Elder Scrolls Online Beta Report: Another Predictable Theme Park MMO

I had the opportunity to have participated in two Elder Scrolls Online beta weekends. During the previous beta weekend I was able to devote some significant time to playing two characters where I got a good feel for the first 5 levels of the MMO.

The second beta weekend apparently just ended abruptly at 9 PM Pacific time — 3 hours ago as I am writing this. At least the previous weekend allowed players to play in the early hours of Monday morning but not this weekend. Throughout this beta weekend the ESO servers were plagued with problems that made playing the MMO pretty impossible. You would think that given all of the server problems that players experienced this weekend, Zenimax would have the good sense to extend the beta weekend like they did the previous time. Not this time.

Since I didn’t have much time to play the most recent beta which has put me in a foul mood, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts instead.

Before I begin, I would also like to briefly mention that MMO bloggers seem to get lost in the shuffle with big MMO companies these days. Special gaming press beta accounts and special press junkets are all reserved for the big gaming websites and YouTube gaming personalities while bloggers like myself are ignored. The gaming press and video game companies have an unhealthy symbiotic relationship where each of them needs each other. In most cases, sycophancy and boosterism has replaced honest critique. I plan on covering this and the decline of MMO blogging in a future article.

ESO Beta Weekend Impressions

Let me start this article by confessing that I have never really enjoyed any of the Elder Scrolls RPGs. The interface of those games always seemed rather odd and clunky to me. Almost overly minimalist as if to help suspend the users disbelief. It didn’t work for me. Utility should trump immersion. If you can’t navigate then you can’t play, if you can’t play you won’t stick around long enough to be immersed.

There may be another reason I didn’t like any of the previous games: I just don’t like video games much these days. If I’m going to play, I’d rather be doing it with other people.

Back to ESO. ESO opens up with a tutorial scenario where the hero *coughs* player locked in a prison. The player must escape the prison and go on to find out his destiny and save the world ™. We’ve seen this scenario in MMOs that have come before. The situation is tense with NPCs escaping with you. There is lots of scripted drama and artificial tension designed to captivate the player. However, it felt very similar to the RIFT newbie zones with a decidedly hurried pace as my character had to keep running and running some more to achieve objectives.

Of course the player is the “hero”. This is a tired contrivance that we’ve seen in countless MMOs of late. You know, I’m really sick and tired of being told I’m a hero in a virtual world and you should be too. MMO visionaries from Rob Pardo to Curt Schilling to Brad McQuaid have this misguided notion that a grown adult playing a MMORPG needs to feel like he’s a hero. Enough already with bestowing unearned heroism on players. Enough with developers defining heroism. Let players earn and define their heroism, don’t just give it away. Stop the manipulation and social engineering; it’s insulting to our intelligence.

The Tyranny of the Quest

From the beginning of ESO, the player is taught to follow the script and chase the quest-givers. It’s a terrible precedent that sets the tone for this disappointing MMO. The result is that ESO seems like just another theme park MMO in the school of WoW, RIFT, SWTOR and others.

Where are All the Enemy Mobs?

At least from levels 1 – 5, I noticed that the mobs are scarce compared to most MMORPGs.  I’m not sure if they are doing this to be more realistic or they are trying to emulate the same real wilderness feel of Oblivion and other Elder Scrolls single player video games.

The overland areas in particular seem to have an extremely low density of mobs — even the starting zones had very few mobs. I don’t believe I ever felt any danger or sense of urgency. I don’t think I even died once. Mobs are rarely found in pairs or in threes. A higher mob density would significantly add to the danger and excitement which is currently non-existent.

Another thing: the mobs die in a most unspectacular and unsatisfying way. No special animations or death rattle caught my attention. To their credit, Zenimax did add collision for mobs for this beta weekend which by all reports seemed to have improved the combat experience. Dodge seems pointless and more of a distraction and gimmick as you are far better off just mashing buttons to kill the enemies.


Crafting was so complex and cryptic that it could not figure out how to craft anything. The user interface for crafting needs a total overhaul.

User Interface: Targeting, looting and More

As someone who is used to tab targeting I found the mouse targeting system a chore. This MMO plays like a FPS than a MMO. Perhaps previous Elder Scrolls games play this way?

The health/mana/energy bars are confusing and operate in an expanding and contracting fashion which is a huge departure from most MMOs. Why reinvent the wheel if it’s not needed?

Stylistically ESO uses a modern Arial type font to convey everything which is really a shame since this is supposed to be a fantasy world. Again this is more of the clinical bland “feel” that they have imported from previous ES games.

