In 2011, Bethesda Softworks released The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The fifth numbered entry in the long running Elder Scrolls saga took the world by storm- incredible commercial success followed (to date, it has purportedly sold more than 20 million units), critics hailed it worldwide, it won countless Game of the Year awards, and its influence on the industry was indelible, with every RPG developer, from CD Projekt RED, Capcom, Square Enix, Bioware, to Nintendo, citing Skyrim as an influence for their games.
Why was Skyrim so well received? What exactly was it about it that led it to such incredible mainstream success that eludes most RPGs, including, yes, its own predecessors? Why did it manage to break out, when other RPGs cannot?
The one thing that Skyrim did really well (and many self proclaimed hardcore gamers will scoff at this notion, but it’s true) was provide a wide range of gameplay options without overwhelming the player. It had incredible variety, and quite a bit of depth, but it was all so accessible that the player could easily get hooked, right off the bat. The average Call of Duty player, who probably has no time to devote to individual character stats, and crafting sixteen different potions for different situations, didn’t even realize it, before he was swept into managing his own character build, managing his inventory, taking on quests, and just completely engrossed in a deep, well crafted role playing game.
It was genius. It worked wonders. Small wonder it is, then, that the MMORPG, The Elder Scrolls Online (which, suspiciously enough, was announced right after the success of Skyrim), seems to take so many cues from it. I mean that in a very good way- just as Skyrim became the RPG that appealed to people who wouldn’t ordinarily like RPGs, The Elder Scrolls Online has the potential to be the MMO that appeals to players who ordinarily wouldn’t like an MMO, by leveraging the unique power that the Elder Scrolls brand seems to hold.
So right when you start the game, the similarities will become too obvious and numerous to ignore- after you create your character (using a character creator that, in the build that I played, was full featured enough, but seemed to be significantly more limited than the staggering amount of options offered in Skyrim’s character creator), the game starts telling its story, which, like literally every other Elder Scrolls game before it, begins with you as a prisoner. It takes very little time before you’re thrown headfirst into actually playing the game, and you suddenly realize the startling similarity this game has to Skyrim in terms of, well, everything.
It looks very similar- your mileage on whether it looks as good (or bad) as Skyrim will vary based on the specs of your machine, but it certainly uses the same art and graphical style. It even has the same, minimalistic UI that Skyrim (and other Elder Scrolls games in general) had- there is a small radar at the top of your screen, and… that’s it. You do have a Health, a Mana, and a Stamina Bar, and each of these shows up on your screen when it is depleted, but gradually fades out in a bit. Again, just like Skyrim.
Speaking of those three stats, they function identically to Skyrim as well. Health regenerates if you just get away from damage for a bit. Stamina regenerates if you stop running and stop to take a rest. Mana regenerates if you stop using magic. All three of these stats can be instantly restored if you use the proper potions, and the rate of regeneration (or the maximum amount you have of each) can be increased by leveling up the proper stat. It’s a pretty MMORPG in its setup, but the great thing is, it’s also instantly recognizable to anybody who is coming to this with no other knowledge of the series or genre than Skyrim, because they’ll find themselves right at home.
Speaking of the more MMO-esque elements, yes, there is a chatbox, and it shows up there if you want it to (although in my time with the game, it stayed mostly hidden- then again, I can be pretty anti social at times). Yes, you still get special attacks that are assigned to numerical hotkeys (although each magic attack uses the common magic meter, instead of having its own individual cooldown period). The leveling system here is slightly more complex than Skyrim’s, which makes sense, because an MMORPG will be deeper in its systems than Skyrim was (or it wouldn’t be sustainable, would it?)
The game controls and plays like Elder Scrolls on PC does. You move with WASD, you use the left mouse button for your left hand weapon, and the right mouse button for the right hand weapon (or shield); Alt is exit, C opens p the character menu, R lets you take all the loot from a dead body or a treasure chest, and so on. Literally, if you have played Elder Scrolls on the PC (or hell, even on a console) before, you will be right at home here.
As for the actual game itself? Well, I did like what I played. Admittedly, the beginning here was distinctly more low key than it was for Skyrim (but then again, being attacked by a dragon and then making your grand escape, only to proceed to save the world, is kind of hard to top), but it sets the mood and tone, and actually acts as a sufficient tutorial area for the game. The one trap that it begins to fall into, alarmingly enough, right from the beginning, is the sheer banality of its quest design right off the bat.
Banal quest design is a fact of life with MMORPGs (unless you are playing Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn), and they are a fact of life with The Elder Scrolls series in general (especially if you have been playing the modern games). Therefore, it’s probably to be expected in an Elder Scrolls MMORPG.
But when one of the first quests I was faced with was hit these two beacons on the opposite sides of the map, because reasons (this was followed by hit two beacons right next to where you are standing, go to a location to speak to someone, go to another location somewhat far off because said someone is not there, and find and talk to a dude who will tell you more), I was a little taken aback- at least to begin with, Elder Scrolls’ quests have always strove to be world building, trying to draw the player in with what looks to be action and forward movement in the story. While there was some definite forward momentum here, it seemed to dissipate due to the game’s insistence on needless padding with some inexplicably trite quests.
Nevertheless, all these worries ceased to matter once you got to the crux of the matter, the one area where Elder Scrolls shines over probably any other games franchise, is the world building and atmosphere. And sure enough, once I stepped out of the dreary corridors of Oblivion and back into the outdoors of an island off shore from Skyrim (because of course the game will start at Skyrim) it was back to business.
Elder Scrolls thrives because it builds a wonderful, credible, living world around you, one that you want to explore, and that strength seems to have translated incredibly well to The Elder Scrolls Online. Just the sheer joy of movement through the game world was enough to make me forget about my complaints about the quest design, and move on to the next (an activity I would otherwise have dreaded, owing to the anticipated banality).
Here’s my hope- obviously, so far, I haven’t played the game enough. I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface. Elder Scrolls games have a staggering amount of content, and this one is an MMO. So my hope is, my issues with the game- at this point, mostly to do with how unremarkable the story is, and how trite the quest design is- will be addressed over time. Maybe once the game has gotten the inevitable initial setup out of the way, these complaints will be resolved, because seriously, everything else on offer here is great.
It’s extremely easy to get into, and just like Skyrim deceived you so that you didn’t even realize all the complexities you were juggling, The Elder Scrolls Online will fool you so you don’t even realize how many MMO conventions you are handling. If you do like MMORPGs, you are still going to find some appreciation for TESO’s unique take on the genre (and you will appreciate it even more if you like the lore of this franchise).
Ultimately? Yes, as of right now, I have problems with the game. But with all of that said and done, I am rearing to return to the game, to play more, to explore more of the game’s world. Any game (and more importantly, any MMO) that can make me feel that way probably has some serious things going for it, its problems notwithstanding.
I look forward to playing more of it, and sharing more with you as I do. Stay tuned.
This game was previewed on PC.