Three years ago, after nearly a decade of playing World of Warcraft and a myriad of other MMOs, I finally swore off of them. I had grown tired of the formula. You level up a character, get to the end game and do end-game content until it’s not enough to keep your interest. But I still had great memories from World of Warcraft. I didn’t want to give up on the genre. I just needed something more creative.
This is how I got interested in Elder Scrolls Online. The catch was that I never liked the Elder Scrolls series very much. <Sacrilege! – editor> Not for a lack of trying. I’ve put serious time into Skyrim and Oblivion but Elder Scrolls never clicked for me. So I was apprehensive about getting into ESO. It was only when the the game went free to play that I gave it a shot. It didn’t stick. But a month ago I gave it a second chance and was delighted to find an MMO that I adore. But why the hell do I? Especially when I don’t like either side of its identity.
Filling a Hollow Tamriel
My issue with Elder Scrolls is the writing. The characters are simply not compelling to me. It’s something about how the player is constantly centered in the narrative. Everyone turns to you, the player, to solve their problems even though they are every bit as competent, if not more so, as you are. Their willingness to accept their helplessness and you as their sole savior is jarring, particularly because the player character is not given much personality to speak of. It goes against my lived experience of what people do.
The result is that the bold, beautiful land of Tamriel feels eerily empty without mods. Elder Scrolls Online does not have this problem. I came to this realization when I was on an assassination job for the Dark Brotherhood. I had infiltrated my target’s estate, avoided detection and made it into the main building when I noticed a Kajit following my trail. He invited me to party. We completed the quest together with ease and then parted ways.
Tamriel was no longer an empty place. It was brimming with life. There were people around me working towards similar goals, enemies to my faction, rival and trade guilds which determined the land’s economy. It felt good not to be the biggest fish in a small pond. Instead, players are a part of a world which does not revolve around their involvement in the game.
My favorite part of the ESO formula is the way the game handles classes. I love that every character can be built to the player’s fancy. There are ten races and five classes to choose from, each with their own specialty. But every class, weapon, and piece of armor is available to every race. Though Dragon Knights are geared towards physical dps or tank roles, they can also pick up an offensive staff and play as a magic based DPS. Nightblades, the rogues of the games, have viable tank builds. There are a lot of possibilities.
This fixes a massive problem with nearly every MMO around. Though there is a metagame, outside of hardcore end-game content, you can do pretty much everything in the game with a unique build. The game itself and the community respects successful strategies which go against the meta, instead of abhorring them. It means almost everyone will have a unique take on the role they play. Paired with the game’s classic Elder Scrolls, action-based combat, ESO is a far more dynamic game than most MMOs both in theory and on the battlefield.
Good Alone, Good with Friends
Elder Scrolls Online has the most engaging storytelling of any MMO I can remember. It works like Elder Scrolls, there’s a main storyline that takes around 50 hours, then there are storylines following epic adventures like the 20-hour questline following the political turmoil of the Orc clans. Finally, there are a few vapid side quests, helpfully in the places you’ll be going anyway for more interesting quests. The game is fully-voiced and itches all of the important single player RPG spots.
Playing the game alone feels much like you’re playing a regular Elder Scrolls game. Players scale to the level of the enemies in any zone – Guild Wars 2 or Skyrim style. Meaning most of the content is playable early in the game. This allows players to explore the game free from zone restrictions. For example, I am 37 hours into my main character and a good 10-15 were spent on the Wrothgar expansion and another five on the Clockwork City expansion. I forgot there was a main storyline to do until around the 30th hour when I was clearing some space in my quest log and saw it sitting there.
An added benefit of this is how easy ESO is to play with friends. You’ll always be able to quest together as if you’re the same level, and benefit equally from experience, quest rewards, etc. Friends of different levels can do content relevant for everyone involved. The level-scaling patches up the issue MMOs have with a lack of material for the end-game. Instead of a finite number of end game quests, the game has content that can be done at any phase of progression. There’s a respectable amount of content without touching the group based stuff.
Connecting the Dots
When I think of ESO, I don’t think of the most incredible MMO or RPG that there ever was but it’s one that addresses my quibbles with Elder Scrolls and MMOs eerily well. The Elder Scrolls series rubs me the wrong way because of the intense focus on a story and characters who do not feel real. Though the writing in ESO is objectively as irritatingly focused on the player’s role as the sole savior, the reality of an MMO means there are a few million sole saviors running around alongside you. The absurdity of the situation is playful and compelling, though certainly unintentional. Moreover, writing serves a different purpose in a multiplayer game. The story of ESO is, quite appropriately, a backdrop. The real stories come from player interaction, not the writers and the Elder Scrolls Online community has given me many wonderful moments.
As for my many, many issues with MMOs, ESO is laser focused on fixing the worst ones. I said this before but it’s worth repeating; ESO’s combat is just like the combat in a normal Elder Scrolls game. There is blocking, dodging, timing your strikes in order to knock enemies down, etc. It alleviates the monotony of mindless ability rotations by requiring actual skill and judgment beyond “don’t get hit by bad shit”. Unlike Guild Wars 2, Tera, and Wildstar, ESO’s combat still feels controlled enough for large-scale raids.
Overall, my favorite thing about the game is the freedom I feel while playing it. I specialize how I choose, I go where I want, in the order I want, and there is a feeling that I could play for another hundred hours and not see everything in the game. That feeling reminds me of my first years of World of Warcraft, when I thought it’d never get boring. And though I see ESO’s flaws, that feeling keeps me fond of it.