Why Elder Scrolls Online Is (and Isn’t) Worth Starting in 2022

The Elder Scrolls Online is better than it's ever been, but is it worth finally starting the game if you've avoided it for this long?

The Elder Scrolls Online
Photo: Bethesda Softworks

Between The Elder Scrolls Online‘s recent free trial on Steam, its tantalizing place in the Game Pass library, and the fact that The Elder Scrolls 6‘s release date isn’t nearly as close as we’d like it to be, more and more people are suddenly wondering if now is the time to finally start playing The Elder Scrolls Online.

Since it was released in 2014, The Elder Scrolls Online has proven to be a somewhat divisive game. Some have lost countless hours to the online RPG, while others have simply wondered if all of the resources that have gone into it wouldn’t have been better spent on a “proper” single-player Elder Scrolls game (even if that argument has always overlooked the logistics of the game’s development). However, even those who belong to the latter camp have probably been hearing about the MMO’s growth over the last few years and the many ways that it offers something closer to the experience some were expecting from it at launch.

So, as we prepare to enter a long and dry new release schedule that will likely leave many searching for a massive new game to lose themselves in, now feels like the perfect time to take a look at the reasons you should (and shouldn’t) start playing The Elder Scrolls Online.

The Elder Scrolls Online’s Graphics, Soundtrack, and World Design Make it Feel Like a Proper Elder Scrolls Game

While The Elder Scrolls Online will never replace that gaping Elder Scrolls 6 hole in your life, it has to be said that the MMO nails all of the presentation elements that have traditionally helped set the franchise apart. 

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Recent ESO expansions have expanded the world of Tamriel in ways that even the best single-player Elder Scrolls games could never do. Granted, you’ll get more out of the game if the idea of revisiting the worlds of Oblivion, Skyrim, and Morrowind in a new way feels especially exciting to you, but ESO is so much more than a walk down memory lane. Indeed, ESO really lets you appreciate Elder Scroll’s worldbuilding and lore in a way that isn’t always easy to do when you’re exploring smaller sections of that universe divided between multiple single-player adventures. 

Furthermore, it must be said that ESO’s presentation values are the best you’ll find in an MMO this side of the mighty Final Fantasy 14. While some of the best MMOs ever have managed to establish their reputation without the help of advanced graphics or expansive voice acting, the fact that ESO is treated like a “proper” Elder Scrolls game in terms of its presentation really helps sell the idea that it’s as much of a part of that wonderful series as any of the main Elder Scrolls games.

In fact, there’s at least one area where Elder Scrolls Online arguably surpasses its single-player predecessors

The Elder Scrolls Online Features One of the Best Stories in MMO (and Elder Scrolls) History

As Final Fantasy 14 showed, there’s nothing quite like an MMO story that is treated with respect. It’s not easy to stretch a truly compelling tell across a nearly infinite adventure, but those select few MMO developers that have found a way to explore the narrative potential of that genre have proven that those games can do so much more than rely on the stories you make for yourself along the way. 

While Elder Scrolls Online’s story isn’t quite as good as Final Fantasy 14’s, it’s honestly so much better than nearly everything else out there.

Much like the single-player Elder Scrolls games, so much of ESO’s narrative brilliance can be found in its sidequests. While the MMO features a massive arching narrative, it’s the quality of those smaller stories you encounter along the way that really sells the scope of your journey. You’ll still have to put up with the odd fetch quest here and there, but you’re never that far away from some incredible expedition that will demand you spend just a little more time with the game to see what happens next. Titles like ESO and Final Fantasy 14 really help you appreciate the ways that an MMORPG can grab you that go beyond the grind and social obligations that the genre is sometimes associated with.

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While we’re on that subject, it’s worth addressing one of the biggest ways that ESO tends to convert non-MMO fans…

The Elder Scrolls Online’s Brilliant Quests Make it One of the Best PvE MMOs on the Market

If you’ve been burnt by other MMOs that rely on questing systems that rarely rise above the level of busywork, you should know that Elder Scrolls Online’s questing system is really in a league of its own. 

