The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited doesn’t feel like a true Elder Scrolls installment, but you shouldn’t come in expecting one.
That’s because The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) has a multitude of fresh ideas that take it to a place pretty far removed from the single-player epics we know The Elder Scrolls can supply. But these concepts amount to something that is pretty innovative in the MMO gameplay space. Is there anything wrong with the holy trinity of tanks, DPS, and healers, with auto-attacking while you execute a fairly tight rotation of optimized abilities, with orchestrated boss fights and flying mounts and optimal character builds? I’d argue not—Final Fantasy XIV has proven that the fundamentals World of Warcraft polished to a mirror sheen can still be compelling. But if you’re interested in something else, if you’re open to the unorthodox places that an MMO nested in Skyrim’s aesthetic and sensibilities can go, ESO might be right up your alley.
Indeed, the influence of Skyrim can be felt everywhere. At times, it works for the familiarity that follows. A great deal of us will immediately know how the game’s compass and waypoints work, it’s intuitive to use weapons and parries with the left and right triggers, and the feel of head-bobbing movement is instantly recognizable. Even the menus and inventory ape Skyrim’s left-aligned black strip. Thankfully, it’s more responsive here, and it works surprisingly well given the genre. Swapping out weapons and gear, as well as equipping consumable items to a handy radial wheel, is quick and doesn’t block your view of the action—an important point, since the game is never truly paused.
Ease of control and navigation is a thread that remains consistently great throughout. The quest interface is clear and to-the-point, even if main story quests aren’t clearly outlined, and bringing up your map or hopping aboard a mount is just a touchpad push away. It feels like ZeniMax Online Studios took the time to truly understand the strengths of the DualShock 4 and how different control mappings interface with each other to form a great play experience. And because you can only have a handful of skills mapped to the face buttons and bumpers at a time, your combat options never feel overwhelming—and without the same combos or lengthy rotations of other MMOs, having dozens of skills at your fingertips is unnecessary.
There are strengths and weaknesses to this approach. Relying on a mere handful of dedicated skills at a time means there’s space for each skill to shine in its own way. Not all of them do, of course, but you’re meant to take the time learning the situations in which your many powers are most useful, and you’re free to settle into a rhythm with your favorites. This pushes ESO’s combat much closer to the feeling of single-player RPGs (its forebears, in particular). At the same time, it’s quirky to not have the same clearly defined uses and relationships between skills that we’ve grown accustomed to in other MMOs. In a genre that’s inherently competitive (insomuch as you’re always “keeping up with the Joneses” through loot and level-ups), being left to your own devices can feel a little aimless, and I frequently wonder whether I’m missing something critical but non-obvious, or whether I’m playing my character (a staff-wielding battlemage) the way she’s supposed to be played.
Of course, this lack of direction could be a plus—it’s exceedingly rare to have this kind of freedom in an MMO, and most of ESO’s narrative isn’t difficult enough that you need to have some perfect rotation locked down. It’s all about your perspective. As a very general rule, the way ESO avoids putting players into buckets and doesn’t give clear answers about where skills fit in the bigger picture might not appeal to genre veterans who enjoy executing optimal rotations and developing a character along an objectively better path. Rather, ESO’s open-ended combat system leaves room for genre newcomers—and those merely seeking something new—to experiment and find skills that get the job done. By and large, merely getting the job done feels like enough, and ESO feels like less of an orchestrated numbers game because of it.
At the same time, combat is where ESO makes its most significant departures from what we know and expect of its single-player brethren. Those games are famous for player choice that manifests itself in the accumulation of skills however you see fit. Any hybrid character or specialist, from a lightning-aspected bowmage to a pugilist in heavy armor, could be created in Skyrim because you simply gain experience in the things that you do. While ESO draws inspiration from this freedom, it feels fettered to MMO tradition in negative ways. For example, while you must choose one of four vaguely defined classes during character creation, you can gain skill points in weapon styles like Two-handed and Restoration Staff no matter your class. While some of the class-specific skills might be more suited to healing party members or damage dealing, you can build an effective character for solo content without mapping any of your class-specific skills. This is especially true when you unlock skill trees from the Fighters Guild, Mage’s Guild, from being a Vampire, or from other guilds and world events.
The options are plentiful, to say the least, which calls into question the value of the four classes. Why force players to choose between the three exclusive skill lines of the Nightblade, Templar, Sorcerer, or Dragonknight when the design goal is to have every class capable of performing the general damage, tank, and healing roles? Ultimately, it makes the choice feel superfluous and can render your class unrepresentative of your character’s actual powers and skills. And when the differences between classes really stand out at later levels (by most measures, Templars make the best healers), it can feel like you weren’t given enough information early on to make an educated decision about the group role you wanted to fill at later levels.
