How Does The Elder Scrolls Online Compare?
The Elder Scrolls Online is really a hybrid game - part epic single-player RPG, part MMO. As such, it simply wouldn't do to compare it outright to any one game - most other games are either-or, not both. Instead, when looking at the constituent parts of the Elder Scrolls Online, it may be more beneficial to compare and contrast them against the competition.
Competition: Other Elder Scrolls games
Elder Scrolls games have traditionally been skill-based rather than class-based, and that's essentially the same path that Elder Scrolls Online has taken. In most previous Elder Scrolls games, selecting or creating a character class meant choosing a set of skills that started at higher values and improved faster than others. TES V: Skyrim broke away from that mold and presented us with an essentially class-free, skill-based advancement system. Almost.
Really, Skyrim only presented us with one "character class": the Dovahkiin. The Dovahkiin can use any armor or weapon or magic spell in the game, and the more he uses them, the better he gets with them. But he comes packaged with a unique skill set not shared by other characters - the Thu'ums. In the MMO sense, the Dovahkiin's shouts are essentially class skills for the only class in the game.
The Elder Scrolls Online offers 4 different classes, but they are closer to Dovahkiin than to the older Elder Scrolls classes for which they are named, or to traditional on-rails MMO classes. Like the Dovahkiin, each class comes with a particular and unique set of skills, but can wear any armor and use any weapon in the game. For the most part, class only loosely defines a character's combat role (except for the role of Healer - in the current beta, only Templars have healing abilities). Mage-tanks are perfectly viable, as are heavy-plate archers.
Competition: Star Wars: The Old Republic
There are two core conflicts at play in the Elder Scrolls Online - the three-way contention for the Emerald Throne in Cyrodiil, and the battle against Molag Ball as he attempts to drag all of Nirn into his own private hell of Coldharbor. We know absolutely how these events play out over the course of history - all other Elder Scrolls games are set far into the future, and contain historical references to the setting of ESO. Eventually, Molag Bal is shut down and denied, and an Imperial named Tiber Septim steps up and takes control of the Cyrodiilic Empire.
Tiber Septim doesn't come along for a few hundred years or so, so we can guess that the three-way power struggle kind of rages on more or less indefinitely. But the battle against Molag Bal is more immediate, and likely reaches a decisive resolution within the story arc of the game.
Star Wars: The Old Republic works in a similar way. The conflict between the Republic and the Sith Empire will rage on well into the future, and we know that eventually Darth Bane will come up with his Rule of Two, driving the Sith underground, the Republic will come to be the dominant political force in the galaxy, and will be supplanted by a wily Darth Sidious, who transforms the Republic into the Galactic Empire. These events are all basically set in stone. But there are eight other story arcs at work in SWTOR - one for each base character class - which come to a firm resolution at around level cap. The stories are brilliant and engaging, and they're all fully voice-acted, but they come to an eventual conclusion.
The style of interaction is slightly different, though: SWTOR's stories feature little dramatic scenes with multiple camera angles and character movement and voiced dialogue by the player character, like a bunch of little movies. ESO's stories are fully voiced, but stay focused on one animated-mannequin NPC the whole time, the same as pretty much any other Elder Scrolls game but with more NPC body animation. Guild Wars 2 works in a similar way, with animated but static cut scenes, but uses them only for main story cut scenes. ESO, like SWTOR, uses them for practically every quest.
Both SWTOR and ESO have branching story options reflecting the character's morality. SWTOR has far more of these, of course, but that just makes ESO's branched options feel more significant.
In a way, the brilliant storytelling was one factor that contributed to SWTOR's rapid decline as a subscription-based MMO. Elaborate storytelling was one of the main attractions of the game, and remains so now. And it should, because they spent a crap-load of money on it. But once the story is played out, players are left with gear-grind group runs, end-game PvP or rolling a new character and playing a different story, pretty much the same as in every other MMO. To be perfectly honest, I'm still more or less happy with that arrangement because I haven't played through all the class stories yet. But loads of players did play them all through, pretty much right away, vastly exceeding BioWare's expectations of how quickly content is consumed by avid players. And then those players got burned out by a lack of engaging endgame content and left. Continued development funded by an emergency F2P conversion pulled some of those former players back into the game, but for a while there, things looked pretty shaky. This has to be a major worry for ZeniMax Online, and we can only hope that they have a back-door F2P recovery plan in place just in case things don't work out with their subscription model like they are surely hoping. The escape plan helped SWTOR - and many other subscription games before it - bounce back and re-grow.
Competition: DC Universe Online
The Elder Scrolls series has been multi-platform ever since TES III: Morrowind. I still have my ancient Xbox version, and my ancient Xbox to play it on - though I had it for PC first, the Xbox version is the one I actually played all the way through. TES IV: Oblivion was also multi-platform, and the console versions outsold the PC versions. And a lot more people played Skyrim than played either previous title, but most of those players did so with a controller rather than a mouse and keyboard. Releasing the Elder Scrolls Online as a multi-platform title therefore makes a great deal of sense. Players know the brand name now, and they know it as a console title. Even though it's a MMO with a monthly subscription.
When DC Universe Online launched as a multi-platform MMO, it was also subscription-based. That didn't last for long, though - within 10 months, they had to convert to a "Freemium" hybrid F2P model with a cash shop and optional subscription plan, for both the PC version and the console version. Not because it is a terrible game - it's actually pretty awesome, with engaging gameplay and a killer IP, and it allows UberGunky to keep the citizens of Metropolis safe and be bros with Superman - but because that's how the market works.
