Taking a step back from its much loved fantasy franchise, Bethesda has left the latest Elder Scrolls title to ZeniMax Online Studios, and if its name hasn't already given it away, The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited is a massively multiplayer online role-playing release. For years now, many fans of the series have wondered what it'd be like to explore the vast world of Nirn alongside their friends, and that's unsurprisingly the core concept behind The Elder Scrolls Online. In many ways, it's a game that stays true to the property, but this time around, you're not alone.
When The Elder Scrolls Online first launched on PC back in 2014, it was met with a lukewarm reception. The general consensus was that the developer had taken Bethesda's enthralling franchise and tossed it onto a bland, uninspired MMO template. Flash forward just over a year, and there have been some big changes. Not only has the release itself undergone some substantial alterations, but the game's business model has been entirely transformed in time for its arrival on the PlayStation 4.
No doubt to the relief of many, the title's subscription fee requirement has been removed, meaning that you only need to initially purchase the release to experience everything that it has to offer. If you do feel like splashing some cash, though, there's an optional subscription service along with the in-game Crown Store. The former requires a monthly payment, and provides numerous benefits such as faster character growth. On paper, such a thing may sound a little bit shady, but in our experience of playing the game without subscribing, we've had no problems levelling up our hero, and haven't noticed any immediate disadvantages to simply buying the release and not spending a penny on it thereafter.
The Crown Store, meanwhile, allows you to purchase in-game content with real money. Fortunately, this certainly isn't a pay-to-win scenario, as most of the stuff that's up for grabs is purely cosmetic. Character skins, additional mounts, and pets that can't engage in combat make up the majority of optional content, and all in all, the Crown Store is a decent idea. There's nothing wrong with spending some pocket change on a new horse if you really enjoy playing the game, and in turn, you're helping support the release as whole. Either way, it's better than having to deal with a mandatory subscription fee.
And that's really The Elder Scrolls Online's ace in the hole. Where numerous other MMOs either fall foul to the tedious free-to-play model or put players off by demanding a subscription, ZeniMax Online Studios has hit a sweet spot, especially when it comes to the console crowd. For PlayStation enthusiasts who perhaps aren't too knowledgeable of MMOs, The Elder Scrolls Online's model is both accessible and fair, and in truth, it's difficult to think of a better way that it could have been handled.
However, none of this actually matters if the game isn't worth paying for in the first place. Thankfully, and perhaps surprisingly for some, The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited manages to successfully blend the series' core concepts and mechanics with an MMO structure. The result is an absolutely massive RPG that'll feel familiar if you're a franchise regular, complete with enjoyable MMO elements that bring something new to the world of Nirn.
As hinted, if you've played an Elder Scrolls title before, you should adapt to this one pretty quickly. The underlying mechanics are the same: you create your own custom character, you're kicked out into a huge map, you kill things with weapons, magic, or both, and you go around accepting quests and generally helping those in need. Essentially, the continent of Tamriel is your playground, and you're free to enjoy it as you like – you just have to be mindful of other players. Needless to say, this is where some of the core concepts of the franchise are called into question. The Elder Scrolls games are all about exploration, adventure, and discovery, and a lot of these essential components have arguably been watered down in order to accommodate thousands of players.
Yes, you can still delve into dingy dungeons and explore every nook and cranny of the map, but you'll almost always be doing so with other people. Since the title's built using the studio's megaserver technology, you'll be constantly stumbling across other adventurers as you go about your business. This, of course, is completely expected of an MMO, but it's an entirely alien concept to Bethesda's long running property. Where often serene solitude was the order of the day as you trekked back to town after a long ruin-looting spree, there's now some erratic player character sprinting into your field of view and stealing your kills.
There's no denying that having other players appear in your game damages the sense of immersion that's always been a key part of the series, and that'll no doubt put a lot of potential buyers off. For example, you can be halfway through a quest, tasked with taking out a group of bandits who have hidden away in a nearby cave, only to get there and find that someone's already butchered them seconds before. Then, when you stumble across the dungeon's final boss, you're robbed of an exciting encounter because there are already a group of players smashing it to bits.
