This week, Zero Punctuation reviews The Elder Scrolls Online.
Do you remember that time not too long ago when it seemed like everything was getting made into an MMO? Star Wars, Star Trek, Conan, Defiance; they were talking about doing ones for Stargate and Firefly. Problem is, nobody asked for any of it! Especially not Defiance; none of the Defiance fans were asking for an MMO 'cos both of them were off sick!
It's very difficult to persuade MMO players to stick with a new one for long, 'cos all MMOs are just endlessly killing dudes that have been evenly distributed across a meadow and all a new one can do is change the colour of the grass and what hats everyone's wearing. So sooner or later players will be back to the one they've invested the most time in, which usually means WoW, but since WoW started providing the answer to the question "When have you officially put out too many expansions?", the answer being "when you start nicking ideas from animated Jack Black vehicles," maybe someone thought it was safe to try out this new MMO lark again and put out Elder Scrolls Online, another proud entry to the list of "shit nobody asked for." We'll slot it in between Doctor Who spin-offs and menstruation.
Elder Scrolls Online, or ESO, which could also stand for "Electric Shite Orchestra," is an MMO of (wait for it) The Elder Scrolls series which produced Skyrim, Oblivion, Morrowind and some other ones no-one cares about anymore. And all those venerable lands from the previous games can be revisited in ESO, albeit smaller and less interesting.
In the grand tradition of Elder Scrolls games, you start the game as a prisoner (I guess these days being the protagonist carries an automatic prison sentence after all those poor sods in Skyrim had bowls put on their heads), and after fighting your way through a sort of prison full of dead blokes, you release a guy called the Prophet, who, judging by his name, was probably some kind of tax accountant. And after escaping back to the real world, he explains that only you can save the world from the regional franchise of ultimate evil and its sinister district manager. Yes, only you and the twelve million other protagonists running around.
Meanwhile, the nine races of Tamriel have split into three factions. Okay, why? "'Cos it's more MMO-y that way, so stop complaining! And draw straws to figure out who's gonna have to sit next to the stanky cat dude!"
Enterprising Sock Onanist does grow a lot of the identity of an Elder Scrolls game: it's got a lot of drab colour palette; characters stare goggle-eyed at you like you've just gently brushed their hair out of their face over a glass of wine on the banks of the Seine; every cat litter box can be looted for shitty items that you don't want, flooding your inventory, but equally don't want to get rid of in case they turn out to be the missing ingredient for dragon rice pudding or whatever; again they hired big-name actors to play two or three important NPCs, and everyone else is the same three jobbing voice actors who weren't being paid enough to put on a different voice now and then.
But often the MMO thing interferes with the Elder Scrolls thing. One loading screen told me that if I had nothing better to do (which summed up 90% of my time with the game), then I could always just pick a direction and keep walking and see what random adventure one stumbles into, which is a valid approach in Skyrim and such like, but in this game, the unspoken footnote reads "You will very swiftly be gangbanged by enemies that are too high-level for you, 'cos clearly you've never played an MMO before, you thick prick!"
I decided to play as a Redguard ('cos weren't no Imperial crackers gonna opress this big black ass!) and with the racial bonus to sword and shield, I dutifully equipped one of each. My first mistake then was to try to play the game like Dark Souls where the shields are more useful than strapping a digestive biscuit to your forearm. When you bow at the altar of MMO, you can expect a kick up the bum from the high priest of latency issues and the point when an enemy attack hits you is only in a casual relationship with the moment you actually see it hitting you, and the act of hitting the raise shield button is similarly evasive about its commitment to the actual raising of the shield.
The only moves that can be shielded are the ones that compensate for latency by having the enemy winds it for half an hour going "Oooh, here comes the pain, you're in trouble, mister, are you ready yet, 'cos the pain train is coming and my upraised arm is the ticket collector!" while little flashy effects appear like his armpit attracts fireflies, then I raise the shield and he becomes dazed when he hits, going "Ohhh, by your mastery of battlefield strategy am I outclassed! Let me bow my head into convenient bludgeoning range!" Don't patronize me, Mr. Skeleton! I may have a response time that would embarrass an elderly bulldog on dental anaesthetic, but at least I can't be repurposed as a xylophone.
So the combat isn't exactly nuanced. You stack up your buffs and play your special attack buttons like a little Fisher-Price piano, which is fairly standard for MMOs, but it's not what I associate with the Elder Scrolls because I can't exploit dodgy programming and physics to win. So no more bucket-on-head theft sprees to be had, but then again stealing doesn't seem to be a thing anymore either. Homeowners just smile unblinkingly on as you rifle through the bookshelves and pinch the knick-knacks. Hey, maybe this is why everyone's separated into factions, because Tamriel has fallen victim to the global scourge of communism! Surely if you can't get run out of town by the local guardsmen because you knocked someone else's biro off a desk, then it hardly deserves to be called an Elder Scrolls game.
If we remove the comparisons to its predecessors, expecting something original is just really dull. With the comparisons to its predecessors, it comes across as spread a bit wider but a lot shallower with it. Larger piece of bread, same amount of butter (and the butter might be spunk).
And just to spooge it all over our faces even more, ESO then attempts to focus on the single-player experience. I know because more than once the lead NPC of cursed village du jour said "Thank goodness that you alone came to our aid!", while even as she spoke there were three other guys in the queue behind me waiting to hand the quest in. Sometimes I'd go into a dungeon and find four or five other dudes running around killing all the important monsters before I could, like I'd stumbled into a really aggressive interview for a janitorial position, which removed any enjoyable challenge from the mission and further underlined the six-letter question that hovers permanently over the experience, "Why MMO?"
It always baffles me when a franchise that has built its success in single-player decides out of nowhere that it's going to be multiplayer now, whereupon it cuts its legs off and works a bunch of spoons into its asshole. Then the players say "We kind of prefered you when you had legs and didn't have cutlery up your arse," but it replies, "Don't you see it was for your benefit?! I had to cut my legs off to make it easier to fit the spoons in!"
- Wrote five hundred one-page books: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- What we never hear about are the Younger Scrolls who hang out in the shady parts of the library listening to loud music
- My escort agency lists me as the "Chain Male"
Extra: Webby Awards Announcement
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