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.


Review: The Stormlight Archive, book one: The Way of Kings

A friend who is also a big fantasy reader had been raving about — and trying to get me to read — the first book of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series for some time. I was a bit skeptical because I’d tried Mistborn, also by Sanderson, a few years back and been unimpressed, but my friend was insistent. Eventually I realized it was in the best interests of my ongoing health to simply acquiesce and let her lend me the damn book.

Cover art for The Stormlight Archive, book one: The Way of Kings by Brandon SandersonAfter all her raving, I was expecting The Way of Kings to be something really different and original.

Certainly the setting is unusual. Way of Kings takes place in a world that is constantly lashed by titanic “Highstorms,” and all of the plant and animal life has evolved along strange, exotic lines to survive this brutal environment.

However, when you get down to the bones of the story, Way of Kings is a very classical, almost generic, high fantasy epic.

And I could not be happier about that.

Way of Kings feels just like the books I grew up reading and loving: Lord of the Rings, Shannara, Obsidian, and the like. Ancient evils return to swallow the world, and heroes rise to fight them.

The characters all feel very familiar, almost cliche — a nobleman chosen by the divine to redeem his people, a slave fighting to survive against brutal oppression — but you know what? Some things are cliches for a reason. It works. They’re characters that I want to cheer for. They’re characters I want to see succeed.

Similarly, the meta-plot thus far feels like the sort of thing I’ve seen before, but it’s a story that I like. It feels epic. It feels meaningful. The fate of the world is on the line, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. This is exactly what I look for in fantasy: big ideas, big threats, epic conflicts with mighty heroes standing to save what they hold dear.

It’s not a perfect book. It does inherit one sin from the old school fantasy it’s clearly emulating: It has a very slow start. For those with the patience to persevere, Way of Kings eventually becomes very exciting, but it does take its time getting there.

I think the author could have spaced out the big reveals a little better such that there isn’t more happening in the last hundred pages than in the first six hundred.

And sometimes he gets a bit too bogged down in details. He has an odd obsession with describing every article of clothing worn by every character in excruciating detail, and it gets wearing after a while.

Finally, one of the main characters — a scholarly girl named Shallan — has thus far failed to capture my interest. Her story is as cliche as the others, but her cliches aren’t cliches that I ever liked in the first place. I’ve kind of had my fill of “tough but fair” mentor characters, among other eye-rollingly predictable choices that are too spoilery to get into.

That said, I wasn’t immediately impressed by the other characters, either, so there may be hope for Shallan to redeem herself later in the series.

And don’t let my complaints detract from the fact that this is a strong book. Considering it’s twelve hundred pages long, the pacing is actually a lot better than you’d expect, and again, it does eventually become very gripping. Those of us who are fantasy fans are used to slow starts, so I don’t think anyone in this book’s target audience will consider this an unforgivable sin.

If you are a fan of traditional high fantasy, I definitely think that The Way of Kings belongs on your reading list.

Overall rating: 8/10