While playing a brief, uninspired spell of Skyrim, my mind began to wander. Skyrim was failing to hold my attention once again. Yet it’s brother, Elder Scrolls Online, didn’t have the same failings. And this wasn’t due to friends playing the Tamrielian MMORPG with me. I’ve had plenty of fun playing Elder Scrolls Online by my lonesome. The only times I’ve really managed that with Skyrim lately has been thanks to the mod scene. Then the realization hit me. ESO might just be a better single player RPG than Skyrim. Taking out the interaction with real people, which one plays better?
Skyrim’s base combat is pretty awful. It’s disappointing that this aspect of the series still lags so far behind other action RPGs. Mods like Wildcat and Combat Evolved add a more visceral and immersive experience but are starting behind the eight ball. Without any mods, Skyrim’s combat is airy, repetitive, and simplistic. High difficulty settings are countered not be better play, but by more frequent inventory usage to chug potions. Inventory management in Skyrim isn’t strategic and it certainly isn’t action filled. So what is it? A mess.
By comparison, Elder Scrolls Online is all action. You can’t just pause combat to heal. There is more than one tactic for players to use. Although it’s more action oriented than typical MMORPGs, ESO’s fighting still tends to encapsulate the same MMORPG combat feel. The main differences are limited active abilities, the lack of cooldowns, blocking, and dodging. Regardless, the usage of abilities at key times puts ESO worlds above Skyrim’s combat. Enemies also come with more varied moves in ESO. I wouldn’t call the game particularly challenging, but certain enemies will punish lackadaisical play.
Winner: Elder Scrolls Online
You don’t really play Elder Scrolls games for a good story. They have their moments (Morrowind main quest, Oblivion’s Dark Brotherhood, etc.) but by and large, it’s all about freedom. That said, there is still a lot of lore that’s built up over the course of several games. Elder Scrolls Online makes better use of that lore than Skyrim does. Several quests in ESO are engaging with intriguing plot elements. Instead of ascribing to the MMORPG philosophy of thinly veiled fetch and kill quests, ESO tries to deliver meaningful quest objectives. For the most part, it succeeds. Really, the game is worth playing for the main quest alone. It’s that good. Skyrim, on the other hand, feels pretty lifeless. The quests are bland, the characters are shallow, and the story is weak. For a single player game, Skyrim does very little to advance the lands of Tamriel.
Winner: Elder Scrolls Online
MMORPGs are all about longevity. New content for popular MMORPGs is always just around the corner. Elder Scrolls Online frequently releases new high quality DLC. A lot of that content is available for solo players to enjoy. However, without other players the endgame is impossible. Obviously PvP is a no go, and PvE in the form of raids will literally be impossible on your lonesome. There is a lot of content in ESO, but let’s be real here. Skyrim wins every battle with every single player
RPG game in terms of longevity. Why? Because Bethesda delivers the modding community the right tools to get the job done. Nearly 50,000 mods reside on Nexusmods alone. As enjoyable as ESO’s DLC has been, it’s just too difficult to keep up with the breadth and depth of Skyrim’s mod scene. And without human interaction, ESO players will find much less to do.
Exploration and mods are the two key ingredients that have made the Elder Scrolls series so popular. Neither Skyrim nor ESO fail in this regard. Elder Scrolls Online opens up the entire continent of Tamriel to explore vs. Skyrim focusing on one region. One would think that would give ESO the win right there but no so my eager friend!
The focus on ESO’s story has led to less interesting exploration elements. A lot of the joy of Skyrim comes from going off on your own to see what lies underneath various caves and ruins. You’d find anything from treasure to dragon shouts to enemy hordes and everything in between. You would also do so knowing you’d be challenged by the game’s level scaling. With that, any dungeon in Skyrim could be a dangerous affair. Going off on your own in ESO doesn’t bring that same level of excitement (although it’s better compared to other MMORPGs due to level syncing). The reason to explore in ESO is because a quest brings you there, not because you genuinely care about what’s on the other side of that hill. In addition, the Skyrim modding scene’s lands and dungeons are tough to beat.
The key difference between The Elder Scrolls Online and Skyrim is the former uses a class system and latter does not. The class system offers a lot of flexibility and decision making in building characters. Character progression in this way reminds me of hack and slash ARPGs. There’s just a lot of joy in building and planning a character. Skill points gained from leveling will generally be spent on an active ability. Since only six can be equipped for each of the two weapon slots, players need to pick and choose. The selection of weapons, armor, and other equipment in ESO is a whole lot more interesting than Skyrim’s gear as well.
Of course, even with a more open class system, it can’t compare to the freedom of a classless system. Characters in Skyrim can be built however the player sees fit. Want to be a plate mail wearing, destruction/restoration mage? Sure. How about a pirate specializing in thievery, stealth, speechcraft, and dueling? OK, no problem. If you can dream it, you can build it. If you play long enough you can transcend mortal classes into practical godhood. However, I find the perks from leveling to be generally underwhelming. It’s great to play any character you can think of, but the lack of interesting choices on level ups means those characters rarely last long.
Winner: Elder Scrolls Online
ESO: A Good Single Player MMORPG
It’s pretty close, but I believe Elder Scrolls Online actually makes a better single player experience than Skyrim. Obviously mods can change things dramatically, especially in a game like Skyrim. But that also brings greater inconsistency in content and burdens on the player to seek these out. Ultimately, I don’t feel strongly enough about it to consider this an open and shut case. They each have their strengths, and player preferences play a huge role. How do you think Skyrim compares to ESO?