I am a massive RPG fan, and my love for the genre began when I first played Oblivion on the Xbox 360. From there, I went back and played the rest of the games in the series and was incredibly excited about the release of Skyrim in 2011.
Skyrim was followed up by Elder Scrolls’ first foray into the MMO genre in 2014 with the release of Elder Scrolls Online, offering players an entirely new approach to seeing the world of Tamriel. Despite its new approach, Elder Scrolls Online still tries to adhere to the tenets of the series that can be seen in Skyrim.
Main Differences Between Elder Scrolls Online vs Skyrim
The main differences between Elder Scrolls Online vs Skyrim are:
- One of the most significant differences between the two games is their respective genres. Skyrim is a single-player action RPG, while Elder Scrolls Online is a massive MMORPG. This means that Elder Scrolls Online has the benefit of being playable with friends, whereas this is only possible in Skyrim with a janky mod that doesn’t work as often as it does.
- Since Skyrim is a single-player RPG, it has a finite amount of content to experience. While the game’s radiant quest system can technically produce an infinite number of fetch quests for the player, there are only so many dungeons to delve into and pieces of gear to collect. This is very different from Elder Scrolls Online, which consistently expands with the release of expansions and DLCs.
- There is also a stark difference in combat between the titles. Combat in Skyrim is one note. Players are never pushed to change their approach to combat, and all forms of attack work on every type of enemy. In contrast, ESO bosses often have unique mechanics for players to adjust to while offering roles like tanking and healing that are more than just spamming attacks.
- The Elder Scrolls series is also renowned for its fabulous setting and lore that supports it. The land of Tamriel is incredibly diverse, with different cultures and tones while interacting with numerous realms of existence. Skyrim focuses on telling the story of the last Dragonborn within the series’ timeline in a story that focuses on the region of Skyrim and the island of Solstheim in its Dragonborn DLC. The game’s story isn’t as exciting or layered as its predecessors, but it still expands the lore and timeline of the setting. Due to its updates and ever-expanding selection of content, ESO is instead able to focus on a ton of regions and tell smaller stories in each of them. Set earlier in the series timeline, however, it is rife with contradictions to established lore and stories, especially considering its microtransaction store’s contents.
- The two games are also diverse in how they approach players building characters. Skyrim attempts to streamline the process and give players as much freedom as possible. Characters have no classes and can use every skill in the game if they want to. The world also levels with the player, allowing them to switch their playstyle without fear of punishment for drastically changing their playstyle or build at any given time. This makes the player’s choices for building their character carry a lot less weight while also causing most characters to feel the same by the end of a playthrough. ESO takes a more structured approach that uses classes and structured skill lines to limit a player’s options at any given time. This gives each character their identity, which is excellent for building a stronger connection between the player and their character and helps it feel more like you’re roleplaying a particular character.
- Skyrim is also much more limited in what it has to offer players to do. Players can chop wood or spend time crafting, but there isn’t any reason to do so unless you’re trying to make some money or need better gear. The only fully realized activities in the game are exploring the world and embarking on quests, which both primarily focus on the same combat. ESO is different because there are many progression systems and activities for variety. Even when looking at just combat, players can tackle challenging puzzle-based Trials, dungeons with unique mechanics, questing, or exploration on top of picking from one of two PvP modes.
- On top of that, plenty of players focus almost entirely on crafting and making cool gear to sell or even just hanging out in a guild and roleplaying with other players. There is even a full card game with matchmaking for players looking for a change of pace. ESO is so much better at giving players a range of content types to interact with that it is almost staggering when comparing the two.
When playing through Skyrim, you can make a character with any mixture of skills and gear that you can imagine.
Furthermore, you can modify or adapt your approach at any time. I can’t count the number of characters I’ve had, starting as a sword and board or magical build, only to eventually slip back into my old stealth archer ways.
This is because every character in Skyrim has access to the same skills and perks to be built from. The skills cover various gameplay approaches, and as you use them, they are leveled up, opening up new perks that can be bought with perk points gained by leveling up.
This allows you to build an archer that excels at alchemy, a warrior that wields two-handed hammers and loves enchanting gear, or a wizard that constantly chugs potions and conjured weapons. Or, one character can be proficient at all of those things.
This system was built to give players ultimate freedom while building characters, but it makes the decisions you make for your character feel pointless. This can be hard to explain, so I’d like to use a comparison to Skyrim‘s predecessor, Oblivion, and how the two games approach getting through locked doors.
