Elder Scrolls Online settles for a much less exciting middle ground
I look across the Alik'r desert from atop my steed. The arid ground below its hooves has been cracked by the sun's intense heat, and only husks are left where vegetation once thrived. I see a shrine in the distance signaling a friendly oasis, but it's lonely here, and I long to catch a ride on the hot breezes that blow past. It's a pensive moment, and I savor it, for I must believe that a grand adventure waits for me beyond that shrine, beyond the rocky plateaus that wall in this desert, beyond the Arabia-inspired dwellings that dot the sands.
Granted, the launch week has been hounded by server instability and lag (that seems to be clearing up in the wake of a couple of patches), and I'm still not a big fan of the console versions' voice-only approach to socializing. But at the same time, The Elder Scrolls Online feels at home on the Xbox One and PS4, as though it were made for them from the start. Developer ZeniMax Online has generally done a good job of transforming it into one of the best MMORPGs currently available on consoles. It also doesn't eat at your wallet. TESO scrapped its subscription free earlier this year, which means you can play all of its content without having to pay a dime beyond the initial purchase price. It takes a while for the pieces to fall into place over the course of its 100-hour main story, but in time it delivers an experience that's at least as worthy of the Elder Scrolls name as any of the three most recent single-player games. (It suffers from the same occasional cliches, too.) It presents its own unique twists and cameos of important figures from Elder Scrolls lore, as well as a final boss encounter that both exceeds the challenges of some of the single-player games and points to what's in store in the promising Veteran content that comes after 50.
The world you inhabit is vast and ever reaching, but its far from pretty. Many of the locations you enter are easy to tell the differences between, but the lackluster visuals don’t do them any favors. The console versions look decent at best when compared to its PC brethren. Some of the scenery and its elements stands out in certain areas, while most of them appear unexciting and repetitive in the several locales. The many avatars running around in one area tends to make the game chug along slowly at times, plus you may encounter game crashes from time to time. Quests are instanced to each player, so people in your group completing requirements for quests will not necessarily complete them for you, however enemies are not. If other players are around, then can help you defeat your bosses and vice-versa. From my experience so far, the game has been largely solo focused, though this may be because I have yet to take on any group dungeons or the game’s PvP challenges. It seems like the main and secondary quests are more built for solo play, whereas the endgame content is designed for groups to raid against bosses and other players.
I've played a fair way into two of these campaigns and there's little to choose between them, and little within them to distinguish one region from the next. ZeniMax Online's artists and writers have really struggled to inject personality and variation into this world. Memorable characters and locations are few and far between. Cities are interchangeable arrangements of repeating, oversized architecture. Landscapes are an unchanging wash of rugged greens and browns. It's not an ugly game, far from it - it has a nice line in pastoral melancholy - but its look never changes and your visual palate is never refreshed. That's extremely wearying over the course of 50 hours, never mind the hundreds people play MMOs for. Elder Scrolls Online had a great opportunity to bring something different to the MMO genre. While the Elder Scrolls series shares the massive open world element common to MMORPGs, it also brings its own set of expectations and traditions that really could have set this game apart. But rather than an ambitious project that blends the strengths of these two styles of role-playing game, Elder Scrolls Online settles for a much less exciting middle ground - a sloppy mix that waters down what's great about Elder Scrolls while flat-out ruining the best parts of an MMO.
It is, nonetheless, the exception. My enthusiasm for The Elder Scrolls Online's competitive side doesn't stack up against the time I have spent feeling drained by drab questing or restricted by a world ensconced in fog. This is an MMORPG of moderate scope with a few good ideas and the resources invested in it seem sufficient to expect new dungeons, daily quests and armour sets to collect at a decent clip for the next couple of months. If you're tired of your current fantasy haunt and looking for somewhere to transfer your guild, this game may suit you for a time. For everyone else, though, I'd advise caution. There's no game that I'd be happy recommending on the basis that it's at best 'okay' for thirty-plus hours. 'Okay' isn't good enough when you're facing down this much of a premium, and I can't imagine paying a monthly fee to visit somewhere I've been many times before.