When it launched on PC last year, the Elder Scrolls Online was an ambitious attempt to translate the single player-centric gameplay and epic storylines of Oblivion and Skyrim to a massively multiplayer format. It was a mammoth undertaking, but one that players largely ignored – partly due to publisher Bethesda’s decision to use a Warcraft-mimicking subscription format. The company saw sense earlier this year, axing the subscription model in time for the long-delayed Xbox One and PS4 console release.
Little else has changed, however. Tamriel Unlimited tries too hard to copy what worked in previous Elder Scrolls games, despite the fact that much of it clearly isn’t suited to a multiplayer environment. A sprawling main quest where a solitary hero rises up and changes the course of history might make sense in a single player game like Skyrim, but when three other gamers have just been told that they too are the unique lone saviour Tamriel has been waiting for, those words lose all meaning.
^ Story quests are sometimes instanced, so you don’t have to worry about other players running through your exposition
You’re forced down a very linear and frustratingly simple series of quests at the outset, which is especially grating when the location is so uninspiring. Molag Bal’s realm of Coldharbour should be foreboding, but slapping a blue colour filter over the same generic dungeon interiors feels insultingly lazy. These areas are filled with other new players getting to grips with the gameplay mechanics, making it difficult to spot the quest-giving NPCs when players and computer-controlled character names are written in the same font.
The quests themselves are rarely anything more than simple fetch objectives of monster slaying sessions, restricted to small instanced areas. Combat is slow and repetitive, with little to worry about in terms of tactics. Most fights boil down to wailing on a single spell or skill until your enemy drops. Animations are stiff, meaning it rarely felt like our attacks were connecting convincingly, whether we were playing from a first or third person view. Creatures respawn far too quickly too; by the time we’d fought our way across a beach to rescue sailors from a shipwreck, the raiders we’d encountered on the sandbanks had already reappeared.
It’s during combat that the game mechanics show themselves most visibly. If you roll up to a fight in progress, enemies will often stop fighting, refill their health bars and disappear back to their spawn points, because someone else has triggered the same quest. You can join in on boss fights, but if you weren’t the one to initiate combat you’ll have to fight it a second time in order to complete your objective. Your health regenerates after each encounter too, removing any real peril and turning dungeons into a monotonous series of encounters rather than one big risky adventure.
^ There might be several skills available at any one time, but you’ll really only rely on one or two
We would be more inclined to explore the world if it actually looked enticing, but many locations feel like typical fantasy tropes and there are few recognisable landmarks in between miles of open ground. Tamriel Unlimited is also downright ugly in places. Character models are basic, locations look flat and generic, spell and skill effects look like they would be more at home on a previous generation console than a PS4 or Xbox One. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that the developers have squeezed entire continents onto a Blu-ray disc, but it’s disappointing considering how beautiful Skyrim looks even today. The more populated areas also introduce performance issues, with players and objects popping into view or the frame rate diving into the single digits.
^ Some of the graphical effects, like this fire, are laughable in a current-gen console game
It’s such a shame that the first few hours leave a stale taste in the mouth, even for seasoned Elder Scrolls veterans, as Tamriel only really opens up after you hit level 10. It’s then that you can access the excellent Alliance War, a persistent military campaign where the game’s three factions fight to control Cyrodiil in large scale PvP battles. Capturing forts, deploying siege weapons and performing solo sabotage missions to turn the tide of battle is far more engaging than anything else we’ve seen from Tamriel Unlimited to date. Not only is Alliance War not the main focus of the game, however, but unless you pay attention to the tool tips and loading screen hints you could miss it altogether.
It’s a similar story everywhere you look, with gameplay gems and intricately designed systems hidden behind generic MMO fetch quests and unresponsive combat. There are hundreds of potential skills and tech trees to specialise in, with many tied to allegiances and guilds that must be earned by completing quest paths, rather than merely grinding experience. Skills develop and morph as you use them, gaining extra effects that improve their usefulness in combat, and with so much choice no two characters play the same once you’ve reached a decent level.
^ Most quests boil down to finding someone, fetching an object or killing some monsters, then coming back for XP
The crafting system is probably the most time-intensive yet rewarding aspect of the game we’ve seen so far, even if searching for raw materials can be a bit of a slog. There are so many different creation, upgrading and research options to discover it’s practically a game in itself. Your creations can then be sold at a profit through town bulletin boards, or to other players through Guild merchants.
When we first played The Elder Scrolls Online on PC, there were far fewer players online and the story-focused quests made more sense. Now that the servers have filled and console gamers are joining in too, it’s clear that Bethesda was unwilling to give up on the aspects that made previous Elder Scrolls games so absorbing – despite the fact that many don’t work in an MMO context. There’s a lot to uncover if you plough through the tepid opening hours, and Elder Scrolls fans should appreciate the deep story and extensive lore, but until the developer moves out of its comfort zone and focuses more on the multiplayer aspect, there’s little here to advance the genre.
|PC, Xbox One, PS4
|Windows 7, Windows 8.1 64-bit, Mac OS X
|2.0GHz dual-core Intel, 2.5GHz dual-core AMD
|NVIDIA GeForce GTX 8800 / AMD Radeon HD 2600
|Hard disk space