The Elder Scrolls Online is a confusing game, not in the sense that it is hard or difficult to follow the plot, but it doesn't seem to know what it is.
As a fan of the single player Elder Scrolls
games I went into the beta (I played in both the public and press betas) with a number of expectations and all of them were met, kind of. The main quest, in typical TES
fashion, has a number of big names from the film industry, names like Michael Gambon (Dumbledore from the Harry Potter films) and Bill Nighy who plays the game's antagonist Molag Bol. It could have been right out of a single player TES
You start as a prisoner and you break out with the help of Dumbledore and Commander Shepard (yes, Jennifer Hale also has a key role to play) and before long you are thrust into the open world of Tamriel, complete with a worldwide threat in the form of giant anchors that Molag Bol is using to merge the physical world with the plane of Oblivion, something no-one wants to see happen.
I haven't seen enough to say if the story will be better than previous instalments, but it is solid enough to keep me interested. What I found more interesting were the self-contained stories set within the smaller areas of the world. Each location has the usual string of side quests, but there is an overarching goal that when achieved will lead to a change in the game world.
For example, if you defeat a necromancer who is defiling the body of a long dead Dragonlord, all the undead around the ruins will no longer be present and the area is completely safe to loot at your leisure. It is a small but permanent change to the world as you see it. Though, other players in the area will still have to fight the undead which for me meant watching someone hacking away at thin air.
Next up is the world itself. Graphically the game is okay, it looks better than many other MMOs, but doesn't have enough visual polish to compete with a lot of other RPGs. The world is undeniably Tamriel. I only saw a small portion of the map - I saw a couple of islands, one small valley and about a third of a larger map's worth of content while travelling through a wintery island of snow drifts and ancient ruins, swampy farmland and rocky lowlands at the foot of a volcano. The world is full of small villages, ruins, and caves. It isn't as dense as the single-player games, but that is to be expected with an MMO.
There was one major problem with the servers I was on (both public and press) and that was a lack of people to play with. I went for hours without seeing another player and the locations are too big to support one character. It left the world feeling empty in places. Keep in mind that this is just the beta, though.
So far almost everything I have mentioned has been a positive of one form or another, but there is one major component of the game that suffers and that is combat. It tries to pretend that it is just like TES
's combat, with aiming and positioning, except this appearance is an illusion. In an Elder Scrolls
single-player game you have to aim your arrows and get a headshot and bring your enemy down. There is a physicality to battling sword and shield and magic also requires aiming.
In The Elder Scrolls Online
you only have to have your cursor vaguely positioned over a target to score a hit with an arrow or fireball. Critical hits seem random instead of being tied to accuracy and sneaking might as well have been left out of the game entirely for all the good it does. What appears to be a skill-based combat system is nothing more than a shallow number key spamming copy of the typical MMO setup, which is highly disappointing if like me you had hoped for the game to be multiplayer Skyrim.
The only thing that saves combat from total mediocrity is the upgrade system which follows TES
's example by having abilities level as you use them. At certain levels you can change them in to more powerful/useful versions with added effects. This is on top of choosing new abilities from a large selection covering combat, crafting and Guild-based skills.
As it stands I worry for the viability of the game as an MMO. There are MMOs that do things better and there are single player RPGs that make it look weak. On top of this you have a ridiculous pricing system - paying full price on top of a subscription fee feels like a slap in the face. When it launches I might buy the game and pay for a single three-month sub just so I can burn through the game's story and hit level cap to explore the endgame content.
+ Intriguing story, both main quests and a side missions are well done
+ Exploration is very rewarding
+ Stellar voice talent
- Dull, generic MMO combat
- Without a player-base the locations become desolate areas too large for one character
- The price to play - more MMOs should take the Guild Wars 2