The Elder Scrolls Online's new dragons don't compare to Skyrim's brood

Skyrim's dragons set the standard for towering, fire-breathing lizards in videogames. Though only a minor part of an enormous canon, Alduin and his ilk are now an inextricable icon of the Elder Scrolls universe. That's why it surprised me that The Elder Scrolls Online waited so long before finding an excuse to bring dragons back to Tamriel—not just as an out-of-the-way boss but as the winged terrors we so fondly remember from Skyrim.

Thank god for Elsweyr, The Elder Scrolls Online's latest expansion, then. Though it's set in the arid deserts of the Khajiit homeland—far from the frigid tundra of Skyrim—a silly mage has gone and awoken a fleet of dragons that are ravaging the poor Khajiit of Elsweyr. But how does fighting a dragon in Elder Scrolls Online compare to fighting on in Skyrim, and which game has the best dragons?

Dragon vs. dragon

Dragons in ESO are effectively a run-of-the-mill raid boss. Once they land, they tend to sit there patiently waiting for nearby players to form up and attack.

Considering ESO is calling 2019 its Season of the Dragon, it's fair to say that dragons will play a big role in the MMO's evolving story—and I hope that means how dragons are implemented will evolve too. With Elsweyr, players get a new zone to explore along with a bunch of new quests. But what interested me was the ability to fight dragons which would spawn periodically across that new zone. While completing the main story, you'll also encounter more than a few dragons during scripted cutscenes and boss battles, but I'm going to mainly focus on the dragons that periodically spawn across Elsweyr.

Below: ESO's dragons can take a lot of punishment.

Fundamentally, these roving dragon boss battles are similar to ESO's other open-world events like Dark Anchors. The idea is that these trigger intermittently and encourage all nearby players to drop what they're doing and rush to complete the event for lucrative rewards. Dragons in Elsweyr are no different—except they fly around the map and land in a random area instead of always spawning in the same static location.  

Unlike in Skyrim, though, you are not the Dragonborn. You can't shout away your problems and you don't get to consume a dragon's soul when you defeat one. More importantly, that means you're also complete shit at killing a dragon and have no chance of taking one on alone. Each dragon that spawns is meant to be killed by dozens of players working together, which immediately gives the fight a different flavor than in Skyrim. And though they often try to mimic the way Skyrim's dragons behave, ESO's dragons more often feel like a crude approximation.

Dragons in ESO are effectively a run-of-the-mill raid boss. Once they land, they tend to sit there patiently waiting for nearby players to form up and attack. That's a far cry from in Skyrim, where dragons will often ignore me entirely in favor of burning down Whiterun or savaging nearby creatures. That's one of the reasons why I love Skyrim's dragons so much: They're an organic (and terrifying) part Skyrim's natural ecosystem. When I discover one, it's almost always stirring up its own kind of trouble that I just happen to walk in on. That's not the case in ESO.

Below: Dragons in ESO will just sit there and patiently wait to be attacked.

Once a dragon spawns in Elsweyr, it'll circle the zone for a bit before finding a place to settle down. Because ESO doesn't have the same sweeping vistas or extended draw distances as Skyrim, however, I found it nearly impossible to track one just using my faculties alone. A dragon's location on the map is always marked by an icon so you can easily track them down, and once they've settled on a spot they won't fly off again.

In fact, beyond waiting to be attacked, dragons in ESO just don't have much of a personality. Half of the fun of Skyrim was having a dragon randomly try to burn Riften to the ground while I was there just trying to complete some other quest. Even though dragons were pretty easy after a certain level, their unpredictable nature created a subtle tension while playing. But in ESO, dragon fights are always optional—they'll never come knocking.

Fortunately, fighting a dragon in ESO is much more fun than watching one. Because I'm not the Dragonborn (and only level 8), I have to be extremely careful during combat. With dozens of players fighting alongside me, it's easy to become overconfident—something that ESO's dragons love to punish.

It's a lot to manage for a newcomer like me, and it's an enjoyable challenge having to dodge these different abilities.

During a fight, dragons will use their dragon-shouts to call down meteors or knock you down. If too many players try to get at its flanks, a nasty tail swipe will send them all flying. And if you get too close, an aura of flame will constantly burn away your health. It's a lot to manage for a newcomer like me, and it's an enjoyable challenge having to dodge these different abilities.

Like most MMO bosses, fights with a dragon happen across different phases. The first few times I fought one, everything felt chaotic and exciting, but now I'm starting to notice a predictable sequence of events that makes these encounters a little tedious. After a few minutes of battling the dragon on the ground, it'll almost always take off and hover over the arena or perch on a nearby rock to spew a few fireballs. Around this time, it'll also strafe the battlefield with fire breath, forcing combatants like me to dodge out of the way. But then the dragon will land again and the process will repeat. Every dragon I've fought so far has this same process.

It's not that I expect these dragons to have dozens of abilities that keep me on my toes, but it is disappointing that the fights seem to follow the same sequence again and again. Again, part of the fun of Skyrim was how unpredictable dragons could be. One minute they'd be strafing you with fire-breath and the next they'd be landing on top of you to take a bite out of your face.

Below: I wish ESO's dragons had more space to just exist in the world. Part of what made Skyrim so immersive was marveling at an off-in-the-distance dragon doing its own thing.

Before writing this I did take the chance to reinstall Skyrim and play for a few hours. And though I still prefer Skyrim's dragons, they aren't nearly as well-animated as I remember—especially when fighting in crowded areas like Whiterun. The way Skyrim's dragons fly around is often a bit clumsy. Dragons will turn on a dime in an awkward way or their animations won't match their movement, which ruins the joy of watching one from a distance sometimes. ESO's dragons, on the other hand, move more naturally—a big improvement on when I first fought them months ago

If it sounds like I hate ESO's dragons, though, I can assure you I don't. I'm just disappointed that they're not more dynamic and unpredictable. Instead of emulating Skyrim's dragons, Zenimax Online Studios has created just another MMO boss with a slight twist—but there's such a great opportunity to do something so much bigger than that. Skyrim launched in 2011, and its dragons were part of what made that RPG feel so ahead of its time. ESO's take on the winged terrors doesn't feel nearly as imaginative.

Steven Messner

With over 7 years of experience with in-depth feature reporting, Steven's mission is to chronicle the fascinating ways that games intersect our lives. Whether it's colossal in-game wars in an MMO, or long-haul truckers who turn to games to protect them from the loneliness of the open road, Steven tries to unearth PC gaming's greatest untold stories. His love of PC gaming started extremely early. Without money to spend, he spent an entire day watching the progress bar on a 25mb download of the Heroes of Might and Magic 2 demo that he then played for at least a hundred hours. It was a good demo.