The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited Review

Subscription free, TES Online has arrived on consoles, but does the series' first journey into the MMORPG arena succeed?

Release Date: June 23, 2015Platform: PC, PS4 (reviewed), XBODeveloper: ZeniMax Online StudiosPublisher: Bethesda SoftworksGenre: MMORPG 

The Elder Scrolls series is well known for its huge, open worlds, deep and complex lore, first person immersion, and open-ended quests. Skyrim is considered to be one of the best games ever made, and most games in the series have won numerous awards. It’s a prestigious RPG franchise, but one that was exclusively single player, until the arrival of The Elder Scrolls Online. With this, Bethesda has plunged into a very competitive world, ruled by the likes of World of Warcraft and Guild Wars, and it faces a tough challenge, one that it’s been fighting for a while already on PC. Now the game has arrived on consoles, bringing with it one of the first, full-fledged MMORPG experiences for non-PC players. Does the series make the jump to MMORPG status well, though?

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There can be only one (million)

Designed to replicate the look and feel of the existing Elder Scrolls games, only with the online PvE and PvP play of a traditional MMORPG, The Elder Scrolls Online is instantly a very different animal to its rivals. The main reason for this is the first or third person, action-oriented play and the real-time combat. Unlike most other games in the genre, here you don’t click and watch as your avatar attacks foes, selecting abilities and skills as you watch. Instead, you’re always in full control, the action is far more arcade-style, and much faster paced in terms of movement, avoiding attacks, and unleashing specials. This setup instantly makes the game feel totally different to other MMORPGs, and it’s this that will set the game apart from the crowd for many. However, alongside this unique mechanic, the game also strives to include the usual array of features other MMORPGs incorporate.

There are guilds, merchants, faction wars, a deep crafting system, open and instanced dungeons, trading mechanics, and much more of the usual MMO fare all crammed into The Elder Scrolls mould, and it’s a game world that won’t fail to intimidate new players as they set into it for the first time. Yes, there’s a metric ton of content here, with a huge and dynamic world to adventure in.

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As with all Elder Scrolls games, though, you’ll first be treated to the usual training quest, as you’re freed from a hellish prison in an alternate plane of Oblivion known as Coldharbour. Here you’re taught the basics before you’re thrown out into the vast world like a newborn babe. And it’s here where the game’s first hiccup poked me in the eye.

The game’s story is clearly Elder Scrolls through-and-through, right down to the usual “You’re the only one who can stop this evil, it’s your destiny” theme. You’re called the hero by NPCs, and the quest lines often deliver the news that you’re the one to stop antagonist, Molag Bal. This is par for the course in a series where the adventure is yours. You always embark on an epic, and very personal quest where you’re the hero, and you can shape the world and do as you like.

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The problem here is that you’re not. You’re not the only one. You’re one of thousands and thousands of other heroes running around the world fighting evil, as is the idea of an MMORPG. Now, I can’t criticize the game for this, it’s an MMORPG, it’s what it’s all about, but the story could reflect this better. I can forgive most of this, and look past it, but when you’re told by a ghost that you’re the only one to venture into an old ruin in thousands of years, as six other heroes mill around in the background, it’s hard to swallow. Look behind you, mister!

This is a remnant of The Elder Scrolls‘ previous style, and it’s here where I feel The Elder Scrolls Online simply can’t help but falter. You see, previous games in the series have been huge, epic tales of one hero – you – defeating evil, and writing a legend. Given the mechanics of an MMORPG, this can’t really be the case. After all, we play MMOs so we can be part of a larger group, not a loner. The Elder Scrolls Online needs to be tailored as such, instead of trying to cling to the story mechanics of its single player descendants.

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What’s more, the actual content of an Elder Scrollsgame is truly unique in terms of large-scale RPGs. The previous games all have varied and often complex quests with all sorts of different mechanics. There are typical dungeon crawls, sure, but there are also well-crafted stealth missions, complex multi-part sequences, social missions, and all sorts of story elements that can only be done in a solo title. The Elder Scrolls Online can’t do this, given the limitations of an MMORPG, so tons of quests are boiled down to “go kill an arbitrary number of these,” or “kill these, collect X of these, and then go here.” It’s one enormous fetch quest, with each area containing a plethora of similar missions. Of course, this is the usual fare when it comes to the genre, but for an Elder Scrolls game where fans expect a lot more, it really sticks out.

My point here is that The Elder Scrolls Online may look, sound, and even play similarly to The Elder Scrolls, but it’s not Elder Scrolls. The soul of the series is missing, and what’s left is a hollow shell, filled with repetitive missions and punctured by a lack of player importance. If you’re approaching the game as an Elder Scrolls fan, expecting the same content, only with the MMO feature added, think again. Remove the Elder Scrolls name from the game, and it could be anything.

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MMORPG stripes

Okay, so taken as an Elder Scrolls title, there’s little here that actually stands out aside from the basic controls and combat, but how does the game fare as an MMORPG? Quite well, actually. It blends the unique controls with the bread and butter of the MMORPG world to create a game that’s different enough from the crowd to stand out and an appealing choice for MMORPG fans, and those who may be tired of the usual World of Warcraft clones.

