The Elder Scrolls Online is a contradiction in terms. Even its title makes no sense. Massive multiplayer tacked on to the singleplayer RPG gold standard, a confused compromise between two radically different genres.
Last year it didn't work. Now, after a major rethink and a new pricing model, it does.
Tamriel Unlimited has no subscription and a massive amount of improved content, but just as importantly it's available on PS4 and Xbox One. Though it pales next to the biggest MMORPGs on PC, it feels revolutionary on consoles.
Set hundreds of years before Skyrim, Tamriel Unlimited takes place in the middle of a huge war. Three implausible factions vie to put their emperor on the throne of Cyrodiil, all while the sinister Daedric prince Molag Bal attempts to take over the entire plane of existence. As a victim of his sinister plot, you'll escape the chilling Coldharbour dimension and attempt to save the world while exploring Tamriel itself.
Tamriel Unlimited's world is a deeply impressive in terms of scale. From the Black Marsh to High Rock and everything in between, the entire continent has been rendered in impressive detail. Every region feels authentic, draped with the correct architecture, local fauna, cultures and customs. Despite being split into load zones, each area is absolutely enormous without feeling overly big and empty. Every major town is represented in some capacity, while Elder Scrolls fans will notice a fair few familiar landmarks and structures.
But whereas Skyrim was a true sandbox, Tamriel Unlimited feels more like a showroom. You can't put down roots or even sit down, let alone experience the random exciting encounters that make Bethesda's games so unpredictable. Stealing serves few real benefits despite the addition of a functional wanted system. Towns are static and though there's plenty of voice acting, few people have anything hugely interesting to say. You'll exist in the world, but you'll never really live there.
Credit where it's due, though: Tamriel Unlimited handles radiant questing brilliantly. Upon entering an area you'll get caught up in a compelling mini-story, whether threats from dangerous wildlife, ancient ghosts, pirates, conspiracies or NPCs from rival factions. Most arcs are standalone, some tie together into exciting interconnected narratives that organically nudge you towards other areas upon completion, but all are fleshed out with a pleasing amount of lore and fully-voiced dialogue.
Usually you'll delve into a dungeon, kill a specific enemy, fetch things, talk to certain characters or generally right a wrong (sometimes all of the above depending on the length of the questline!), but it feels like a real adventure rather than just MMORPG busywork. Better yet, the resolution of each quest frequently affects the world in tangible ways, such as completely removing or pacifying hostiles in the area. Tamriel Unlimited then cleverly tucks you into a phase with other players who've resolved the same quest in the same way.
Sure, Tamriel is still a theme park that pushes you through its zones with little reason to return, but you'll feel like you've accomplished something important. Something real.
And it doesn't really work in an MMORPG.
So long as you don't charge into over-levelled zones before you're ready, there's little reason to team up in the first fifteen hours. Beyond a few traditional co-op dungeons (supported by a somewhat flawed LFG finder), the level curve in the early-to-mid-game is so smooth and enemies attack in such small groups that you'll rarely wish you had backup.
Infinitely worse, though, the main story and radiant quests are written and balanced for a single player. Dialogue explicitly tells everyone that they're The Hero, the chosen one, the only person that can help in a desperate hour of need. NPCs fire you up as you race to free prisoners or defeat a force of monolithic evil in a tense race against time... at which point you'll discover that a busload of randomers with silly Gamertags beat you to it. Often standing motionless, leaping about erratically, pestering you with clan invites or broadcasting live Kinect VOIP of their crying babies.
Who are these people? Hey NPC, why do you need my help if there's already an army of players doing your bidding and XXWeedNinja24XX has already killed the boss? Why are there already a dozen adventurers in a secret tomb or pocket dimension that only I'm capable of unlocking? Just, why?
It's jarring and unsatisfying, frequently ripping you out of the experience and destroying the atmosphere. This disconnect is far the biggest issue with Tamriel Unlimited. Traditional singleplayer and massive multiplayer have been roughly shoved together, not cleverly blended into something new.
Optional solo instances for all quest interiors would have let us feel like the star of the story, or on the other extreme more public events and rewriting the story to involve groups of players ("you are the chosen ones", not "you are the chosen one") might have worked wonders, but it simply can't decide between one or the other.
Meaning that Tamriel Unlimited is not a great MMORPG or a great Elder Scrolls game. And that's... okay.
It's easy to hold a game up against the unrealistic standards of The Game You Wish It Was™, but on its own merits, Tamriel Unlimited is a fascinating and -- dare I say, revolutionary -- compromise between RPGs and MMORPGs.
