Like a pointy-eared Prometheus, the boss guarding the magical tome is doomed to be resolutely ganked by passing adventurers in perpetuity. Followed closely by a band of equally chosen ones — PostmanPete27, xninjascrollx, and so forth – my own Khajiit (that's Sexy Eastern Cat Person, for the uninitiated) named Ferriss swiftly swarms his corpse in the hopes of epic loot.
"Hi guys, or gals. Careful, he'll be back in a second!" I offer my advice earnestly across The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited's (TESO) ambient voice chat, through which anyone in range can hear your armchair jibber-jabber: this fallen enemy has a comically short respawn counter, after all, so it's key that we're in and out quickly. I'm greeted with some muffled drum & bass, one bout of frantic tea-bagging, and a sword repeatedly slicing the air inches from my furry snout. I start to miss the uncanny marionettes of TES: Oblivion.
I've not played a proper MMORPG since the early days of World of Warcraft, but as an absolute die-hard Elder Scrolls series fan I approached TESO with the same cynical optimism as when I hear there'll be another triple-A Kickstarter. Now optimised for home consoles and including all the major updates since the original PC release in April 2014, TESO on PS4 and Xbox One has the unenviable tasks of being one of the first "proper" MMORPGs ported to new-generation console hardware and following in TES: Skyrim's frosty footsteps.
Let's be clear right off the staff: this is not a true Elder Scrolls game. Gone are the dense patchworks of interconnected quest lines, gorgeous, immersive landscapes and sprees of kleptomania. Instead we have a framework, developed by ZeniMax Online Studios (rather than Bethesda themselves), for compulsive MMORPG mechanics underwritten by an overabundance of proper nouns and lore books that most will pick up only in the hope of an instant skill boost, the way all real books should work. It looks like Morrowind half the time. What makes the whole endeavour so frustrating is the litany of near misses, but equally these same new but not fully formed ideas compelled me to reach level ten, at which point you essentially unlock the real game. It doesn't follow them, but there are roadmaps here to an incredible MMORPG on a console, or otherwise.
The PvP element of TESO, for example, is theoretically brilliant, but what should be a prominent back-of-box point and perhaps even the defining feature becomes an inaccessible sideshow accessed via an oblique sub-menu. It's essentially a fantastical PlanetSide with NPCs, and when you arrive in Cyrodiil, the area contested by the game's three alliances, it's daunting and incomprehensible. You and your faction are tasked with whittling down the enemies' strongholds through stealthy scouting missions, bounty hunts and then, eventually, large-scale assaults using player-controlled siege weaponry and coordinated tactics. Which would be fun if it were at all possible to form a group instead of wandering towards the action and being instantly obliterated by ten elite NPC guards who must have been pissing their greaves laughing at my nascent "stealth" stat.
Combat in Elder Scrolls games has always been divisive. In Skyrim it was visceral but hardly tactical, and in TESO it's the reverse. In first person, with no damage counters, there's a big disconnect between your abilities and their effects, but blending in the traditional MMO slottable skills adds depth. Further tweaks include effect markers that forecast enemy attacks, and the ability to dodge-roll, which is technically interesting but results in a hilariously unnatural lurch. MMOs always struggle with this need for a meaningful intersection between classes in order to take on raids and arbitrary levelling systems that give individual players "freedom" but no motivation, especially when these mechanics barely intersect with enemies or the game world. The whole thing ends up filling me with existential anxiety; especially when you have to assign yourself as "damage", "tank" or "healing" to find a group.
The PvE missions geared towards single players are also weird hybrids of innovation in MMOs but regressions for Elder Scrolls games. It's refreshing for an MMO to have a few dynamic NPCs and quest-givers that progress through different areas and offer more than endless fetch quests. A wry, charismatic Khajiit named Razum-Dar is a recurring highlight of the main Aldmeri Dominion (i.e. elves and sexy cats) quest line – he's working for the newly crowned Queen to thwart the variously nefarious "Veiled Inheritance". From distractedly reminiscing about the time he rode naked on a Guar through an Argonian temple to trolling your stupid questions like "Why do you trust me?" with sarcastic retorts – "You're new, why wouldn't I trust you? I wouldn't keep an eye on you for the first sign of betrayal at all, would I?" – he's a glimpse of greatness. He also has a fluid sense of morality (whatever gets the Queen's job done), unlike the player character unfortunately, who must occasionally decide the utterly binary moral outcome to a quest line, to no lasting effect as far as I could tell.
Crafting, the obsessive yet prosaic side to MMORPGs, is also confused in TESO. Okay, they couldn't carry over the Skyrim model, that let you grind out the crafting trees to quickly outfit yourself head-to-toe in balance-breaking Daedric armour and a full pouch of magical elixirs. It was like bringing a steroidal tank to a knife fight. However, it's quite a steep learning curve, and reagents are frustratingly hard to find, something you can ameliorate by dropping a few skill points into what should really have been called "reagent draw distance". I'm a big fan of the EVE Online-inspired asynchronous researching of traits (i.e. buffs you can apply to armour or weapon crafting) though, and I can see how being your guild's dedicated crafts(wo)man could be rewarding. But equally, when was the last time you spurned a trip to the elite vendors of Westfield in favour of knitting a scarf with your D&D group?
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The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited could be influential, but for all the wrong reasons. Against all my rational thought I also can't help but see it as an (admittedly successful) financial ploy from ZeniMax ($111million dollars in subscription revenue, even before the game went free to play), but at the expense of getting a next-gen follow up to Skyrim. TESO is frustratingly okay, but on reflection I'd still rather play Skyrim with my buddy on the couch, craft some strong drinks, put a bucket on his head and occasionally pick up and put down a book from each of his shelves.
We played TESO on PS4, thanks for asking.
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