The Elder Scrolls Online: A Review (2019)

Azura occuping an NPC in ESO

Is the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) worth playing in 2019? Released in 2014 for PC, the game is over five years old. Has it aged well? Is the population healthy? Should you get into the game now?

The short answer is yes. ESO is still going strong, the population in the PvE areas is healthy, and new expansions and DLCs are still being released for the game. But if you’re mainly a solo PvE player, don’t rush to play the game just yet. ESO has its downsides and might be best for gamers who are already fans of the Elder Scrolls.

In this review, I’ll discuss the game from a solo, PvE-only player, because that’s what I am. I don’t group, and I don’t do PvP.

My ESO Experience

I hopped onto the ESO bandwagon in 2016, but I’ll be honest. I fell off the wagon pretty quickly. The game just didn’t grab me.

When the Morrowind expansion was released, I couldn’t resist it. I played the single-player Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind for hours and have fond memories. I wanted to visit Vvardenfell again and see if ESO had remained true to the original game. This time I played for a few months, but once again, I stopped playing, for reasons I’ll go into below.

In September of 2019, I decided to try another character, a warden who uses a bow. The character was great fun, and I stuck around. I’m still playing it today, but I’ve reduced my playtime and I’ll tell you why.

If you’re wondering if you can play solo, the answer is yes. Of course, you won’t be able to do everything, but most of the game will be open to you. Also, when it comes to difficult world bosses, public dungeons, and events, you can play with other players without grouping with them. I do it all the time. Everyone who contributes to killing an enemy will receive credit, and nobody will receive less credit than they’re due.

Having said that, I’ve heard that part of the main storyline content in the Elseweyr expansion is gated behind group content. I haven’t reached Elseweyr yet, so I can’t say for sure it’s true. But I’ve seen rumblings of discontent on the forum about it. Perhaps it’s only a small amount and won’t matter, but if it’s true, and this is the way things will be in the future, ESO could turn out not to be so solo friendly after all. When I get to Elseweyr, I’ll update this review.

But if you’re a solo player, don’t let the Elseweyr rumours stop you from playing ESO. There are hundreds of hours of solo play before you get to that point, and if you don’t mind occasionally grouping, the Elseweyr situation won’t be a problem for you.

Let’s move on to the review.

The Good.

Superb Art

The game has aged well, and the environments are beautiful. One thing ESO players don’t complain about is the art, and it’s what you’d expect for each area of Tamriel. Skyrim is snowy. Vvardenfell has huge mushrooms. Alik’r has deserts.

The character and enemy models and animation are also top notch. In other words, the game has aged well, and the graphics are sharper in the newer areas.

Fully Voiced

All the NPCs are voiced. You can read if you like – all the dialogue is also displayed on the screen. But you can just listen, and the voice acting is good. No flat voices and monotones here.

Talking to Azure in ESO
All NPCs are voiced, but you can read the dialogue, too. This is a shot of Seryn, who is briefly being possessed by Azura (my favourite Daedric prince).

Fully voiced NPCs can be a curse if you like to listen to everything, because some NPCs have a lot of dialogue. I like to immerse myself in the story and hear everything, and even I’ve been tempted to just click through some dialogue. I appreciate that many of the NPCs have interesting backstories, but after standing and listening for them talk for a while, I’m ready to move on.

Unfortunately you sometimes have to click through quite a bit of dialogue to reach the point where a quest will register that you’ve completed a step, and move you on to the next one.

On balance, though, the fully voiced NPCs are a plus. They definitely enhance the game.

Huge World

The world is huge and still expanding. Since September I’ve played at least an hour on most days, sometimes more, and I’m nowhere near to finishing the PvE content. I’d say I’m perhaps about 65% through it.

When adventuring, you can play using a first or third person camera. Both work well. I prefer first, but I’ll often switch into third when I’m travelling (either running or mounted).

Each PvE area is different in terms of its environment. As I previously mentioned, the art fits what we’ve seen in other games, and so do the enemies. For example, you’ll find cliff racers in Morrowind (aren’t you happy?).

Exploration is Encouraged and There’s Lots to Do

ESO rewards you for exploring, primarily through achievements. But there are other ways, too.

  • You can fish, and there are different types of bait for different types of water (river, lake, saltwater, etc.)
  • You might stumble across treasure chests, and you have to lockpick them to get to what’s inside (lockpicking is fairly easy). You can also come across treasure troves, but I believe you need the Thieves Guild DLC to get them.
  • You’ll find skyshards, which contribute toward skill points. I won’t go into what skyshards are, but they make sense within the context of ESO’s main storyline.
  • You’ll find quests you might not get otherwise.
  • You’ll find delves, which are solo dungeons. One great thing about ESO is that it has PvE world content (easiest), delves (still fairly easy), public dungeons (meant for groups of four, but once you’re level 50 and earning champion points, you can usually solo them), and group dungeons (really meant for groups of four). There are also world bosses in the PvE world. Usually you need a group to take them down, though some players can solo them.
  • Some achievements are about completing a collection of items that are scattered throughout an area, giving you a reason to stray off the beaten paths.

