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Critical Consensus: The Elder Scrolls Online falls short of its pedigree

Tepid reviews highlight contradictions at the heart of ZeniMax Online's MMO

The weight of expectation can be damaging for any game, but The Elder Scrolls Online faces a uniquely challenging set of preconceptions. As virtually every published review takes great pains to highlight - often in the first few sentences - TESO this marks the entry of one of the most popular single-player franchises into a genre defined by thousands and even millions of people playing at once. To resolve that contradiction, ZeniMax Online must have needed every hour of the five years it was given for development.

"Zenimax Online knew what type of visual presentation modern players were looking for in the Elder Scrolls name and they've delivered on that end"


Sadly, the critics seem to agree that TESO falls significantly short of the mark, though that may not be evident to its players at first. In one of the more positive appraisal's from a major website, USgamer offers ZeniMax Online measured praise for the way it captures the look and atmosphere of The Elder Scrolls series.

"The characters have that same glass-eyed look when you approach them for conversation, even if the NPCs do look like they've lost a bit of weight since Skyrim. When you're in conversations, they're all fully voiced. It's an appreciated inclusion, but the voice acting is hit or miss, as one would expect from a project of this scope. Get used to hearing the same voices over and over again.

"Urns, crates, and bookshelves litter the world, full of random items for you to steal or books for you to read. Overall, it feels like falling into the warm embrace of a close friend; Zenimax Online knew what type of visual presentation modern players were looking for in the Elder Scrolls name and they've delivered on that end."

Ultimately, though, USgamer only saw fit to award the entire package a 7 out of 10, which, while by no means a bad score, is probably a little lower than ZeniMax was expecting after such a vast investment of time and resources. More importantly, the majority of scores from other respected outlets are a little lower than 7 out of 10, including Eurogamer, which awards TESO a 6 out of 10 on the basis that it fails to provide a convincing resolution to the tension between solo and group play.

"The single-player storytelling style your audience has come to expect clashes both practically and philosophically with an environment teeming with other players, creating a buzz of dissonance that refuses to go away. Too much effort is expended on things that don't play to the strengths of an MMO, like all-star voice acting casts and plot-heavy quest lines that can't be shared, and the sheer quantity of content needed starts to erode quality.

"Unlike the rest of the game, PvP allows spectacle to emerge naturally as players congregate, cooperate and clash"

PC Gamer

"The Elder Scrolls Online suffers from all of these problems and the result is a tepid and dull interpretation of Bethesda's straight-faced fantasy universe, stretched so thin you can see right through it to the cold machine running underneath."

Like many other sites, Eurogamer is content with TESO's deep character creation system, its combat and what seems to be an admirable amount of endgame content, but it lacks the sense of ownership that the very best MMOs offer their players. Regardless of your preferences as a player, TESO demands that you be the same amnesiac lonewolf as every other person crowding its huge landscape, thereby dooming you to repeated exposure to the truth behind the lie.

For PC Gamer, TESO's best feature is the one area that it is allowed to forget about solo players: an "accomplished, coherent" PvP area, which is described as "an oddity" in a game where so little can lay claim to those strengths.

"The system resembles Guild Wars 2's World vs. World combat, which is unsurprising given that both games have a common ancestor in Dark Age of Camelot. Participating in battles earns its own currency which is spent on siege equipment and castle repairs: even a disorganised army participates in a cooperative economy that encourages a strong sense of collective spirit.

"The majority of encounters are decided by whichever side has the most bodies: an old problem with this form of PvP, and not something that ESO satisfactorily solves. What it does manage to do is to run well even as large groups clash together. You might not be able to see what's going on, but by keeping your spells and abilities in play you can at least make yourself useful.

"Unlike the rest of the game, where competent design can't overcome patchy presentation, PvP allows spectacle to emerge naturally as players congregate, cooperate and clash."

For PC Games N, that "patchy presentation" is the game's most pressing problem. Apart from the "rubbish" main quest, PC Games N's 5 out of 10 review is complimentary about TESO's evocation of the series' spirit, with enough memorable quests and characters to compensate for the stretches where the proceedings feel a little tired or generic. However, it is also relatively brutal in articulating the review's bottom line: "The Elder Scrolls Online is just not ready for players. It is a tragedy."

"Every MMO launch is often plagued with a few bugs that fall through the net of QA and public betas, but with TESO it's an epidemic"

PC Games N

"In practice, Elder Scrolls Online's questing content is a disaster... Every MMO launch is often plagued with a few bugs that fall through the net of QA and public betas, but with TESO it's an epidemic. NPCs and items often break altogether: not performing their scripted actions, become invisible or refuse to interact with you and some would just refuse to spawn at all. You'll often see players huddled around the affected area, waiting for a miracle.

"Fixing these problems as a player is ludicrous. Sometimes, you'll find it's a UI issue that can be reset via a simple slash command. But more often than not you would be forced to repeatedly log out and in again until you were slotted into an instance where the quest was still working. On some occasions I was lucky in just a couple of tries. In others I ended up giving up on playing for the night.

