Game Name: Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One
Publisher(s): Bethesda Softworks
Developer(s): ZeniMax Online
Release Date: 9.06.15
Reviewed on: (Xbox One)
I can safely say during these past few days it’s been virtually impossible to avoid Bethesda’s huge marketing push surrounding The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited and its long-awaited leap to next-gen consoles. For a Londoner like myself, each morning’s tube ride is usually so fraught with enormous decorations of dragons and elf warriors I feel like I’ve accidentally hurtled through New Zealand’s famous Hobbiton set. Alas I’m not a Kiwi, I’m a simple videogame critic who has definitely bought into the hype surrounding ZeniMax Online’s new venture…
It was roughly this time last year I found myself tearing my through The Elder Scrolls Online on PC – an addictive experience slightly marred by the monthly subscription costs and pay walls that the gaming universe generally agreed was a poor idea. Fortunately this time around, Bethesda have listened to the critics and have dropped the monthly charge in order to draw out larger audience numbers (although there are still payment options for additional DLC etc.).
My opinion of MMORPG’s is well publicised; I’ve never taken the genre as seriously as perhaps I ought to. Various South Park episodes and that Leroy Jenkins video had me thinking they were a bit of a stitch up for hardcore gamers with endless wallets to pump into ghastly monthly fees. I originally began my PC quest with every intention of making my hero an investible character, however as soon as I found out there wasn’t an option to have my hair in a quiffed Elvis-style I soon abandoned that line of thought and proceeded to make my protagonist ‘Meaty Tackler’ a Templar Wood Elf with a ginger Super Mario moustache and ‘no gear’ – because I thought it’d be funny to see this guy run around in his pants. That was the kind of guy I was. I’m not saying I’m proud of it. This (for those of you who are interested) was ‘Meaty Tackler’:
I ended up thoroughly enjoying my time with ESO on PC, so when news broke that a next-gen console version was soon to be released I jumped at the chance to dive back into the magical realm of Tamriel and take things far more seriously…
Not Skyrim, Not Quite…
The narrative is usual Elder Scrolls fare, although before you even take your first breath in the game you’ll find your non-descript character has already been put to the sword by an evil Daedric Prince named Molag Bal. He has transported your soul to Coldharbour, a limbo-like plane of Oblivion for an endless future of dastardly enslavement. However things aren’t as they seem and an unlikely ally sets your spirit free in the mortal realm to end an apocalyptic war that threatens the whole of Tamriel. Not a bad billing for an MMO, eh?
The game sets itself out very tidily in its early stages – the character creation hub subtly hints at what your gaming experience may have in store based on what faction and class you choose. You’ll realize at this stage the game isn’t another Skyrim, not quite. Yes, the visuals retain the core Elder Scrolls aesthetic but there’s definitely a sense in the early stages of character creation that your protagonist is to be part of a bigger picture and not just a single mute hero on a quest. Each faction (Daggerfall Covenant, Aldmeri Dominion & Ebonheart Pact) has a different starting location in the game and each one possesses its own unique campaign. These campaigns vary in length, taking somewhere between 50-100 hours to complete depending on which path you take. There are four classes you’re eligible to play as and while each one seems pretty limited in what perks it can offer you – you’ll find that once your inside the game all the perks tend to derive from your armor type, weaponry and the guilds you take part in. Your character creation is an utterly fluid process. Levelling up should become your main drive, which propels you through Tamriel; fighting creatures more powerful than yourself, completing quests with alone or with allies and collecting rare Skyshards that are scattered around the game world.
From experience I can say that console gamers don’t play like PC gamers, which may be an issue for some early on. From the brief amount of time Elder Scrolls Online has been available, gamers seem to be a lot more insular – determined to become the very best on their own. There was a strong community spirit which accompanied the PC version (this was probably due to fact gamers were communally paying per month to play with one another) and this is something the Xbox One currently lacks right now. As a result, your early moments in the game are truly vital. This reviewer would suggest that newcomers to the franchise have fun with the game and try not to be intimidated by some of the more complex aspects of the interface and interaction with other higher level player – instead try and focus on befriending as many allies as necessary whilst throwing yourself into as many low-level quests as possible. It won’t be long before you crave some of the better armor and weaponry and by that time you’ll definitely need allies to support you in tackling some of the more exciting quests.
This isn’t a game for a shrinking violet.
