It’s been over four years (and getting close to five) since the Elder Scrolls Online was first released on PC in 2014, to mediocre reception. I, admittedly, did not play it then, but I heard of its reputation: Buggy content (not new in an Elder Scrolls game, to be fair), long load times, lagging issues and poor combat. Since then, developers ZeniMax Online have added over twenty software updates, ten DLC’s and at least two expansion packs. But has this improved anything over the base game? Having spent nearly up to two years of playing the game now, I’d think I’m more than qualified to throw my hat into the ring.
The Vanilla Game
When first starting a new game, you have the choice to play as one of nine races of Tamriel and can customize your character’s appearance to your exact liking (sliders can determine their body type, face type, age and gender). Your race will determine which of the three Alliance factions your character will belong to: The Aldmeri Dominion, the Daggerfall Covenant and the Ebonheart Pact. There is no advantage and/or disadvantage to joining any of these Alliances: It simply determines your side during PVP (Red team, Blue team, Yellow team) and which Alliance Storyline you’ll begin with first in PVE.
There is also the Explorer’s Pack, allowing you to play as any race in any alliance, and the digital Imperial edition, adding Imperials as a playable race in the game (who can choose any alliance without the Explorer’s Pack). Some fans might be irritated that these are still behind a paywall, however, you do not need to buy either of these to play the game. It is strictly for role-playing purposes. Not paying these packs will in no way impede your ability to progress through the game as you want.
Having played at least 2/3’rds of the vanilla game, I can see why this game was poorly received upon release: It’s not a conventional Elder Scrolls game which offers an open world and do almost any quest in any order: You are initially restricted within “zones,” smaller sub-maps of the larger game world, and you could not move on until you completed that zone’s story arc or reached a certain level. I’m more of a methodical player who leaves no stone unturned, so it was of little issue to me as I focused on doing everything I possibly could in one zone before moving on to the next one. But for others, this was probably unbearable – I know the feeling of essentially hitting a wall and being forced to do something you don’t want to do just so you can progress further. It’s frustratingly arbitrary.
As far as the zones themselves go, they can be enjoyable in small chunks; you won’t have to search long before you get a quest or find a dungeon and the challenges that are there for the player(s) can be amusing diversions for an hour or two. But in the long run, it can get repetitive and boring: Many of the tasks are the same “gather [quantity] amount of items,” and frequent enemy encounters can make the combat tedious. It’s more bearable when you’re playing with others if only so you can get tasks done faster, but when playing solo you’re in for the long haul.
Content Updates – What has changed, then?
ZeniMax, at least, have proven to be a developer that listens to their audience and addresses their criticisms. While there’s little they can do to fundamentally change the base game, they have, going forward, seen to building up a better experience for player and bring it closer to the solo titles of the Elder Scrolls series.
There have been many little improvements over the past few years (such as the Outfit System, which allows players to customize the aesthetic look of their character while still wearing the best equipment they can find), but chief among them would have to be the One Tamriel update.
Added in late 2016, One Tamriel allowed players to explore almost anywhere they wanted as soon as they finished the tutorial, bringing the game much more in-line with the main series. This was a much-needed boon for the game, as it allows players to progress at any rate they wanted to, do any quests they want at any level and could partner up with much higher-leveled friends in zones that might have been previously off-limits to them. Enemies are now battle-leveled so all players could be sufficiently challenged, regardless of where they are.
If there is one downside, it would be that Alliance zones could now be played in any order. Given that each Alliance storyline is made up of five zones, where each are part of a larger narrative framework and have to be played in sequence in order for the storyline to make sense, there’s a risk for new players to play the zones out of order and get confused (encountering a character who supposed to have died, for instance). Thankfully, fans have put together a story guide that will help make sense of which order to play in.
Microtransactions – The Crown Store
As I understand it, ESO originally had monthly subscription “pay-to-play” model. This wasn’t exactly uncommon for MMO’s, though it’s never been popular with gamers. What drew particular fire in this case was that ESO’s subscription was supposedly more expensive than usual.
This changed in 2015 with the release of “Tamriel Unlimited.” The subscription model was altered to be entirely optional as “ESO Plus,” and the inclusion of an in-game store.
Microtransactions within the gaming industry have drawn nothing but ire from gamers, if only because certain developers have abused this model of payment by offering “pay-to-win” items that would give an advantage over other players, provided you had the pockets. It’s a pretty unethical way of milking money from a product consumers have already paid money for, particularly for players who are competitive.
ESO’s Crown Store, on the other hand, is perhaps an example of how to have an in-game store gamers might be more receptive to: It strictly only has cosmetic items, allowing for greater customization in terms of role-playing. While Crowns can be bought instantly at any time, ESO Plus offers a monthly stipend, letting you save up over time. There also exists a separate currency, Crown Gems, which can be earned by converting any items you don’t want or have already, and then spend these gems on cosmetics that are rare or otherwise difficult to acquire.
But as mentioned, this is entirely optional and can completely passed over, if the idea of spending more than the initial game price galls you. Otherwise, the game is now free to play once you own it.
DLC and Expansion Content
This is the real bread and butter of ESO and where it gets really good: Whereas the vanilla game can be lacking at times, the DLC on the other hand, is well-crafted and very enjoyable. I’ve only played four of the content packs so far: Orsinium, Thieves Guild, Dark Brotherhood and Shadows of the Hist. But I have only good things to say about them.
The first three content packs mentioned add a new zone to the game world, each with their own storylines. While the vanilla zones felt geared towards small groups, the DLC has definitely kept the solo player in mind: There are far fewer enemies and repetitive tasks around, with a much greater emphasis on simply exploring and drinking in the environment. I truly felt like I was immersed in Tamriel once more and could simply lose myself in its world. The zones in the Thieves Guild and the Dark Brotherhood are rather small in comparison, but they’re sufficient in what they set out to do. Meanwhile, Orisinium (the homeland of Tamriel’s Orcs), is much larger, and comes off feeling like an expansion pack. Consider it worth the investment.
Shadows of the Hist, on the other hand, is a group dungeon-based DLC themed after the Argonians, Tamriel’s lizard-folk. Group dungeons in ESO are perhaps one of game’s main attractions, pairing you up with three other players and overcome a series of bosses together. While these dungeons can be fun, they can also be devoid of any challenge as all that is required of you is just to spam your attacks at the bosses until they die.
Shadows of the Hist changes that completely, as the DLC places a much greater emphasis on teamwork – Bosses may paralyze individual players, become immune from standard DPS attacks and even teleport players into a small maze to navigate through. Greater co-ordination is required here and it may take a more concerted effort than normal to overcome the challenge presented. It’s a change of pace that may take dungeon-delving veterans off-guard at first, but it’s a welcome one.
… Is it still worth buying, then?
I’d say so, yes. The vanilla game can still be monotonous at times, but the One Tamriel update and the DLC have made up for the game’s shortcomings. I’d say what was once a mediocre game is now simply “good.” Even if you’re like me and have no real long-term friends to play with, a majority of the content can still be done solo. The game may not be handled by Bethesda Studios, but it’s a worthwhile tribute as it pays its own respects to the series while still feeling like its own separate entity. If you’ve got nothing better to play or just can’t wait for Elder Scrolls VI and you’ve had enough of Skyrim, this is worth digging your teeth in for a good six-twelve months.