I tend to play nearly every MMO released. I know why – back when World of Warcraft was at its peak, right around the time of the first expansion, I played incessantly. I woke up in the morning, turned on terrible, syndicated morning radio and played for hours a day, every summer, for years.
I had never seen anything like it before (Everquest and Ultima were before my time, gamer-wise) and I knew just what made it special. I could walk from one end of an entire continent to the other without encountering a single load time. It was, literally, a world for the first time in my experience.
Since then, I’ve been looking for that same feeling of unexpected freedom. EVE Online sates my need with total freedom over my in-game life, while other games surprise me with other innovations, like The Secret World‘s massively interesting story and characters.
If there’s such a surprise in The Elder Scrolls Online, it’s likely the crafting system. Crafting is something I yearn to enjoy – I can just about taste what makes it interesting to other people – but always alludes my interest. That’s particularly true of MMOs, where crafting is usually pressing a button and letting time tick away.
TESO has half a dozen crafting systems. Some, like woodworking and blacksmithing, are terribly similar, while enchanting and alchemy are completely unique from one another. Each one is quite a lot of fun, and provides that elusive freedom I reach for. With the exception of cooking, there are no ordained recipes to follow, and every helmet, axe and bow can be built to my exact specifications (or close enough, anyway).
The amount of material I use determines the strength and level requirements of my gear, while other pieces can be broken down to teach me a dozen new traits to imbue within the new. A trip to the enchanting station means I can add electricity, fire, or cold to each swing. Finally, junk loot can be upgraded with special stones to make my favorite kill-em-stick useful for ages to come.
Now, crafting isn’t an end unto itself. It’s meant to feed into something greater, like an in-game economy or, more to my tastes, filing off quests and dungeons. That’s where things fall apart for TESO – follow-through.
I don’t want to kill eight boars. I don’t care if you call them “guar,” and they look like lizard-dogs. If your quest tells me to find something, kill eight of them, and return to you, you’ve lost me already. I don’t care if every character is voice-acted, or if their models look less wooden than the single-player counterparts. You’ve already begun the classic uphill struggle.
That’s what TESO does, of course. Most of the quests are interesting, if you’re invested in the rather standard high fantasy of The Elder Scrolls. I can’t say that I am, and TESO seems even more milquetoast than previous entries. There are demons. There are armies. Some of them are bad.
So, I think to myself, maybe it’s worth it. Maybe I can walk from one end of the continent to the other. Maybe the road out of Morrowind leads into Cyrodiil, and Daggerfall is just over that hill. Maybe Bethesda’s no-doubt great expense in making TESO leads to great expanse.
Not really. The zones are large, sure, but you’ll still sit through loading screens. Quite often, actually, as many of the in-zone dungeons and even quests are compartmentalized.
What’s worse is that the entirety of the world is sparse and unappetizing. One of the draws of The Elder Scrollsis story through density. The greater narrative of this world has never been interesting, but within every broken-and-entered house is the opportunity to discover mini-narratives. A bookshelf, full of actual, readable books in someone’s vacant home might teach you they enjoyed a bit of necromancy now and again. A pair of not-so-fresh skeletons in the basement might imply where dabbling in the dark arts got them.
There’s none of that subtlety here. Everything is explained and exposited in great detail, even when it doesn’t make sense.
“Yes,” your character answers “I will stop that demonic invasion just over there. I mean, I can see that soldier of yours getting his intestines pulled through his eye sockets from here.”
“Great,” responds commander Is-A-Lizard-Man. “But first, let me explain to you the farming situation of this region and how it ties into the greater economy of the Morrowind theocracy and how it all led to this.”
I expect voice acting in MMOs at this point. What I don’t expect is to think of it as impediment to play.
Despite the constant chatter, the game explains surprisingly little. I don’t understand how so much time can be spent on tedious exposition when something like how to find crafting materials is never even mentioned.
I like a sense of discovery in my games, but it feels like entire systems were designed and forgotten. “Rushed” is the word I’m looking for, I think. It’s like TESO’s design document was someone’s dream journal.
“Customizable crafting! Better write that one down before I forget,” says Lead Designer Person. “Oh! What if we had siege weapons in the PVP? That’s a good one. We’ll get around to actually explaining how the damn things work in the expansion or something.”
None of these delirious elements feel terribly designed by themselves, but after dozens of hours spent playing multiple characters I still don’t know how they’re meant to work together.
Actually, I know where they’re meant to intercede. PVP is clearly TESO’s endgame – designed for late-game players who’ve absorbed every other scrap of content. It’s a capture-the-flag free-for-all where players from level 10 to 50 can run about, capture keeps, buy siege weapons and steal the titular Elder Scrolls from one another.
Maybe PVP combat is fun. I couldn’t really tell you, as I haven’t hit the level cap yet. For your character’s first few levels, PVP is presented as the carrot at the end of the stick – a desert for wading through the grey, massively multiplayer porridge. Playing as a single mote in This Lizard-Man’s Army sounds unlike anything I’ve experienced outside of dedicated projects, like Planetside and its successor. It’s like being rewarded for playing the game with an entirely different game.
My experience, unfortunately, was closer to punishment. Like the rest of TESO much of the journey is barely explained. For instance, I was unaware that every player, from level 10 to 50 to everything between, is lumped in the same murder box.
I suppose in theory that would help fill out the entirely-too-large battlefield with meat for the grinder (it doesn’t), but in practice what happens is that the power-leveled prey on the casual.
After trotting about on my glitched, invisible horse for five minutes looking for trouble I was immediately bashed over the head by someone with more free time. That repeated for about the next hour before I relinquished my hopes that TESO‘s hot player-on-player action was for me. Worst of all, I had no idea if I was doing something wrong or if the game itself was simply unforgiving.
And that’s really the prime issue with The Elder Scrolls Online. A lack of feedback, explanation and information pervades every aspect of play. The developers did a fine job of creating a spacious (though shallow) environment with plenty of (usually boring) things to do. It’s not lawlessness, like EVE Online, with a lack of definition providing absolute freedom. It’s a world, one with rules and priorities that are simply never illustrated.
Crafting is the game’s closest thing to a saving grace, but if it’s meant to feed into the nonsensical questing, exploration and player-versus-player it’s just not worth it. The game is simply too big for such a small component – which itself is never fully explained – to satisfy.