"The Elder Scrolls Online is frustrating. It has moments of sheer class, but they're consistently tainted by bugs.

"For MMO players not particularly wedded to the Elder Scrolls lore, there are just many better made, better produced, and better designed MMOs available. Zenimax have a lot of work ahead of them to turn TESO around."

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Latest comments (20)

Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd6 years ago
An unfortunate failure for a product that I don't think anyone was asking for. This was a bad idea and will likely cost Bethesda a lot of money ultimately. Even when it inevitably switches to F2P, the competition in that market is intense and better-crafted experiences like TOR and Guild Wars 2 will win out.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 6 years ago
I had high expectations for this. The way they describe the bugs are the same way I felt with Battlefield 4. ive been waiting patiently for these big MMO's to get released. the monthly fee's keep me from trying them all out. So I go to the reviews and youtube videos for feedback. I want to get into an MMO I guess Im still leaning on Final fantasy a Realm Reborn and destiny. I guess its best to wait till E3 to see what they announce and then make a choice.
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I am just not sold on trying to cram single player game design and lore into a MMO universe. This you are "the chosen One' (and oh by the way just ignore the other 10,000 Chosen One's that are everywhere around you) Please just wait your turn everyone will get their chance to save the Princess, she will respawn every 5 minutes.

These games can be so much more...
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Show all comments (20)
Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 6 years ago
Technical bugs are one thing, but the real killer here are some of the fundamental design decisions of the game. Some affect group play in a way not thought possible, others affect world design and monetization strategies.

This game is the perfect example for a game wherein all design decisions were seemingly business driven. It starts with the rather wily method the game is asking its users to cash in their first 30 days. It continues with the way the game world size and incentives to buy mounts tie into each other. It goes on with the attitude of not choosing one business model, but instead combining all of them together. It ends with the lenient approach to shipping a product with game and economy breaking bugs and farm exploits.

I can only assume Bethesda got exactly what they and Zenimax wanted. While this might scare away people with a romantic outlook on games, only time will tell if this stone cold business driven attitude to make a game is financially viable or not. You can call it a soulless cash grab, but in the end grabbing cash was the plan all along. Else Zenimax would not have combined [IP] with [subgenre] and [business model] in that way.
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Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext6 years ago
At the core, there is a solid game. However, it is going to take them 6M+ to work out the issues that will allow this solid core to shine. They are also going to have to have a serious change in the approach of how this game is run. It is clear that they did not understand, what did and did not work for their customers, and why.

The best asset for this game is PvP, and to make it shine they are going to have to make it the focus of the game. They are going to need to re-focus the game around this, and make the changes that enhance the games best feature. This will mean looking at things differently, and accepting changes that they have been against (such as F2P) in order to the right thing for the product and the consumers.

They are also going to need to re-work PvE, and maket he changes that will bring it in line with player expectations. This will mean changes in how grouping, phasing, and experiencing thier content works. The do have decent content, but they need to present it in a way that fits the consumer demand.

Overall, it can become a decent game. It just requires some changes in focus, presentation, and of course fixes to bugs. These are all things that can be accomplished, and that should have been done prior to launch.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Brian Lewis on 28th April 2014 4:46pm

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James Berg Games User Researcher 6 years ago
TESO has felt like oatmeal to me - bland, filling, and not something I have any strong feelings about one way or the other. It's not bad, it just fails to be good. I didn't run into many game-breaking bugs in my time with it though (2 beta weekends), so perhaps that helps. Folks need to remember this wasn't done by the Bethesda team, it was done by Zenimax.

By contrast, I picked up GW2 recently, and just can't stop playing. It does so much right to foster and support a community (starting with everyone-benefits-from-helping-kill-stuff), and like Lord of the Rings Online, their cash shop offers things that aren't required, but feel like nice enhancers to the experience. I'll probably end up paying more than I'd pay for a subscription each month just on random useless stuff I think is fun, and I'll feel better about it as a consumer.

While everyone seems convinced that ESO will go F2P, I'm not actually so sure. I think it's more likely they'll keep the subscription, but push their cash shop harder than they have already, and try to monetize fewer folks, but for more money.
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Benjamin Crause Supervisor Central Support, Nintendo of Europe6 years ago
I'm a huge MMORPG fan but TESO disappointed me right from the beginning. I don't see a bright future for it.
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Pete Thompson Editor 6 years ago
I've only spent a few hours on the PC version in the office, It's not bad, but it's been very unbalanced and buggy so far..

I was originally looking forward to spending a few evenings between this and Titanfall when TESO gets released on XO as I enjoyed TES Skyrim, although In all honesty I can't see myself playing past the point when a subscription is needed, as by default i'm no longer a PC gamer (prefer Console gaming) and paying a monthly sub to play this on top of the higher prices that console games attract compared to PC games, and also paying for online gaming service subscriptions such as XBL & PSN it works out to over £200 for the first 12 months (Game, sub, XBL/PSN sub) which a lot of gamer's will struggle to justify, especially as most of them complain at the cost of a Battlefield or Call of Duty Season Pass, that's quite a bit less cash than the yearly sub TESO is expected to be on console of £120 a year / £9.99 PM & $180 / $14.99 PM respectively..

