Paws McGurdy, the courageous but sticky-fingered cat-lady, is about to bring one of Tamriel’s greatest villains to justice. A master of stealth, which she’s discovered is good for more than simply relieving rich folk of their pocket change, she has painstakingly worked her way through the edges of the dread necromancer’s camp in order to set up the perfect ambush. She tightens her paws on her two-handed axe and prepares to strike his head from his shoulders, when…
BLAM. The necromancer is set alight by somebody else’s spell and runs out of range to engage his attackers. ChromeDome84 and I_KILL_KINGZ dash into the camp and make short work of the evil mage as Paws pulls her axe head out of the ground. “Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzrrrp,” says ChromeDome. “PLONK.” “Jason, get off that game and take out the trash!” I_KILL_KINGZ shouts in a strangely far-off voice. With that, they disappear over the horizon and Paws wonders if Tamriel needs her as a hero, after all.
This is the feeling of playing The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited on console. On one hand, it can be a grand jaunt, allowing you to play any kind of character you want and be the hero in adventures both epic and humorous. On the other hand, this massively multiplayer online game’s design actively works against the kind of positive social experience it should be offering, causing frustration instead of friendship.
Solo questing is definitely the highlight of TES Online, drawing on the great pedigree of the single-player games. Tamriel’s huge environments are packed full of varied, entertaining adventures and recurring non-player characters who become old friends. One moment you might be battling a pirate attack on a seaside town, while the next finds you investigating a strange occult mystery in a town full of eccentric personalities. There are plenty of opportunities to put the main quests aside and search for treasure, delve into hidden dungeons, and even (my personal favorite) take up a life of crime that leads to having outlaw hideouts as your second home.
TES Online features an excellent equipment dyeing system, with three color channels per piece. New dye colors are obtained by completing achievements. This is both a nice way to make achievements matter and a good overall customisation set-up, since a color is always available once it’s been unlocked. Players get to express their individuality and brag about their accomplishments in one fell swoop!
A flexible character building system makes adventuring particularly fun. Though you’ll pick a base class at the start, you can greatly customize it by putting skill points into any kind of weapon specialization or into various other skill trees. These skill trees give out special abilities that make TES Online’s action more interesting and dynamic than the basic combat found in single-player Elder Scrolls games. Fighting feels like it was made for a controller, and it’s fun to string together special attacks like the Nightblade class abilities, vanishing in combat before stunning a foe while stealthed. This system is well-balanced, with many possible character builds proving viable, though I’ll note that targeting foes with a melee weapon is needlessly challenging compared to targeting them with a bow or staff.
Sounds like a pretty fun single-player RPG, right? Unfortunately, TES Online is meant to be an MMORPG. The trouble with multiplayer starts in the decision to remove all text communication from this console version. All players are added to the general voice chat channel whether they want to be there or not. If they leave it, they’re re-added whenever they change areas. This leads to chat being full of static and background noise, which in turn leads to everybody muting or leaving, often meaning communication is impossible. Having chat opt-in instead of opt-out could go a long way towards making it useable again. It would also help if the game’s built-in group finder worked more smoothly, as many players report it placing them in incomplete groups... if it manages to find them a group at all.
The multiplayer trouble doesn’t end there, though. The general design of TES Online isn’t just solo-friendly, it’s downright multiplayer-unfriendly. There are a few good features like shared loot drops from kills, but other important resources like harvesting nodes and locked chests are not shared. Everybody hates running up to a rare herb or locked treasure chest and seeing somebody else get there first.
Other multiplayer-unfriendly choices include displaying PlayStation Network account names (which are often gobbledygook) instead of character names, balancing fight difficulty to be trivial when more than one player is involved, requiring a precious soul gem to resurrect another player (so nobody bothers), and lacking a general trading post or auction house that would allow players to exchange goods. These design choices ensure that running into another player is often an unwelcome experience, while the chat channel and group finder issues mean that it’s difficult to find another player when you actually want to.
The one area in which TES Online shines as a multiplayer game is its three-faction player versus player battleground. This huge landmass is easy to navigate thanks to a thorough teleportation system, and there are various kinds of PvP quests available to guide the player experience. I didn’t have much trouble figuring out where the action is, and I quite enjoyed the solo-friendly scouting missions on offer as well. I was hoping that the chat channels would get more use in PvP than they do in open-world questing, but they were rather silent during my forays onto the field. Even in the best multiplayer moments to be had, TES Online players desperately need some form of text-based communication.
Although I had a lot of fun with The Elder Scrolls Online, I feel like it would work better as a single-player or co-op RPG with its PvP battleground as a separate multiplayer component. The best parts of the game shine through when wandering the world as a lone hero, while the most frustrating and bug-ridden parts surround interactions with others. TES Online’s Tamriel is a fascinating world to explore and save, but only as a solo adventurer.