Oblivion was a much more restrictive approach to character building. Characters could technically dabble in any skills they wanted, but your starting class gave you a significant boost in some skills to make pursuing those much more worthy of your attention.
This meant that players had different approaches to choose from when getting through a locked door, depending on their play style. If they were a thief, they could pick the lock, but doing so was more complex, and lockpicks were hard to come by because only a couple of merchants sold them.
If your character was magically inclined, you could also get spells to cast to unlock locks of particular difficulty levels. If you had neither skill, your only option would be to find a different way to progress or kill someone with a door key.
In Skyrim, things are a lot different. Because of how the game wants every character to be able to do everything, instances of meaningfully different approaches are rare. Spells that unlock doors are entirely removed from the game, while lockpicking was simplified so every player could do it.
Since the game forces players to lockpick, however, there are also lockpicks all over the place in loot just in case the player hasn’t focused on it and needs a lot of chances to get through a required locked door.
This is all to say that Skyrim‘s character-building results in the player’s choices are ultimately feeling inconsequential. Every decision can be changed later on, and the game’s design pushes players to play similarly.
Unless you impose restrictions on your build, Skyrim actively encourages all players to make the same character capable in every skill, mainly taking the roleplaying part out of RPG.
Elder Scrolls Online
Elder Scrolls Online instead takes a class-based approach. When players create a new character, they have to pick a class from a list of options, like a Dragonknight or Necromancer. Each class then has three exclusive skill lines that hold active and passive skills that define that class’ playstyle.
One of the most exciting things about character builds in Elder Scrolls Online is that the player’s options don’t stop there.
Regardless of a character’s class, they can be equipped with whatever weapons or armor styles the player wants, each carrying a unique skill line of active and passive abilities. Characters also gain different skills by joining factions like the Psijic Order or the Fighters Guild.
This method of character development is excellent because it gives players the freedom to customize their characters as they would in other Elder Scrolls games. Still, it does so in a way that fits within the framework of an MMO.
It also helps each player’s characters feel unique from those around them. Even if you and a friend play the same class, you could take it in completely different directions that don’t look the same.
The diversity of characters in ESO is also helped by its role system. While playing alone, roles don’t matter, but when queuing for group activities, players have to designate themselves as either a damage, tank, or healer character. This motivates players to build their characters differently depending on their roles.
My main in ESO is a Necromancer named Oz Osbourne, so I’ll use him as an example here. I’ve always loved playing support roles in team-based games, so I primarily play him as a healer.
To this end, I have an array of skills that buff the defenses of allies, a summon that heals friendly characters nearby, and some direct healing options. On top of that, my ultimate ability is an area of effect that allows me to revive any fallen friendlies and get them back into the fight.
For this build, I also gathered an armor set that increased my chance of critical healing, as well as one that spawned plants that would heal an ally of mine whenever I cast a healing spell that dealt critical healing.
While that’s how I most frequently play Oz, nearly every class in ESO can fill all three roles depending on how they are built. When I had a friend trying the game, they also wanted to play a healer, so I mixed up Oz’s abilities to fulfill a tank role better.
While playing with my friend Oz was instead able to buff his defenses, attack large groups of enemies to keep their attention on him, and place areas of effect that dealt damage over time. Finally, his ultimate was changed to let him transform into a massive skeleton that could soak up even more damage.
ESO also puts more restrictions on the player as to what parts of their character they have access to at any given time. In my above example, I drastically changed the playstyle of my character like you can in Skyrim, but it took a much higher investment and planning on my part.
It also isn’t possible to do it all of the time. Players can change their approach to combat, but they are stuck with it once they’re in combat.
You’re only able to bring a handful of skills with you at any given time, so if you prepared poorly, you’re stuck with it and have to ride it out or die and try again, giving real consequences to how you decide to approach challenges in the game.
In Skyrim, players are confined to one province with the ability to travel to the island of Solstheim in the Dragonborn DLC.
It is also the most recent game in the series timeline. This allows the game’s quests to focus on Nord culture and show players pivotal events in the series’ overarching story that will assume a massive impact moving forward.
Skyrim’s Story content can be divided into four categories: the two main questlines, faction questlines, side quests, and radiant quests. The two main questlines focus on the return of Alduin and his foretold apocalypse and the civil war for Skryim’s independence from the Imperial Empire.