Despite spending well over 200hrs on one character and around 70hrs on another in Skyrim, when the monthly subscription was announced I was in two minds as whether to cancel my pre-order or not. and I know of more than a few of my gaming colleagues & friends who have cancel theirs, simply because they're not interested in paying monthly subs..

Shame really, as originally TESO had the potential to be as big, if not bigger than the epic Skyrim..

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Pete Thompson on 28th April 2014 7:38pm

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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 6 years ago
Bleh. I wished them all the best from the get-go despite my severe reservations that it was a bad idea, so I guess I'm disappointed that I was somewhat correct. What kills me is that TV ad with the blub that says the game is some sort of successor to Skyrim when it's NOT. Oh well, hopefully the ACTUAL Bethsoft developed follow-up to Skyrim will be back on track where it belongs as a SP offline non-MMO.
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Andreia Quinta Photographer, Studio52 London6 years ago
Two player online co-op - replacing the current NPC follower for a friend that wanted to join you. That would be the sweet spot in Elder Scrolls multiplayability, two people, period.
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Ken Varley Owner & Freelance Developer, Writer, Devpac6 years ago
Tried the beta, I didn't get along with it. Heard the reviews and i'm glad I didn't go ahead.

I'm happy to spend my post-wow subs on Wildstar, so i pre-ordered that, after playing the beta :)
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 6 years ago
One thing about those reviews (and reviews of any MMO): can't any game these days get a major patch job that changes up things and make it more enjoyable? I'm thinking of FF XIV and it's MANY woes at the beginning and how after some major fixes, it seems to be something people can actually enjoy. Maybe TESO will get that treatment, as after all, way too much time and money went into making it, the franchise (well, the offline series) doesn't need the baggage of one bad (and unrelated) release and heck, why not try to make the game better based off all those reviews and user feedback and turn it around at some point (sooner than later, of course)...

Granted, all that stuff could have been fixed pre-release, I;m gathering, but you know how that goes...
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 6 years ago
I'm still curious to see how many players they end up getting on consoles with that subscription model. Will it be tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands.
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Tim Ogul Illustrator 6 years ago
I bought ESO, I'm playing ESO, I'm enjoying ESO. Anyone who can play the Grahtwood Boneyard mission (unfortunately about eight hours into the game) and not fall in love, you have no gaming soul, when they get it right, they get it RIGHT. But still, I only have about a week and a half and counting to play the game, because at that point they'll be charging a monthly fee, and I'm not paying a monthly fee. It's not that I can't afford it, I can afford it just fine, it's that I don't feel they deserve to be paid $180 a year to keep playing the game. They're launching a new content patch at the end of the month, but it's Veteran 10+ ultra-endgame content, and my highest level character is only about 10% that far. It'd probably take me a year or more to hit Vet10, and at least that long before I've exhausted the launch content, so I do not need new content any time soon.

They should switch to a DLC model, play the launch game 100% for free after the box purchase, but new content packs cost ~$15. Even include a completely free option where you only get a couple character slots and maybe bank upgrades, horses, etc. can only be purchased using cash.

In the meantime, I've still been playing GW2 nightly, and just as ESO will be wrapping up for me, GW2's free Season Two update will likely start up, ANet gets everything right that Zeni completely dropped the ball on.
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany6 years ago
"M'aiq prefers to adventure alone. Others just get in the way. And they talk, talk, talk."

-- M'aiq the Liar --
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Ian Dingwall Senior Game Designer, Jagex Games Studio6 years ago
I think studios sometimes make the mistake of believing that simply iterating on what’s gone before will earn them a large audience, but established gaming communities won’t collectively relocate to a new MMO simply because it does what their game does better. Players make huge emotional investments in MMOs and establish deep bonds within the community, and even if their enthusiasm for the game wanes over time, it doesn’t mean they’ll simply move to a newer, similar product. I can’t help but wonder if the business heads at ZeniMax thought “If we make an Elder Scrolls version of WOW, everyone will play it!” MMOs are more than just games – they’re online societies, and there are a number of factors informing what makes one succeed.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 6 years ago
@Andreia Quinta - Yeah it would be nice to have a multiplayer co-op in this type of game. You can join someone elses game and you get to keep any expirience points or loot you gain from your adventures together.
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TESO could be Bethesda Tabula Rasa....
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Roland Austinat roland austinat media productions|consulting, IDG, Computec, Spiegel Online6 years ago
"M'aiq prefers to adventure alone. Others just get in the way. And they talk, talk, talk."
@Alfonso: remember that M'aiq is a liar though. ;)
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Leigh Pankhurst Studying Animator, Train2Game6 years ago
I thought TESO may have been a good idea but really what I wanted was more Skyrim. Perhaps Bethesda would have been better off making a sequel to it. I have played more hours of Skyrim than any other single player game and I have been playing games relentlessly since they were invented.
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