This weekend my Elder Scrolls Online subscription ran out. I won't be renewing it.
I was attracted to Elder Scrolls Online because of my love for the Elder Scrolls series and MMORPGs. What could be better than a game that combines those two things? An immersive, open-world RPG that lets you team up with other players for adventures sounds like the gaming equivalent of peanut butter chocolate to me.
The problem, though, is that MMORPGs and Elder Scrolls aren't so easily merged. They have conflicting rules that ZeniMax struggled to reconcile.
My favorite part of every Elder Scrolls game is that moment when I realize I can go anywhere. I emerge from a tutorial area at the edge of a vast open world. I can head to that town in the distance, or just see where this river goes. While it might not be very safe to wander into some areas at an early level, the game doesn't prevent me from doing so. I can go wherever you please and that wandering is exhilarating.
Elder Scrolls Online tries to encourage exploration as well. Many quests can be found out in the wilderness between towns. There are also Skyshards, lockboxes and other treasures for eagle-eyed players to find.
However, ESO limits the player's travel far more. I can't just start doing quests wherever I want. The game attaches specific level ranges to each zone. I have to do the level 1-5 quests so you can level up and do the level 6-10 quests. If I try to jump to a different area, you'll encounter quests that you can't accept and monsters you can't defeat.
This design works for a lot of MMOs but in an Elder Scrolls game, it feels confining. My movement through the world is less of a journey and more of a scavenger hunt. If I see a fortress in the distance, my reaction is no longer "Man, that looks interesting. I should check it out!" Instead, I'm thinking, "I'd better clear out this area of quests before I head all the way over there."
The larger storylines of ESO are interesting but very little of my time was spent pursuing them. My play-time is monopolized by quests with smaller stakes like saving farmers from daedra or wiping out a camp of cultists. I was forced to plow through these filler quests to earn the right to do more meaningful activities.
The quests don't demand much out of you other than killing monsters, grabbing items or talking to NPC's. The current lack of Dark Brotherhood or Thieves Guild quests really hurts the game; at least those two organizations demand some stealth and strategy from players. Right now, all players have to do is slaughter a lot of enemies and pick up whatever they drop.
The game also features the usual MMO busywork, like selling off junk in my bags, depositing items in the bank or working on crafting skills. I guess you need to make an MMO as time-consuming as possible to retain subscribers but smart business decisions aren't always great design decisions. ESO feels like a single-player campaign that's been stretched to three times its recommended size. This padding only got worse as I progressed, with each new level requiring more XP and questing than the last.
The presence of other players isn't enough to outweigh its disadvantages. If anything, the multiplayer hurts the traditional Elder Scrolls experience. I can't just pretend this is a single-player game and enjoy it as such. Sure, I can ignore the zone chat about whether the game's better or worse than World of Warcraft. I can't ignore a group of players that wipes out every enemy in a tomb right before you get there, though. I also can't ignore the bot killing the quest boss over and over to farm gold.
The group-only content, meanwhile, never got its hooks in me. I traditionally enjoy playing the healer in dungeons and raids in other MMOs and hoped to do the same in ESO. Healing's not very fun at all, though. All of the restorative spells in my arsenal seemed to have automatic targeting, seeking out injured players without me needing to target them. This reduced healing to mindless button-pushing. If I wanted to heal someone specifically, I had to aim them with my crosshair - which is a lot easier said than done in the middle of a fight. I'd rather just click a health bar than chase my tank around the room.
The massive PvP battles in Cyrodiil can be fun. However, the amount of time I spent getting back to the battle after a death tends to be much greater than the amount of time I actually spent fighting. As with questing, the fun-to-work ratio is poor. I wasn't getting many rewards for my PvP efforts, either, so it's not a viable path for leveling.
This isn't to say Elder Scrolls Online's a bad game. It improves on Skyrim in a few ways, most notably the combat. I certainly got my money's worth out of the free month included with the game.
It's not a game that I'm willing to keep paying for, though. The game tries to be Skyrim with multiplayer but doesn't work as a single-player RPG or MMO for me. The multiplayer features don't make up for the compromises on the traditional Elder Scrolls formula. There are too many open-world RPG's and MMOs out there that offer a better experience than ESO without requiring a monthly subscription.