The Elder Scrolls Online review in progress

Chris Thursten at

"No one ever considers the wants and desires of a ghost" moans the Ayleid spirit I'm talking to, down at the bottom of a dusty ruin.

This is a singularly incorrect statement. Since my last update I've spent over ten hours running quests in Glenumbra and close to half of them have been on behalf of ghosts, spirits, or visions. I spend so much time running about at the behest of transparent people that the next time I see a plastic bag in real life I'm going to assume that it wants me to free it from its boundless torment. That's what I do in The Elder Scrolls Online, now: I ride my horse, talk to transparent blue people, and return their lost knick-knacks to whatever shrine or crypt they've been taken from so that said transparent blue person can moooooove ooooooon.

Most MMOs of this type are repetitive in terms of structure—collect ten of these, kill this guy—but provide variety in terms of subject matter, location, and tone. The Elder Scrolls Online is starting to feel like a fantasy novel stuck on repeat. The first time I sought out a vision of the past to learn a secret that would solve a problem in the present, I thought it was different and interesting. The fourth time it happened I realised that vision quests are no big deal in Tamriel. A mage journeying into history in search of secrets is no more dramatic or unprecedented than tech support Googling an error message for you.

A tremendous amount of effort has clearly been expended giving all of The Elder Scrolls Online's NPCs voices and dialogue trees, and on investing what would be fetch quests with a bit of life and detail. The game wants to tell you a story, and that's fine. The problem is that it's the same story, again and again and again. I've started fast-forwarding through conversations, and that just isn't how I'd normally play an RPG. I've burned out on running errands for ghosts.

Storytelling in an MMO is no longer so novel that it gets a free pass just for turning up. I think it's reasonable to expect much more from a game with this much backmatter supporting it. From its script to its voice acting—particularly its extensive reuse of the same actors—The Elder Scrolls Online's attempts to keep you involved stumble badly. I understand that for most MMO players storytelling is the icing, not the cake, and for that reason I'm going to spend the rest of this update talking about game systems. But terrible icing is still terrible icing, and it has a bearing on the overall quality of the cake. I am very close to just skipping the story bits entirely, which I suppose is a bit like scraping the icing off the...

Let's move on.

I've experimented a little more with crafting, using it to keep my gear up to date when questing doesn't provide items I particularly want to use. It's a good system: ingredients are fairly easy to come by, but you're encouraged to burn through lots in pursuit of the equipment you really want. Once you've made a pair of pants, for example, you can then use extra ingredients to gamble on upgrading those pants to the next quality level. If you fail, you lose the original item—so there's an incentive to build up a reserve of spare materials before you start, and successfully-improved gear feels more valuable to you as a result. I also like the way enchanting involves learning key words that function a bit like Skyrim's dragon language: eventually, you can gauge what results you'll get from combining certain runes without needing to have translated most of them in advance. This time it genuinely is an involved fantasy language, and not just a bug that makes elementals speak German.

At level twelve I completed the first group dungeon, Spindleclutch. It's a spider cave with three boss battles, culminating in a fight with a spider daedra. As the designated tank I spent most of my time running between monsters making sure I'd tagged them all with my taunting stab attack, but beyond that cooperative play doesn't feel as demanding or precise as I'd like. This is an early dungeon, and so there's a chance that it's been tuned for players who simply want to roll over every combat encounter—but it'd be nice to have a sense of whether my group was playing well or badly beyond "all of the monsters died."

Unfortunately, the dungeon quest bugged out for my group. We could still fight all the bosses, but if there's an additional section that follows the daedra battle we didn't get to see it. I've also been stymied by bugged quests in my solo play: in one instance, an important boss NPC refused to spawn, forcing me to leave the entire quest line where it was and come back the next day to try again. These bugs are getting stepped on fairly quickly, and they're preferable to the connection issues that traditional dog MMO launches, but it's not a great experience when it does happen.

My character has become substantially more interesting to play as she's grown in power. Having more skill points to throw around—at this point, the most compelling reason to complete the main story quests—means being able to tinker with builds, and I've found one I like. I use my magicka pool to provide both offensive and defensive buffs to my allies, and then I stack slows, snares and attack debuffs on enemies to keep their focus on my while I whittle them down. A few of the bosses I've encountered solo have been satisfying fights because I've needed to carefully time the use of my regen abilities, potions and so on to make sure I can stay on my feet for as long as I need to. That's not an RPG experience I particularly associate with The Elder Scrolls but it is an experience I enjoy, so I'm glad that it has started to become a more substantial part of the game.

These close fights are the exception, though. The majority are very easy, and purported improvements to the AI of regular mobs don't change that much. They will sometimes spill oil on the ground for somebody else to ignite, yes, but that's about the extent of it. It's a nice idea, but you're still just avoiding a red circle on the ground. Other examples—such as werewolves regaining health by eating their dead companions—are similarly underwhelming. The consequences of them succeeding in this new behaviour are never so dangerous that you feel particularly compelled to stop them from doing it: you just keep hitting them, and kill them a little bit slower.

At level 15 I unlocked a second weapon set, meaning that I can now switch from sword and shield to a longbow in combat. This will be a pretty substantial bonus in PvP, but I need to level up my bow skill before I can make the most of it. Simply having the option to mix up my playstyle makes PvE more interesting: I wish it'd been made available sooner.

Having played more than sixteen hours on this character I've only just left Glenumbra, the first zone I entered after escaping the starter islands. That's a fairly extraordinary span of time to spend in a single location, especially one defined entirely by grey cliffs, green fields, and swampland. I am very, very ready for a change of scenery. The next stop is Stormhaven, which appears to be a land of grey cliffs, green fields, and... damn. The next ghost I see is getting left by the side of the road.