I've played a shit ton–nay, a metric fuck ton–of Oblivion and Skyrim. I am a total sucker for open world gaming, and there's not much that pleases me more than exploration. Wandering a world, discovering landmarks, descending into caves, solving mysteries...I cannot get enough. I cannot! The structure in Elder Scrolls games is loose; sure, there's a main quest line, but you don't have to actually do it. These are role-playing games in the truest sense, because you can basically do whatever the hell you want.
I made one of my characters a total "tomb raider". She lived to uncover the hidden places, to find untold treasure and learn about the past. I enforced plenty of restrictions in that playthrough:
- she couldn't join any guilds or follow the main story at all
- she couldn't fast travel (that is, she couldn't warp from one place to another...instead, she had to walk or hire a carriage)
- she had to adhere to a somewhat normal schedule–this meant finding an inn or campsite and sleeping at night, as well as eating regular meals
- for maximum nerdery, I only used the fold-out paper map that came with the game–no fancy in-game maps for this character so cool, I know
- no magic use allowed–bows and daggers or swords only
Another character could only use magic. She was an evil outcast full of nothing but rage, a lust for power, and murderous thoughts. She helped very few people on her journeys, and when she did, she bilked them for all they were worth. Her only goal was to rise to the top of both the Thieves Guild and the Dark Brotherhood (the assassins guild), and to incessantly harass a shopkeeper who sassed her. Every night, I would sneak into the bunkhouse where the shopkeeper slept. I'd pick her pockets clean, then go rob her shop. Every night.
For all of my playthroughs, I turn off the game's music and turn up the sound effects. The crunch of my footfalls on dirt...the different crunch of my footfalls on snow...the patter of raindrops on leaves...wind howling through a bend in a long-forgotten crypt...the conversation between two bandits somewhere further on in a cave...all of it added to the immersion, the feeling that my characters were truly inhabiting a living, breathing world.
So along comes Elder Scrolls Online and it's time to dive back into Tamriel. As I said, I was wicked excited and my nerd senses were a-tinglin'. I thought long and hard about what kind of character I would make, which of the game's three Alliances I would join. I love sneaking, busting out my bow, and eliminating threats before those threats even know I'm there, so I created a wood elf and joined the Aldmeri Dominion, which unites Bosmer, Altmer, and Khajits. I was ready!
Or, I thought I was. Duh fucking DUH, Elder Scrolls Online is an MMO. It's online. It's right there in the title! I got that because, like, I know how to read. What I didn't get was how much it would change the Elder Scrolls as I know it.
Basically there are a zillion other folks running around with you–other Bosmer, Altmer, and Khajits. And Orcs. And Nords, and Dunmer, and Bretons, and...you get the idea. So what does this do to your game?
Well, let's say you're tasked with entering a cave, collecting ten samples of Whatever, and killing the Head Necromancer in Charge. Cool! Standard RPG stuff. So you get in the cave, ready to sneak on through and–oh. Someone runs by you and engages the enemy you were going to quietly assassinate. Okay. That someone–you see their screen name emblazoned over their head, so let's call them MuffDiver69, because that's the kind of user name you'll see, which is great for immersion–kills the enemy, nabbing all the XP that comes with victory. Then they nab the Whatever that drops, so you need to wait for the enemy to respawn and hope that you get the goods this time.
You make your way to the boss's chamber, and five people–MuffDiver69, I_Teabagged_UR_Mom, whofarted, 420blazeit, and xxxDeAtHdEaLeR666xxx–have almost killed the Head Necromancer in Charge. You get a snippet of dialogue from the big bad so you kind of know what's going on. Now you have to wait for the Head Necromancer in Charge to respawn, and you notice that bodies don't fade. This means that there are three dead Head Necromancers in Charge on the ground as the one you need to kill reappears in front of you.
And so on. That's the way it goes. It's an MMO.
While that makes the idea of immersion a joke and leads to a lot of oh my fucking god will you please get out of my way "I_Pooped" and let me do this thing I need to do, it also leads to stuff like this, the appeal of which cannot be denied.
I mean, you just don't get impromptu underwear dance parties with strangers in Skyrim, you know? Not to mention the background chaos: people riding horses through town, running around, shooting fireballs, being chased by their pet panthers. This encapsulates ESO pretty perfectly, which is to say your Elder Scrolls expectations need to be tempered. Your enjoyment of the game will likely be equivalent with how okay you are with this sort of thing.
So if you're totally okay with it, what of the gameplay itself? What is there to do? Holy shit, there is so much to do. The quests aren't always particularly deep–you'll frequently run into some variety of "Help me, adventurer! Will you gather ten plants/kill the bandits/find my brother?"–you know, fetch quests and the such. However, that doesn't mean they're not often interesting. For example, at the end of one minor quest, my partner and I agonized over a particular decision–whether to kill an NPC or let her go–for a good five minutes. We debated the repercussions of each option, weighed them...and ultimately the result had no bearing on anything beyond that quest. But the discussion it sparked between us made it memorable.
There's also a lot of humor, and most of the billions of NPCs have personalities. Even throwaway moments are well-written, and that can go a long, long way in a game like this.
Many of the standard Elder Scrolls hallmarks are here–crafting, cooking, enchanting, alchemy–and they're all as in-depth than you could hope for, if not more so. There are so many skills, abilities, and perks that it's quite intimidating at first–how can you possibly unlock them all? Then you remember that the game is essentially endless, that if you're in, you're in for the long haul. You can join guilds, team up with others, or play nearly all of the game solo. Or, as solo as you can be in a massively multiplayer experience. There's also the PvP realm that pits the various Alliances against one another. I haven't checked that out yet, and frankly I'm not in any rush to.
I've got too many necromancers to kill, unless of course Missed_Da_Toilet gets there first, or I get distracted by an underwear dance party. Tamriel. It's a living, breathing world!