Tamriel Infinium: Is Elder Scrolls Online a pretty or ugly game?


I’ve been loosely following the general discussion of Elder Scrolls Online over the years, and one thread that I’ve seen picked up and toyed with from time to time is the topic of the game’s visuals – namely, whether or not ESO’s graphics are any good.

And what’s fascinating about these discussions to me is that there are two points of view — that ESO is quite pretty or quite ugly — and yet both are valid. It’s one of those “either or” topics that can be answered “yes” without breaking reality. Depending on the day, I may find myself slightly annoyed at the failings of the visuals or screenshotting the latest breathtaking vista.

So in today’s Tamriel Infinium column, I want to make a case for why Elder Scrolls Online is quite the ugly title… and why it’s beautiful to behold as well.

Elder Scrolls Online is ugly

I have never much thought that Elder Scrolls as a franchise was good-looking. On the contrary, most of its games are enjoyable despite their visuals, and this is often the case with ESO.

Too many areas and zones are awash with monochromic palettes — greys, browns, or sepias — that cause the eye to stop focusing on details altogether. There are plenty of regions that lack a distinct visual style that makes it “pop” in the sight of the player. For example, recently I’ve been adventuring through Blackwood and been thoroughly unimpressed by this expansion zone. It’s a swamp — a dull swamp, even so — that clearly isn’t working too hard to impress.

The armor is, frankly, pretty boring stuff. Maybe a little more functional-looking than most MMOs, but rarely do I get a piece or costume that has me excited to equip it cosmetically. And I’m sure I don’t have to tell you the weird “off-ness” of the character faces that are the butt of many jokes. NPCs often find themselves on the verge of being uncanny valley figures — almost, but not quite.

The overall problem with ESO’s visuals is that there’s simply not enough color. It usually errs on the side of being dull rather than distinct, and that’s a cardinal sin in an MMO. If it wasn’t for the ESO brand name and the pedigree of the team at its back, this game would struggle to appeal to players much the same way that many visually unappealing games do.

And again.

Elder Scrolls Online is pretty

Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder — but there is plenty of convergent points to identify when something is seen as attractive to a majority. And from my own experience and testimonies I’ve read, Elder Scrolls Online is a pretty game.

For every dull zone, there is at least one that is amazingly well-designed and fantastic to behold. When the artists do indulge in color, it really helps the game to pop, especially when combined with those sunbeams that blast through treelines.

The one part of the game that I’m often screenshotting more than any other are the dungeons and delves, which squirrel away much of this game’s beauty underground. Seeing an oasis of trees in a cavern thanks to a partial cave-in or a gorgeous steampunk room has me applauding the work of the artists.

The lighting is often quite good, as are the many mob designs that can be beautiful even in their stark ugliness. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not pausing to drink in a particular sight, especially when the game sends me to the truly fantastical otherworldly realms.

And I would honestly say that the graphics do a better job drawing me into this fictional world than repulsing me from it. It looks like a relatable world that could be visited even if parts of it are as alien as can be.

Plole ray.

So which is it?

I’m so on the fence with this question — ugly or pretty? — almost more than any other MMO I play. If you put the thumbscrews to me and made me pick, I’d probably come down on the side of “pretty,” but that wouldn’t be a completely honest answer.

I’d be very interested to hear your viewpoint on this topic. Is ESO pretty, ugly, or all over the spectrum in terms of its visuals? How does this MMO treat your eyes?

Traverse the troubled land of Tamriel in the Elder Scrolls Online! We’ll be your guides here in Tamriel Infinium as we explore together the world created by ZeniMax and Bethesda in one of the biggest MMOs in the genre. We welcome questions and topic ideas!
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