BY TOM SVALINN: This April, Elder Scrolls Online hits a significant milestone – five years since its release on PC and OSX (and later, June marks four years since it arrived on consoles). In January this year, Zenimax Online Studios (ZOS) released their outline for the year ahead and for the first time the entire year’s worth of upcoming content is going to tie together into one overarching plot. A lot has changed over the years, so if you’re wondering what the landscape of Tamriel looks like now, relax – I got this.
I will say this right away. Bloody hell the game can be complex. Despite joining in almost at launch, I took a break after a few months simply because I wasn’t able to get good. It wasn’t until I tried again (and honestly, got a lot of help from some great guild-mates) that the path out of noob-town was illuminated. No longer did I mix magicka and stamina abilities or wear mismatched gear. Hurray! … and so I fell in love with the game and off I went. Second time’s the charm.
But the question is: it’s been out for almost five years, is it worth trying out (or returning)?
Why ESO captivates my attention
Okay, so what is it that keeps an almost five-year enthusiast of the game coming back for more? It helps that I adore the Elder Scrolls universe, but beyond that, there are some things that I can only find in ESO. If I had to summarise it, I would reflect on these areas:
Beauty to behold
As we’ve come to expect from Elder Scrolls titles, the visuals of the game are amazing. For those looking for a more mature aesthetic, this game delivers in spades as the models aren’t cartoony and the landscape can be breathtaking. This is all backed up with some stellar work on the soundtrack that serves to capture and amplify the atmosphere experienced by the player.
Side-tidbit here. Even though playing ESO on a non-gaming PC does the game visuals no justice, it can still be run on some surprisingly low minimums. I found myself without a GPU for a while a few years ago, and I was still able to run the game on the Intel 4000HD that I was left with. It wasn’t great and I believe the graphics setting would be called ‘potato-quality’, but it ran…just.
Combat is fast paced, with resources being your main constraint rather than skill cooldowns, so fights are fluid and the user interface is thankfully minimalistic, which in my opinion allows a cleaner and more pleasing viewing experience. With add-ons though, this can be changed to the player’s preference.
So in short, the game’s graphics have aged well.
For the loot
Destiny 2’s Cade jokes about it, but I firmly fall into the category of player that needs my loot. It needs to provide a sense of progression, achievement and outright awesomeness to properly reflect my feats in-game. Personally, I find the loot structure to deliver on all those points. Gear sets work by requiring the player to equip multiple slots of the same set to obtain higher bonuses and each set is designed to fulfil a particular role.
Gear is available from specific locations and provides unique bonuses that stimulate a rigorous trial of theorycrafting, testing and triumph to find the optimal setup. The best gear is available from the harder content, but the difference is not so great as to prevent a good player from clearing end game content without it. So in my mind, ESO strikes the right balance between good gear choices and a singular best gear set that everyone must use.
Transmutation (the ability to re-trait items) probably doesn’t mean a lot if you don’t play, but this was a great win on the QoL front. RNGesus can be fickle, so the ability to collect 50 transmutation stones to switch out the trait (a buff characteristic on a piece of gear) reduced the amount of rerunning content hoping for the perfect drop.
Similarly, the inclusion of the weekend golden vendor (allowing players to purchase from a random rotation of items) also helped to reduce the reliance on RNG by allowing direct purchase of a desirable item if it happened to be available that weekend. RNG still, I know – but every little helps.
In addition, the ability to trade items that are typically bind-on-pickup (i.e. untradeable) for a two-hour window to group members within dungeons and trials made it much easier to help and get help from friends, guildmates and random strangers to obtain that last item for which you were looking.
As you can probably tell, gear is important in ESO and the developers have recognised this by making changes to improve the loot earning experience.
Speaking of Quality of Life changes
The team at ESO has implemented numerous other quality of life type changes over the last five years that has made the game a more enjoyable experience to play. The crafting bag (available with an active ESO plus subscription) is a virtual necessity. There’s nine levels of crafting across three trades, plus runes for enchanting, ingredients for potion making, and now jewelry making has also been introduced – you get the picture, my poor characters are swimming in materials.
However, they do so in style as the dye system followed by the outfit system was introduced providing even more freedom to customise one’s appearance (through obtaining and learning style motifs).
The characters also have plenty of company from other players thanks to the removal of alliance segregation in the PVE world with the One Tamriel update. Players are now able to quest, run dungeons or just socialise in a tavern with friends from any alliance. This extends to friends of all levels as everyone and everything is now scaled to max level through gaining lowbie bonuses to stats that are gradually repealed until the character hits level 50 and reaches champion point 160.
The veteran rank system was overhauled back in 2016 to make leveling your second, third, fourth etc character much easier (as Champion Points are player account based, all alternate characters you have are able to access your accumulated account-wide Champion Points at level 50). If you want to level even more characters, additional character slots also became available for purchase via the crown store.
Additional convenience items such as race and name change tokens have also been added to the crown store to help fix any regretful decisions. A great feature for adult gamers – no one wants to re-level a character all over again because you no longer fancy your character’s hairstyle or to fix a name typo.
How hard is it to catch up?
So while all that is great, given ESO has been out for so long, is it too late to join in? Is the gap between the haves and the have-nots too great? Absolutely not! Actually, because the game has so much to offer you can find people who master one side of the game having to start from square one on another aspect of the game.
The knowledge barrier
ESO does not sell max level characters tokens or any such ‘jump to end-game’ type mechanic and I can honestly say thank goodness for that! Players need the time spent leveling (and practicing) to learn how to play the game properly. Whilst this provides depth to experienced players, it also makes it very hard for a new entrant to get to terms with how to succeed.