As such, Tamriel Unlimited sometimes walks a fine line between providing a good single player experience and accidentally ruining what you'd expect of one. It's a good job, then, that the title's so gigantic. We've already mentioned that the map itself is colossal, but it's still impressive to see just how many quests and public events have been stuffed into it.
Unlike your usual open world release, Tamriel is split into multiple different regions, and your starting position depends on which faction you choose to follow when you're creating your character. In a way, quests act as guidelines as you travel, as each individual narrative tends to take you from one point of the land to another in a relatively orderly fashion, and with a game world as big as this, you'll probably be thankful for some sort of structure. After all, being an MMO, enemies won't scale to your level – instead, each new region will offer tougher foes, meaning that while Tamriel Unlimited is technically open world, your exploration is limited by how powerful your character is. Sprint off into the horizon without completing available quests and levelling up enough, and you'll more than likely be battered by the first higher level monster that you come across.
Fortunately, quests are generally engaging enough to make you want to see them through, and this is mostly thanks to how they're put together. In previous Elder Scrolls titles, quests tended to be singular affairs that rarely had any impact on other tasks, but in Tamriel Unlimited, many quests lead directly into others, leaving you with something of a continuous chain of plot points. Not only does this make objectives seem that much more important, it also allows the game to tell better stories, with each quest line sporting its own set of involved personalities. The characters aren't particularly great by any means, but just having that context there does wonders when you're undertaking what feels like an endless stream of quests. What's more, you'll sometimes be called upon to make a decision through dialogue choices, which can have a direct impact on how scenarios play out, which is a fantastic inclusion for any release that attempts to take its role-playing seriously.
The word 'online' may feature on the game's box, but you certainly shouldn't be put off by it if you're looking for a meaty single player RPG. As mentioned, Tamriel Unlimited can actually provide an unexpectedly great single player experience partly due to the fact that you're free to enjoy most of the game alone. Outside of player-versus-player content and co-op focussed dungeons, there are absolutely no grouping requirements, meaning that it's perfectly possible to work your way through both main story quests and optional quests without once teaming up with anyone else. In fact, as opposed to other MMO titles like Final Fantasy XIV Online: A Realm Reborn, which force you to group with other players at various points to progress through the story, Tamriel Unlimited keeps its core narrative strictly single player so that you can enjoy it at your own pace, which will no doubt be a selling point for some.
Speaking of which, the main storyline is reasonably entertaining, even if it does fall into the same traps that Elder Scrolls titles usually do, such as having a plot that's far too broad to get truly invested in. This time around, your character's had their soul stolen, and they've been imprisoned in the demonic planes of daedric prince Molag Bal. But after a lucky twist of fate, you're transported back to the mortal realm of Tamriel. Throughout the tale, you begin to learn of Molag Bal and the threat his followers pose to the land, all while forging an alliance with a particular group of heroes who have their own reasons for seeking justice. Again, it's a decent narrative, and each new main quest unlocks as you progress through the game, so it always manages to seem relevant.
Of course, as with any title that has you put baddies to the sword, it's preferable if combat is good fun, and while The Elder Scrolls games have never quite flaunted combat as one of their strengths, Tamriel Unlimited actually does really well in this department. By tying MMO concepts such as ability bars and cooldown timers to a fighting system that's very much in the same vein as past Bethesda releases, the developer's managed to craft combat that straddles the line between action-based gameplay and RPG mechanics exceptionally well.
With R2 and L2 controlling whatever weapon you've got in your hands and the face buttons activating your equipped techniques, it's a system that proves to be accessible, which is a huge plus for anyone who isn't overly familiar with statistics-based combat. Yes, your stats unsurprisingly come into the equation, and character builds have to be somewhat geared towards a specific style of play to be as effective as possible, but here we have an MMO with an action oriented, real-time battle system that has to account for fights which can include dozens of players at once – the fact that it's able to pull it all off is undeniably impressive.
