Hands On: The First Few Hours Of Elder Scrolls Online

Elder Scrolls Online (“The” optional) is out in April. That’s quite soon! So over the last few days Bethesda have opened it up to allow some journalists in, to have a poke around. I’ve played up to level 7, so far, which isn’t enormously far in, but does represent that crucial opening five or six hours. And I’m here to tell you all about them.

While my expectations of Elder Scrolls Online were not enormous, after the disappointed reactions of earlier looks, I like me a bit of solo MMOing. Trundling through quest arcs in that idly satisfying, box ticking way. It recently got me through all of Neverwinter’s launch content, well, content. So, I figured, why not the same for ESO?

Well, it’s just… it’s just a bit boring.

I know this is terrible criticism – I get it. But, well, it is. Now, traditional MMOs are – before you reach the point of massive parties in raids or elaborate PvP battles – a vacuous experience. I like them for that. I’ve no interest in the raids or the PvP; when done well I enjoy the bit where you charge about, picking up strings of quests, killing ten of this or gathering five of those, and then trundling back. If the setting is interesting, and the action engaging, then I will merrily while away afternoons doing this low-energy gaming. So I’m trying to put my finger on what it is that stops it from satisfying me in ESO.

There’s no escaping comparison from the rest of the Elder Scrolls series. And nor should they be. They’ve made a definitive and absolute statement when they chose to call this Elder Scrolls Online. It is that legendary series, taken into a shared space. And so it absolutely must be judged in that context.

While there’s a level of hostility reserved for Skyrim that I’ve never understood, the reality is – whether it’s to your tastes or not – it is an extraordinary, enormous, and flawed game, and a remarkable achievement. Like the games before it, it offered a massive, open world, and allowed you to live, just be, and experience an involved and engrossing story without even touching the game’s main plot. It let you carve your own path.

ESO lets me feel like I’m playing an MMO.

Things begin about as generically as you could imagine. You’re dead, in Cold Harbour within Oblivion, a Soul Shriven. But you’re escaping from a prison, down a long, repeating corridor, guided by Captain FemShep Hale, being told the very basics of looking, hitting and picking up. Then with nary a care for its incrediblityness, you’re brought back to life in the starting zone relevant to your racial grouping. A small area, littered with quest chains, and more stilted acting than you could shake a sofa warehouse advert at.

Quests can be so phenomenally dull. I know TES is hardly renowned for its high calibre storytelling, but this is really the pits. There’s a sequence I encountered at level 5 in which I was involved in a dispute between two factions about something to do with who gets to live on the island. They all had ridiculous names like Wlloner or Pikliqon, and were all grumbling about some treaty, and I was apparently supposed to put in far more effort than I possess to care about who was who and why they were cross. My role was to run between three people who were in the same room and click through the conversation options until it was over.

That done I was sent to a building next door, where SHOCK, someone who was supposed to be alive was dead. It was now my job to run to each of the map arrows in turn, click through the conversation options, and then eventually, after chasing about town for about an hour, decide if someone got to live or die. To no consequence or interest.

At the end of this extended bilge was a character fighting with the choice about whether to kill someone in bloodied revenge for the murder of her loved one, or recognise her partner’s former compassion and show it herself. Except she talked as if she couldn’t decide whether to get green beans or mange tout in the supermarket. What could have been an emotional scene, were it not the most hackneyed gaming “choice” in all of existence, was rendered farcical by the dry, maudlin script, and the chipper am-dram delivery. And so it goes.

At one point a boat’s captain asked me to find three of her missing crewmen. They were within her eyesight.

ESO tries to make changes to the traditional format. So in that opening section, there’s not a single “kill 10” quest to be found. “Great!” you might think – what a refreshing change. Except, so far there’s nothing in its place. Instead, in an effort I suppose to be more true to TES’s nature, the emphasis is on the little vignette you’re playing out. There are rapidly respawning beasts about the land, but they’re incidental to what you’re up to. So in the end, what you’re left with is just the stuff that you’d usually click through in other MMOs to get to the good bits. The banal conversations, scrambled justifications to have you move from point A to point B. Well, in the opening few hours, at least.