ESO is structured around the holy trinity of Tank, DPS and Heals for group content and learning these roles does take some time. The game does a very poor job explaining the details of how to perform your role. The skill advisor added was a step in the right direction, but honestly more in-depth practice tutorials wouldn’t go awry. The recent change to not having all the weapons and armor skill lines visible by default seems counterintuitive and unnecessary. Fortunately, there are many people in-game who can help and numerous guides produced by the community on the internet to help a beginner on the path to hardened veteran.
A note on making gold
The player market system is also rather unique, as it operates by having NPC stalls that player guilds can hire out on a weekly basis. This acts as the guild’s shopfront, allowing the wider public to purchase the items listed by guild members. There is no central auction house and in order to sell an item, players need to either be in a guild that can afford to hire a trader or resort to peddling their wares on zone chat. Being on PC, I actually don’t mind this system, it creates an incentive for guilds to function smoothly and allows a shopper to snag a bargain from more remotely located traders. But without add-ons and websites like Tamriel Trade Centre, it can be a pain to use. Fortunately, the latest reveal in January included some planned improvements to this system to at least include an item search function at the trader.
Will I be alone?
Fear not, a new player will not be a solitary soul in a sea of experienced vets. At prime time, the world of Tamriel is buzzing with activity and it is actually hard to find a zone without other players present. There are constantly people completing content for the first time even after all these years. I myself have run in groups with people who are completing three-year-old content for the first time, and having an absolute blast while doing so. That feeling of triumph when you share in the first successful completion for a new group is just as sweet in 2016 or in 2019!
Sounds great, so what is there to do in-game?
Lots. And lots. Broadly speaking, there is a Player-Versus-Environment (PVE) and Player-Versus-Player (PVP) side to the game. Both of which has content for casual and hardcore end gamers. The group finder tool was added to help find other players to do dungeons and to enter PVP battlegrounds.
Quests are fully voice acted (with subtitles optional) and are narrative driven with numerous repeatable daily quests available as well. There are numerous large storylines like the main quest, region quests and guild quests alongside the smaller side quests that can be found while wandering the countryside.
Dungeons, Trials & Arenas
ESO has both four player dungeons as well as trials for twelve person teams (both of which come in normal and veteran versions). Arenas are longer endeavours that span over a number of stages with a boss to defeat at the end of each. Veteran trials and arenas also have scoreboards to show who truly is the best of the best plus weekly rewards for those that achieve the highest scores that week.
These places are where some of the best gear drops and with the addition of transmutation, the farming for gear is no longer as painful.
This is where the big PVP fighting occurs. If you watch the trailers, you’ll see that there are three alliances vying for control of Cyrodiil and to take over leadership of Tamriel. Here is where the players come together to bash it out. Think Planetside 2 type fights with legions of players fighting for control over key map points (outposts and forts) across the landscape.
Set up siege weapon lines to bring down fortifications and charge through the breach with your chosen alliance or attempt to beat back the onslaught as valiant defenders, the tide of battle rages on unending. The best way to enjoy this content is to join an organised outfit, smashing through enemy lines or beating a hasty retreat.
If pitched battles in the field aren’t your thing, small scale PVP is available in Battlegrounds. These are three-way matches with four players per side in closed arenas. Your choice of flavours are deathmatch, capture the relic or domination. Each match ends after 15 minutes or a team reaches the maximum score, needless to say – the fighting is fast paced and frantic.
Role Play (RP)
If you’re tired of playing game content, why not make up your own? ESO (at least on the NA server where I play) has a vibrant RP community. The game’s extensive history of lore, depth of character customisation and beautiful graphics make it a prime candidate for indulging in a bit of make-believe.
Here, talented writers and creators bring the world to life through their narrative and co-creation of story.
To get involved, your best bet is to head over to the main ESO RP website, do a bit of research into the lore, find inspiration for your character’s backstory and then jump right in by meeting fellow role players.
It’s not perfect, but it’s close
Add-ons and modifications
The game experience, in general, is much better with add-ons and other peripheral services. A rudimentary DPS meter was added to the game years after launch, but the player made add-ons are far superior. In addition, third-party voice comms such as discord or teamspeak are mandatory for serious group content. Whilst consoles do have voice chat, they lack the wealth of add-ons available which on PC can also be managed via handy tools like Minion Addon Management.
ESO has generally stuck to a weekly maintenance schedule. Unfortunately, if you happen to live in Australia or generally on that side of the world this typically falls on a weekday evening. I’m okay with that maintenance during my prime time – happy to take one for the team. However, there are still bugs that persist over multiple patches (group finder, in particular, can be a little temperamental). However, ZOS does try to communicate any unforeseen outages on their official forums, and their community managers do seem dedicated to providing updates during any such downtimes. On balance, it’s not terrible – but just expect that it’s not 100% bug proof.
Is it grown up friendly?
Look, let’s be real – I imagine I’m preaching to the choir when I say that online games and MMORPGs are not the domain of teenagers anymore. We all grew up and didn’t leave those games behind. Forgive the selection bias, but in my experience, I would say that the majority of my meaningful interactions in-game have been with other adults (and of all ages).
Know that we may not be able to achieve everything in-game, but with enough practice there is nothing stopping grown gamers from reaching and succeeding in end-game material. Conversely, if the objective is to unwind with a relaxing game session, the option to do some light questing, go a few rounds in PvP, run a few easy dungeons or even go fishing is available.
So to summarise, ESO still has much to offer. There is a heap of things to do and it is now presented as a more mature package thanks to the many improved features implemented since launch. I look forward to what is coming next and I hope to see you in Tamriel soon.