When I think back to my earliest days of gaming, sitting in front of a tiny TV set with the non-ergonomic 80s beauty of an Atari joystick in hand, I recall the relative simplicity of that time. Back then, we didn’t need to concern ourselves with things like cash grabs, the working conditions of developers, whales, politics, or early access. Our main concern was whether or not a game was fun.The Elder Scrolls Online. Buckle up: It’s time for some more positivity!
Most of the time, when an MMO decides to re-work its core gameplay, the results are predictably bad. But I think it could be argued that the One Tamriel update to Elder Scrolls Online is the most successful core re-work in MMO history.
ZeniMax was able to take a major complaint about the original game (that it felt too limiting to be an Elder Scrolls game) and incorporate it into a major change that has improved the game, and its outlook, immensely. It might be difficult to remember the 2014 design of ESO at this point, but picture a game where a player was forced into a faction depending on the race of the character they chose before ever playing the game and being stuck in those faction zones and storylines. Character levels further restricted the content a player could experience. In short, it was a typical classic MMO experience, but it was far out of sync with what people expected from The Elder Scrolls franchise. One Tamriel removed all faction and level restrictions on the landscape, opening up the entire map for exploration and enjoyment.
I’ll probably get some flak for this one, but I really enjoy ESO’s action combat system. It’s simultaneously much-loved and much-maligned. My affection is a bit ironic, actually. When I first tried the scaled-back skill bar of ESO, I was not impressed. After playing an MMO with three-four rows of skills, I thought being limited a handful felt very constrained. It wasn’t until later that I realized that the challenge in ESO’s combat system lies not in managing cooldowns (there aren’t any), but in managing stamina and magika resources. This, in conjunction with the mouse aim and dodge mechanics, makes the ESO system feel much more engaging and real-time than tab-targeting systems I’ve used in the past. ESO’s system actually made me realize how much I hate cooldowns.
Pretty much every MMORPG has a foundation of lore, but the vastness of ESO’s lore makes the world much more enjoyable. The original Elder Scrolls: Arena launched in 1994, which means that through all of the single-player games and accompanying material we now have over 25 years of rich, developed lore enhancing the ESO environment.
And beyond being the prequel to iconic events in the single-player titles, ESO leans heavily into its role of creating new lore. The newly released antiquities system introduces players to items, culture, and habits of the oldest inhabitants of Tamriel. Races and events only hinted at in the texts of Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim are further fleshed out (sometimes in the flesh!) through NPCs and stories scattered throughout the game. These give the game a multi-dimensional enjoyability factor that is appreciated by both the casual fan and the hardcore lore hound.
Coming from mostly text-centric MMOs, I was initially struck by the immersiveness of my interactions with ESO’s NPCs. The difference in experiences is directly related to the amount and quality of voice acting offered in the latter title. Voice acting and animation brings a whole new element to interact with the characters of the virtual world that reading text off a page can’t convey.
At the time, I didn’t even realize the star power involved in ESO’s voice acting team. Characters are brought to life by the likes of Lynda Carter, Courtenay Taylor, Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon, Malcolm McDowell, Alfred Molina, Kate Beckinsdale, Jennifer Hale, and of course John Cleese. It is a list worthy of the title “all-star cast,” which I guess makes ESO the Cannonball Run of MMOs! In all seriousness, ZeniMax went all-out when assembling the cast for this game, and the quality shines through.
Variety of play modes
In another nod to the Elder Scrolls single-player franchise, there’s no single win condition in ESO. The game is what you make of it. If you want to complete all of the zone maps and quests, there’s an in-game guide for that. If you want to just follow the storyline from start to finish, or just pick up in the middle somewhere, it’s there. If you want to fish all day long, or hunt for treasures, or dig up buried antiquities, you can. If you want to challenge yourself with the hardest dungeon modes in the game, the dungeon finder is just a click away. If you’d rather compete directly against other players in PvP, you can enter a battleground. If large-scale PvP is more up your alley, ask somebody else because I still can’t remember how to get into Cyrodiil, but it’s there!
There’s even a popular joke term within the community: Fashion Scrolls Online, referring to those who simply prefer to collect cosmetic appearances and housing items. The game is what you make of it.
The business model
Hear me out on this one. I know players have some strong feelings about MMO business models, but I happen to think ESO’s is fair and aligns with the “play it your way” mantra. If you just want to try the base game, it’s usually available for a nominal price, or via the frequently offered free to play weekends. It’s worth noting that the base game now includes the Morrowind chapter, as well. Additional chapters, DLC, and cosmetics are available ad hoc (and sometimes as bundles) for those who want to continue their journey through Tamriel or dress to impress. As for the top-tier primo ESO experience, the optional ESO+ subscription (which includes all DLC packs) is an option. ESO offers a plethora of options for all levels of commitment and budgets while simultaneously funding one of the more ambitious release schedules around. It’s not cheap – but it’s worth every penny.