The Spirit of Adventure
On the one hand, Elder Scrolls Online is just pure spectacle. The production values are huge, the draw distances on consoles are vast, the game world large and some of the voice talent on offer is staggering. These are all things you’ll identify within the first 5 hours of play – let alone the initial tutorial. On the other hand the game is a finely crafted, worthwhile blend of MMO-like tropes with enough console integration to make it feel like Skyrim’s geekier older brother.
The audio design is excellent; sweeping orchestral numbers tear their way through your speakers as you take to Tamriel with your arsenal of abilities. While I haven’t tried it on the PS4, voice chat with your friends on the Xbox One feels like the only way to play the game – with the wonderful score and sound effects bedding neatly in your subconscious as you scream commands at one another. The nifty eared among you will probably recognise some key voices on your journey – from Kate Beckinsale to Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon to John Cleese. The celebrity factor is enormous and can potentially be overlooked if you’re not interested in hearing what the characters have to say. For fans of the Arkham games or BioShock Infinite, you’ll recognise the gruff tones of Troy Baker backing the A list cast – and likewise for fans of Harley Quinn or Lollipop Chainsaw, you’ll notice the sweeter tones of Tara Strong. These are smaller pieces of a bigger jigsaw puzzle that become more impressive as you progress through the game.
For most gamers, initial tasks in ESO are daunting. The spirit of adventure lingers high in the air and each mammoth zone that makes up the Tamriel map is available to traverse right away. Although that’s not to say you should check it all out right away. While each faction has its own distinct linear storyline, the majority of the game is anything but linear. You can stray far from the madden crowd at anytime and find yourself winding up literally anywhere. You may be respected for your bravery (at least, I’ll respect you) but you’ll more than likely be criticised for your foolishness as you let your level 10 Templar take on a level 60 cave dwelling beastie to devastating results. Make friends in some of the earlier towns and you’ll find deep down everyone possesses the same spirit of adventure; combine with some powerful allies and you’ll be able to tackle opponents you have no real right to – usually resulting in a successful days questing with a nice pile of loot to boot.
Console combat, console problems
Tamriel Unlimited has ported nicely to next-gen consoles; the immersive and epic experience of exploring, guilding, questing and fighting feels right at home on your home entertainment system. The environments are imaginative and diverse and while character animations are generally stiff (Bethesda seems to be consistently cursed by producing lifeless character models) the game looks stunning and runs at a fairly untroubled framerate. Larger battles, larger groups of allies and larger set pieces can lead to a few bugs and slow frame rate issues – however you’ll rarely have these issues as you just hop on your steed and explore the open map. For those of you that have played Skyrim, those moments where random dragon encounters would strike and the game would jitter slightly – that’s the sort of level I’m talking about here. There are times in the game where ghoulish anchors will fall from the sky at randomly generated moments and you’ll find floods of players head towards it in order to reap the benefits of its enviable bounty. These are the only times I noticed my console having problems coping.
Combat is as slick and accurate as its PC predecessor. Targeting and strategic attacks/blocks are done in real time and are not turn-based, meaning ESO feels more like a first-person action console game rather than a typical MMO port. Your special abilities are ‘hot-keyed’ to the more accessible buttons on your controller – your magic abilities are usually locked to the shoulder buttons and your main weapon attacks on the 4 predominant controller buttons. This actually means battles are more streamlined less confusing than on PC (where I personally found the juggling between magic attacks and blocking with a right click a bit of a mess when in the heat of major battles). This also means player vs player moments are a lot more competitive as every gamer is using the core console gamerpad and no modded PC keyboard paraphernalia.
Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited Review
Elder Scrolls Online feels like it was designed to be played on a console; high praise indeed for a game which seemed to hurdle so many obstacles during its early days on PC/Mac. The initial 60GB digital download time is pretty horrendous (I’m hearing horror stories that it’s taking gamers with slow internet speeds overnight to install) especially when paired with its day one 12GB compulsory install patch. The game, however, is definitely worth the wait – and disc space! Its several hundred hours of gameplay makes it easily one of the best value-for-money console games out there at the moment – in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed a title with such strong replay value before. The gameplay is core MMO fare although it does a grand job of stealing some of Oblivion/Skyrim’s audience with great visuals and a first-person action feel not usually associated with the genre. There are a few frame rate issues here and there, although I’ve never encountered a server problem and the game (thus far) has never crashed on me. The production values, beautiful presentation and endless fun to be had with this title make it a must-buy for yourself and a few friends. Grab some beers, don that headset and prepare to lose yourself in Tamriel once again. ZeniMax Online and Bethesda Softworks have smashed another one right out of the park.
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