The Elder Scrolls Online: Skyrim skin can’t make up for MMORPG mediocrities

Monday, 10 February 2014 07:55 GMT By Brenna Hillier

The Elder Scrolls Online should be a heck of a gateway drug, luring the franchise’s single-player fanbase to the world of MMORPGs, but Brenna comes away unmoved.

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I am not an expert in MMORPGs – or much of a fan of them. I’ve tried quite a few, from the big, obvious titles to more obscure Korean efforts, but the only one I’ve ever put any serious amount of time into is The Secret World, which is, by all accounts, a bit of an odd duck. I’m not in a position to make sweeping generalisations regarding the genre as a whole.

Having said all that, I’m perfectly prepared to judge the heck out of The Elder Scrolls Online, because that franchise is something I do know and love.

The whole time I was playing The Elder Scrolls Online during a press beta over the past few weeks, I desperately wanted to be doing something – anything! else. I particularly wanted to be playing a different game in the franchise – Skyrim, Oblivion, Morrowind – or a different MMORPG. The reason for this is that The Elder Scrolls Online has rather failed in what I assume was its mission: to bring that ineffable, inimitable Bethesda quality to a very crowded market, in order to differentiate a game from its many competitors.

In his own reflections on the press beta weekend, Dave said that he felt like he was playing Skyrim with some optional multiplayer components. I don’t agree. At all. Skyrim, for all its repetitiveness and various limitations, is a game I never get sick of.

This was not the case with The Elder Scrolls Online, which I wanted to stop playing almost immediately; a feeling that only intensified. It didn’t feel like Skyrim, or any of The Elder Scrolls games, to me, although it shared elements – a certain aesthetic in the UI, assets drawn from the same concept sources.

There’s nothing wrong with this Skyrim skin. It makes The Elder Scrolls Online feel comfortable, familiar. This is a good thing. I’m praising it. It’s just that for me, that’s pretty much where the similarities ended. Strip away the lore and the aesthetics, and what I found was an MMORPG packed to the gills with all the tropes and conventions that have always put me off the genre as a whole.

Maybe I know so little about MMORPGs that the glaring differentiations weren’t immediately apparent to me. But for me the real issue is that while I did not go into The Elder Scrolls Online expecting Skyrim multiplayer, I also did not go in expecting to be utterly bored – and I was.

Gorgeous, isn’t it? No, the game doesn’t look anything like this.

Overwhelming and fiddly
I have a couple of major objections to The Elder Scrolls Online in its current state, and this first one may – thankfully – be ironed out during beta testing: the presentation is fiddly and non-intuitive.

I don’t want to get bogged down describing all the little pieces of the UI that frustrated or annoyed me, from the dark ages chat window to the console-style interaction wheel to the difficulty in determining which item is highlighted in a list. These problems (and the absolutely dreadful tutorial system, which if I were the kind to use sarcastic quotation marks would absolutely have borne that shame) may and hopefully will all be resolved, either before or just after launch.

There is one aspect of the presentation which is unlikely to change, though, and that makes my heart sink in disappointment: the story is presented in a very off-putting and old-fashioned manner.

You know how in MMOs you largely wander from A to B, following your quest marker, and blindly clicking through the slabs of text the game presents to you in a vain attempt to hide the lack of variation in its quests? You know how there’s always this one guy at conventions who knows absolutely everything about the lore in the most minute detail, and then there’s you, and all your friends, who vaguely know which faction you’re in?

I expected The Elder Scrolls Online to deviate from this trend because the franchise’s lore is so rad. It’s always suffered a bit in keeping its overarching plot hidden behind the story of the moment – a friend of mine has no idea the Daedra exist, for example – but if you’re even the slightest bit inclined to explore (like me) you uncover a massive amount of backstory, history and worldbuilding without having to do anything so tedious as read those books lying around everywhere (I never, ever do).

The story in The Elder Scrolls Online is presented in the most humdrum way possible – gorgeous non-engine cinematics, long slabs of text, people standing around talking at you for hours on end.

But it didn’t. The story in The Elder Scrolls Online is presented in the most humdrum way possible – gorgeous non-engine cinematics, long slabs of text, people standing around talking at you for hours on end. The Elder Scrolls skin kicks in again a bit here in that when you talk to somebody you zoom in, Oblivion style (remember how Skyrim got rid of that? Yeahhhh) so you can see their face and animations clearly. This is supposed to immerse you in the world, I guess, and the star-studded vocal cast no doubt cost a pretty penny and deserves a nod.

Look, I’m probably going to take a drubbing in the comments for this, but I don’t think it’s that unusual: I immediately skipped about 85% of every bit of text or conversation I encountered. I know this is not how you’re “supposed” to experience games, and I started off determined not to do it, but friends: I don’t want to stand on the spot for ten minutes listening to John Cleese – as delightful as he is – slowly read a bunch of things that will have absolutely no impact on my actions. Because my actions are going to be: follow the quest marker, kill/collect the thing.

Linearity
The gameplay in The Elder Scrolls Online is straight outta MMORPG 101. If you can follow a quest marker, you can put your brain in neutral and get on with it. I can’t emphasise enough how generic the quests are. This is a problem endemic to MMORPGs in particular but game design in general – how do you disguise the fact that you are giving the player the same kinds of tasks over and over again (the gameplay loop)? Well, I don’t know. You know who else doesn’t know? Zenimax Online.

I’m pretty sure there are mechanical aspects of The Elder Scrolls Online which are new and interesting, but in beta, these weren’t adequately presented or explained – don’t get me started on the tutorials again. As such, I didn’t find anything remarkable about it (well, the first person view is kind of cute, what with the hand animations and all – but also kind of unusable when wandering the field because ahh I’m trailing 18 mobs and ahh I can’t see the AoE markers) until I hit a sudden and dramatic difficulty spike.

Reflecting on my time, I’m pretty sure this spike occurred because I was following the quest marker blindly rather than exploring each area carefully. The map was covered in icons for locations, just like in the single player games, and presumably if I’d gone into all of them I would have fought enough mobs – maybe found enough side quests – to have enough gear and bonuses to take on the quests that eventually stumped me.

Story, schmory

In The Elder Scrolls Online, the Daedric Prince Molag Bal is making incursions into Tamriel. The main quest has you escaping one of these events, then following the guidance of a prophet.

That’s about all you need to know, really, as you’ll be hammering “skip” for the rest of it.

I didn’t do that, though, because I was given no incentive to. I wandered into one of these dungeons and found nothing in there but some dull mobs. After that, I just accepted and completed every quest I found in hubs or while wandering between objectives.

Someone’s going to come into the comments section here and tell me I played the game wrong. They’re going to talk about how you’re supposed to wander the landscape, visiting every (quest and reward free) blip on the map; gather masses of materials to craft epic, customisable gear; dive deeply into all the lore and enjoy its rich and wholesome fruitiness; and in every way not just obey the summons of the quest marker, that bane of modern gaming which has ripped the soul out of it, et cetera, et cetera.

Yeah well, you know; whatever floats your boat, dude. If you want to spend hours of your precious leisure time grinding away until you reach the “real” game at top levels, and thereafter have scheduled hours for raids or be constantly working on your gear to maintain your PvP ranking, then good on you. Personally, if I’m going to play an MMORPG – and as Dave says, especially if I’m going to pay for it – it’s got to be fun right from the start. Because you know what is fun right from the start? Skyrim.

The Elder Scrolls Online is due on Mac and PC in April. It comes to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in June.

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