Zenimax Online Studios' new MMORPG feels forced.
The popular fantasy role playing game series The Elder Scrolls (TES) has been developed by Bethesda, a Zenimax company, since 1994 with its most recent core title coming out in 2012 with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
In the recently released The Elder Scolls Online (TESO), parent company Zenimax Online Studios took over and developed a MMORPG set in the greater Elder Scrolls universe.
While the Bethesda-developed offline TES games have mostly been more-or-less well received (some have even been game of the year nominees/winners), Zenimax's new online title is simply lacking.
The game begins with the character creator, and it's one of the better ones I've used in recent memory. From the Nords of Skyrim to the feline Khajiit race, there is plenty to choose from. Combine that with a variety of looks, builds and four distinct classes, there is something here for most any player. Immediately afterwards, players find themselves locked away in a dungeon during a jailbreak for what serves as not only the game's easy-to-understand tutorial, but also provides some of the more entertaining gameplay in this title.
Once free, Tamriel is yours to discover at your leisure as you follow along a storyline centered around you, the evil Daedric prince Molag Bol and a fellow former prisoner simply called The Prophet. The game world does, seems vast and things are set up similar to the offline Oblivion and Skyrim games -- complete with fully-voiced characters, location markers, player input during NPC interactions and camera zoom-ins with whichever NPC you happen to be having a conversation at that time. All-in-all, TESO grants players with a great first impression.
First impressions, however, can be a bit deceiving.
While Tamriel itself might be quite large, it seems its population is quite small. At least, that's the conclusion one would gather when traveling from area to area. Why is this? Well, it seems that (aside from a few key characters) all of TESO's NPCs are voiced by the same three or four actors. While Zenimax was probably more concerned with advancing the plot and providing players with an overabundance of lore, would it have been so hard to hire a few extra voice actors or (at the very least) ask the ones they did hire to mix things up a bit?
As is standard with most MMOs, much of the time is spent doing one of two things: going on quests and aimlessly wandering. Of all the quests that get thrown at the player, only a few are really interesting. While it's nice that trivial tasks are kept at a minimum, most the seemingly epic or stimulating tasks assigned to the player are anything but. Luckily, aside from dealing with creatures too strong for your current character, most quests aren't too difficult to complete.
Aimlessly wondering is rewarding as there are many areas, items and enemies to discover. Unfortunately, it's easy to run into enemies who are far too powerful for your character's current level. For those of you who played Fallout: New Vegas, remember accidentally meeting a Deathclaw for the first time? Yeah, it can be kind of like that. So, those who decide to wander should be prepared for the possibility of their character being slain.
Thankfully, dying in TESO isn't too big a deal. Those who die can either re-spawn on the spot (assuming a charged Soul Gem is in their possession) or at the nearest waypoint. Either way, that character's equipped weapon, armor and accessories will suffer stat-sapping decay. Decay can be repaired, though it's not cheap.
Combat, which could easily had fallen into the MMORPG-standard World of Warcraft style, stays mostly true to the offline series' more recent titles. It's done in real time and doesn't bother with casting bars, auto attacks or auto blocks. Instead, players need to take aim, attack and block in a dynamic system where enemies can literally leap around you. Sadly, even this system finds players going into the same trappings of spam-clicking attacks and keeping an eye out for the obvious signs of an over-powered enemy ultra attack.
The way TESO handles character stats and levels is rather novel as far as MMOs go. Simply put, the more you use something the better you'll get at using it. Of course, there are still experience points to be had and levels to be gained. Getting a level-up grants players with the opportunity not only to increase their character's magicka, health or stamina, but also allows players to unlock or upgrade a triggered or passive skill. While many skills are specific to how you're playing (ie: magic-heavy, bow, sword-and-shield, etc.), they can be swapped out for others to suit your character's current build-out.
While there are merchants both in towns and sometimes out in the wild, TESO has a prospectively strong player economy (especially now that a economy-breaking bug has been fixed). It's prospectively strong because all of the workings are there for a great user-to-user experience in terms of trading/buying/selling goods and equipment; it's just not set up for it to work that way. Rather than having the ability to have user-owned stores like in the 1990s MMO Ultima Online or a unified auction house like many modern MMOs, TESO only allows those within the same guild to buy/sell/trade with other guildmates. Because of this, those who are in smaller guilds, or simply prefer to go at it alone, will have one heck of a time finding new good equipment without either obtaining it as a quest reward, lucking out and finding it out in the wild or looting it off of an enemy. Thankfully, equipment can be worn and used by anyone as it's not class-based. If your character's level is high enough to use a weapon or wear a certain piece of armor, you're freely given the option to do so.
Guilds themselves are a slightly irrelevant part of the game outside of player-versus-player (PvP) combat. In terms of the main game, guilds are mostly handy for TESO's in-game economy. Being in a guild can also be good for finding questing companions, which can be useful when going up against stronger baddies or a tough dungeon. Where guilds really matter, though, is in the game's alternative PvP play mode.
Cyrodiil, the central capitol of Tamriel, is the setting for PvP combat. Here, players are all the same level regardless of what their character's main game level is. Each guild is aligned with one of the game's three factions - the Ebonheart Pact, Daggerfall Covenant or Aldmeri Dominion - and takes part in the Alliance War. Essentially, players battle to control massive strongholds by working as a cohesive unit to overtake an opposing stronghold while defending your faction's own. Action here can be thrilling thanks to the spirit of competing with and against other actual players, but PvP still suffers some of the same combat shortcomings as does PvE.
But when it comes down to it, everything the way it is is great for a recently-launched free-to-play MMO. The problem is, TESO is not a free-to-play MMO. Gamers on a PC or Mac (and soon PS4 and Xbox One) can expect not only to shell out $60 for the game software, but also between $13 and $15 per month in subscription fees depending on your chosen billing cycle after a 30-day "free" trial. For this large amount of money both in initial investment and monthly fees, TESO's build and gameplay quality needs to be phenomenal and nearly flawless. Unfortunately, the game is neither of these things at this time, and it all but kills a game that could have been killer.
Platform(s): PC/Mac (PS4 and Xbox One on June 30)
Rating: T for Teen
Score: 2.5 out of 4