To subscribe, or not to subscribe - that is the ESO question.
Elder Scrolls Online is not a perfect game. As a blend of classic Elder Scrolls hero-centric story-telling with classic MMO player numbers, it actually manages to fail pretty spectacularly at both more often than not.
But for all that, it’s also a game that I am still playing. I’ve got my main to level 23 (and have three other toons in the wings), started a Guild from among my friends playing, and have managed to recruit my World of Warcraft-addicted girlfriend into playing as well.
She has, almost literally, played nothing but WoW since the game came out.
It’s nice to have a game to share. It looks marvellous. There are some great ideas. But, as we creep ever-closer to the end of our one-month grace period when the game will actually want us to pay for the privilege... Hmm.
That’s a tough call.
An MMO for loners
Probably the single biggest issue I’m having with ESO is that it keeps trying to keep me well apart from other players. Which, you know, is kind of the reason I’m playing an MMO.
The way the world phases between instances is a great way to show the world changing about you, but combined with the game’s single ‘mega-server’, it means you end up with so many immersion breaking oddities that any suspension of disbelief is usually shattered within minutes of logging on.
These issues pop up across every kind of world interaction. The most common, and most annoying, is the fact the game often sucks at putting grouped players into the proper ‘instance’ of the world. I can be in a group, we can all be standing around the same point in Deshaan, but all I might see are the white inverted arrows of my party, and that’s all they’ll see of me. We won’t appear to each other until one of us logs, or we attempt to phase to another area of the game.
And even then it doesn’t always work. At other stages the game will simply not let you bring a friend at all. Some quests, particularly guild or story-related quests, can only be done alone. This is, I can only imagine, because like many games ESO posits that you – and only you – are some mystical chosen one. Unfortunately, forcing that kind of separation seems arbitrary at the best of times, and is poorly communicated to the player – more often than not you’ll be wondering whether it’s a phasing glitch or something the game is meaning to do.
It’s made even more awkward if you’re building your characters to operate as a team. At later levels, ESO does let you easily swap weapon and skill sets, but until that’s unlocked, if you’ve specced as a healer – like my partner has, to compliment my hilariously tiny and cranky Nightblade archer – these segments that suddenly force you to play solo are an immense frustration.
The phasing does a few other odd things. If you’re travelling between map areas, you often see other travellers either disappear or randomly appear, depending if they are leaving ahead of you, or passing you by. ESO tries to keep players you’ve seen often nearby, but it never seems to do a convincing job of it.
The phasing of quests also means that while you’re engaging in a desperate fight on one server layer, other players who have already finished that quest – and who are seeing a different iteration of the game world – just see you standing about.
Which is also what happens at craft stations, incidentally. You see yourself hammering away at the anvil, or whatever, but everyone else just sees you standing there doing nothing. In the big cities, it just looks like everyone’s bored and wanting to watch an anvil do nothing.
And yet, there are times when ESO absolutely insists that you have do stuff with as many people as possible.
Guilds are a mixed bag at the best of times, but ESO’s decision to replace anything resembling an Auction House with trading guilds instead is... well, a mixed bag. It’s great that you can join multiple guilds, and that guilds are managed on an account, not a character basis, but the fact that Guild Stores are only unlocked when you get 50 or more players is prohibitive. My relatively intimate guild of friends is pretty much hobbled from the get-go, meaning that anyone wanting to trade – or to take full advantage of crafting – must then join a second guild for access to a bigger store. On top of that, unlike the Auction House, my gut tells me that Guild Stores will really only work for and reward the more active players in any given guild.
At about the same time I’m starting to wonder about the game’s longevity – or at least my involvement with it – I’m also noticing that ESO is really all over the place when it comes to getting you levelled and sending you off in the right direction.
Say what you will for Warcraft’s rather stilted area and level progression, but at least you never really have to look up where you’re going next. Quest areas in ESO are so haphazard that if you follow what seems like a natural geographic progression into the next quest are, you’re more likely instead to find yourself getting ganked by super powerful mobs that are clearly well over your pay-bracket.
And even in a single area, I’m vacillating between feeling either over- or under-levelled at any one time. The game lacks a consistent sense of flow; the questing itself is fun, and it’s great to see a game that’s really doing its best avoid flooding you with ‘Kill 10 Bears’ quests, but finding the next hub, or making sure you don’t miss all important opportunities for earning XP, feels like it’s... a grind.
Sure, it’s a different kind of grind, but still.
It’s very frustrating for a game that’s all about supposedly being able to ‘play your way’. The way it open up weapons and armour for every class, and gives you lots of skill choices that really impact your play, is fantastic. But it forces you into other kinds of play-styles.
There’s nothing quite like the sense of exploration in an MMO, of finding little corners of the world hidden away between quests. But in ESO, that exploration has been gamified. You have to explore to find quest areas, to get those skill-point-giving Skyshards; but these don’t feel like bonuses – instead, you feel punished if you’re not exploring.
So far the game seems to dealing similarly with PVP – because my partner is not big on PVP, it’s something we’re staying away from, but we’re already feeling like we’re falling behind the level curve because of that.
At the same time, despite our XP-enhancing rings of Mara, it still seems like we’re being punished for playing together nearly all the time. The flow of XP seems too slow, and even worse, it seems heavily weighted toward damage dealers. Despite my partner and I playing together all the time, I still have far more XP – at least half a level’s worth. She’s in fact starting to feel more than a little like healing is a dead-end skill.
So much for playing how you want.
And yes, I will play tonight
The really annoying thing is that while it may sound like I’m doing a good job of talking myself out of the game, it’s still something that is delivering a lot of pleasure. As I’ve said, the skill system is solid, and I’m just starting to experiment with having both a ranged weapon/skill combo and a melee/skill combo ready to be swapped in and out. I love how different the game looks to other MMOs, and having three factions and lots of races is nice.
Hell, I’m even enjoying crafting, and that’s like a first for me and MMOs.
Ultimately, though, it’s going to come down to an annoying monetary equation, comparing my time in-game to the cost of spending that time in-game. And the hip wallet is a very harsh mistress.