These main questlines lack the diversity and depth of the game’s predecessors, but they can have the game’s world show consequences to the player’s choices. This helps make the player’s decisions feel more impactful, even if they are primarily just determining which ruler is in charge of specific cities.
The faction questlines are each concerned with a faction, such as the Companions, the Mage’s College, or the Dark Brotherhood. Each is a linear progression of quests that result in the player becoming the leader of the faction despite not having any significant gameplay implications.
They are generally a step down from similar questlines in previous titles. Still, I think that stems from their quests having to be accessible to every type of character as part of Skyrim‘s problem with character building. Side quests are what RPG fans will expect, but some of them offer excellent looks at Nord culture. Radiant quests are effectively randomly generated content.
They allow Skyrim to boast an unlimited amount of content technically, but they are just dull fetch quests that randomly drop a piece of loot in one of a few dungeons for players to grab and return with.
The weakest part of Skyrim‘s narrative elements is how the radiant quest system is integrated into other quest types. Faction quest lines occasionally use a radiant system to add some filler to their completion time, while some side quests can only be started through radiant means.
This makes the game’s content that should feel more handcrafted feel less polished. It also blurs the line between its procedurally generated content and its handcrafted content, but in a way that makes the handcrafted content seem like it was just thrown together by an algorithm, which is not what you want players to feel.
As someone who loves diving into the series’ varied and sometimes complicated lore, Skyrim does an okay job adhering to the series’ lore.
There is apparently some contradiction in the name of fan service, but nothing too upsetting. However, this is ruined a bit by the packs found in the creation club included in the Anniversary Edition of the game.
Elder Scrolls Online
Elder Scrolls Online, on the other hand, tells a much wider variety of stories thanks to its sprawling selection of regions spanning almost all of Tamriel. Every region in the game is home to its main questline and dozens of side quests exploring the region’s culture and environment.
The scope of ESO‘s narrative offerings is excellent, but it makes many of the stories it tells feel unimpactful. This is especially true as players can tackle them in any order they want. Going through so many storylines of near-apocalyptic events makes the weight of the stakes lose their luster.
Quests in ESO are also very uniform. It is rare for a quest to feature meaningful choices for the player, and they all feature the same repetitive gameplay elements. Nearly every quest has the player talking to some characters, killing enemies in an area, collecting an item, or combining those three.
Any choices the player makes, whether in dialogue or the quest itself, cannot have much of an impact on the world because, in the end, it needs to be consistent for all players. This makes quests in ESO feel like being told a story rather than playing a role in making your own.
The stories and setting of ESO also essentially do away with the established lore and events of the timeline. Characters and relics appear in contradictory locations, while entire events that went unmentioned before fare introduced modify the context of previous games.
These issues are especially prevalent in the game’s microtransaction store. So, I don’t recommend playing ESO for a deeper look at the series’ lore or timeline of the world.
Combat in Skyrim gives the player some options in how they approach it. For any enemy in the game, players can use melee weapons, ranged weapons, stealth, magic, or a combination of any of them.
It features a BioShock-inspired hand equipment system that gives players even more choices by allowing them to equip a weapon in one hand and a spell in the other, or even a different spell in each one.
The new equipment system gives the player more choices, but it leaves some options poorly balanced. In particular, two-handed weapons suffer significantly from the system as it is almost always more effective to use a faster option in each hand.
The biggest problem with Skyrim‘s combat, however, is its duration. Killing enemies is often a grind of hitting them with the same attack repeated ad naseum. Enemies are designed to be universally killable, so there is never a reason for players to use specific gear or spells to counter them.
This results in players grabbing the option with the most significant damage numbers and not having to think any further.
Skyrim‘s combat particularly suffers from greater difficulties where enemies have massive health pools that must be slowly whittled down.
This is why so many players gravitate toward stealth archer builds that get massive bonuses to damage through stealth. They can frequently kill enemies with a single hit, allowing you to avoid encounters dragging out longer than they have to.
Elder Scrolls Online
Combat in Elder Scrolls Online is much more similar to a traditional MMO than a typical Elder Scrolls title. It can be played in first or third person for fans that want it to feel like more of what they’re used to, but its core mechanics are very different.
These differences stem from ESO‘s skill-based approach to combat. Players have a skill bar that holds five skills and an ultimate ability.