You'll want to jump into a brawl as often as possible, too, as character development is equally well done. By gaining experience from quests and combat, you'll level up, and in turn, you'll nab skill points. These points can then be spent advancing your preferred skill trees, which also rank up as you use them, in typical Elder Scrolls fashion. So, if you're always using two-handed weapons in fights, you'll be granted experience in that discipline. Then, when you reach specific thresholds, you'll be able to use your skill points to unlock new abilities – or even morph existing ones, altering their effects to suit your style of play. There are countless options when it comes to growing your hero, and since you can create up to eight different characters, there's plenty of room for experimentation, too.
It's the competitive multiplayer where your skills and character builds will really be put to the test, though. Once you hit level 10, you'll be free to travel to Cyrodiil, Tamriel's central province, and it's here that you'll wage war against the two alliances that you chose not to become part of when building your hero. Given that other players can be detrimental to the experience when you're busy enjoying solitary quests, it's critical that the game's MMO elements be worth the hassle, and overall, they are. Joining your buddies or strangers and charging across Cyrodiil as you ransack enemy camps and capture your foe's fortifications is some of the most fun that you can have with the release, and the best part is that it's all balanced quite well, despite the fact that battlegrounds can be absolutely flooded with dozens of players from opposing factions.
Your equipment and statistics are brought in line with everyone else's, so success largely hinges on teamwork and your own mastery of your equipped skills. There are several different campaigns to take part in, and the joining process is hassle-free. That said, we did fail to join battles a few times when the game decided not to tell us that the available campaign was at full capacity, but this was obviously little more than a minor annoyance.
Likewise, co-op, four player dungeons can be a blast with the right people, and again, grouping up is hassle free. Come across one such dungeon, and you'll likely find a bunch of other players gathered outside just waiting for the opportunity to team up and take down some monsters, and from there, it's a simple case of inviting someone to your group via a simple interaction menu. Sticking to MMO design, you'll need to conform to relatively rigid roles when it comes to successful raids, so the likes of tanks, healers, and damage dealers are all but necessities. With that in mind, it's a bit of a shame that the game doesn't do more to prepare you for such circumstances, especially since you're given so many different ways to develop your character.
After you've completed the main story and reached the level cap, you might be happy to know that the endgame content's quite substantial. The champion system allows you to continue growing your hero past level 50 as you collect champion points that can be used to very gradually boost your stats, and the endgame activities, such as daringly dangerous co-op dungeons, should give experienced groups enough to work towards. What's more, veteran areas are also unlocked once you've exhausted your alliance's provinces. Tamriel Unlimited was marketed as an opportunity for unlimited adventures, and at points, it genuinely feels like that's the case.
Not all of these adventures will be memorable, however. If the title has one weakness, it's that its ridiculous amount of content can seem like a slog at times. Quests generally boil down to the same process of going here, killing this, and collecting that, and it's a structure that's bound to get tiresome at one point or another. As such, your enjoyment is always going to depend on how tolerant you are of repetition. Needless to say, if you approach Tamriel Unlimited as if it's a traditional Elder Scrolls title, you're going to be left disappointed.
The game's scale also works against it when it comes to the world itself, and the detail that can be found within it. There's no radiant artificial intelligence to be found here, for example, meaning that non-playable characters don't have their own daily routines, which has become a staple of Bethesda's releases. Meanwhile, landscapes can seem a little barren, and graphically, everything can look somewhat generic – mostly because the game's visuals have understandably been toned down to accommodate its ambitions.
It may not be the best looking RPG on the market, but its technical performance is solid. In over 150 hours of play, we've been disconnected from the game only once, while glitches, bugs, and crashes have been almost non-existent throughout. The single issue that's worth mentioning is that the frame rate can judder when you're in a particularly busy area such as a large city, but even then, it's hardly game-breaking.
Despite its sometimes obvious flaws, The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited provides a shocking amount of content for the asking price – even if the deciding factor is the fact that it's had its subscription fee scrubbed away. Accessible systems make it a brilliant MMO entry point for console owners who perhaps haven't dabbled in the genre before, while its fast-paced combat and addictive character development should keep most RPG fans happy. It doesn't have the flair or the polish of a heavyweight like Final Fantasy XIV Online: A Realm Reborn, but it's certainly worth trying if you're looking for seemingly never ending adventures on PS4 – with or without friends.