One of the latest MMOs, Elder Scrolls Online has been out nearly two months now. The studio has had time to further polish the game after launch and has recently released the largest patch-fix yet along with their first new content piece: Craglorn & Trials. Between the amount of time I've put into playing the game and the studio has put into working on it, I felt it was as good a time as any to review the game, but found myself getting into a few specifics and moving out of simple review territory. If you simply want a basic review of the game, I felt I covered most of this during my PTS review (read it here) and wanted to move onto a more in-depth conversation about the game. Prepare yourself, this will be a long one.
I've been curious about many of the reviews since launch as the playtime by testers was way too small compared to the size of the game. My own experience has been pretty extensive with ESO -- I've played in the PTS testing, beta testing, and consistently since launch. I have one character currently at VR12 (max level as of now) that has been at max level (VR10 at the time) for weeks now. Another at VR2 and two more still leveling in the standard 1-50 non-vet range. I've completed all of the group dungeon content (not including the newly released Trials - though I have played in them) and spent quite a bit of time in PvP. I've maxed out every crafting profession between the two vet characters, experimented with different playstyles and classes, etc. So I feel as if I've tested the game thoroughly at this point, and hopefully you do as well.
I will also touch on bugs in the review from time to time. I've seen many players offer the excuse that every MMO has bugs at launch or every Elder Scrolls game has bugs, (combining those two bug filled items makes for twice the bugs I suppose) so players shouldn't get so worked up over them. I feel like that is your job as the player to decide what your tolerance is for bugs, not my job as a reviewer to gloss them over. Plus, I don't grade on a curve -- if it's a bug, it's a bug, whether other games have them or not.
I enjoy this game and want to love it
I love Elder Scrolls, I love (more serious) fantasy games, and I love playing games with friends, so all the pieces are there for me in ESO as a consumer. The game is beautiful (though character models could use a little work), the world of Tamriel feels varied and rich, the NPCs are fully voiced -- there is a lot Zenimax has done right here. As I meander on in this review I may talk about what needs work more than what is great, so let me be clear and say I think this is a good game. A good game that has the ability to become great.
It's the choices they make that often leave me scratching my head and wondering if they will eventually reach that greatness. I came into ESO as an Elder Scrolls fan, not an MMO fan, and have encountered a pretty big mix of the two fan-bases that have been brought together by the game. I often feel like I'm the only one content with the middle ground they have found, with many players feeling the game either doesn't feel "Elder Scrolls enough" or "MMO enough." Some feel as though exploration in the game, due to zoning as you level, is lesser than normal Elder Scrolls games despite the fact that ESO lets you explore ten times the amount of the world as any previous Elder Scrolls game. Some feel the classes or levels don't work the way they are set up, some don't like the questing, some want more, etc. In the end, you can't make everyone happy and Zenimax really doens't need to change the core of the game to do so. There are much more important things for them to focus on and I'm going to address three things they need to tackle to push this game from good to great.
This is a two part issue and one of the biggest I feel. First, I'll address game play balance in general as you level and quest, then I'll get to the hot-button topic of class balance.
The game can often have a very inconsistent feel as you play through it. In the early zones, as you begin to level, you are much more confined to your immediate area. Not by invisible walls, but by tougher monsters and NPCs. This is understandable for many, including myself, even if not ideal. As you work your way through the game, you work your way through the world as well. This isn't the problem (though some don't like this method). The problem is difficulty variation in encounters even if you work within the system they've created.
You may work your way through a quest, handling the enemies well enough and then reach the boss and not only find it more difficult (as it should be) but damn near impossible. The next quest ,you may find the boss a cake-walk. This is in addition to the mixture of group content and individual content throughout the game. If you are a new player and unaware of the this fact, you may find yourself trying to take on a boss or dungeon that really isn't meant for a single player and feel overwhelmed.
Once you reach veteran ranks (a form of slow level progression after you reach the initial top level of 50) the problem with balance intensifies. Often, in these zones, the regular packs of monsters and NPCs you encounter will be tougher than the bosses, or a boss that is difficult will make you feel like you're attempting group content solo again. I'm all for challenging content, but Zenimax has gone about it the lazy way.
This has been a problem with video games from the beginning. You turn up the difficulty and instead of the game becoming more tactical, requiring more thought to accomplish something, they just ramp up the power of the enemy. It reminded me of old football games where I expected the other team to pick better plays to challenge me as I increased difficulty, but instead simply encountered 350 pound linebackers running faster than my wide-receivers. It's the same here with the NPCs simply getting twice the health and power as you instead of actually being more challenging in a tactical sense.
