This is a performance analysis, first and foremost. So, let's get down to it. The Elder Scrolls Online employs a scalable game engine that delivers attractive graphics on budget-oriented cards like the Radeon R7 240 and GeForce GT 630 GDDR5. Given a low-end board, you can expect fairly smooth gameplay at 1280x720 using the Medium detail preset. Even at 1920x1080, those two models barely dipped below 30 FPS in our benchmark, while the Radeon R7 250X (a rebadged Radeon HD 7770) and GeForce GTX 650 seldom fell under 60 FPS. If you don't have a ton of money to spend on new hardware, you can get buy with a mainstream machine and still enjoy The Elder Scrolls Online.
While the Ultra-High setting demands more from your hardware, it won't give you a ton of additional visual effects. Nevertheless, you can still get smooth performance at 1920x1080 from a Radeon R7 260X or GeForce GTX 750 Ti.
Enthusiasts looking to go big with a triple-monitor array should step up to a Radeon R9 280 or GeForce GTX 760, both of which can keep frame rates around 30 at 5760x1080. I'd really suggest a Radeon R9 280X or GeForce GTX 770, though, to keep the game from bogging down.
On the platform side, Intel's Core i7 enables the highest frame rates. However, even AMD's budget-oriented FX-4170 allows for a fluid experience using the Ultra-High detail preset and a Radeon R9 270 graphics card.
Frankly, this game scales so well that we'd be surprised if anyone with moderate gaming hardware runs into performance issues. If your system can play Skyrim comfortably, you won't need an upgrade to play The Elder Scrolls Online at the same resolution.
And how about the game itself? I know better than to give an MMO a thumbs-up or -down on release day. Without question, though, this one imparts an authentic Elder Scrolls flavor to the massively multiplayer space, and I'm optimistic that it'll turn into something even better over time.
My main concern is the game's archaic subscription model in a world of freemium MMOs. I criticized Star Wars: The Old Republic for the same sin, and it went free-to-play in a matter of months. Say what you will about that title, but The Elder Scrolls Online doesn't have any better of a single-player storyline. Frankly, I'm not confident in the long-term prospects of any MMO with a subscription-based model.
The publisher defends its decision with a commitment to providing high-quality content. Bethesda vice president Pete Hines went on-record saying, "We want to do the version that we think is the best game and the coolest experience, and that means putting a lot of people and a lot of content creators towards having stuff that comes out regularly; every four weeks, five weeks, six weeks. Big new stuff that you want to do."
If the company didn't staunchly defend the decision to fund the game via subscription, I might suspect that Bethesda was already planning a free-to-play transition, choosing to launch with a subscription model in order to generate a quick flow of cash from early adopters. In retrospect, I have to wonder if that was BioWare's original plan for Star Wars: The Old Republic, too.
No matter what you think of the revenue model, The Elder Scrolls Online is a compelling hybrid of the franchise's single-player history and multi-player aspirations. The compromises required to merge both game types won't sit well with everyone. But there's still a lot of entertainment value available if you're willing to keep an open mind and not impose your expectations. Expect to pay $15 a month for now, though.