Again, you’ll occasionally run into variations of the old “kill X monsters” or “collect X things” quests during your ESO adventure, but many of the quests that matter most feel like proper RPG questlines and not just a series of screens you’ll skip through to finally claim your rewards. Not every quest in the game is worthy of being ranked among the absolute best Elder Scrolls quests ever, but you’ll never really stop being amazed by how many compelling quests are packed into such a massive adventure. It’s so refreshing to play an MMO where the experience you get from quests can’t just be measured by your character’s XP bar. 

Those quests (along with the game’s excellent dungeons and raids) are a big part of the reason why ESO is generally considered to be one of the best PvE MMO games out there. More important than the amount of quality PvE content available in ESO, though, are the various ways the game allows you to enjoy that content…

The Elder Scrolls Online Is An Ideal MMO for Solo Players

I tend to find that one of the biggest reasons Elder Scrolls fans haven’t given Elder Scrolls Online a shot is simply because they prefer to play Elder Scrolls by themselves. While it’s worth reiterating that ESO should not be considered an ongoing version of The Elder Scrolls 6 that you simply haven’t played yet, it still offers one of the best solo play experiences in any MMO. 

Because so much of ESO is built around storytelling, questing, and leveling (i.e. the same qualities that single-player Elder Scrolls games usually thrive on), those who play through it by themselves won’t really miss out on most of its best features. Developer ZeniMax Online Studios has found a remarkable number of ways to allow you to play through ESO by yourself without feeling like you’re only scratching the surface of the “real” game. That’s a far cry from MMOs like World of Warcraft where being able to play through the game by yourself always feels like a technicality rather than something worthwhile.

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Even if ESO isn’t the single-player Elder Scrolls game with a multiplayer option that some fans kind of hoped it would be, it’s certainly closer to that mark than it has been in years past.

The Elder Scrolls Online’s Character Building and Gear Systems Are Some of the Best You’ll Find In an MMO

While I hate to keep comparing ESO to a single-player Elder Scrolls game with one hand while dismissing the validity of that comparison with another, it must be said that many of ESO’s best features happen to be based on the best aspects of the greatest Elder Scrolls games. That’s especially true of the game’s character and equipment systems. 

No MMO will ever be perfectly balanced, but ESO does a remarkable job of making a variety of class builds feel viable. There’s always one or two that are rightfully considered to be the absolute “best” in the game, but you rarely ever feel the need to play one class or one build just to contribute and have fun. Honestly, the fact that so much of ESO can be enjoyed by yourself is a big part of the reason why the game feels as balanced as it does. When so much of the experience can be tackled solo, it’s a lot easier to justify picking the class/build that interests you the most rather than fretting about optimization. 

It also has to be said that ESO’s gear system manages to avoid most of the annoyances you find in other MMO games. This is one of the few MMO games that genuinely offers a variety of viable options when it comes to your gear rather than a series of increasingly stronger loot that you’re almost obligated to equip. ESO sometimes struggles to make the most out of those build options (more on that in a bit), but the game’s gear system is simply fantastic.

The Elder Scrolls Online Is Arguably the Best Console MMORPG Out There

Look, it’s always going to be hard to make a fully-fledged MMORPG that works just as well on PC as it does on consoles. To be more specific, it’s hard to make a fully-fledged MMORPG that feels as good on a controller as it does on a mouse and keyboard. 

For the most part, though, ESO does a pretty good job of making console players feel like they’re playing more than a “good enough” port of a PC game. The game works surprisingly well on a controller, and because ESO strives to offer something closer to a traditional single-player RPG experience, it’s easy enough to casually enjoy it from your couch in shorter play sessions. 

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In fact, anyone with an Xbox and Game Pass subscription really has no reason to not at least give ESO a shot. It’s certainly the best MMO experience you’ll find on that platform until Final Fantasy 14 is finally ported to Microsoft’s consoles. 

The Elder Scrolls Online’s Combat Is Still Pretty Bad

For as many great things as there are to say about Elder Scrolls Online, it’s still kind of hard to talk about the game without bringing up the fact that its combat tends to be a big turnoff for a lot of people. 

