Damning the Elder Scrolls Online with Faint Praise?
I recently wrote about how about how I finally purchased The Elder Scrolls Online, two years after the games launch. As the purpose of this post is to contrast my thoughts on the MMO both then and now and how they may have potentially changed, I must first reiterate how I felt about ESO initially. As memory serves, here is a breakdown of my initial impressions. I participated in the beta testing in 2014 and although I broadly enjoyed the game, I was not in any way blown away by it. Overall things took several hours to hit their stride as far as gameplay and enjoyment. I also felt that the early levels seemed too focused on establishing the narrative at the expense of the player getting into the game. Eventually I did get that Elder Scrolls vibe but it was not immediately apparent. The action combat needed refining and the multiplayer element frankly felt redundant, unless you were focused on PVP.
Upon my return, I found that the starting zone was still very much a handholding exercise with regard to the game mechanics and the central story. These “nursery” areas are always tend to be problematic for the MMO genre, often falling between two stools. Some players will find them to too hemmed in and on rails, yet there is a need to teach those new to the genre the basic mechanics of the game. Once out of the starter area, things do pick up and it becomes clear that the game leans more towards Skyrim that to other traditional MMOs. If you elect to play ESO with the standard interface, then it’s incumbent upon you to explore the world and figure things out. If you want a more contemporary MMO experience with mini-maps and a wealth of prompts, then add-ons are your friend.
Second time around I felt far more confident about ESO. Certainly, two years’ worth of patches have ironed out a lot of bugs. The combat is more fluid and will provide you with tells if you so wish. The quest lines are well written and engaging, as is the voice acting. The colour scheme is still very muted and this is a far from vibrant game world. However, the games aesthetics suit the lore and match the previous iterations of the franchise. My experience this time round was also enhanced by the wealth of videos and FAQs that are now available for ESO. I had to watch about thirty minutes of video in total to get an adequate handle on the games systems and intricacies. So overall this was a better experience for me, thus proving the old adage about not being an early adopter. The only thing that remained conspicuously the same was the issue of other players. So far, I’ve had no compelling reason to group or interact with them.
Admittedly, I have only been playing for a few days and therefore ESO may well have further revelations for me that will radically change my opinion on the game. Yet I have a nagging concern that that may not be the case and I’m just going to get more of the same. Namely, an MMO with various systems to progress, gear to grind for and a wealth of well written quests to embark upon. All of which is perfectly acceptable but far from exceptional. To summarise everything so far is okay. In fact, one word can sum things up. Adequate. Now there’s a word that often misunderstood so let us remind ourselves with its dictionary definition. Adequate (adjective) satisfactory or acceptable in quality or quantity". This office is perfectly adequate for my needs". Synonyms: sufficient, enough, ample, requisite, apposite, appropriate, suitable.
Now this raises a very interesting point. Is there anything is wrong with a game being just adequate? Why does every new MMORPG have to be revelation and gaming epiphany? To find an answer to this question, let us consider the realities of our own lives. I doubt very few of us receive utter perfection from any of the services we pay for or products we buy. I drink some well-known but distinctly mainstream brands of beer and spirits. That is not to say that they are not enjoyable but they are not anything special. They are merely serviceable. Society does not overtly balk at the notion of adequacy in other industries. So why are gamers aspirations regarding the MMO genre so much higher than those in other aspects of their life?
Some may feel that the use of such words as "adequate" is simply damning ESO with faint praise and that it is far from a complement. I'm not so sure. I think that the primary reason for ESO’s continuing existence is the franchise itself. This is after all the most current iteration of the Elder Scrolls mythos and it satisfies fan’s needs. The quality of the game, which I am arguing is not all bad, is a secondary consideration. If this was an MMO stripped of the vestige of the IP, perhaps it would not enjoy the level of success that it currently does. Perhaps adequate proves that ESO is still a work in progress, on a continuing journey of self-improvement. Being deemed acceptable and workman like across a spectrum of game mechanics is ultimately preferable to a broken game or one that excels at something and fails at others. At present ESO adequacy is sufficient reason for me to continue playing. After all I’ve played many adequate games over the years and have still enjoyed them.