To speak to a friendly NPC or to interact with an item found in the world you have to be close enough and facing the object and press “E”. Finding the right proximity and position can be a hassle and really makes playing ESO a frustrating experience. The devs really need to loosen up on the proximity and target facing requirements.

Other Observations worth Noting

There’s a sense of blandness and sameness that permeates what I’ve seen so far of ESO. Part of the problem is the big assortment of humanoid races that seem to all look the same and seem to be about the same height. Races should be radically different and recognizable.

Another issue is that I found it really hard to get into the story-line and care about people and the places due to the generic one-size-fits-all starting zone. I would have preferred to see the player starting off in a small settlement in their own racial lands. I always felt somewhat out-of-place and out of sorts in ESO. Perhaps not having played the previous Elder Scrolls games penalized me as I knew nothing about the lore which seem to whiz by me with a barrage of names and places I couldn’t hope to absorb.

As mentioned earlier, the starting zones didn’t really make a good impression as the pacing was too fast and frenetic. Just as you got to one town, the quest givers had you moving on to the next town. Note to Zenimax devs: don’t be afraid to slow things down and let players who are new to your world acclimatize and explore. Not every MMO has to start like God of War. Let them look forward to that in later levels.

What worries me about ESO and most new MMOs is that you don’t really need other players anymore to progress and explore. Community means nothing. It really feels like a single player video game where other players are nothing more than flavor NPCs. In my journeys encountering other players was like two ships passing in the night.

The forced quest system left a bad taste in my mouth. I felt like a Fed Ex delivery guy high on too many Red Bulls. The content I experienced was doing tasks at a needlessly relentless pace, when all I really wanted to do was kill some mobs and take their stuff.

Misc. Annoyances

The default user interface is hardcore minimalist. Most MMO players coming from WoW might feel lost without being able to see basic things like enemy NPC names and health bars. Sure you can turn those elements back on but it was a hassle to find them and even then there were very small and too minimalist to even make a difference.

Some of the minor annoyances seems to revolve around the bad habit of current MMO developers offering the player too many conveniences. For example:

  • The mailbox system uses the same system that Guild Wars 2 does. So your character can magically get mail anytime he needs. What a cop-out.
  • There is a transportation system that allows players to teleport instantly once you’ve unlocked a location. Another Guild Wars 2 inspired feature. This makes for a small world. Yet another cop-out.

What I Liked about ESO

One of the things I enjoyed about ESO was the dark and foreboding atmosphere of some of the zones — a refreshing antidote to the cartoon environments of WoW.  The voice acting was an unexpected nice touch.

I also appreciated the character class system that lets players evolve their class based on how they play with weapon choices and so forth. The combat abilities were interesting and they have a nice feature that allows you to morph abilities which was nice. This is a nice counterpoint to the character ability bloat that infests most MMO user interfaces. Even Blizzard has realized this and will be simplifying and consolidating character abilities with the upcoming World of Warcraft expansion: Warlords of Draenor.

It’s good that players can interact with bookshelves, barrels, chests and other items. My only beef with this is that after a while I felt like a common thief. I can’t believe there is no penalty for stealing in ESO!

I also like the constant feedback that the client gives you when you have raised an ability.

Final Thoughts

I remember back in the good old days of MMO development when beta meant beta. Now we have the monstrosity of “beta weekends”. These are clever promotional gimmicks where the MMO studio coordinates with gaming websites to generate buzz. In this paradigm, beta testers are mere samplers instead of bona fide testers. With the ticking clock of the finite beta weekend handing over your head, the player never really gets to fully test the MMO and the result is the observations I am sharing with you in this article. If I could have actually tested and experienced ESO more fully this review may have been quite different. This one’s on you Zenimax.

All and all I can’t think of anything that really stood out that makes this MMO something I want to spend my precious time with and that is the crux of the problem. There seems to be no compelling reason to be a part of this virtual world.  There are no revolutionary features here that excite me. The lack of social cohesion, challenge, danger and dynamic content is also troubling. Even if ESO had no real new features, they could still make a great MMO but instead they have opted to pander to the WoW generation of self-absorbed gamers who are addicted to a sense of entitlement and all the conveniences of a single-player video game.

I was very excited about Elder Scrolls Online. I had even pre-ordered the collectors edition with the figurine but after the first beta weekend I cancelled it as I could not reconcile paying $120 for another unambitious, predictable MMO theme park. It’s a pity that due to my play schedule, server instability and a needlessly truncated beta weekend that I didn’t have more time to sample the game play. I hope Zenimax will address some of my concerns and improve ESO.

I really wanted to like this MMORPG as more competition and choice are healthy for this industry. If ESO fails it could be another nail in the coffin of the entire MMO genre which means we are stuck with the dominance of Blizzard’s WoW for the unforeseen future.


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