If you've been wondering what happened to me, I've been sucked into ESO for the past month. In light of the ongoing free weekend
, I figured I should give my thoughts on the game. I went in with exceedingly low expectations, but I've been surprised to find it stands head and shoulders above most MMOs. In fact, MMORPG.com recently named it MMO of the year
, and joined the chorus of reviewers praising the game's huge improvements since launch.
As a hardcore Elder Scrolls nerd, I had spent the last year and a half pretending ESO didn't exist. Ever since the Tamriel Unlimited update came out, and the game went B2P, I made note of the positive reviews and decided to pick it up when it went on sale.
Here is my take on five major facets of the game, which may be good or bad depending on what you want from an MMO or an Elder Scrolls title.1. Megaservers and multi-guilding unify the community
There are only two servers: the NA and EU megaservers. There is no region-locking. You can join up to five guilds at a time.
I consider this to be one of the game's best features. Rather than dividing the community behind different rulesets, the ESO system allows you to explore everything the game has to offer, all on one character. You can join a hardcore PVP guild, a social guild, an RP guild, etc, and have no shortage of events, helpful people, and organized groups to help you get the most out of the game. You don't have to sacrifice parts of the game you find interesting in order to focus on one thing prioritized by a guild or the server rules.
ESO employs a phasing system to deal with overpopulation, like in Star Citizen or Guild Wars. Friends, guildies and group members are normally phased together, and you can adjust phase to anyone simply by right-clicking their name. This system drew a great deal of criticism at launch, but it has now been fixed.2. Immersion built more on the franchise lore vs. being a virtual sandbox
This one was a big deal-breaker for a lot of people, but to my surprise, this might be the thing I like most about the game. In Oblivion and Skyrim, creating a believable world with rich characters, culture, and history took a back seat to making a virtual sandbox more akin to Just Cause, with most NPCs becoming bland ragdolls.
ESO puts lore back at the forefront of the experience. Even the smallest side quests contain a proper story of their own that connects to the wider lore of Elder Scrolls. The quests give us detailed insight into the cultures we encounter in the game, builds memorable characters, and explores their motivations. ESO has a much larger number of new ingame books compared to the number introduced in Skyrim, and actively rewards the player for seeking out lore books. Almost all of the NPCs have something to contribute to the experience. Every NPC you encounter in the wilderness was placed there on purpose. Each NPC is fully voiced with unique dialogue. There is no “radiant AI” or “radiant quests.”
Even so, ESO still has more sandbox elements than any other modern MMO. You can murder friendly NPCs, escape the town guards, sneak, steal, pickpocket, explore the world and delve into soloable dungeons scattered about the map. There are many quests that can only be found by going out of the way to explore areas ignored by the main quests. It also has twitch combat that feels a bit more like Skyrim than WoW. You can block enemy attacks, stun them with a parry, dodge, and use stamina-draining power attacks. Even spells have to be aimed, and there is no way to lock on to a target like in many MMOs.
ESO has better world-building than either Skyrim or other MMOs. It puts a lot of effort into making me feel like I'm in a real world with real characters. This is largely why I say it is a better RPG than Skyrim.3. PVE content is story-driven, soloable or small group-focused
This is not a game for raiders. The PVE side of the game seems to share a lot with TOR. The vast majority of PVE content is the questing, which is almost entirely possible to solo. There are still small-group dungeons, and an entire max-level zone called Craglorn where the quests feature mechanics designed around group play for up to 12 people. Another such “adventure zone” is already in production.
To get back to the quests, there are several primary quest lines in the game. There is the main storyline for each of the three factions in the game. These introduce you to recurring characters and guide you along between the main cities. This is the meat of the leveling experience and is very well done. The storylines and characters are engaging and I always want to know what happens next. NPCs in towns will refer to events of this questline, and on the decisions you make. It can largely be done solo, but group play is certainly possible. It is not instanced or level-scaled like the Main or Guild questlines.
The so-called Main quest shares some similarities to that of Oblivion, where you are a special hero guided by The Prophet and must stop the plans of the Daedric Prince Molag Bal and the Worm Cult. It explores the origins of the King of Worms and his cultists who featured prominently in Daggerfall and Oblivion. You get one quest every five levels. I'm not a huge fan of this questline because it feels like it all happens in the background and its “chosen one” underpinning is at odds with the MMO nature of the game.
The Mages Guild and Fighters Guild quests are also designed as solo experiences similar to the Main quest. However, their storylines aren't as grandoise as the Main quest and don't feel out of place in the world. The Thieves Guild and Dark Brotherhood are both slated for release in separate updates in 2016.4. Large-scale RvR PVP really feels like siege warfare
The bulk of Cyrodiil is a massive open PVP zone dotted by 21 castles and outposts, each with their own exterior capture points like mines, farms, and mills. Siege weapons can be used to weaken walls and deal AoE damage to defenders who can also repair structures. The zone is also full of locations sporting max-level quests. I've only done a couple hours in Cyrodiil, because while you can enter at level 10, it's mostly an endgame activity. Lowbies are level-scaled, but you don't have the skills or equipment to make a big contribution. Even so, just being present is thrilling. PVP sports larger groups than any PVE content, and the castles themselves are imposing structures.
One of the most memorable moments I've had in an MMO was when our faction had been pushed back to its final three keeps, and a much larger group of enemies was on its way. The farm on a nearby hilltop was quickly lost, and we were besieged. A former emperor became raid leader, organized our defense, and we were able to repel them and take back our farm after nearly 20 minutes of struggle. We chased after them and eventually took another castle back from them. It felt like a real victory, and the rewards in Alliance Points were proportional to the difficulty of achievements. Taking back the farm while outnumbered resulted in nearly triple the points as capturing an enemy mine with little resistance.5. Engaging crafting and the best economy this side of EVE
ESO is the first game where I've actually wanted to get involved in crafting. As a lowbie, you can craft yourself better armor than anything you can find as a quest reward. Even in the endgame, most people are using crafted items alongside top-tier gear. Specially crafted sets grant extra bonuses for wearing multiple pieces beyond the stats granted by the gear itself. The crafting system itself is very enjoyable and nearly identical to Skyrim's.
Guilds are central to ESO's economy. There is no central auction house. Rather, merchants sell their wares to other players at their guild trader. The guild trader is a real NPC in the world, and a set number of traders exist at various locations. Each month, different guilds bid against each other for the services of traders in competitive locations. The guild takes a small percentage off the list price of each item for sale in their store.
This means that some of the most hardcore competition in the game is between the major trading guilds. Just like in EVE, the biggest and most powerful guilds require a certain amount of contribution from their members. In ESO, this comes in the form of minimum income from sales every 10 days. Surprisingly, even guild traders in major cities like Windhelm can be had for rather cheap. The hardcore guilds concentrate mainly in the faction capitals, where guild trader prices can be pushed up to absurd levels.
Luckily, there is no need to travel the world in search of basic materials. The guild stores for all of your guilds are freely accessible at any bank. Nearly every city or town in the game has a bank, as well as several other guild traders and crafting stations.