Of course, the overwhelming abundance of solo content is a plus here, so if you’re getting into ESO to explore the world and enjoy some Elder Scrolls lore, the class system won’t get in your way. Crucially, you can complete the main story and reach the level cap of 50 without grouping up, and you can even level all the way through post-50 Veteran ranks after that. The latter isn’t recommended, but what’s important is that you’re free to enjoy the game’s many storylines, including fan favorites like the Mage’s Guild and Thieves Guild, at your leisure without the distractions of Group Dungeons. Within these challenges, bosses bring abilities and fight mechanics that are immeasurably more interesting than your standard foes.
This also shines a spotlight on the contradiction between first-person mode—an Elder Scrolls staple and the most natural way to play ESO—and the positioning requirements of an MMO. Your view of AOE markers, telegraphs, and even your own position is severely limited by the first-person camera, but the third-person camera is a restrictive over-the-shoulder view that isn’t a whole lot better. Third-person view is also an unfortunate reminder that character animations in ESO are a bit loose and silly, contrasting with the Elder Scrolls universe as an adult creation for serious storytelling. Thanks to this more cartoon-y look, the presence of other players in your world is even more of an immersion-breaking distraction during solo play than in other MMOs.
Despite how ESO can yank you out of the single-player experience with reminders that you’re in a shared world, it manages to spin a semi-interesting Elder Scrolls story with side quests that flesh out the world. Molag Bal is attempting to physically pull Tamriel into his plane of Oblivion with immense, dimension-crossing hooks called Dark Anchors. At the center of a quest to re-unite to stop the consumption of Tamriel is the Vestige, your character and the story’s main protagonist. Some elements of this tale feel too familiar—Molag Bal’s Dark Anchors aren’t a far aesthetic cry from The Elder Scrolls IV’s Oblivion Gates, and re-assembling a dream team of warriors to combat his evil is a pretty standard plot device. Dialogue is serviceable, though not particularly expository, and you’re periodically given a small bit of conversational freedom, so it feels like an Elder Scrolls narrative toned down to fit the genre.
Still, ESO stands among the recent crop of MMOs to make narrative a core tenet of the experience, and it largely succeeds in keeping interest high—though it wasn’t clear to me from the get-go that main story quests are unlocked every five levels. This drawn-out pacing invites plenty of distractions that lessen the narrative impact when you do return to the most pressing matters. Of course, having dozens of running and jumping heroes flying around in important story areas doesn’t help, but I take bigger issue with the game’s same-y voice acting and homogenous character design. Whether you look at the shapes of faces, complexion, or physical features, one can’t deny that the races of ESO lack aesthetic diversity. To say, “Orcs look like humans with an underbite,” would be an exaggeration, but it gets at what I’m talking about. Body ratio, skeletal structure, and voices give the feeling of copy-paste across races, which is a disappointing treatment of the interesting variance the Elder Scrolls series has built up for Khajiit and Imperial alike.
At a broader technical level, ESO impresses and disappoints in equal measure. There are times when the game looks genuinely great, like when the sun casts rays through tree branches over interesting architecture or the glow of crystal cast light within detailed Ayleid ruins. But there are just as many times when the game looks downright bad—when muddy textures look slap-dashed to fill an area, when foliage sprites are haphazardly strewn about, when there doesn’t seem to be any dynamic lighting at all and NPCs beckon to you using cartoon-y, exaggerated motions. Bouncing from one extreme to the other leaves me underwhelmed on the whole, but the rest of the game is seriously polished. The orchestral score is similar enough to Jeremy Soule’s iconic Elder Scrolls music to evoke powerful nostalgia while still treading its own path. And I have to give a special nod to the game’s framerate and stability. Across dozens of hours, the action only dipped below silky-smooth a handful of times, while I was booted to the menu via server error just once.
As I write this review, I’m looking forward to jumping back into ZeniMax’s Tamriel, but not for the reasons I hoped at the outset. The Elder Scrolls Online isn’t a perfect translation of the Skyrim experience into a multiplayer space, but it borrows enough of what makes Elder Scrolls games so compelling and personal to truly stand apart as an MMO with new ideas. Some of these hallmarks (the comfort of navigation, intuitive inventory management, open-ended character development) make for a fun, accessible multiplayer RPG. But the game isn’t entirely committed to the change it heralds. More traditional aspects—like a class system that feels forced, or towns that function more as merchant hubs than places where NPCs might live—dampen the experience and hold The Elder Scrolls Online back from truly re-inventing the genre. Other design choices, like a convoluted settings menu and your inability to permanently leave voice chat channels, are odd oversights in a game that otherwise fits quite well on PS4.
In light of these contradictions, it’s hard to give The Elder Scrolls Online a wholehearted recommendation to every PS4 owner. If the setting and lore of Bethesda’s masterpiece RPGs has always interested you more than the gameplay or mechanics, The Elder Scrolls Online’s hybrid take is a winner. But series purists and MMO veterans alike may find this installment off-putting on several levels. Thankfully, there’s fun combat, a solid story, and a stupendous amount of content to fall back on—and with no subscription fee attached, the price to find out whether this MMO is your new favorite game is more reasonable than most.