Like DCUO, ZeniMax is keeping console players and PC players on their own separate servers. Also like DCUO, and like the last couple of Elder Scrolls games, the console versions will probably way outsell the PC versions, despite the earlier launch for PC. It remains to be seen of the Elder Scrolls Online can break the mold and maintain a subscription-paying player base for more than 10 months.
Graphics and Sound
Competition: Previous Elder Scrolls Games
Sound-wise, you'll know you're playing an Elder Scrolls game the moment you hear those sweet, familiar Jeremy Soule themes. Some of the voice acting will sound a bit familiar, too, but far from all of it. On the other hand, in terms of graphics, this comparison is only really fair because this game is bearing the Elder Scrolls brand. But it's really not fair at all, because it's a different sort of game with different system demands.
Skyrim was (and still is) a freakin' gorgeous game. Even with the weird face textures when it first launched, it looked amazing - gritty and realistic with just enough style to be cool. Back in its day, Oblivion looked pretty amazing, too. And a hundred years ago when Morrowind was current tech, that game looked fantastic also. Each game has looked significantly better than the game before it.
Well, friend-o, this isn't The Elder Scrolls VI, and it's not a continuation of that upward trend. ESO is a gorgeous game for a MMO, but if you go in expecting improvements over the graphics of Skyrim, you are going to be disappointed. Many of the NPCs in ESO look like plastic mannequins compared to the muscle-bound, grimy Nords of Skyrim. The environments are breathtaking, but the character models have the long-legged stiffness of the Morrowind character models, and the lower polygon counts and simpler skeletons of a game from several years ago. The textures wrapped around those character models are great, but they're not near the grimy, big-pored hi-def Skyrim models. Some of the NPCs look kind of plastic. The graphics fall somewhere between Oblivion and Skyrim quality.
That's how MMOs roll, though. You will never get video-card-crushing graphics in a MMO because that's too much data to stream at once. Good video cards get taxed enough in mid-grade MMOs when a large number of characters appear on screen at once, all crackling with enchantments and casting spells and fluttering their capes. If you start adding thousands of extra polygons per character, and all the fancy pixel shaders and shadow renderers and lighting enhancers and refraction vectors and all the techy stuff that makes the very newest games push the most powerful cards to their limits, your trip into town turns into a slideshow and your video card starts smoking. Also, at 20+ gigabytes, the game client is already big enough. Adding a bunch of fancy new tech and more polygons would only make it more gigantic and bloated.
The best games do lots with little, managing to look pretty without hammering your bandwidth and GPU processing power. For a MMO, Elder Scrolls Online looks quite pretty. Not "better than Skyrim" pretty, but certainly "better than a lot of other MMOs" pretty.
Competition: World of Warcraft. HA HA Just kidding!
But seriously, World of Warcraft is the elephant in every other MMO's room. Comparisons will inevitably be made because it's a high-fantasy MMO with elves and humans and orcs, regardless of whether or not the game bears any other resemblances in terms of gameplay. I believe a lot of people are fearing that ESO will be another "WoW clone" set in an Elder Scrolls themepark, which is totally not the case (though I imagine the term will pop up a lot in general chat in the low level areas for a while, because it always does). So let's just get it out of the way in order that we might discuss more accurate comparisons.
It does have some genre-specific similarities to WoW, as stated above. Characters go questing for gear and gold and story advancement, and both games feature crafting. And that's about all they have in common.
The action combat style is more modern than what WoW and its legion of "clones" uses, closer in spirit to Guild Wars 2 or Neverwinter or TERA. Enemy power-attacks are telegraphed with red marks on the ground. The character hits whatever is in front of his weapon, not what he has tab-locked onto. It's a "soft targeting" system - targeted enemies are highlighted, and ranged attacks might curve a bit to hit targeted enemies on the move, but some enemies tend to move around a lot and avoid getting hit. Like the ninja goblins on Stros M'kai, who perform spectacular Yuen Wo Ping-style wire-fu overhead leaps to get behind their attackers. If you play in 3rd person view, it's kind of funny to watch. If you're playing in 1st person, you might be all "Whaaaa..." for a second until you realize he ninja'd behind you.
Telegraphed enemy attacks, like those seen in Neverwinter, are a hallmark of the modern action-combat MMO.
As mentioned earlier, classes are quite flexible, so a character's gear and skill loadout plays a really significant part in determining his combat role. Sorcerer with a 2-handed axe? Sure, why not! In this sense, it is once again more like Guild Wars 2, where warriors and wizards can use many of the same weapons to more or less equal effect. And with a maximum of 5 slottable combat powers, to be split between the dozens of class-specific powers and shared common, racial and weapon specialization powers, it's important to work out an effective combat rotation, the same as some old-school games like original EverQuest.
It's going to be terribly interesting seeing some of the wonky build failures that come with that kind of flexibility and lack of any real guidelines. As with any game, ESO will be some players' very first, and it is sure to draw in some players who have played all the Elder Scrolls games but not one MMO. Heavily-armored stealth archers tend to work super-awesome in Skyrim, and even for low-level solo questing in ESO, but such characters might not work so well in a multiplayer dungeon, and are liable to get eaten alive by the super-efficient min-maxers in PvP.
We can't really make a PvP comparison just yet. That's a whole other beta