Why The Elder Scrolls Online is better than World of Warcraft

One of the most popular questions any PC or online gamer asks at some point in their gaming journey is always “What’s the best MMO out there right now?” Whether you asked it in 2006, 2014, or this year in 2019, you’ve asked it. I’ve asked it, my editor’s asked it, and you’ve probably done so yourself.

MMORPG’s have been around for a long, long time, first coming into mainstream popularity with EverQuest in 1999 and blossoming into the boom of World of Warcraft and Runescape in the early 2000s. If you’re one of the people out there that hasn’t asked the question yet, or you’re just starting to look into it this year, in 2019, we want to give you a bit of advice. Two games that will undoubtedly show up when you type your question into Google are The Elder Scrolls Online and still, even 15 years later, World of Warcraft. Games such as Guild Wars 2 and Final Fantasy XIV will likely also make appearances, but ESO and WoW are the big two.

So, to help you on your quest to find your next game, we’re going to compare the two in a couple of different articles. One, titled “Why ESO is better than WoW” will focus on what ESO does well and WoW does poorly, and the other, “Why WoW is better than ESO,” will focus on the opposite. 

As someone who’s played more than 1,000 hours in both over the years, I have too many rambling thoughts to put into a single article, so read each as if a fan of both games was simply debating with themselves. Because, well, that’s what’s happening. Whichever one sounds better to you based on your gut feeling, start with that one. This article will focus on what ESO does better than WoW, and how that may affect your decision.


Why ESO is better

Lore

Elder Scrolls Online was made and updated over the years with one person in mind—fans of the Elder Scrolls universe. This game is packed with more interactive lore than any former Elder Scrolls title, including Skyrim and Oblivion. Morrowind is one of my favorite games of all time, so this is high praise.

So, if you like lore in the form of readable books, artifacts, ruins, side quests, NPCs, and more, this game does it the best. And with each major DLC, even more is added and baked into the game. It’s heaven for lore nerds everywhere in terms of sheer quality, and the writing is icing on top of the cake.

Actual, good writing

Like any other title in the Elder Scrolls portfolio, the storytelling of this MMO is superb. In fact, it reigns supreme over any other major MMO on the market. Whether you stumble across a side quest involving a random Khajiit vacationing on his family farm after a long and exciting career as a spy of the Dominion queen, or you embark on a sprawling, massive storyline involving Daedra, gods, and saving a continent, you can expect consistent, well-written, fully voice-acted storytelling.

We’ll get into bad examples of storytelling in MMOs in a bit, but for now, just take solace in the fact that the storytelling from Skyrim (aside from the main quest, barf) didn’t magically vanish for this online title, despite the difference in studio. There’s clearly a standard that Bethesda and ZeniMax plan on meeting with each expansion.  

Freedom of expression

The freedom of customization is far greater in ESO than it is in WoW, and it isn’t even close. There are many more character customization options just when creating your first character, and then even more are purchasable in the in-game shop. The difference is dramatic.

Not only is character creation more diverse, the gameplay itself is, too. In games like WoW, if you’re a wizard, you’re damage. If you’re a rogue, you’re damage. There are different specializations to choose from, sure, but in ESO, things work differently. There are classes, and each class comes loaded with three trees of available skills, each complete with morphs that change the way they fundamentally work. Any class can use any weapon, staff, shield, or anything else. A Sorcerer can be a tank. A Nightblade can be a healer. There are many options for different tastes and playstyles, and that kind of freedom can either be intimidating or incredibly fun, depending on what you’re looking for.

Intense combat

Combat in ESO is flashy and extremely visually appealing. It’s not like a massive anime battle, but you can feel the lightning you send out over the ground, and there’s weight to each strike you make with a greatsword. You can even shift to first-person to get an up-close view of everything, and for that traditional Elder Scrolls experience.

Open world

When I think of the term “open world” in an MMO, I think of ESO first and foremost. You can go anywhere, do anything, and be anyone. You can head to the Alik’r Desert to hunt Daedra, you can chill in Elsweyr and make your living crafting and selling furniture, or you can steal from shops and NPCs to sell to the local Outlaw’s Refuge fences. And, just like in any other Elder Scrolls title, the world is entirely yours to mess with. You can pick up a random jug of water, you can find goodies in random containers, and more.

The world of ESO, by the way, is beautiful. This is certainly the best-looking MMO out there by a wide margin, even in its older explorable zones from the game’s launch in 2014. Its newer areas, like Summerset’s Summerset and Elsweyr's Elsweyr (not super creative with the names), are both breathtaking. The ante is consistently upped with each update.

