What makes these games so much fun is the well designed story. It is coherent, epic, and involved. For a story created to support a series of video games, it is far more than you expect. A good story alone, however, won't make a successful video game. If the game is boring or frustrating to play, you will eventually give up and move along to something else.
I didn't play the first two Elder Scrolls games, coming to the series in sort of mid-stride with Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. The fourth and fifth installments, Oblivion and Skyrim, continued the fascination. In my experience, all Elder Scrolls games contain three distinct elements:
1. Your character can become anything. Yes, you choose a race and a class. In your average game, that choice sets the boundaries of what your character can learn and do. In the Elder Scrolls games, your character can follow whatever path you choose. Do you want to have a big, burly Orc that wears heavy armor but likes casting healing spells? No problem. Of course, there is a cost to the choices you make. That Orc is going to run out of spell casting power (called magicka) much faster than would a Breton (a different race). The freedom to decide your own path is an Elder Scrolls trademark.
2. You can explore a vast world. Another thing that sets Elder Scrolls games apart from the pack is the sheer size and accessibility of the world. There are no invisible walls preventing you from seeing what's behind that building or over that next hill. Exploration is permitted and even encouraged. You should be forever scavenging, looking in every sack, chest, pot, crate, and barrel that you find, seeking materials for crafting or supplies to sustain your in your adventuring.
3. You can effect permanent change. If you steal from the citizens of a town, and get caught, you will be branded a thief. Your reputation will spread ahead of you and you may not enjoy a very warm welcome in the next town you enter. If you assault a guard, you will be killed or arrested and, assuming you're not dead, you either pay a fine or spend some time in an unpleasant dungeon. If you build something, go away, and come back, that thing you built is still there. Likewise, if you destroy something or kill someone. If you effect change in the world, that change is permanent.
The first speaks to a good game design, the second to a lot of hard work by developers, and the third to playing in a single player game. You are the only player in the world, the rest of the computer generated inhabitants exist only to serve as the backdrop for your adventure, and there is no need to be concerned with how what you do might affect someone else.
The Multiplayer Quandary
When I heard they were planning an online version of the Elder Scrolls, I immediately dismissed it as impossible to pull off. You simply couldn't make a world as vast and changeable as what we'd grown used to in the single player games and let more than one person play it at once. Or so I thought, anyway.
The Elder Scrolls Online has succeeded in doing this to a very large extent. You have choices that let you customize your character to be almost anything they want to be, the world is vast and open for exploration, and (rather surprisingly) you have a sense that you are actually changing the world.
The developers have made extensive use of a technology that's come to be known as "phasing." The characters that your character can see and interact with will change depending upon what game phase you are in. In other words, if you have killed a certain character and I have not, we could be standing side by side and see different things. I would see a character and you would see empty space.
Obviously there are compromises that need to be made here. If you have too many phases controlling too many aspects of what players see, in short order you will be playing by yourself in a world that is phased uniquely for you. What they've done to prevent that is limiting your ability to kill other characters at random. If someone isn't supposed to be killed, you can't kill them. You can't rob people at will, you can't assault a guard, and you can't burn down a building.
I was afraid this would make Elder Scrolls Online feel like something other than an Elder Scrolls game, but it really has not. You can't indulge your random impulses, true, but they have managed to inject enough randomness into the world that it still feels like a real place.
The graphics are not as lush as they are in the single player games. In the parts of the world I've explored, at least, everything is a different shade of tan. They are realistic enough, however, and excellent use of lighting and sound effects gives you a fantastic sense of immersion.
The Bottom Line
This isn't meant to be an exhaustive review of Elder Scrolls Online. For one thing, I have only begun playing the game. I still have hours, days, weeks, and months of exploration and adventuring ahead of me.
The purpose of this blog post was to answer this question for fans of the Elder Scrolls games: Have they managed to make a "real" Elder Scrolls game that is both multiplayer and online?
The answer, in my opinion, is yes.