At any given time, players can have two of these bars set up at once and quickly swap between them with a hotkey. These are the primary ways players interact with enemies and allies on the battlefield, although they can also use regular and heavy attacks with their chosen weapon type.
Using skills in this way, however, means that players also have to manage their cooldowns while in combat on top of each skill’s Magicka and Stamina requirements. This means that combat in ESO is a balancing act of using skills at the right time to get the most impact out of them as one can.
Combat in ESO is also highly reactive. Enemies attack with large areas of effect that players have to dodge roll out of, use attacks that can be blocked to stun them, or can prepare unblockable attacks that can only be interrupted by shield bashing them while it is charging.
These elements all keep combat extremely engaging, as players have to focus on the enemies they are facing as much as they focus on their resources.
Including roles in ESO also helps add different flavors to its combat. Depending on a player’s role in a group, they have very different responsibilities and expected actions, whether healing allies or keeping enemies distracted.
If I say I’ve been playing Skyrim, it can only mean so many things. I could have spent the time embarking on any number of quests. Maybe I spent the time exploring and eradicating the enemies I found in every dungeon and ruin I found along the way. Or, maybe, I invested my time in toiling away on a mountain homestead to give my family a new home.
However, that is effectively all of the possibilities. There are other systems in the game, such as crafting potions or enchanting gear. But those systems are only in the game in service of the combat. They are minor distractions that don’t take more than a few minutes to do at a time before returning to the game’s main attractions.
However, one particular aspect of Skyrim‘s content is the game’s massive library of mods. In the decade since the game’s release, its community has created an incredible selection of mods that include gameplay changes, entire expansions, and visual overhauls.
This can add countless hours onto the game’s life for you if you have the drive and interest in constantly tweaking the experience for yourself.
Elder Scrolls Online
With Elder Scrolls Online‘s focus on keeping players around for longer, it makes sense that it has a range of different content to keep players coming back for more. For each of its activities, there are also ways to progress and constantly grow your character so that you don’t feel like you’re even wasting time.
When it comes to combat players, have a bevy of selections. They can embark on quests, explore the map’s various regions, or tackle challenging dungeons and trials with friends.
Even solo combat trials can be used to really put builds and gameplay styles to the test. Or, if players are looking for more competition, there are also daily quests with leaderboards and PvP matchmaking that is either in more minor matches or massive week-long campaigns in Cyrodiil.
Outside of combat, tons of players also spend their time not even attacking enemies.
These players can complete daily crafting tasks or make custom gear to sell to others, participate in the excellent new Tales of Tribute card game, or spend time hanging out with others and roleplaying in a particular guild that suits their interests.
ESO also has seasonal events that are a great way to keep players coming back. Every few months, there are themed content to complete and exclusive rewards to earn that help you celebrate holidays and the MMO’s special anniversaries.
Which Is Better?
I prefer Elder Scrolls Online because its denser mechanics give me more options when building a character and keep challenges exciting and varied. I also love just how large of a game it is, so there is always something new to pursue or earn.
However, some players may prefer the single-player nature of Skyrim and the greater freedom its sandbox gives them.
However, I think the game’s stripping back of roleplaying features greater diminishes its appeal as an RPG and would recommend instead going back to try Oblivion or Morrowind, even if you need some visual mods to help get you through them.
Other Alternatives to Consider
- Dragon Age: Inquisition
- The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
- Fallout 3
- Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
- The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Elder Scrolls Online Alternatives
- Guild Wars 2
- Star Wars The Old Republic
- World of Warcraft
- New World
Question: Are Ares Elder Scrolls Online free to play?
Answer: Players have to purchase Elder Scrolls Online to start playing it. Then, it is free to play, but players can pay for an optional monthly subscription.
Question: When is Elder Scrolls Online set in comparison to Skyrim?
Answer: Elder Scrolls Online takes place in a period known as the Age of Heroes, which is around 1,000 years before Skyrim.
Question: Can you play Elder Scrolls Online alone?
Answer: Yes, all but the most challenging content in ESO can be played solo.
Elder Scrolls Online vs Skyrim: Conclusion
I wasn’t sure I would like Elder Scrolls Online when I started it because I wasn’t sure how well it would capture the series’ spirit. Once I gave it a shot, I discovered an excellent translation of what makes many people love Elder Scrolls to a new genre.
I doubt that every fan of Skyrim will enjoy its MMO elements and more significant restrictions on the player, but it is well worth a try for any fans of the series looking to see more of Tamriel with their friends.