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Elder Scrolls Online review

Good things come to those who wait. That’s what I kept telling myself when the console version of Elder Scrolls Online was delayed shortly before the official release date in April 2014.

The wait is now over, but much has changed in the interim. Like most MMOs, frequent updates have been released for the PC version and a decision was taken by Bethesda Softworks to do away with the subscription fees, bringing ESO in line with other successful Buy to Play titles like the Guild Wars series.

This meant that we received all of these changes in the ESO Tamriel Unlimited edition that hit shelves this month.

ESO continues the tradition of every Elder Scrolls game since Morrowind; introducing you to the game imprisoned in some fashion before revealing you to be the Vestige, the one person that can stand against (insert antagonist here). This time around, it’s Molag Bal, the Daedric Prince of Domination, who through manipulation and subterfuge has torn the veil between Nirn, the realms of men and mer, and the realms of Oblivion. Further machinations from his subordinates has resulted in the fall of the emperor and set the Ten Races of Tamriel on a collision course to occupy the currently empty Ruby Throne, whereby distracting the races from the imminent threat from the Daedric Prince.

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Elder Scrolls Online is no “tour de force” in terms of its graphical fidelity, especially in comparison to recent titles. Given the delay in release, and the nature and scale of the game, I didn’t expect ESO to be a Witcher 3 beater regardless, and anyone who did is obviously not aware of the different requirements needed for a persistent open world single player RPG and a persistent open world massively multiplayer online RPG. That said, for a Console based MMO, the graphics are truly surprising, and easily surpass the visuals of Neverwinter, and in my personal opinion, firmly compete with the aesthetics that Final Fantasy 14 came to deliver after its relaunch.

Sun and Moon cycles illuminate the lands of Tamriel, while dynamic weather system brings the world to life. The console version obviously lacks some of the graphical punch that a heavyweight PC can produce, and the draw distance has obviously been turned down to allow for a balance between stability and fidelity, but despite some minor character and texture popping when things get hectic, the beauty of this massive world is apparent and eminently impressive.

Those familiar with an action MMO will be instantly familiar with the action bar set up, giving you space to hold six active abilities at any time. These slots can be filled with Racial, Class, faction or weapon based skills allowing for a wide range of variation to cater to how each person wants to play. These are further increased to 12 once you hit level fifteen and you unlock a secondary weapon set that can be switched on the fly.Fri_Jun_19_14-22-21_UTC+0100_2015

Add into this the “morph” skill system, which allows deviating paths for each skill as you utilise and level it up, this further increases the possibility for a more tailored and unique approach to building the character that you want to play.

During battle, enemy attacks are telegraphed with white and red representations on the enemies that indicate whether you can block or interrupt the ability, and attack range markers are displayed on the ground to allow you to evade the damage.

Much like the overarching Dragonborn / Civil War storylines from Skyrim, the ongoing struggle between each of the three factions plays directly into the multiplayer PvP facet of the game, with the central theme of the Daedric invasion giving focus and credence to the solo story of ESO.

Escaping the grasp of Morag Bal with the uninspiringly named “The Prophet”, you are returned to the realm of Nirn where upon you are tasked with aiding him in relocating and freeing the Five companions in order to face and depose Mannimarco, the traitorous lackey of Molag Bal and leader of the Necromancer‘s Cult of Worms.

Each Faction has its unique quest lines and side quests that run alongside the main solo quest, with the Fighters guild and Mage’s Guild quest lines identical for all 3 coalitions. Like its predecessors, the world is littered with locations, dungeons and quests that reward you for straying off the beaten path and the instantly recognizable Compass at the top of your screen is forever full of undiscovered destinations.

Each of these quests are fully voiced, and the scope of this undertaking is truly impressive in its own right. I have yet to encounter dialogue in over 60 hours of gameplay that sounded “phoned in”.

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Once you hit level 10, you can venture into Cyrodiil and take part in the faction battles to claim the empire for your own faction. Most of the core of Cyrodiil is present, and has been separated into sextants, two zones for each faction.  The Ebonheart Pact dominate the lands in the North East around Cheydinhal , the Daggerfall Covenant taking root in the North West near Chorrol and the Aldmeri Dominion holding sway in the South of the map from Skingrad to Bravil.

The ultimate goal, is to capture specific key strongholds in the warzone in order to have a member of your faction crowned emperor. To do so, you must assault enemy forces and fortifications to break their hold before reinforcing and defending the captured points.

If any of you have previously played Planetside, there are a lot of similarities and the instance in which you participate is in a constant state of flux as the tide of battle ebbs and flows.

The thing I did not know about Cyrodiil, is that it does not force you to fight other players head on if PvP is not interesting to you. Scattered throughout the area are quest npc’s, who send you to dungeons and against mobs that inhabit the world, and alongside these you also have quests that your faction can provide to aid the war effort indirectly.

As a Nightblade I focused on scouting the enemy strongholds; sneaking behind enemy lines, eliminating key npc’s in my path and avoiding players, before sending back tactical reports to reveal troop composition and strength. I can honestly say my heart was in my mouth the entire time!

I happened to stumble upon a cave on my return, and after defeating the wolves that inhabited the grotto, I made my way via Cheydinhal where the local militia asked for my aid against the imperial army that remained in the area. After killing their commanding officer and returning the militia leaders stolen heirloom, I made my way back to base and handed in my quests. Not once, during the hour I was questing in the PvP Zone away from the front lines, did I encounter an enemy player.

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True to MMO tropes, ESO has its own crafting classes; Woodworking, Blacksmithing, Enchanting, Alchemy, Clothier and Provisioner. As you go about your travels, killing Daedra and Cultists, rescuing peasants or uncovering lost history, you will encounter resources and chests in the wilderness. Unlike most other MMOs, you do not require a specific tool with which to harvest these resources, (except the treasure chests – you need lockpicks for those), but they are shared with everyone in the world so it is first come, first served.

Returning to town, you can then refine the materials you have gathered in order to craft your own weapons, armour, potions. Most interesting is enchanting, with a system similar to the 3 syllable dragon shout from Skyrim – you combine runes to refine your own enhancements.

Elder scrolls wouldn’t be Elder Scrolls without a plethora of goods stored in bags, crates, barrels, sacks and on corpses throughout the world, and once again taking its cue from Skyrim, the provisioner skill takes advantage of this abundance of food items to create buffs for use while adventuring.

Sadly, it’s not all rays of sunshine, as ESO still has many bugs that impact the performance and enjoyment that can be derived from the game. Busy areas of the map, and magic filled battles can cause perceivable frame rate drops that can, at higher levels, mean the difference between life and death. (Thankfully I always hold some filled soul gems for revival, just in case).

Vanishing npc’s and featureless players are more bugs that have transferred from the PC version, and although Zenimax have confirmed they are working on a patch to rectify this issue, it happened frequently enough during my 60 hours of play to know this must be impacting a large portion of the user base.

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Being a seasoned MMO gamer, I personally take these issues with a pinch of salt, but those that are taking their first foray into the world of MMORPGs may not be similarly inclined, so forewarned is forearmed.

All in all, Elder Scrolls Online delivers a large swathe of the lands of Tamriel for you to explore at your leisure, with thoroughly competent MMO mechanics blended seamlessly with tried and tested elements from their legacy Elder Scrolls games.

It’s not Skyrim with friends. It’s so much more.

Thanks to Xbox and Bethesda for supporting TiX

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