During one of the most congested release windows of the year, with Red Dead Redemption and other high profile releases literally begging for my attention, I have been paradoxically playing a game that was released over four years ago: Elder Scrolls Online. It has been a strange and surprising delight, and something that I would not have foreseen myself doing a month ago. It is a weird game with confusing menus and a multitude of systems, currencies, and DLC releases that by all accounts should be huge turnoffs for me. However, I have pumped almost 70 hours into Elder Scrolls Online in the last two weeks. It’s been a strange year.
The saga of my return to Tamriel started ironically with the desire to play a different game, Path of Exile. The ARPG is one of my favorite games of the last decade and, with no substantial updates for Diablo 3 in the near future, the genre has left the old guard behind. Path of Exile was getting a new season with whole new systems and features. I wanted to fire up the game again - provided I had other friends playing. Initially, my gaming circle was itching to try the new content when it dropped, but before the new content released, we searched for something we could all play in the interim. One of my oldest gaming friends and the leader of our old Path of Exile guild suggested giving Elder Scrolls Online a try. I had a copy of ESO from almost two years ago when a couple of us played about 30 hours of it. I had an ok time, but it never grabbed me. The ESO back then was like every other MMO, it started fun, but got grind-heavy and slow the more you played it. But, what the hell, lets take out the old game for another spin.
My first impression back in the game was that the One Tamriel update really opened up experience in a very player friendly way. When ESO launched, there were three factions at war with each other. Similar to the Dark Age of Camelot, Warcraft, of Everquest 2 formula, this meant that picking a faction determined your starting zone and who you could effectively party with through the beginning and mid-game. This meant that groups of friends had to coordinate to ensure they could play with each other. The One Tamriel update got rid of this restriction and made the game completely open.
Another one of my hang ups in MMOs or online games in general is how you have to stay within a certain character level or progress with your friends in oder to do the same quests and dungeons. With different work schedules, social lives, and other gaming habits, this usually turns into one of my friends far out-leveling others and helping lower leveled players to catch up. This inevitably becomes a chore for both players. The high level character is breezing through content they already did, and the low level is barely contributing in fights. With One Tamriel, the enemy mobs and dungeons are scaled to each character’s level. This means you can have level 50, 25, and 14 characters in the same zone with no one feeling they are too powerful or two weak. There are probably great explanations on how ESO achieves this but it just feels like magic to me. This freed up everyone to play as much or as little and level at whatever pace they wanted. This also meant that you could go to any zone and decide to undertake whatever quests you desired.
In many ways, these changes to Elder Scrolls Online flies in the convention of online MMORPGs. On the outset, I was convinced that this made the game way too casual and maybe even made the game too bland. But what I realized is that I played these online games to play with friends first and foremost. ESO allows me to do that - it allows me to game on my on time, and as a nearly 40-year old gamer, being able to jump in and out of games with your friends is priceless.
However, the most ridiculous thing I’ve noticed during this foray into the Elder Scrolls Online is my love of questing solo. I don’t know if I have been so starved of new Elder Scrolls content or maybe I just miss the huge, ridiculous, mess of a world that Nirn is, but I found myself enjoying playing the game solo and going through the innumerable quest lines. The amount of quest content (all with full VO) absolutely dwarfs any previous MMO I have played (side note: I have not played every MMO). Each zone has long storylines and quests that go on and on, and while in a single player games, one might bemoan the lack of pacing (Red Dead Redemption 2), in an MMORPG, it works. I used to think that ESO was “Elder Scrolls-lite”, but over time, I realized that the quest lines were about the size and scope of most of my recollections of the series. ESO scratches my Tamriel-lore itch with constant appearances from the Eight Divines (this game takes place before the ascension of Tiber Septim), Akaviri, Vivec, and daedric princes. It isn’t an exactly copy of Elder Scrolls in MMO-format, but in this incarnation it is pretty damn close. With Elder Scrolls VI not releasing for at least half a decade from now, this is what we have - and it is a pretty good substitute.
Zenimax and Bethesda have constructed over the life of ESO the perfect MMO - for me. I can play it as casual or hardcore as my life affords me. I can play with friends regardless of level or progress at any time. And, lastly, I can play this like a single player RPG and still have loads of fun.