The combat has a lot to do with it. Enjoyable fundamentals of heavy attacks, interrupts, blocks and dodges are bolstered by a growing range of exciting hotbar skills linked to magicka and stamina, while the reworked first person mode feels deeply satisfying. Two weapon sets and skill panes can be switched on the fly, granting instant access to an entirely new palette of abilities. Thankfully the UI has also been revamped for console controllers and is fit for task.
It feels a lot less like a traditional MMO and more like an exciting moment-to-moment action RPG, which keeps the action delightfully fresh as you battle a huge range of enemies throughout the multiple zones and realms. Thrilling on PC, revolutionary on consoles.
Progression is similarly satisfying and astonishingly versatile. The four classes are all well-balanced, but can use any weapon or fighting style from bows to staffs and various melee configurations, all of which boast their own skill lines, unlockable attacks and passives that can then be mutated into exciting new forms. You can wear any type of armour and pursue various tradecrafts, which also offer their own skills to mix in and out of your build.
Like any Elder Scrolls title, you'll learn by doing and create a totally unique character, rewarding experimentation and letting you find your own personal niche. Your class does not define you. You define you. It's incredibly compelling, and again, often feels like a genuine gameplay revolution once you've smashed through the restrictive early game. Which is where the MMORPG side of things starts to earn its keep.
When you run into the tougher challenges of the mid-to-late game (not to mention the endgame veteran ranks with unique unlocks and the ability to experience content from the other factions), teaming up with others becomes a joy. Not just because later zones are much less populated making the disconnect between story and multiplayer less noticeable.
Since character progression is so versatile, the synergy between different skills and builds lets you cooperate with allies in much more organic ways than the staid holy trinity of DPS/Tank/Healer. After all, my Argonian Templar is a sword and boarding tank AND a healer AND an AOE battlemage all rolled into one, allowing me to dynamically support my friends as the situation dictates while they do the same. It's genuinely brilliant and ultimately justifies why Zenimax Online embarked on this mad multiplayer experiment in the first place.
The other MMO accoutrements also help to enrich the experience. Crafting is astonishingly deep; a rabbit hole you can lose yourself in for hours as you collect ingredients, recipes and experience. Joining and maintaining a guild is easy, granting access to new friends and the ability to sell your crafted items to others.
Finally, the Cyrodiil PvP proves to be the crown jewel of the package, a massive three-faction war full of fortresses to assault and sub-objectives to complete before putting your emperor on the throne. Assuming that you can join a populated session (most are either completely full or totally empty), what initially feels like an overwhelming war of attrition gradually reveals its true colours as well-organised guilds push objectives and engage in huge-scale battles for territory. When you're in the thick of it, dozens of friends and foes around you, it becomes genuinely epic. Again, a revolution on consoles that only the likes of Planetside 2 can rival.
It takes rather too long to get to that point, sadly, and Tamriel Unlimited could have been so much more had it successfully merged radiant questing and massive multiplayer instead of smashing them together. Thankfully, without the need to pay a subscription, there's more than enough quality content to justify a purchase. It's a perfect summer game, easily capable of taking you through to early Autumn for around £30 all-in. Especially if you go in with a few friends.
- Enormous facsimile of Tamriel to explore
- Sensationally versatile class, skill, character creation and crafting systems
- Revamped first-person combat feels fantastic
- Loads of content, no subscriptions
- A huge number of story & radiant quests fleshed out with lore and mini-narratives...
- ...that don't really make sense in an MMORPG, become mundane
- Jarring disconnect between story and massive multiplayer destroys atmosphere and immersion
- Tamriel still feels like a sterile showroom at times, slow and restrictive first few hours
- Can be difficult to find groups and enter Cyrodiil PvP
The Short Version: Tamriel Unlimited is neither a great Elder Scrolls game nor an MMORPG for the ages, but it's something else entirely. An addictive if often awkward compromise with an astonishing amount of quality subscription-free content.
Though its singleplayer and massively multiplayer elements never quite gel, Tamriel Unlimited gradually starts to feel less like a compromise and more like a genre-bridging console revolution. So long as you can forgive a few flaws and a weak first impression.
7 - GOOD: Some sites seem to think that the halfway point between 1-10 is 7. This is not the case. It should be noted that 7 is not just a perfectly respectable score, it's a good score. A 7 is not an indication of failure, nor is it the mark of a bad, poor or even average game. These are titles that can be considered very worthwhile, but maybe come with a caveat.
Platforms: PS4 | Xbox One (reviewed)
Developer: ZeniMax Online
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks