They told me I was special. That the world depended on me. That my soul was plucked right from my fragile body, and I was doomed to wander the wasteland forever. Then I freed an old man from a cosmic prison, stabbed a few elementals with a rusty dagger, and learned how to dodge. Once again, in the grand tradition of the Elder Scrolls series, the world was my oyster. And as I looked around this godforsaken island, for the first time in the franchise, I was not the only one.
The Elder Scrolls franchise has always imbued the player with a bit of an ego. The very first moments of Oblivion has an old emperor entrusting you with the continuing prosperity of Tamriel, acutely aware of the assassins in the rafters and his own impending mortality. In Skyrim you were the tip of the spear for a brutal rebellion, the head of your class in the thieves guild, and the sole resuscitating force of the Dark Brotherhood. You were the breath of life in a static world, pressing the buttons to make the cogs turn. Those campaigns were freeing, but also incredibly personal. To sit by the babbling brooks, and climb the abandoned towers, knowing that all the processing power in the world is making it damn well sure that you’re not going to run into anything you’re not capable of handling. My time in Tamriel was best defined by long, soul-replenishing silence. Uninterrupted by any knocks at the door or pings in general chat. It was the closest videogames get to pure sanctuary.
So that’s why when the old man with the staff tells me that I’m the chosen one, I know he is full of shit. This is The Elder Scrolls Online. I know full well you just told all those dudes and laides wearing the exact same clothes as me the same thing. Thus brings us to the primary issue with WiFi Tamriel: The core experience The Elder Scrolls Online aims for is also totally incongruous with the tenants of MMO gameplay.
Elder Scrolls Online doesn’t want to be World of Warcraft. You can block in this game. You can run away from fireballs. Auto-attack doesn’t exist. You’re limited to five spells at any given time. Leveling up is a loose, flexible process that lets you drop talent points into pretty much anything you’re particularly concerned with. The golden idea is to reinsert a modicum of technical ability back into the MMO formula, where good gear, awareness and line of sight aren’t the only deciding factors in a brawl. This is the dream of Elder Scrolls Online, and there are moments. My nightblade teleport-strikes behind a marauding cultist, popping back into invisibility to blast him with a devastating ambush a split-second later. But anyone familiar with the Elder Scrolls franchise knows that the floaty disconnect of steel on digital bone has always been a steadfastly unfixable problem. Your character skips across halls and caverns, letting would-be villains get stuck in geometry. Bethesda set out to make an MMO that feels more real, more immediate and lifelike, but those efforts are nullified by a combat system that continues to be lackluster.
There is some traditional infrastructure in place. While the franchise’s single player games have always deemphasized loot, The Elder Scrolls Online introduces a tiered, color-coded item system with a fairly easy-to-learn upgrade path. The economy makes sense—there’s a dedicated PvP zone, and the game does encourage exploration by spreading out quest-givers far and wide instead of tightly congested cities. Leveling up happens through seemingly random grinding (“your light armor skill has increased to 15,” etc,) and the discovery of skyshards, which are quite literally pieces of glowing rock scattered across the world. But all of that contributes to why The Elder Scrolls Online doesn’t quite work. There was a tangible excitement to stepping through an unnamed crypt somewhere in Skyrim’s wasteland. The diary scraps, the books, the happenstance quests—you might stumble upon a banquet of cannibals or a prisoner with a worthy bounty. In The Elder Scrolls Online I enter that same crypt, this time marked with a massive quest beacon, as a few players scramble over the cobblestones to kill an infinitely respawning mob.
How ironic is it that by making their storied franchise an online experience, Bethesda has somehow created a less immersive Elder Scrolls game? I used to feel like The One, now I’m just a customer.
Elder Scrolls Online was developed by ZeniMax Online Studios and published by Bethesda Softworks. It is currently available for PC and Mac.
Luke Winkie is a former pizza maker and writer from San Diego now living in Austin, TX. He once got kicked out of his guild for ditching a mid-afternoon Molten Core run to down Chrommagus with a different group.