Why Don’t I Like ESO More?

Elder Scrolls Online is a strange game for me. I find it can never hold my attention for very long. I’ll play for a couple of weeks, then get bored and drop it for a few months before the cycle repeats.

My sorcerer using her ultimate ability in Elder Scrolls OnlineThis is perplexing because on paper it’s very nearly everything I want in a game. It puts story front and centre, it’s very solo-friendly but has accessible group content for when I want it, it has my favourite business model (B2P with DLC), it’s got action combat and global level-scaling, it has a very flexible build system, and it’s got more Elves than you can shake a stick at. It would not be far off the mark to say that ESO is essentially The Secret World, but high fantasy, which is pretty much my idea of perfection.

And yet, I still find it can only hold my attention sporadically. I always find myself thinking highly of the game, and intellectually there is perhaps no other MMO on the market I have more respect for, but still I struggle to muster true passion for it.

It’s vexing, but I think I am slowly beginning to identify why ESO doesn’t grab me as much as it theoretically should.

The story is bland:

I almost feel bad criticizing the story in ESO because Zenimax offers more story content than most any other MMO out there, and it’s clear that narrative has always been a priority for the dev team. That’s something I want to celebrate.

But the fact is quantity doesn’t equal quality. ESO may have many long, detailed quests with high production values, but they rarely offer anything memorable as stories. The characters are usually flat (with some notable exceptions), there are rarely any twists (that aren’t super easy to see coming), the reuse of the same voice actors becomes painfully obvious after a while, and there’s a tendency to substitute magical technobabble for truly inventive or thought-provoking fantasy concepts.

The Crystal Tower in Elder Scrolls OnlineThe Elder Scrolls setting is incredibly deep, with thousands of years of detailed history behind it, but there’s very little flavour or originality to any of it. There isn’t the creativity that I expect from a good fantasy setting. It’s either the same politicking you could read in any history book, or paper thin Daedric cultists trying to blow up the world for no reason.

That’s not to say ESO’s story-telling is bad by any stretch of the imagination. I have seen far, far worse. It’s just flat. Unambitious. It’s always competent, but it’s rarely exciting.

The combat is repetitive:

A lot of people tend to feel that something is off with ESO’s combat. It gets accused of being overly spammy and generally unsatisfying.

I’ve seen different explanations thrown around for this. A lot of people tend to blame the lack of ability cooldowns, or the limited action bar. Those might be contributing factors, but I don’t think that’s the real issue.

The problem is there’s no natural synergy to any of the abilities in ESO. TSW’s ability wheel was built so that each ability was like part of a jigsaw puzzle, meant to interact with each other to form cohesive rotations. All of ESO’s abilities feel like they were designed in a vacuum. They’re fine individually, but they weren’t built to come together into a cohesive whole.

My templar tanking a dungeon in Elder Scrolls OnlineAs a result, there aren’t really rotations in ESO, nor many proper combos. You mostly just end up spamming whatever your highest damage ability is all the time. There are exceptions of course, and you can mitigate this to some extent depending on your build choices (my main uses a lot of DoTs), but at the end of the day “spam your nuke until the button breaks” is still the heart of the game’s combat.

There isn’t a lot of variety to mob tactics, either, which exacerbates the issue. It’s not as bad as your average WoW clone, but there’s only a handful of different mechanics and fighting styles spread across the various mobs. Every fight just starts to feel the same after a while.

It’s unrewarding:

MMOs tend to be stingy with rewarding players in general, but ESO is an especially bad offender. Leveling is slow. Meaningful gear upgrades are less than common. Gold income is a trickle at best. You feel constantly starved for skill points, at least if you want to do anything beyond combat, like crafting or thieving.

People blame the level-scaling and lack of gear resets for this, but I’ve played horizontal progression games before, and they didn’t have this problem. Indeed, TSW — which, again, is probably the closest analogy to ESO in overall design — was probably the most rewarding MMO I’ve played. AP flowed like wine, as did cosmetic rewards, and there was always a new goal to pursue.

ESO doesn’t feel like that. I won’t say I’ve run out of goals to pursue, but everything I could do to progress my character at this point — even cosmetically — requires such a daunting grind it doesn’t even seem worth trying.

The Stonefalls zone in Elder Scrolls OnlineA game shouldn’t need rewards to be fun to play, but it is frustrating to spend an hour on a quest and have the only rewards be a tiny pittance of XP, a handful of gold, and a piece of vendor trash gear. Especially when, as mentioned above, those quests aren’t exactly setting the world on fire on their own merits.

It’s stagnant:

This is something that only became apparent with time, but I think it’s one of the main reasons I was so underwhelmed by Summerset. ESO doesn’t change. It doesn’t evolve. They keep putting out new content, but when you take away the superficialities of story and environment, it’s all the same.