I understand (and appreciate) that it seems like ESO’s combat was designed to make the transition from a single-player Elder Scrolls game to an MMO less jarring, but this is one of those areas where the game struggles to find its footing in that strange middle ground. Most ESO classes are too dependent on a few key abilities that are fairly easy to spam and don’t offer enough room for creativity or the feeling of mastery. It’s rare to see an MMO combat system that was clearly designed to be relatively easy to learn but still feels so awkward to use even after you’ve played as your preferred class for hundreds of hours. Granted, Elder Scrolls games have never really been known for their great combat, but I’d argue that Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim do a beter job of translating the growth of your character into enhanced combat options than ESO does. 

It’s easy enough to lose yourself in ESO’s combat loop, but the downsides of being able to dive into ESO’s combat so soon become apparent once you start looking for deeper waters to explore. 

The Elder Scrolls Online Is Not a Great MMO For PvP Fans

This point kind of ties into the problems with Elder Scrolls Online’s combat, but it’s worth mentioning that ESO is really not a great MMO for PvP fans. 

ESO’s PvP isn’t terrible by any means, but it’s a strange beast. Even at its best, it tends to be a chaotic playground where the game’s animation problems and skill spamming strategies feel particularly oppressive. At its worst, though, ESO’s PvP has suffered from notable balance issues that raise the game’s already high PvP skill floor to a level that only a select few will want to bother to reach. That issues has also contributed to a slightly more toxic PvP environment that tends to be tougher to put up with than the game’s much more welcoming PvE options. 

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ESO’s PvP certainly has its fans, but it’s historically been very difficult to recommend this game to anyone who is primarily interested in battling other players in an MMO. 

The Elder Scrolls Online Is Sometimes a Little Too Accommodating For its Own Good

I’ve touched upon this point earlier in this article, but there are times when I wished that Elder Scrolls Online was a little more interested in finding its own identity and a little less interested in convincing people who aren’t usually interested in MMOs that it’s close enough to a single-player Elder Scrolls game. 

Nearly every welcoming feature in ESO comes with a trade-off. The world can be explored pretty much however you’d like, which often makes elements of its storytelling and PvE challenge feel disjointed. Combat is accessible, but it rarely feels like it’s growing with your character and gear. It’s easy to solo the game, which sadly means that group content and socializing can feel like afterthoughts. 

All of that brings us back to that important question, “Who is ESO for?”

Is The Elder Scrolls Online Worth Playing?

If you’re able to play ESO for “free” (rather through a trial or your Game Pass membership), there’s really no reason not to give it a shot. The game has issues, but there’s more than enough good things happening in it to make it the kind of game that is easy to lose quite a few hours to in the middle of an otherwise dry release schedule.

It’s also worth reiterating that ESO has improved quite a lot since it launched in 2014. If you played the game at that time and found it to be not quite the Elder Scrolls game you were looking for and not quite the MMO you may have been looking for, you will likely find that the overall experience is now noticeably better in both respects. 

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Still, ESO remains a game without a country in a lot of ways. It feels like the developers once wanted it to be a faster-paced “pseudo-MMO” kind of kind Destiny, but ESO‘s combat is never really good enough to really hook you in the same ways that Destiny does. ESO actually improves upon some of the worst features in other MMOs, but it weirdly always feels too “scared” to really embrace that side of itself and offer a far more substantial MMO experience that caters to those willing to invest hundreds of hours of gameplay into it. 

If you’re playing on a platform where Final Fantasy 14 isn’t currently an option for you (or if you’d rather not pay a monthly subscription fee), it’s pretty easy to recommend giving ESO a shot. I’ll also say that it’s significantly better than New World at the moment, currently has a lot less baggage (in every respect) than WoW, and comes close enough to scratching that Elder Scrolls itch that it might appeal to franchise fans over something like Lost Ark

ESO is a very good game that is looking for greatness and an identity that goes beyond the opportunities and burdens afforded by its famous franchise name. There’s rarely been a better time to play it, and it avoids the worst pitfalls of Fallout 76 in that respect, but the game somehow remains both better than you think it is and not nearly what it could be. Here’s hoping the upcoming High Isle expansion brings it closer to the best version of itself.