Were these encounters, these play-lets, of any interest, this would likely be pretty enticing. But instead it’s all bluster, people telling you how utterly important everything is, because the Grand High Priest Of Cliffaffle Poplington has sworn his enmity to the Wolf Queen Of Qqqqqqqb, which will likely cause the Ancient God Robert to rise from the Tombs Of Fort Backalick, raising the terrifying forces of BasingStoke. As hard as I try to concentrate on what they’re saying, not only my eyes but my entire brain glazes over, until I realise they’ve all stopped speaking and the little arrow on the map has moved one building over. Actually, I needn’t make up my own barely-parodied versions – here’s a genuine sentence from the game:

“The ritual tore the veil between Nirn and Oblivion, allowing Mannimarco to begin stealing the souls his master needed to power the Dark Anchors and initiate the Planemeld.”

Two moments in the opening hour were so awful I had to walk away from the screen. The first was the gratuitous appearance of a blithering John Cleese, as a character wearing a pot on his head because WACKY! IT’S JOHN CLEESE FROM OFF OF THE MONTY PYTHONS, REMEMBER! LOOK! A POT ON HIS HEAD! Bleaurgh. The second occurred when someone emphatically informed me,

“You’re important, and everyone and everything we’ve ever loved is in danger.”

That’s not a parody – that’s word for word what is said.

Every cliché is in place. Your guide once alive again is a mysterious, shady figure you’re not quite sure if you can trust. In one town you meet the SHOUTY LEADER MAN WHO SHOUTS, and then the weepy lady whose husband got eaten by spiders or whatever. To give credit, a lot of the powerful, leader characters are women, but none has anything interesting to say. They’re cardboard, speaking in cardboard.

And yes, it’s fair to level lots of these complaints at Skyrim or Oblivion. While each contained some lovely moments, there was an abundance of witless drivel being murmured by bored actors. But the difference was, you could just hop on your horse and ride off up a mountain to watch a sunset, before stumbling on a hidden cave leading to a ruined dungeon packed with marauding skellingtons, where you find a book that tells you about a secret place in a nearby tower… In ESO’s first few hours, you follow the marker to the next quest giver.

And if you do want to ride off on a horse, that’ll be 17,200 gold please! By the first time I found a horse seller, I’d got 1,173 gold in my pocket, and spent almost nothing. And no, you definitely can’t steal them. Oh good.

Combat, I’m afraid, doesn’t save it from its plague of blandness. I created a Wood Elf nightblade called Hemlock. She’s a hunter, and I’ve specialised her for bow – that’s my favourite class to play. But it’s just the same hotbar spamming of old. I’ve got a few tactics – showering enemies in a rain of arrows (4), then firing a poison arrow as they run toward me (2), turning invisible just before they reach me (1) and then stunning them with my veiled strike (3). 4, 2, 1, 3 mostly does the trick. Sometimes there are two of them, and that means hitting the left mouse button to spam arrows, and almost never remembering that the right button blocks, and both together disables an enemy’s special move – because that doesn’t seem too necessary.

There’s no impact to the combat, and while it shares The Secret World’s cone-of-attack dodging, it feels loose, flimsy and detached, like Elder Scrolls games don’t. Compared to MMOs, it’s regular, uninspired. Compared to the series from which this game spawns, it’s very disappointing.

These are, I stress again, just the opening few hours. But they’re crucial hours. Playing them, one could put together a rationale why Bethesda have opted for a massive up-front fee of £50 to start playing the game, before a monthly tithe thereafter. Were this to use the far more sensible free-to-start option, before asking for a subscription to carry on, I can imagine a lot of players would feel no desire to open their wallet. However, if you’ve put half a hundred quid down, you’re going to feel pretty determined to keep ploughing through in the hope for more.

I’m not going to pretend that the above doesn’t look like a kicking. But I want to reiterate that in delivering a bland, ordinary MMO, Bethesda appear to be succeeding. It’s pretty, detailed, packed with wildlife you can senselessly murder. But the issue is, we’ve got an awful lot of bland, ordinary MMOs, and we don’t have a nice shiny new The Elder Scrolls RPG.

Try as I might, I can’t help but see this as all the worst bits of TES games – the dreadful dialogue, the crummy acting, the god-awful inventories (WHY! Why would they deliberately bring that aspect of TES into the MMO world, so you’ve got endless vertical scrolling lists of items, rather than a nice, useful tiled window?), put into an old-fashioned MMO space.

It MIGHT blossom out into something more familiarly Elder Scrollsy. As the beta continues, I’ll get to see more of what’s on offer, find out whether I’ll be enticed into the thief’s guild, given exciting rooftop crimes to commit, and able to explore and discover fun treats, magical painting worlds, and all the things that make the series such a pleasure. For its opening hours, those things certainly do not appear.

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