When I hear people talk about their love of “sandbox games,” I wonder how much time they spent in an actual sandbox. Ideally, a sandbox gives kids a space to play how they want to, whether that’s digging holes as deep as they can, building elaborate castles, or just tumbling around on a soft surface. The problem is that there are usually other kids that also want to play in the sandbox. If they’re on the same page, that’s great—after all, two kids working together can dig a much more impressive hole. But sometimes they’ll kick sand in your eyes, topple your castle, or demand a turn with your toys. And sometimes a stray cat will use the sandbox as a litter box.
Bethesda has mastered the art of open-world games, and with The Elder Scrolls Online, they’ve provided a realistic version of the sandbox experience. There’s a lot of fun here, but how much you have depends on how you feel about sharing.
This massively multiplayer take on Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls universe places players in one of three warring factions in the world of Tamriel. As its various races and nations squabble, a serious external threat looms: a god of domination and enslavement who is trying to merge the mortal world with his own hellish realm. The series has a rich canon to draw on, and players of Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim will recognize a lot of the lore that is tucked into books or revealed in quests, giving us glimpses into the world’s past or future.
Beyond the mythology, the game also stays true to The Elder Scrolls’ emphasis on exploration. Unlike in most MMOs, players aren’t shuttled to one quest-laden city after another. To find quests, you’ll often have to literally wander off the path to search for people in need. While that works well in the traditional Elder Scrolls games, where the difficulty of quests and foes is tailored to your character’s current level, it can leave underpowered players feeling stuck in an MMO. Chase a quest long enough, and you’re likely to reach a spike in difficulty that can force you to move on to something else, even if you just want to get to the end as soon as possible.
Exploration has other tangible rewards. Unlike in the genre staple World Of Warcraft, where characters can only specialize in a couple of professions like blacksmithing and mining at a time, The Elder Scrolls online lets players gather any resources they can find to be turned into clothing, armor, weapons, magical items, or food. Every barrel, bookcase, and dresser can be looted. There are even bigger prizes in the form of “skyshards” that reward you with special points to improve your character’s skills. Even without such spoils, climbing to the top of a mountain just to take in the view is a reward in itself, as the game boasts a painstaking attention to environmental details. Still, seeing the illuminated beacon of a skyshard when you get there is even more satisfying.
Being afforded the chance to improve your skills in between those momentous level-up occasions provides a constant feeling of progress, but the freedom you’re given to customize your character is a blessing and a curse. There are a dizzying number of options available, with big branching skill trees full of talents you can acquire. You have plenty of room to build a character that’s great at persuading merchants and making potions, but they’ll get thoroughly whooped by the tough boss fights if you haven’t invested enough in combat skills. Some of these fights have to be done alone, so you can’t even pay for help with a couple of those great potions you’ve made.
Those solo dungeons might be appealing to those who just want to play more of the same old Elder Scrolls, but those players probably are not going to like having someone swoop in to snag the ore deposit they were about to mine—or the absurdity of hearing about how they’re uniquely suited to a task only to walk through a portal and find someone else fighting the enemy they were supposed to kill. But the game does its best to encourage camaraderie with the players around you. For example, everyone who helps bring down an enemy gets their own loot once it’s dead. Then again, there are environments where trying to play with a friend is frustrating because you might get separated for a number of reasons, like whether or not you two are at the same point in a quest that changes the landscape of that area.
The Elder Scrolls Online keeps the tough kids from picking on the gentler ones by restricting player-on-player combat to a single zone. If you want to get involved in it but aren’t a fan of getting repeatedly killed, you can still contribute by manning and repairing the siege weapons used in the battles, for instance. Or you can complete scouting missions that are based more on patience and stealth than your combat prowess. But battling other players is a chance to really test your skills, since the game rewards not just creative character construction but also quick thinking and movement.
Unfortunately, The Elder Scrolls Online is riddled with bugs for now, some of which are as bad as finding a turd in your sandbox. A glitch that causes certain characters to speak in German is funny in some circumstances but frustrating when those characters are supposed to help you in a tough fight by shouting out advice. Messages I’ve sent to other players have taken upward of 20 minutes to get delivered, and some players reported losing all access to their guilds. Technical hiccups occasionally slow the game enough to become unplayable.
Those bugs are more frustrating because when everything is running smoothly, The Elder Scrolls Online is excellent. Yes, plenty of compromises were made to create this hybrid of a traditional Elder Scrolls game and a traditional MMO. Those compromises will leave purists on both sides disappointed, but this is an ambitious and exciting epic that promises to only grow with time. It’s a sandbox worth sharing, provided everyone is willing to play nicely with others and Bethesda keeps it clean.
The Elder Scrolls Online
Developer: ZeniMax Online Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: Mac, PC (Also announced for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One)
Reviewed on: PC
Price: $60, plus $15 monthly subscription fee