Elder Scrolls MMO brings needed changes to genre

The massively multiplayer online roleplaying game is not in a good place. Initially popularized by titles like Ultima Online, EverQuest and World of Warcraft, the MMORPG genre has been in decline for the past decade, dragged down as it were by unrelenting waves of creatively devoid clones and tales of hopeless addiction. Realistically, there’s no way of re-establishing the good name of MMORPGs, but there’s a chance this dying genre might go out in a blaze of glory.

Recently, a new wave of MMORPGs has started to move away from the genre’s restrictive roots into a much more creative place. The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited is one such game.

You might recognize the title from the wildly successful Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a single-player game released in 2011 to massive critical and consumer acclaim. While the differences in tone and playstyle between a single-player game and its MMORPG counterpart are usually stark (Warcraft III plays almost nothing like World of Warcraft and is much more farcical), that’s not the case with ESO. It feels every bit an Elder Scrolls game. There are differences, to be sure, but most are for the better.

I’ve been a fan of the Elder Scrolls series since the Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, so I know firsthand how lackluster the combat can be. Most players opt for the sword and shield route out of necessity. Stealth has always been a somewhat slapdash affair that has rewarded players more for their ability to create contingency game saves than become adept at sneaking, and magic classes might as well be dumb-firing a stiff breeze for all the good it will do them. ESO fixes most of these problems while adding its own complications.

The simple addition of a sticky lock-on system makes using magic in an Elder Scrolls game finally, blessedly palatable. Hover your cursor on or around an enemy and they glow red, confirming the lock. Fire off a spell and it tracks right to them. It’s not rocket science, but it sure feels like it. Stealth classes also get a host of abilities to change up combat or feign death. It’s nothing revelatory; MMORPGs have had these features for a long time now. But coupled with the active combat of an Elder Scrolls game—which has been stale for a while—small changes feel big.

There’s also ample room for customization in ESO. The more you use a skill (such as a weapon-type or spell), the more it levels up. Eventually you can apply mutations to skills. These mutations offer added attributes like more damage or healing upon hit, among others.

Each class has their own set of skills. You can also become a vampire or a werewolf (which opens a new line of skills), but another player has to bite you. And before you ask: Yes, there are forums where you can arrange to be bitten in-game—we live in fascinating times.

One of ESO’s biggest accomplishments isn’t what it changes, but rather what it doesn’t. Many will claim that immersion is the series’ biggest boon: There’s nothing quite like running around a pastoral meadow, icy tundra or ash-choked wasteland in first-person, harvesting wild plants and slicing up bugs that look like dogs. Well, you can do that in ESO. The first-person perspective is a completely valid way to play the game, and the graphics hold up under scrutiny—even on the consoles. I was taken aback by the framerate, which stayed solid even in densely populated, graphics-intensive areas.

The story is an area where, frankly, most MMORPGs sputter, falter and fall flat on their faces. Mounds of text that draw on ubiquitous tomes of lore pile up in quest logs and dialogue boxes, just begging to be skipped. ESO features a fully voiced cast, though, making the story come to life. Sure, it’s a fantasy story about dread portals opening up and spewing forth the demonic. Yes, the bad guy is a necromancer with a silly name. Of course you’re the chosen one—this is still an Elder Scrolls game, after all. But the voice acting is top tier, maybe the best the series has ever seen, and many of the actors really sell their roles, making for an endearing yarn.

In one instance I took some time to talk to a few characters that were absently milling around a town. I met a blacksmith’s apprentice who was being harassed by another villager.

I couldn’t do anything about the harassment, just listen. When the village was attacked and I had to choose between defending a fort or the nearby docks, I chose the docks because that’s where the apprentice was.

I can’t say I’ve ever had that kind of experience in an MMORPG, and I believe my decision largely had to do with the quality of the game’s writing and how it’s sold.

When ESO originally released, it came with a hefty price tag: $60 and a monthly subscription to the tune of $15. Since then, ZeniMax Online has wisely dropped the subscription model. There are in-game purchases, but most are for cosmetic items. The game has been out on the PC for over a year and the console versions were released not too long ago. Basically, sales abound and if you can pick up a copy of ESO for less than the market price, all the better.

It’s a massive amount of game for a reasonable price, and the multiplayer focus means you can finally play an Elder Scrolls game with a friend. Or with that naked guy blasting Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” over voice chat in the capital city. Thankfully, some things never change.