Why WoW is worse

Lore

WoW’s lore is also great. It’s deep, too. There are plenty of artifacts, ruins, and the like. But in WoW, it’s convoluted as all hell. Things can be ret-conned with each expansion, and rather than having a whole world of history at your fingertips to explore, when you enter an expansion in WoW, it just feels like you’re being plopped into the middle of someone else’s story. But only if that story were 15 years old and was being constantly rewritten. In other words, while there are great things you can happen upon and dig into in WoW, you have to work a lot harder to find it. 

Often, there isn’t even a good way to learn more about a historical topic in-game, and you’ll have to watch YouTube videos or read wiki pages just to get a grip on what’s going on. And that’s coming from someone with 1000+ hours sunk in.

The worst part, however, is that the actual lore-heavy places to visit and people to talk to are sometimes worthless. The game will direct you where it needs to direct you, and typically, if there is something of historical importance near or around you, you’ll only interact with it if it directly has to do with whatever quest you’re on or the dungeon you’re in. To go back to visit other areas for these reasons is to go out of your way to older zones, where, sometimes, the story will make no sense without serious, serious digging.

Poor writing

The “WoW’s writing has gone downhill” is so oversold by players and critics that it’s almost a meme at this point, and I often try to ignore any prejudice set in my head by that meme when playing the game. But sometimes, man, it’s hard.

For example, at the start of Rise of Azshara, which is the latest update to Battle for Azeroth, which is the latest expansion to WoW (confused yet?), armies and significant characters from both in-game warring factions are dropped Wile E. Coyote-style into a giant hole in the ocean, where a moustache-twirling villain awaits them. Upon landing in the giant ocean-hole, a nearby fish-man states after much reflection that dropping into this massive hole wasn’t an accident, and that the villain wanted them here. 

Wow, thanks, fish-man. I didn’t know she wanted me here by the fact that she dropped me down a hole in the literal ocean on top of her. 

Who needs silly old storytelling strategies like foreshadowing or hooks when you can just… drop everyone down a hole? Why were both factions out on the water, again? One faction was there because of a staff or something, and the other one was there.. Just because the first faction was there. And they thought they could just sail out and end the war by killing all the bad guy boats, just like that. 

That sounds like a joke, but the quest-giver literally says something along the lines of, “Their ships are out there! If we kill them, we win!” to start the entire major expansion update. That’s the reasoning used to sell your character on starting Rise of Azshara. That’s it. Who needs scouts? Or thinking of an actual strategy? Or the fact that you’ll be sailing over an underwater city inhabited by a villain that you already know about? Ah, who cares. Drop them down the hole.

Stiff combat

WoW’s combat, while well thought out and competitive, is very stiff. Abilities don’t look or feel good, and you spend most of your time in battle watching your skill bar and cooldowns instead of being able to admire how the combat actually feels. And it’s a good thing you don’t pay attention to how it feels, because it feels terrible.

There’s no weight to hits, there’s no oomph to huge explosions—you just sorta hit buttons and watch things appear on screen. It doesn’t actually feel like you’re doing anything. Full disclosure, I spent a lot of time playing WoW before I even dug into ESO when it came out in 2014. I hated ESO in 2014, by the way. After so much raiding, PvPing, and more recently climbing Mythic+ in WoW, it was hard to look at the game’s combat for what it was. 

Then, when I touched my first non-WoW MMOs in 2014, being Guild Wars 2 and ESO, I realized just how weak WoW’s combat really feels. If you want to feel like you’re in combat with your character instead of just being a stat and cooldown stick that tracks numbers, you’re not going to like WoW’s combat. Some people really like that level of micromanagement, and value it higher than how the fights aesthetically feel, so that’s entirely subjective.

Ugly

WoW is ugly. Really ugly.

Despite updates to various visuals over the course of the game’s ancient development history, it’s still very, very far behind any modern game on the market, let alone any MMO out there. To some, its cartoonish graphics may be appealing, but even if you’re a fan of cartoonish graphics, similar to those found in Fortnite, these cartoonish graphics are not done well. Tree branches are 2D in many areas, anywhere you visit between the game’s launch and 2012 looks awful, and up until very recently, abilities on any class pre-Legion look terrible and outdated, too.

There are some exceptions, like remodeled Jaina Proudmoore, but most characters and character models look severely outdated and outlandish, too. To this day, the forearms on humans are the largest part of their entire body.  There are even some parts of the game, like Zuldazar, that make you stop and look in awe because of how good they look. But a part of me, a large part of me, thinks that the shock value comes from it looking so good by comparison. It might not be something that just looks objectively good. As someone who’s played the game for years, I know that looks don’t make a game good. But I also know that good looks certainly don’t hurt, and if that matters a lot to you, you’re going to have a hard time stomaching WoW when you first log in.

TL;DR

ESO does lore, looks, writing, and combat better than WoW.