If you enjoy exploring a map, there’s always lots to do.

The Elder Scrolls Lore is Respected

If you’ve been an Elder Scrolls fan for a while and you’re wondering if the lore is respected in ESO, the answer is a resounding yes. ESO takes place before the events in the single-player games. That means things might not be as you remember them. For example, Vivec City is still under construction in ESO, so not all the cantons are there.

Statue of Hircine in ESO
Lore is respected – Hircine challenging you to hunt.

But you don’t have to worry that ESO is trampling all over the lore. There are books to read, notes and letters to find, and the NPCs sound like you would expect them to sound (and act), with Nords talking about mead, Dunmer calling you Outlander, Altmer being snotty, etc.

The Bad

Horribly Repetitive

This is the reason I started playing twice and stopped playing twice, and why my hours in-game are on the decline right now. Every area looks different but feels the same, because you do the same things everywhere.

Typically the following will happen: You’ll near a town or settlement. An NPC will approach you (or be waiting for you) with a quest. The town has been invaded/something bad has happened to the people in the town/some crime has been committed. You’ll complete a multi-step quest that will involve fighting some PvE bosses (these are much easier than world bosses and can be easily soloed) and receive a quest reward at the end. This will “complete” the town

You leave the town, go to the next one, and receive a quest. The town has been invaded/something bad has happened to the people in the town/some crime has been committed. You’ll complete a multi-step quest that will involve fighting some PvE bosses and receive a quest reward at the end. This will “complete” the town.

You leave the town, go to the next one… okay, I’ll stop. You get the idea. Imagine doing this for 18-20 towns/settlements in each area, because that’s what you’ll be doing. It gets old. Quickly. It doesn’t help that there isn’t much variety among the quests. And if the NPCs didn’t talk as much as they do, the quests would take a quarter to a half of the time to do.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of the quests are quite interesting (based on what the NPCs say, not in their mechanics) and you’ll encounter some of the same NPCs several times, which is a plus in my book. But there just isn’t much variety in what you do. I’d love to see a new area that doesn’t follow the same old, same old, but I doubt I’ll ever see one.

This repetition eventually gets to me. I start to wonder why every single settlement in Tamriel has some disaster befall it. Can’t the quest designers come up with anything else? Yes, the world in ESO is at war (the different provinces have formed three alliances that fight each other), but still. As I’m playing, I start to think of my game backlog and all the games I could be playing.

I quit the first two times because of this, and I’ve consciously reduced my time in the game with my current character because I can feel it getting to me again and I really would like to see all the PvE areas before I move on to something else. Only doing one or two areas a day is keeping me sane.

This repetitive gameplay isn’t alt-friendly either. There’s no way I’d want to play through all of it again.

Perhaps things have changed in Elseweyr. They hadn’t in Summerset, the previous expansion.

Too Many Trash Mobs

There are a lot of mobs, and often too many of them. I don’t mind combat. I’m generally not one of those players who runs away and drags mobs behind me until they turn around, to avoid fighting. But in ESO, I’m tempted, and I’ll often do my best to avoid mobs.

There are areas where you can’t move for three seconds before running into another mob, and then another, and then another. I was in a delve last night and when I’d kill one mob, the next mob was already in view, a short distance away. This gets tedious in a hurry.

It doesn’t help that you still have to fight these mobs when you’re at max level. They never “gray out” like they do in some other games. Go to a starter area at max level? You still have to slog through them.

Another reason visions of my gaming backlog start to intrude as I’m spending time killing yet another trash mob.

Statue of Azura
The shrine to Azura in Vvardenfell (did I mention that I love Azura?)

Combat Changes

The trash mobs wouldn’t be so bad if combat was fun and interesting, but it isn’t, and this situation is getting worse. ESO is in the middle of overhauling combat, and things aren’t going well.

Now, I’m not a power gamer. I play games to have fun. I don’t get builds off the Internet, which probably means I’m playing a character with a build that sucks, but I don’t group, so who cares? As long as I can solo the PvE world content and do delves, I’m good. So normally when the combat system changes in a game, it doesn’t bother me. I don’t need to be doing oodles of damage.

But this time, it’s bothering me.

I’m playing a warden who uses a bow, and one of the reasons I stuck with her was because she was fun to play. I used a fun skill that would push a mob away from me, which is needed when you’re playing a ranged character.

Well, they changed that skill in the last combat shuffle. The effect of pushing mobs away is gone. I have skills that can slow them down, but nothing that forces them away.