Underneath the instant gratification of in-your-face combat and first/third person adventuring lies a very deep and promising MMORPG system. It’s got a very competent crafting system that has separate branches for various roles, such as smithing, tailoring, cooking, magic, enchanting, and much more, and it’s possible to forgo the quests and usual play to set yourself up as a tailor, blacksmith, or whatever role you want. There are even special daily missions, or ‘writs’ where you’re asked to craft certain bundles of gear for a reward. The game rewards all kinds of players, regardless of their preferred method of role playing in the world. Want to be your guild’s Blacksmith instead of playing the hero? Go ahead.

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There’s a wide selection of races and classes to pick from, with three major factions to pledge your allegiance to, as well as other NPC guilds like the Fighter’s guild in the game world to work for. Each class has specific abilities and specials, but as is always the case in Elder Scrolls games, there’s no restriction on the gear that can be used. So, even if you’re a hulking Nord warrior, you can still wear mage robes and run around using a bow and arrows if you wish.

Happily, one of the best features of Elder Scrolls has also made the transition, and that’s the levelling and experience system. Whilst you earn a lot of experience from completing quests, you also earn experience in specific skills by using them. So, use a bow and you’ll get better at archery, defend yourself with heavy armor, and your proficiency wearing it will increase. It’s an organic and logical way of growing your character, instead of simply allocating points.

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Of course, you do assign points to special skills and abilities, but these also evolve as you use them, and you can even morph them into new versions after you’ve mastered them. The result is a deep and rewarding leveling system that creates all sorts of player types, making the whole game much more interesting. The flexibility also allows you to change your mind whenever you like, too. So, if you’re bored of hacking and slashing with a sword, grab a magic staff and learn how to deal with foes a different way. It’s always up to you, and you’re never prevented from experimenting.

Fractured factions

One of the staple features of any MMORPG is the ability to form a guild, and team up with friends to quest and indulge in combat online. Elder Scrolls Online allows this, but its execution is rather confusing. Even after soaking up many, many hours of the game, the guild and grouping system remains something of an enigma. You can join any guild you like, and form your own, but only players of the same alliance can team up in the world, and can go on adventures. There are ways around this, such as completing all quests in another alliance zone, but it’s confusing and a mess.

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When it comes to PvP (which takes place in the Imperial province of Cyrodiil), you can’t join fellow guild mates who are members of one of the other two main factions, and captured forts can only be captured for the guild’s chosen alliance. Guild resources and rewards are also limited in terms of alliance membership, and the result is a guild system that, for many, isn’t actually all that worth bothering with. If that all sounds confusing, it’s because it is.

While I understand the need to separate the alliances in PvP, when in PvE there’s simply no need to do this, and I feel the game needs to be changed to rectify it, as it can make teaming up with friends ridiculously tricky. Yes, you can have up to eight characters, with each in different alliances, but I shouldn’t have to play as a specific character to join some friends, and as another to join others. It’s stupid, and in my opinion, really hurts the game. The whole guild system needs to be reworked to make it more approachable. It’s overcomplicated and too restrictive, and it doesn’t need to be.

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PvP chaos

With that said, I did find the PvP design to work very well, and the idea of fighting for control of keeps and castles to bolster your member’s skills and acquire rare materials is interesting. The Alliance War back story is used to explain this, hence the need to choose your allegiance when you create a character, and the way PvE and PvP is separated makes more sense than simply having random zones where PvP fights can take place. It keeps both modes in line with game and flow together as an interwoven narrative.

The PvP zone isn’t just a simple battlefield, either. Instead, it’s the whole province of Cyrodiil, complete with it’s own cities, settlements, and quests. You can wander around it taking on missions, only here you can run into hostile players as well as other AI foes. This means you really need to be prepared before you head on in (which you cannot do until you’re at least level 10), and a mount is nigh on essential so you can flee from battle if you need to and traverse the long distances you need to cover.

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You also need to ensure that you have a group of other people to take on enemy positions, as going solo isn’t really an option here, no matter how stealthy you may be. It’s all too easy to be overwhelmed by a group of players, and backup is needed, along with siege engines, which are used to attack the enemy, and to damage their fortifications.

I enjoyed the PvP, and found it to be a lot more interesting than many other MMORPG efforts, and there are a lot of campaigns on offer, each of which run for a set length (some as long as 90 days). Winning these grants members of the conquering alliance buffs and bonuses, and you’ll also still level up, so your efforts carry over to PvE, too. Even doing the PvP tutorial gives you a skill point, and Cyrodiil also has Skyshards just like the PvE areas (collect three to get another skill point).

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Connected conquest

The Elder Scrolls Online is a very capable MMORPG, and one that does offer a good challenge to other titles in the genre. Thanks to the Elder Scrolls features it injects into the MMO mold, it plays and feels very different to other major MMORPGs, and the PvP is very enjoyable, adding a whole new spin to the game. It’s got the in-depth features we’ve come to expect from persistent, open world MMOs, and it’s got a lot of potential yet to be touched on. With some changes to the convoluted and restrictive guild system, it could really shine.

As an Elder Scrolls game, however, it misses the mark somewhat, and simply doesn’t have what it takes to match its single player brethren. It could be an MMO with any name slapped on it and still be as enjoyable, so fans of The Elder Scrolls series may want to hold off if they’re after more of the same, and if you’re considering this as a viable first step into the world of the MMORPG, there are more accessible options out there. If you’ve got a PC, of course. As one of the few proper online RPGs on console, it’s probably the best option for now.

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With some refinement, The Elder Scrolls Online could be one of the best MMORPGs around, but for now it’s a solid, if flawed adventure that’s made all the more attractive thanks to the removal of a required subscription. Well worth a look.

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Rating:

3 out of 5