For 20 years now, Elder Scrolls games have been incrementally revealing the vast, open world of Nirn. It’s a place where gamers don virtual armor and wield mighty axes or magical staffs and venture into hundreds of hours of quests that involve everything from demons and ghosts to power-hungry kings and dragons.
The Elder Scrolls Online puts the crème in incrementally by opening up that same immersive environment and epic storyline to millions of interacting players in a MMORPG format. But maybe it’s more like sour cream. Read on.
Are Those Lizard-Skin Boots … or Your Feet?
The grand experience starts with you choosing a suitable character from one of 10 races and four different classes in three feuding alliances. Sound complicated? Well, it sorta is, actually. And it’s a weighty decision too. Because this initial choice boils down to you deciding who it is you want to spend the next weeks or months or years of gameplay as.
You may want to try life as a cat-like Khajiit, a lizard-ish Argonian, or maybe a human Nord or dark elf. Each race comes with its own advantages in the areas of agility, strength, endurance and the like. Making a class choice then helps focus your strengths in the areas of magicky healing or zapping, sword slashing or stealthy sneaking. In fact, this character-creation tool lets you shape your guy or gal right down to facial features and shoe size.
When you finally step foot into the big ol’ Nirn world, you find that you can’t get very far: You’re locked away in a vermin-infested cell. You’re dead, actually. And soulless. That may sound bleak, but at least somehow you’re still able to move around and, hey, there’s nowhere to go but up! Your soul, it turns out, has been snatched away by a Daedric prince of domination called Molag Bol—a powerful baddie whose singular goal in life is to merge his foul plane of death and destruction with the life-filled continent of Tamriel and bring everything under his evil will.
No Loners on This Trip
Your objective is to escape your wormy prison, break all the dark anchors connecting the two planes, reclaim your soul and, well, go on to save the day. That equates to scores and scores of skill- and equipment-boosting, leveling-up quests—and a whole lot of side-by-side cooperation with your own handpicked guild of fellow online questers.
That last bit is brand new for longtime Elder Scrolls gamers, since all the past console-based games were single-player. A few of the beginning quests are doable on your own, but most pursuits—including multiple-tiered assignments, dungeon raids, and mega-powered bosses—need more manpower. Some events even require a group of at least four strategizing adventurers just to make it through in one piece.
The quests themselves range from puzzle-solving affairs (that need the right magical book or weapon to solve) to logic conundrums (that require listening skills and reasoning) to murderous hit jobs (that are self-explanatory) to out-and-out warring battles (that demand the right blend of healers, tanks and ranged shooters).
Like Before Only More
On the plus side of this super-duper king-sized online expedition, the well-detailed scenery is graphically appealing, the musical underscore is beautiful, the relatively deep storyline zigs and zags satisfyingly, and the varied quests don’t seem quite as grinding and repetitive as your typical MMO. But like the rest of the series, there’s also a dark and nasty armored boot that always drops. Some of that is likely discernable from what I’ve told you already. Add to that twisted spiritual challenges involving interactions with the dead, the undead and all manner of zombie-demon-ghosty-creepy creatures that want to make you dead. (Or, more accurately, dead again.)
Among many enemies, you fight a skeleton giant, a demonic necromancer and a vampire lord in his dank lair of corpses and blood fountains. (You can become a vampire lord yourself and feed on your foes if you choose to.) Characters kill, devour and sell their souls for the sake of power. You’re called upon to hack, slash, skewer, incinerate and electrocute along the bloody way. Battles are punctuated with cries of agony and splashes of gore. Corpses pile high, the dead hang from torture devices and lopped-off heads are mounted on pikes.
Sexualized characters include scantily clad humans and buxom demons. Books and conversations tell innuendo-laden tales of lust and erotic conquest. In-game drinking contests leave characters blurry-sighted and staggering. Sporadic foul language includes “h‑‑‑,” “a‑‑” and “d‑‑n”.
If all that doesn’t already have you holding up your shield for protection, let me come back to the whole online MMORPG thing again. It means, of course, that all those positives and negatives will continue playing out in front of you on the screen and in your head for pretty much as long as you want to keep paying the monthly subscription fee. The current central storyline takes somewhere around 100 hours to complete, but that’s just the beginning of this game. Scores of incidental quests (along with the inevitable expansion packs) will stretch the play on and on from there.
It’s an obsessively dark version of Elder Scrolls that wants to be with you till your own elder years.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.