There is a strange phenomenon that regularly occurs at StickTwiddlers HQ. Whenever a new MMO comes in to us for review, everyone suddenly goes silent and looks at me. Clearly threatened by my position of “High Warlord”, this time it was to see what The Elder Scrolls Online has to offer.

Unlike your standard linear video game, or even a puzzle title, an MMO is pretty tough to review. So much of the experience depends upon the individual playing and the routes and choices they make, along with the players they meet along the way. All of this makes it nearly impossible to give a definitive recommendation, but not being one to turn down a challenge, I grabbed my robe and wizards hat and took a gander at what ZeniMax had in store for me.

From the outset, The Elder Scrolls Online is pretty damn good looking. It’s not “Oh my god my eyes, MY EYES” good looking, but it’s definitely no slacker in the eye candy department. The rather beautiful character models which are created using the in-depth, yet slightly pointless, character creation system (do we really need to alter our cheekbones and hip dimensions?) coupled with some surprisingly well designed environments, convincingly chunky NPC models and some nifty lighting effects creates a world which is certainly no hardship to look at. The water effects are particularly spectacular and the day and night cycle helps to make the world feel alive, despite some areas being totally devoid of any player interaction.

However it’s when you eventually head down to one of the many tombs and dungeons that ESO really starts to look it’s best. Wonderful lighting effects make everything feel atmospheric and gloomy, and spells look even more impressive as they fizzle and sparkle around in the dimly lit environments. Sure, sometimes it feels a bit over the top but, aside from D&D Online, no other MMO makes dungeons look this good. It’s not perfect though as a smattering of poor texture resolutions, wibbly-wobbly plantation, and the odd stuttering and glitchy animations will occasionally point out to you. It might not be the best looking MMO out there, but it’s not far off.

But all that eye candy means very little if the gameplay is lacking. Just like any other MMO, The Elder Scrolls Online can only do so much in terms of providing you with an engaging experience. It’s job is to present you with as many quests, side quests, interconnecting stories and time-draining distractions as it possibly can. It’s then up to the player to discover and use the tools given to them, and this is where ESO is a mixed bag.

Many of the quest lines you stumble upon start out as quiet simple requests and tasks that often expand rapidly into larger interwoven narratives, but they mostly feel more like the type of quests you would find in a single player Elder Scrolls title rather than an MMO. Rather than trusting you to explore the environment and engage with other players in order to unravel some of the mysteries presented to you, you are given a GPS style arrow in your HUD and instructed to follow it. This hand-holding means invariably you more often than not end up not bothering to listen to the torrents of information and story fluff delivered to you via the sheer swathe of fully voice acted quest givers, instead choosing to skip through everything and just concentrate on following the proverbial Yellow Brick Road.

The feeling of “Is this actually an MMO” goes deeper then just this though. There never feels any incentive to actually do anything with any of the other players milling around. There is essentially no end-game in terms of the traditional model (don’t expect 10, 20 or 30 player dungeons here) and the only real reason to join a guild is for trading purposes. In fact I would say that the only time I ever saw guilds being discussed or promoted in the gamechat was for trading and crafting guilds. No raid parties here.

With regards to the crafting and trading section, it’s pretty much what you would expect. Find items and materials, use them to create things which are normally worse than what you can find in the wilderness (with the exception of some of the extremely high level crafted items which are actually pretty decent), increase your skill in that area, make some more stuff. It works, it’s a time sink, but it’s actually not that much fun.

The meat of the game though is in the combat. PVE combat is, frankly, brutal. The difficulty curve bobs up and down like an apple during Halloween. Some enemies are so easy to defeat you can do it with your eyes closed and others that are apparently the same level as you seem to have been snorting some highly illegal substances as they off you with one or two hits. It’s frustrating to find yourself on a quest which is apparently ideal for your level only to find that the mobs you encounter appear to have been exposed to the Extremis virus forcing you to try to out-level the content; which is a ballache to do as levelling takes far, far longer then you might expect.

PVP wise, it fairs a little better. A conquest style affair awaits you, with the three factions fighting over bits of land and fighting back and forth in order to gain different areas during the course of a lengthy campaign. Think of it as a larger, more involved, Alterac Valley in Vanilla WoW. Happily, lower levels are given a hand during these PVP bouts in the form of different boosts which can help to offset any gear differences between them and higher level combatants. Many of the battles which take place during the PVP campaign are rather epic, large scale affairs – certainly something which makes it stand out from other PVP modes in different MMO’s.

Combine all these factors mentioned above, and you’re probably assuming that The Elder Scrolls Online is not worth your time. You would be mistaken. When ESO is good, it’s a fantastic experience that will sap away your time and leave you wondering what the hell happened to the last 4 or 5 hours. It’s just that it’s not a very good MMO, having much more in common with a really good installment in the single player side of the Elder Scrolls series.

Anyone looking to expand upon their experiences in titles such as Daggerfall or Skyrim will certainly find a lot of what they are looking for here, although if it’s going to be worth a subscription each month remains to be seen. Unfortunately though, on the flip side, it fails to grasp the ideology behind a MMO and what makes it successful. Future patches could certainly fix this, but as it stands right now it’s a great Elder Scrolls game but not a great MMO.

The Elder Scrolls Online is out now for PC and Mac. A PS4 and Xbox One release is to follow in June 2014. Alan was provided with a PC copy of the game for this review.

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