Why The Elder Scrolls Online on PS4 is an endless adventure that makes Skyrim look small
If you’re going to spend over 150 hours staring at a character, they need to look amazing. Thankfully, character creation in The Elder Scrolls Online is a vast improvement on the creased fizzogs of Skyrim. We start our hands-on by trying to make a handsome Dark Elf – something of an impossibility in the previous Elder Scrolls games – and ESO’s mix of sliders and scales proves pleasingly simple.
You can even jump forward 150 hours to preview how your adventurer will look in the most badass armour, although it’s worth remembering your selection of gear is unlimited, regardless of class. This may be a massively multiplayer game, but preserving player choice is paramount. It’s the Elder Scrolls way.
Individual features can be endlessly tweaked, making the in-game gene pool seem as warm and inviting as a Skyrim hot spring. Your only limitations come from series lore: if you want to be tall and beady, go Nord rather than Wood Elf. RPG fanatics could spend days altering nose curves and eyebrow thickness, but enough of that. Adventure time.
Typically, for an Elder Scrolls game, you start in prison. Less typically, it’s in the Daedric realm of Coldharbour and your soul has been removed. The good news? This grants the ability to be resurrected when you die – and by Arkay you’ll need it. For those unfamiliar with MMOs, this is a persistent, online world so there’s no pausing, and no saving your game. Die and you respawn at a Wayshrine, taking some gear damage as punishment. Our time is limited so we skip the introduction, waking up on the harsh, frosty and suitably named Bleakrock Isle, off the coast between Skyrim and Morrowind.
Zooming out on the map shows we’re to the southwest of The Rift, an area any Dovahkiin will recognise. It’s tantalisingly close, yet demonstrates the immensity of the ESO world. For players familiar with the voluminous history of the series, Bleakrock neatly stitches together familiar elements of Tamrielic culture – that’s nerd-speak for it being half-Morrowind, half-Skyrim
After the gravitas of being Dragonborn last
time out, it’s refreshing to feel small again
This is where The Elder Scrolls Online gets exciting. Usually in a fantasy game the thrill comes from unfamiliarity: the opposite is true here. If you’ve played Skyrim or Oblivion, it’s amazing to have a vague awareness of your location, especially when you realise the intimidating distance between you and the nearest familiar landmark. After the gravitas of being fancy-pants Dragonborn last time out, it’s refreshing to feel small again.
All of this wouldn’t matter if it didn’t feel like an Elder Scrolls game. Thankfully, while different, it’s also reassuringly familiar. Upon waking in Bleakrock we immediately start poking into nearby barrels, only to find them full of Kwama eggs – a provision made famous by the third Elder Scrolls game, Morrowind. Better yet, the homely shack in which we made our recovery was stuffed with scene-setting books.
Unlike Skyrim you won’t be able to amass a cascading library of dusty tomes, but everything you read is saved in a journal for posterity, and a few titles will be instantly recognisable to Elder Scrolls bibliophiles. Who’s got a brofist for the Ruins of Kemel-Ze book club? Anyone?
Elsewhere the game is less conventional. The third-person view is over the shoulder, Resident Evil 4-style, and it feels a little unwieldy at first. Switch back to first-person and the experience is more traditional, but the floaty character collision keeps it distinct from its chunkier predecessors. Thinner, perhaps – the sugar-free alternative to Skyrim. The scale more than makes up for this, though, and if Bleakrock Isle is anything to go by it won’t just be empty space. The missions recall that organic feel of Skyrim or Oblivion, as you tumble between quest-givers through the natural course of exploration.
As I leave the starting town, I’m accosted by a squeaking adventurer. She explains that after tinkering with an enchanted staff she and her friends had been turned into Skeevers – Skyrim’s equivalent of the giant rat. Having recovered, she invites you to help save her friends. Cue a cheery side-quest that’s a floaty distraction from the gruelling, being-dragged-into-hell main quest. Best of all, it’s awesome to see the winking humour of Skyrim and Oblivion being embraced by Zenimax Online Studios.
The overall experience is like a glistening breadcrumb trail of adventure, elegantly leading you from one quest to the next. From what we’ve seen so far, The Elder Scrolls Online is doing a stand-up job of the typical MMO ‘one more quest’ hook: what will be truly impressive is if the rest of Tamriel is equally as dense with distraction