pick up aggro on everything in dungeons viably – but should be expected to hold it on a boss. The healer can’t sit back and heal non-stop, as resources are limited. DPS has to do all kinds of things in order for packs to go smoothly, but that depends on what abilities are available in any given group. Since character builds are diverse, the way teams approach dungeon situations could be different. Success is often achieved by players doing what they do best, which can lead to some chaotic but enjoyable encounters. At its best, the grouping is frenetic and fun.

The group dungeons feel underwhelming right now. They don’t offer a comparable experience to solo play. Drops are random, so you may end up with nothing useful out of an entire run, and the locked chests that dot the dungeon landscape go only to the looter, which leads to people rushing to chests during pulls. The risk vs. reward ratio is way off, but this is a correctable fix. Chests need to give shared loot, and experience rewards need to be improved. Group dungeons are a lot more fun than the doldrums of outdoor linear questing, but they need some tuning.

The solo and public dungeons are great in concept, but problematic in reality. These dungeons are small, snackable explorations that include a number of packs and a boss unit, and are tuned for a few players. Right now, these dungeons are overcamped to the extreme, with many players opting to camp the boss spawn over and over for an influx of loot.

Crafting

The crafting system is simple, time-consuming, and deep. Items can be broken down for raw materials and crafted into various pieces. Crafters research the modifiers on found items to add these traits to their handiwork in the future, create and upgrade gear, and harvest materials found around Tamriel. It’s a fun system that can create incredible gear via special crafting stations. I will say that the bag space required for even one craft is extensive, so if you’re moving into several craft disciplines, you’re going to want to save up for bag upgrades as soon as possible.

PvP

The player-vs-player alliance war is reminiscent of Dark Age of Camelot, one of the best systems we’ve seen in the MMORPG genre. I haven’t gotten too far into it yet, but the quick dip I’ve taken into the pool shows promise.

My time in Tamriel thus far has been mixed. As always, the cornerstone to any MMO is the endgame and the content available at level cap. There’s a solid game here, but it may not be what Elder Scrolls fans were expecting.

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