ESO has been one of the only games I've played where I feel less powerful the higher level I get. Nothing makes you feel weaker than seeing trash pulls you should be able to wipe out taking twice the damage you can and doing the same attacks as you at twice the damage. All too often it leaves a feeling of "thank God that is over" instead of "yes, I did it!" A simple solution to this would have been to have the NPCs make larger use of powers or even add an extra mob or two in encounters and leave them at the same health and power as a player should be in that zone. This would both give players the sense of accomplishment as they work through encounters, but also increase the challenge for it overall.
Part of the problem with all I just covered is class imbalance. When playing through the quests with different classes or trying your hand at PvP, you really get a sense of how imbalanced the classes are. The biggest problem isn't that this happened; balance like this in multi-player games take a lot of work. The biggest problem is how long it has taken to address.
Every player with a basic amount of experience in ESO knows the class power heriarcy is Dragonknight, Sorcerer, Templar, Nightblade. In almost every leaderboard in PvP the top ranks consist of Dragonknights and Sorcerers. In the newly released Trials (timed dungeon events with leaderboards) the top teams are made up of mostly... you guessed it: Dragonknights and Sorcerers. That is the real problem with how long it has taken to address the imbalance: leaderboards. The top times are done. Even if they get balance right and bring the power level down a bit for these classes, that statistic stands. In PvP campaigns that last three months, we are nearly 2/3s complete and there is no way to catch top players even if changes are made at this point, which they won't be because the next large patch for class changes isn't due out for another 4-6 weeks. But, playing through the questlines with each character type will really give you a sense of how imbalanced they are. Content that seemed impossible with one class was a cake-walk with others. It was really eye-opening in a completely different way than just running into a tough player in PvP or seeing some stats on leaderboards.
It's not only class imbalance that needs addressing, but build imbalance as well. There are two build styles that can make the foundation to your character: magicka based and stamina based. Not to say with either style you don't use both of those abilities, but normally magicka based builds rely on staves for their basic attacks which work nicely with spell powers from the class lines and stamina based builds rely on weapons and weapon powers for combat. The game, at veteran ranks, leans heavily toward magicka based builds. So heavily, in fact, that many groups looking for extra players won't even take players of certain classes or builds into a group that plans on tackling things like group dungeons or Trials. If you have built a character that uses swords or a bow or a similar physical weapon, by the time you reach end-game content, you'll feel like you can't contribute equally to your group. Combine this with class imbalance and it gets even worse -- a below average, lazily built magicka based Dragonknight will outperform a perfectly built, well-played stamina based Nightblade almost every time.
Game balance should be a top priority, and if they already think it is, then there is some other problem behind-the-scenes that maybe we don't know about. Most MMO players know how hard it can be to get right, but there are so many easy fixes available that should have already been rolled out it's hard to believe they are taking it as seriously as they should. We should be well past those basic fixes now and into the next stage of game balance, but at this rate we won't be there for another few months of subscription fees. Now we are beginning to shift to the next major problem that needs addressing.
Of course there were a ton of potential players upset that ESO went subscription based, but just as many of us that were happy to see the freebie wanting kids weeded out and not see ESO turned into a pay-to-win game. We aren't here to talk about that, but what I do want to touch on is something that customers come to expect when they are paying for something: good customer service. It is also something Zenimax promised would come with a monthly sub fee.
So far I have been very underwhelmed at most of the customer service. There have been bright spots and the company does make a PR push from time-to-time to show they are trying to tackle a problem with having people show up to answer issues on reddit or having gamemasters appear in zones to announce they are going to be cleaning up bots. But that's PR. The real customer service is the stuff that nobody hears about, it's the handling of problems one-on-one so that your customer continues to be your customer.
Personally, I try to be pretty diligent about reporting bugs, bots and other issues, and as descriptive as possible because i want to see them fixed. I've only heard back on maybe a third (that's probably an overestimation actually) of the issues and most of those were just form letters thanking me for submitting a bot report. We had one guild-mate unable to play the game for over a week because the final main quest bugged on him for example - this should have gotten escalated and handled quickly. I would think the last thing you would want is to have a paying customer unable to use your product for a long amount of time and find something else to move onto.