If not for the box price and marketing, there’d be nothing to separate Summerset from any of the zones the game launched with. They all feature the same content presented in largely the same way. Quests, delves, skyshards. Same old, same old.

MMOs aren’t supposed to remain static like this. They’re meant to try new things, to deepen their experiences with time, to become better games. WoW may go overboard with the way it all but reboots the game every expansion, but at least Blizzard is always moving forward. ESO only ever plays it safe.

It’s no wonder ESO can keep up such an impressive content cadence. It must be easy when all you ever do is reskin the same content for ever and ever.

* * *

My Dunmer templar in Elder Scrolls OnlineAll that’s not to say that ESO is a bad game by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, if you ask me, I’ll still tell you it’s one of the best MMOs on the market today. But it’s frustrating to see it come so close to perfection but not quite make it. I want to love this game, but no matter how hard I try, I just can’t.

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8 thoughts on “Why Don’t I Like ESO More?

  1. I still haven’t played it. I always plan to, but with so many old games I enjoy and am curious about (I frequently revisit LOTRO, EQ, EQ2.. and just started dipping back into DDO. Heck, I LOVED Secret World but haven’t even started Legends yet…) All that attention being taken away makes it even harder to start an MMO. I can’t play more than one at a time, it’s too time demanding.

  2. Perhaps the problem is not the content of the game as such, but the “venue” of the game. I have not played ESO. In fact, it has been some time since I’ve played any of the MMOs. What I found with these games was not necessarily a lack of content or mechanic problems, though. Don’t get me wrong. There were plenty of those issues – some based on subjective opinion, and others just well, meh.
    What I’m getting at, though, is that the possible issue is due to the fact that ESO is a VIDEO GAME and not a tabletop RPG. That was always my issue with the MMOs I’ve played. They were a blast for a while. Some of the story was great. I could suspend disbelief and actually see the world and characters on the screen. I could get my RPG fix as it were.
    BUT… The game was still programmed.
    In spite of the great visuals, etc. that the MMOs offered, the open-ended and completely unpredictable features of a tabletop RPG were not there. To your point, there became a “sameness” to the characters and the actions taken to move through the adventure/story. While considerable effort was made by the devs to make things like a sandbox and seemingly open ended, the programming could still not be as dynamic as a DM sitting across the table working out the story on the fly as conditions changed in effective real time.
    The ease of playing an MMO is very appealing. You can flip on your PC, console, etc. and jump right into that “other world” for some adventure. I’m just not sure that some of us can have that itch completely scratched without the possible depth that is offered in a tabletop RPG. Just my opinion… 😉

    • Well, I was a video gamer looooong before I tried table-top RPGs (~25 years of experience versus about six months), so that’s definitely not the issue for me. In fact, one of my biggest pet peeves is when video game RPGs try to emulate table-top mechanics. What works for one doesn’t make sense for the other.

      • I completely understand the adaptation thing. Adapting either direction has its share of problems. As far as your dilemma, though, I’m sorry that my insight was not helpful. I hope you can figure it out.

  3. I’m struggling to come up with a defense of your arguments but they are pretty much spot on. The biggest thing ESO has going for it is that players sort of add an element to the game that I’ve not seen in another mmo. Since each zone has its set of dolmens (mini group horde mode event), and some zones always seem to have a group running them non-stop, it’s like each zone has its own personality. I know that I can jump to one zone, hit ‘X’ in zone chat, and shortly will get an invite to the dolmen running group because that is the language that zone understands. Other zones it’s the world boss events – but seems like there is a lot of player cooperation going on. I’ve seen some interesting RP events while wandering around a town. And something about knowing I can walk into buildings and steal out of dressers and drawers if no one is watching, as well as the pickpocket ability on npc’s – ESO may not have a lot of depth story wise but its cardboard cutout version of a fantasy world offers more interactive-ness then any other mmo that I can think of. But yes – the repetitive combat is aweful – like you said the abilities were designed in a vacuum. Having some combos would go a long ways. Positional abilities and combos please. But the lack of weight – even floatiness to combat – don’t think that will ever get designed out. ESO just has a nice blend of amusement park and Skyrim feel to it. Zenimax could make a major change or 3 and push things into full amusement park mode (the crown store is already too everpresent imo) and that would be a shame. Anyways long story short yep agree with your points. It’s the perfect mmo in small bursts each day but really easy to see past the curtain if binged on.

    • Sorry for the slow reply. This got eaten by my spam filter for some reason.

      I agree with most everything you say. I do agree the interactivity of the world is wonderful. My main is a master thief, and I love robbing from the NPCs I don’t like. I appreciate the community elements you’ve mentioned (I’ve been killing a lot of world bosses for the daily quests in Summerset lately), though I’m not sure I’d agree it’s unique to ESO. TSW had a similar quality, especially during its holiday events. GW2 also has a similar spirit of cooperation in my experience.

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