"You can see how making a massively multiplayer version of a popular single-player role-playing game would look like a no-brainer to a publishing executive." So began Oli's review of the PC version of The Elder Scrolls Online in April last year.
14 months later, and another no-brainer has come to fruition: the console version of the game. After all, The Elder Scrolls series has become a bona fide console blockbuster and, as online connectivity becomes the norm, the PlayStation and Xbox represent fresh territory as yet untouched by the market-warping ubiquity of World of Warcraft where a popular branded MMO might take root.
Is The Elder Scrolls Online that game? Based on first impressions, probably not. Despite its extended development time, the newly added subtitle Tamriel Unlimited proves sadly ironic. As with the PC original, this version of the franchise's fantasy land feels very limited indeed.
I'm a big fan of RPGs, and The Elder Scrolls series in particular. I'm curious about MMO gameplay, but while I've dabbled in a few, I've never fully taken the plunge. I spend my working day glued to my PC keyboard, so if I'm going to commit hundreds of hours to a game I prefer to do it from the comfort of an armchair. In theory, I should be the ideal target audience for this game. In practice, and after a few days of solid play, it's leaving me cold.
The reasons why are much the same as detailed in Oli's review. Tamriel Unlimited is a poor take on The Elder Scrolls, and a poorly structured multiplayer experience. Locking players into an uninspired and fairly linear series of story quests, depending on which faction they choose to align with at the start, it manages to obscure its best features almost entirely for newcomers. In a game that is presumably supposed to attract those who are unfamiliar with the MMO format, it's a bizarre oversight.
That stodgy tutorial section, set in the Oblivion prison world of Coldharbour makes for an unappealing introduction. Not only because the world it depicts is bland and featureless, and the objectives rote and insultingly simple, but because it immediately rubs your nose in one of the more absurd features of MMO games. The jailbreak setup is familiar from previous Elder Scrolls games, but this time you're surrounded by other characters, all experiencing the exact same story at the same time.
NPCs with essential plot to impart or quest objectives to update are swarmed by characters with names like xXJonno672Xx and (no kidding) MoistAsDurex, many of them jumping up and down on the spot or randomly shooting fireballs. It's as immersion shattering as you can get, and the fact that Tamriel Unlimited sticks so stubbornly to a quest structure meant for single player role-playing only heightens the ridiculousness. Those distractions do subside once you're deeper into the game, and players are dispersed more widely across different areas and quest lines, but they never fully disappear.
Not that those initial quest lines have stories worth paying attention to anyway. Anyone expecting the sweeping open landscapes of Skyrim will be immediately disappointed, as The Elder Scrolls Online constrains its action to a series of discreet self-contained areas. That thrill of striking out in any direction and stumbling across a village or a ruin that leads to a new adventure is entirely absent here. The zones into which you're herded are small and feature only a handful of quests and locations. Objectives are painfully basic, with many quests involving little more than talking to a few NPCs, having a few low level fights. Most last no longer than ten minutes.
The world itself feels small and lifeless. One of the things I love about The Elder Scrolls (and its step-sibling Fallout) is the way everything can be picked up, collected, used in some way. That dynamic world-building, where every last potato and scrap of paper can be moved around, is largely responsible for the series' notorious bugginess and the prospect of keeping tabs on thousands of objects, shuffled around by hundreds of players, is clearly off the table in an MMO. It's still startling just how little there is to do though. Crates contain a few grains or apples at the most. Bookshelves are just for show. Cabinets that would once have prompted a looting spree can be safely ignored.
Even with this drastic reduction in The Elder Scrolls world, it still manages to look annoyingly scrappy. Character models are closer to Oblivion than Skyrim, while scenery items are flat and generic. Enemy AI is woeful, and animations often go hilariously wrong. The frame rate is shaky, lag is common, objects pop into existence, and loading times can be ponderous. This impacts not just new locations, but basic things like textures. Other players are frequently just ink-black mannequins, scurrying around waiting for their armour and faces to appear.
That's when the game is working at all. Putting aside the well documented launch day connection wobbles (which are still ongoing, albeit sporadically) the game is still very buggy. I've had several mission critical NPCs fail to appear, or to respond to prompts, forcing a quit-and-restart to resolve the problem. The climactic mission of a main quest line glitched and had to be abandoned and completely replayed from the start. Even for an Elder Scrolls title, that's a lot of big bugs for a relatively short span of playtime.
What's most frustrating is that from reading up on the PC version, there are positives here that simply aren't apparent during these turgid opening hours. The robust crafting and enchanting options aren't introduced, and even the option to ride a mount is buried in the menus and never explained. More damaging, whole swathes of the game's multiplayer features are locked off, with the four-player co-op dungeons and the inter-faction war mode alluded to only in random loading screen text, and unavailable until you've trudged through enough of the lumpen story quests.
PC players familiar with the MMO genre will have known to look out for this stuff. Will console players even know it's there, or will they drift away after dozens of hours spent hammering through shallow quests alongside other players, sharing a world but each on their own separate adventure?
For all its faults, I still want to like Tamriel Unlimited. It makes a poor first impression, but hopefully its deeper features and multiplayer content can win me over by the time I write up the full review next week.