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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ESO: Summerset Is Pretty, But Hollow

Having not played the original Morrowind or even ESO’s Dark Elf zones from the base game, the first expansion for Elder Scrolls Online largely passed me by, but given the standalone nature of ESO expansions (or “chapters,” as they somewhat obnoxiously insist on calling them), there was nothing stopping me from jumping straight to the next.

My Bosmer shows off her elk mount on the mystic isle of Artaeum in Elder Scrolls OnlineWhen Summerset was announced as the setting of the next one, I was excited. As an Aldmeri loyalist, I’ve wanted to visit Ayrenn’s homeland pretty much since I started playing. The inclusion of Razum-dar, objectively the best character in the game, only sweetened the deal.

So I pre-ordered. I even sprang for the deluxe edition, which is a decision I find retrospectively baffling.

In case it isn’t clear by now, I’m feeling more than a bit of buyer’s remorse.

Taking in the Summersights:

First, the good news.

Summerset is ridiculously, stupidly, unbelievably pretty. I’ve never been the biggest fan of ESO’s visuals — finding both the art style and the graphical fidelity underwhelming — but hot damn this expansion looks good. The white sand beaches, the pale blue of the ocean, the brilliant colours of the flowers and the greenery, the stately architecture… it’s all just breathtaking.

Beautiful vista #24601 from SummersetAnd that’s without getting to the island of Artaeum, which is a delightfully whimsical departure from ESO’s usual low fantasy style.

It’s not just the environments, either. The new armour models are also incredible, and even the new monsters look beautiful in a horrible kind of way. There is no part of Summerset that isn’t a total feast for the eyes.

The music’s pretty good, too, and hey, it’s always good to see Raz again.

But once you move past the superficialities, Summerset has thus far proven a pretty underwhelming experience.

What a Bummerset:

Going in, I was excited about the possibilities for interesting stories in this area of the world. Might we finally explore the Maormer in detail? Perhaps the Sload would take centre stage as a threat unlike anything seen in ESO before? Or maybe we could get some spy games with Raz and Ayrenn?

Then it turned out to be “Daedric cultists are trying to blow up for the world for reasons.”

The beaches of Summerset in Elder Scrolls OnlineYou know. The exact plot of 95% of ESO to date. Again.

What a waste.

Now, I’m only about halfway through Summerset right now, so maybe there’s some epic twist I haven’t gotten to yet, but right now it feels like I’m just retreading a story I’ve already seen several times before, and didn’t much enjoy the first time around.

It’s not just the story, either. I thought by now ESO would be innovating or improving its mechanics in some way, but aside from the improved visuals, there’s absolutely nothing to distinguish Summerset from any of the zones that launched with the game. The quests are based on the exact same mechanics. The delves play the same. Even the much-vaunted new Abyssal Geysers are just a reskin of the old Dolmens. Don’t get me wrong; I liked Dolmens, and I like Geysers, but again, it’s nothing new.

In fact, if anything, quest design seems to have gone downhill since launch. I don’t remember ever having to do this much back-tracking or repetition in the base game.

I was also hoping by now they might have some more interesting rewards. From the perspective of an endgame player, it’s hard to get excited about quest rewards when a forty-five minute quest gets you only enough gold for one day’s mount training, a pittance of XP, and a single piece of gear that’s little more than vendor trash.

The mystical island of Artaeum in ESO's Summerset expansionFinally — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — this expansion might be too Elfy. I’ve come to the conclusion the High Elves are by far the least interesting Elves in ESO, but they’re getting 100% of the spotlight in Summerset. That makes sense lore-wise, but it gets old when every single NPC is either a haughty noble or a scholar with their head in the clouds.

I’m almost starting to sympathize with Syp’s point of view here.

I will probably finish Summerset at some point, but right now I’m struggling hard to find the motivation to keep logging in. I look back on the wit and personality of Thieves Guild and wonder how this is even the same game.

It does also have me pondering my future with ESO as a whole. I’ve tended to view it as my new “main” MMO following TSW’s demise, but my actions have not even come close to backing up that intention.

I feel like I should love ESO. On paper, it’s pretty much everything I ever wanted from an MMO. Open build system, level-scaling, strong commitment to story, highly soloable, action combat… But somehow it still struggles to hold my interest.

I think it’s some combination of a story that’s usually interesting but rarely exciting, an incredible sameness of content design, and a very stingy approach to in-game rewards.

Yet another tranquil scene from Summerset in Elder Scrolls OnlineIt’s such a good game, but yet it’s so hard to get excited about.