I've also seen a complete lack of understanding in what players get from the game. With recommendations for players to tackle the tedious task of creating and leveling a new character when encountering something game-breaking or simply offering an apology when taking something away players have worked for. It can be difficult to find certain items in the game, and some players enjoy collecting items, achievements or leaderboard standings. When you take that away from them, like a recently deleted PvP campaign where all the players had their progress and standings erased so all the work they did over the past two months was for nothing, or the various bank glitches that have hit the game since launch, causing players to completely lose items, it makes them not want to work for those things again, and hence not want to play the game. This should be something you want to avoid.
My belief (and that's all this is) is that they use a call center type set up to handle reports and send out form letter type responses. This is fine for weeding out bad reports and standard problems like bot reports, but needs some reorganization if it is causing as many problems as it handles. More serious reports need to be escalated to the right people so customers can be taken care of as soon as possible and will continue to enjoy what they pay for and therefore continue to pay for it.
Player vs Player
The final piece that needs a lot of polish also extends from the initial game balance issue: the PvP campaign. It feels like Zenimax sunk a lot of work into the PvP aspect of the game, expecting it to stand in for end-game content between content releases. But so far it has been a bit lackluster. Class balance would go a long way to fixing and improving PvP, but it's far from the only problem.
PvP takes place in Cyrodiil, the central region of the continent (and where the Elder Scrolls game Oblivion took place), and it leaves much to be desired as it stands. For this Imperial heavy zone taken over by evil daedra, you hardly ever encounter Imperials or daedra. Really, you hardly ever encounter anything. I figure that, expecting hundreds of players running around, they didn't want to stress things even more by filling it with non-PvP content, but there needs to be a middle ground.
Why not have roving bands of Imperials, bandits or daedra attacking zergs (large player groups) moving across the land? Or even have Imperials try to take back player owned keeps if nobody attacks them after a while? Zenimax added daedric fissures to the game in the regular zones. Why not have larger versions of them open up around Cyrodiil, or even after a battle with the daedra hoping to take advantage of the survivors as they clean up? There is a lot of missed opportunity to shake things up there. Hopefully it's something they look at going forward.
There is additional game balance that needs to be addressed solely in PvP as well, that has little effect on the rest of the game, as well as some bugs that linger to this day that should have been top priorities. Forward camps (spawn points for your 'army') have been bugged since before launch. You will often set one up and it will be broken, which means you cannot take it down, cannot spawn at it, and cannot set another one up nearby. This can effectively end an engagement more than a strong enemy and ruin an entire PvP battle for one side. There are NPC mercenaries players can buy and spawn when defending locations, a good idea in theory, but the game has slowly become player vs. mercenary, not player vs. player, as the defending side simply continually spawns these NPCs inside and sends them out. An easy fix would be to lower the number allowed and number of respawns allowed, as well as a price increase.
Guild stores, the reason they don't have 'auction houses' in the game, have been broken since launch in Cyrodiil. Sure, you can access your own at the bank, but you cannot access other guild stores in Cyrodiil at keeps they own, which was the entire point. That's a major issue that has yet to be fixed as well.
This sort of thing can go on and on, with any player offering dozens of problems and possible fixes that need to be addressed, all seemingly small, but actually quite important. I know I don't have all the answers, or even the ones I have might not be the best solutions, but what I do know is that I can count on one hand the number of times PvP has been really fun for me and I normally enjoy PvP games. The experience in Cyrodiil as it stands mostly swings between tedious and boring, often with a pinch of frustration mixed in.
Remember when I said I want to love this game?
Well, I do. I love the foundation and most of the framework is good. It has good landscaping and pretty siding, but probably needs a bit of detail work (for the love of god add dyes already, the armor colors are hideous even after the latest patch) and a good exterminator (get it? for the bugs), maybe a few more activities in the back yard for entertaining (get it? for... ok, maybe this has gone on long enough).
If I didn't like the game, I wouldn't be talking about what needed to be fixed. In fact, I wouldn't be talking about the game at all because I wouldn't care about it. I want you to fix the game because I do like it. I want to give you my money, but you are making it hard. Numbers are dwindling, not just standard MMO drop off from people trying it out, but serious players and friends that want to play this game are starting to put it down or look at other games. We've already had players in our group start talking to others about moving on to other MMOs -- you see, there are other options out there and simply being good isn't enough. Be great. We want you to be, but you need to tackle some of the big problems now, not later.