My character isn’t as fun to play anymore. And for me, games are about having fun, something I think the combat designers have forgotten.

It’s the usual PvE vs. PvP thing. The designers want to balance the game for PvP, and in doing so, they make PvE more of a slog. Since PvP takes place in a completely different area, why can’t there be a completely different skillset for PvP, that you have to level up through PvPing, just like you level up PvE skills? Why does every online game insist on using the same set of skills for both, and then run into trouble with one because they’re trying to balance the other?

Grrr.

In any event, I miss being able to knock mobs back – not that the combat was a great draw in ESO to begin with, but seeing those mobs fly backwards was always fun.

They haven’t finished their combat overhaul, so be aware that a character you really enjoy playing might become a drag.

Not Enough In-game Explanations and Help

ESO is terrible at teaching you about the game. Depending on where you start, you’ll get a tutorial that teaches you the basics of moving and combat, and that’s it. You won’t learn how to lockpick. You won’t learn about the different types of content. You’ll get loot and wonder what it’s for and what to do with it. You’ll often switch out of the game to a browser so you can look up what the heck to do with something you just received.

It’s probably too late now, but new players need more guidance. Not a show stopper, but I’ve been surprised at how little guidance is offered. Thank god for gaming guides created by the community. Thanks y’all!

Inventory Management

If you don’t subscribe to ESO Plus (and even if you do), you’ll spend a lot of time managing your inventory. The game gives you so much crap. I played for a few months without subscribing, but finally caved when I got tired of having to port back to a town all the time to deal with my inventory.

In the crown store, you can buy a merchant that you can call on anytime, but the best solution is to either not pick up much, especially crafting ingredients, or get ESO Plus, which gives you a crafting bag and more bank space. Crafting ingredients are stored in the bag, rather than in your main inventory.

I understand that ESO wants you to subscribe and that’s why they throw so much junk at you. Every online game does it because they want you to buy more room/subscribe/whatever. But I found myself having to deal with my inventory more in ESO than in other online games I’ve played, because you don’t get many slots. You can buy more slots in-game, but they can get quite expensive. Unfortunately ESO does not give you more slots if you buy an expansion. Really stingy.

Performance

I haven’t experienced this much, but there are a lot of complaints about the performance of the game. I suspect that if I grouped, I’d see this more. The only time I see it is when I’ve been at what’s called a dolmen, which can be a spontaneous group event. When there are a lot of players participating, performance suffers and it can be difficult to see what’s happening.

It seems to be more of a problem on the European server. Anyway, I can’t say much about this, except it’s a common cause of complaints.

On Balance

I’ve highlighted what I see as the good and bad of ESO, from a solo, PvE only player. You might have noticed that I haven’t talked about classes or builds. ESO has 6-8 classes to choose from, depending on what expansions you own.

If you’re a solo, PvE-only player, just play what you enjoy. With all the combat changes, the class that’s best for solo play today might be the worst tomorrow.

I can guarantee you that I’m playing with a crappy build. I can’t solo world bosses, but I’m fine with all the solo-PvE content and public dungeons (when nobody else is around, meaning I don’t need other players to help me).

If you’re an Elder Scrolls fan, it’s worth checking ESO out. If you’re not, I’m not sure. I’d say wait for a free weekend and try it out. I’ll be honest. If ESO wasn’t set in Tamriel, I’d probably be gone by now.

Thoughts on the Future of the Game

Bold prediction (or perhaps not so bold): When the Elder Scrolls 6 is released, ESO will struggle and perhaps die. In fact, I think the main reason we haven’t seen ES6 yet is because they know that ESO will struggle when it’s released.

Basing an online game on a super-popular single-player series might not have been the best idea, because what will happen when the next installment in the single-player series is released? All the fans of that series will stop playing the online game, and when we’re talking Elder Scrolls, we’re talking games that will take hundreds of hours to play, not a game that will take 10 hours and then everyone goes back to the online game.

If I’m still playing ESO when ES6 drops, I’ll be gone from ESO. Subscription cancelled, ESO a distant memory. I suspect I won’t be alone. I’m sure there are ESO players who aren’t interested in the single-player series, but I believe enough ESO players will abandon the game when ES6 is released that the ESO population will go into a spiral. There won’t be enough players around to do group content in some areas, so more players will quit, and on and on.

I don’t think we’ll see ES6 for a few years yet, so it’s not a factor when it comes to getting into ESO in 2019. But keep your eye on when ES6 will be released. If you’re reading this in 2021 or 2022, it might not be a good time to start ESO.

Bottom Line

ESO is still worth playing in 2019 for solo, non-PvPers, especially for Elder Scrolls fans. If you want your Tamriel fix, you can get it in ESO. If you’re not an Elder Scrolls fan, you might want to wait for a free weekend to see if it’s your cup of tea.

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