If you like your games epic, the chances are that you’re already acquainted with Tamriel, the fantasy-land in which Bethesda Softworks’ state-of-the-art Elder Scrolls games are set. So, at the very least, you’ll be salivating at the prospect of being able to live out an entire vicarious existence there, courtesy of The Elder Scrolls Online, the hugely ambitious massively multiplayer online version of the successful series of single-player RPGs. But the anticipation has been accompanied by an undercurrent of carping since in one aspect, The Elder Scrolls Online is perceived as old-fashioned: in this age of free-to-play MMOs, it persists in charging a subscription fee, just like World Of Warcraft. However, in every other aspect, it represents the pinnacle of the genre.
Presuming you can afford it, what do you get? The answer is: the stuff of MMO fans’ dreams: an RPG that looks incredible, plays like it was single-player, yet lets you embark on countless quests with your real-life mates. The Elder Scrolls Online is staggering in its scope, essentially opening up the whole of Tamriel in one go. It looks incredible, with huge, lush, believable environments, many of which will be familiar to devotees of the single-player games. It does pay to play it on a fairly modern PC with a decent graphics card, although it isn’t fiercely machine-hungry. We were lucky enough to run it on an MSI GS60 2PC Ghost, one of the latest (and slimmest) gaming laptops, which was easily able to cope with all the graphical elements turned up to the max. And, innovatively, it will eventually come out on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Considering that it’s an MMO rather than a single-player RPG, The Elder Scrolls Online makes strikingly few gameplay compromises – it’s very much action-based. The main fighting mechanism involves a shield in one hand and a sword in the other, wielded using each mouse button; timing shield-strikes is a key technique, as it temporarily stuns enemies. You can spend days merely designing characters, and there are plenty of races and classes to choose from, for those who prefer magic, healing, ranged weapons and so on to brute force. Depending on which race (various types of elves, humans, orcs and the like) you choose, you’re assigned to one of three factions. Cleverly, as you level up and get familiar with the game and its world, you’re shunted off to two islands, before being let loose on the Tamriel mainland.
The levelling up and skills-acquisition systems are exemplary – active abilities, which are key to your combat effectiveness, can be mapped to the number keys, and passive abilities act as buffs. The more you use those abilities, the more powerful they become. From the off, you can get stuck into all manner of crafting, woodworking, alchemy and so on, should you so choose, and the amount of quests on offer borders on the bewildering. Little touches remind you that you’re in an MMO, such as the first time you buddy up with a random stranger to make lighter work of a previously tricky quest. You can create your own guilds, or join the overarching ones.
Things really start to get interesting once you hit the mainland, and when you hit Level 20, you’ll be ready for the Player v Player (PvP) side of the game. Essentially, the land of Cyrodiil is a huge PvP playground, in which the three factions vie for supremacy; anything positive you do earns Alliance Points. You can take on random people, or get involved in sieges, capture-the-flag exercises, big battles and loads more. Away from Cyrodiil, there are countless dungeons to tackle with your mates, for which you’ll need to take a co-ordinated approach and make sure your party has complementary skills and items.
So, can The Elder Scrolls Online buck the prevailing trend away from subscription MMOs, as epitomised by Star Wars: The Old Republic, which flopped so comprehensively that it was forced to scrap subscriptions? It certainly can. For starters, it makes SWTOR look and feel like a relic from a previous millennium – The Elder Scrolls Online is easily the most sophisticated and ambitious MMO yet made, even in comparison with the likes of Guild Wars 2. It leaves World Of Warcraft looking like it belongs to a bygone age, so it will be interesting to see how Blizzard will respond. Plus, the mooted arrival on next-gen consoles, eliminating the need for us to splash out on expensive hardware, should help it to retain the subscription model.
It isn’t perfect – every so often you spot the odd bug, or instance of broken behaviour among non-player characters, and Bethesda needs to sort a few teething problems, such as the disappearance of (cool but hardly essential) objects that came with the more expensive Imperial Edition if you delete the first character you created. Plus it needs to come up with a steady stream of compelling new content for the game, although having created the lore and mythology of a virtual world over a period of decades helps on that front. But if you appreciate either the single-player Elder Scrolls games or the whole community-based vibe of MMOs, you will love it. If you thought you’d fallen out of love with MMOs, it possesses the tools to persuade you otherwise.