I grew up reading fantasy books written by people who gave their initials instead of their first names (J.R.R. Tolkien, C.J. Cherryh, R.A. Salvatore, M.C. Hammer, etc). I think this is why I fell so deeply in love with The Elder Scrolls games Oblivion and, later, Skyrim. These open worlds allowed me to completely immerse myself in worlds with everything that I adored from those stories. Swords! Magic! Elves! Dragons! Weird and wonderful creatures! Epic quests!
That said, I didn’t play The Elder Scrolls Online when it first came out. I think I would’ve hated it. A compulsory monthly subscription just to play, and piles of content locked behind an achingly slow grind? No thank you. Today, however, it’s a very different game. The subscription is gone, replaced by a one-off payment as God intended. Buy the ‘Collection’ version of the latest instalment, in fact, and you’ll find that this includes all previously released chapters. Best of all, though, the world now scales to your current level.
The Elder Scrolls Online – more commonly known as TESO – is the best MMO I’ve ever played, because most of the time, I completely forget that I’m not the only one playing. So far, I’ve put 80-90 hours into this game. Rookie numbers for an MMO, I know, but this is still a remarkable amount of time for two reasons. Firstly, I have two jobs and three kids. That’s basically a decade of free time for me. Secondly, in all of those hours, I have not spoken to another player even once.
I see other players fairly often. People with character levels well into triple figures, dressed in lavish outfits that would’ve taken untold hours to earn, and sometimes riding beasts that I didn’t even know were in the game. Generally speaking, they ignore me and I ignore them, and everybody’s happy. Rather than break the immersion – for me – this bustling, city-like vibe enhances it. Here are other people living their own lives and powering through their own adventures, all of us making our individual ways through the same world. If Skyrim ever felt sparse or under-populated to you, seeing people jsut going about their lives in this world is the perfect tonic.
And oh, what a world. The graphics haven’t improved much since 2014, but I don’t care. This is the sort of huge fantasy land that my spotty teenage self would have been amazed by. Towns, dungeons, dank marshes, lush fields, hills and deserts: a wealth of locations and biomes that aren't glued to wintry forests or harsh mountain peaks. My favourite region by far is Summerset, with its miles of greenery and colourful trees. And if you are hankering after the mountainous setting of Bethesda's last killer RPG, don't fret – TESO allows you to literally revisit Skyrim. Well, kind of.
Players who own the Greymoor chapter have access to the Western Skyrim location. In Elder Scrolls lore however, TESO takes place thousands of years before Skyrim – so there are some differences in the layout of the location (for those of you that might as well have a cartography degree in Skyrim after playing it so damn much). TESO also boasts an expanded Blackreach, Solitude, Dragon Bridge, plus a bonus new vampire lair made of stalactites. It's better DLC than horse armour, that's for sure.
So, although I might be talking with an NPC named Mizzik Thunderboots one minute, and seeing somebody called COOLMAN69 running across town the next, it all forms a cohesive whole for me. I usually steer clear of the separate PvP modes, and even the group dungeons. Instead, I treat TESO as a single-player game, and it’s more than happy for me to do so. In fact, I suspect that a lot of people play it like this; and the game knows it – the Blackwood chapter even introduced the option of unlocking an AI companion to join you on your adventures.
While levelling up still brings with it many benefits – more health, magicka, and stamina, new and upgraded abilities, and so on – your current level is never a barrier to anywhere you might want to go. Ironically, TESO restricts solo players less than offline games that mimic MMO design; I love Assassin’s Creed, for example, but I hate the way that Valhalla locks huge chunks of its map behind ridiculously high character level requirements. The level scaling makes that frustration moot in TESO.
So, I’m always on my own when I chat with NPCs (every single one of which is fully voiced, by the way), and when I run off on the various quests that they send me on. I’d love to understand the way that TESO matchmaking works, as it clearly puts players on the same quest near one another whenever it can. While most of my quests are solo affairs, it’s not uncommon to find that a much more powerful player has cleared the way for me in a section of dungeon, or for somebody to jump in and start helping me in the middle of a tricky fight. It feels like adventurers crossing paths on their own mysterious voyages, like they would in a genuine, honest-to-God fantasy world.
And I’m not selfish; I help others too! Many times, I’ve been riding through fields on the way to my next objective, found somebody fighting off monsters, and made a detour to help (although this is probably usually ‘help’ in the same way that a toddler might ‘help’ a parent make a cake). Then there are the group events. Just the day before I wrote this, I saw a group fighting a dragon nearby, and valiantly swooped in for the final 30 seconds to get my share of the loot. I’m a hero through and through.
I remember having a go at playing DC Universe Online. It promised that you could make your own hero or villain, and then embark on exciting superpowered adventures. I made a tiger man with a cape who could fly, and I called him Evil Dave, and I loved him. Until, that is, I actually started to play. His power was more kitten than tiger, and he flew only slightly faster than a baby taking its first steps can walk. It was clear that it would take many dozens of hours for my dreams to maybe, perhaps, come true. I soon gave up.
TESO, on the other hand, promises a fantasy world that you can make your own – and boy, does it deliver. Each new character needs to go through the tutorial quest to get their hands on their first weapon, and to get a feel for the game; but what happens after that is entirely up to you. There’s enormous depth for those who want it: there’s cooking, and crafting, and enchanting, and treasure hunts, and player guilds, and homestead decoration, and much more. But you don’t have to do all, or even any, of that. Just want to talk to NPCs and kill enemies? Go for it.
There’s a ludicrous amount of content available to you when you have access to all the game's chapters, too. So much so in fact, that I have two characters who are having two completely different adventures. My Khajiit sorcerer primarily defends himself with his bow and his magic, and saved Summerset isle from disaster. My Argonian necromancer – Deidre the Pointy – on the other hand lays waste to her enemies with a magical staff and bone-based dark magic, using the corpses of her enemies to heal. She’s just been crowned Champion of Vivec.
Has TESO given me a taste for the genre, encouraging me to try out some other examples? God no, I hate MMOs. But that’s precisely why I love The Elder Scrolls Online.