(Author's Note: This review was written about the PS4 version of the game, as it was released; the game has since undergone many changes, some of which have improved things.)

So, last week while I was in town for a check-up with my primary care physician, I swung by Hastings. I happened to notice they had the version of The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited that I can actually play on the shelf, and since I didn’t think it was officially supposed to be out yet, I went ahead and bought it. Turns out it was actually officially released the previous Tuesday and I just missed the memo, but still, it was a purchase I’d been intending to make anyway.

I started playing the The Elder Scrolls games with Skyrim’s release in 2011; the game looked interesting, and turned out to be a lot of fun, so I went back and played all the main games leading up to that one as well. (Skyrim is the fifth main-line game in the The Elder Scrolls series, following Arena, Daggerfall, Morrowind, and Oblivion.) A lot of the little differences between the games were annoying, but ultimately led me to understanding why they went with the choices they did in Skyrim’s story, UI, and mechanics. Problems in Morrowind and Oblivion especially were largely absent in Skyrim, and while all the games were fairly entertaining, it made my enjoyment of Skyrim that much better to know where it was coming from.

After the 15-hour download for the game’s update file, I finally managed to play The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited the following afternoon. After a day or so of playing, I was really enjoying it. Story-wise, it takes place long before any of the main-line series, while Tamriel — the continent on which every game in the series thus far has taken place — was still in a period of extreme warfare, wherein it earned its nickname Arena. This was a magnificent choice, as it gives plenty of reason for large hordes of player-characters to be attacking one-another, as well as the common enemy of Molag Bal, the Daedric Prince of Domination and Mortal Slavery.

A lot of the UI choices made in Skyrim follow through into this game as well. Most notably, the compass, map, sneak indicator, and interaction crosshairs are very, very similar, while the menu system borrows heavily from an unofficial but largely-used patch for the PC game. Many of the fonts are also highly similar, if not the exact same ones used in Skyrim. Character interactions are slightly different, but ultimately follow the same sort of idea as they had in Skyrim. In the end, it’s pretty obvious the developers saw the improvements made in that game and, rightfully so, chose not to fix what wasn’t broken.

Mechanics-wise, I strongly prefer the way they decided to handle armor types and classes, and even player classes. It adds a lot of very serious dynamic to the game, and makes the final result both incredibly fluid and incredibly uniquely suited to every playing style. It’s very clear that a lot of thought went into the little things here, and greatly assists by not detracting from the game itself. It’s a great fit.

Now, I don’t much care for MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games), but that’s the thing: ESO:TU doesn’t feel like an MMO. Yes, you’ve got scores of players literally everywhere you go, but even so, it’s a very different feel from other MMOs. It feels like an Elder Scrolls game. And to that end, I believe Zenimax Online did a fantastic job.

The leveling system, while fairly fluid and well-suited to this sort of game, has an extreme steepness problem. Having completed the vast majority of available quests, story or otherwise, throughout Stonefalls, save for the final act of sealing Sadal, as an example, the game expects me to be level 15, but I’m still scrapping about at level 11. Most enemies kill me in three well-placed shots (even now, as I forge through the Pact storyline in Eastmarch), and when the bulk of the combat is hand-to-hand, that’s really easy to do. Whereas the leveling system in Skyrim was based upon how much experience one has in the different skills in the game, skill sets in ESO:TU are leveled the other way around, where the experience points you gain as a whole add to leveling them. As a result, my Assassin skill line, for example, was level 18 at that same time; even my Two-Handed Weapon skill line, which I only used in the very beginning of the game because the only weapon it starts you off with is a discarded greatsword, was at level 8. Meanwhile, I still can’t use any of the quest rewards I’m getting because my overall level is still far too low for the portion of the game I’m at. (Further, where Skyrim would give levels for smithing and crafting, such in ESO:TU is a completely separate leveling system, using “Inspiration Points” as opposed to Experience Points. So, while a great tactic for leveling in Skyrim was to use all your given materials to make tons of things, then sell them for gobs of money, that is almost a hindrance to do in ESO:TU.)

This brings me to another issue: As the leveling curve steepens exponentially, so does the difficulty in fighting enemies. As I mentioned before, many of them are able to kill me in a matter of seconds; often, these enemies are clustered in groups (or as is the case as the game progresses, some enemies are even designated “swarms”, meaning attacking them spawns upwards of five additional enemies), meaning that if one so much as sees you, they all descend upon you. Now, I get that they needed to increase the difficulty of the enemies considerably because you’re going to be playing this game with potentially thousands of other players, and at any given time, if a swarm of players descends upon the same given enemy, there still has to be a challenge involved. That being said, there are two “megaservers” for the game, North America and Europe, and if you’re in the former while everyone else is asleep (as I am, as I often play the game after getting home from working my job at an optical observatory), you have absolutely zero allies to help you. Now, even so, I’ve managed to beat several boss characters single-handedly on one life; it’s definitely doable. It just often involves out-running said character until your life refills from near-death before wailing on them again. Many enemies are capable of healing themselves, which makes this strategy something of a crapshoot.

Which brings up a third problem: Healing. Unless you are or are with a designated healer, you’re screwed on a lot of these enemies. Because it’s massively-multiplayer, the ability to pause during a big quest would be a distinctly unfair advantage and make many portions of the game far too easy, so there’s no such thing. As a result, if you’re in the middle of a swarm of spiders and you desperately need to heal, and you just happen to have an item on your quick-access button you no longer have? You are shit out of luck. Bringing up the inventory menu does not stop enemies from attacking you (as, again, such would give players an unfair advantage), so you are more than able to die with your item menu up. (Or even during story cutscenes you actively can’t leave, as almost happened to me once.) I have mountains of healing potions given to me by various sources in-game, and they’ll keep on piling up because they’re never any use to me while I’m in the middle of a fight and can’t get to them.

To be fair, a lot of these are probably unique challenges present with the Nightblade character class. Stealth and cunning are the best options for such characters, meaning the sort of things that actually gain you experience (namely, fighting enemies and completing certain defeat-that-boss quests) are actually bad ideas. You need to be swift and quiet, meaning heavy armor is out of the question (which blows, because easily half the story quest rewards are heavy armor, not to mention the greatly-higher protection they afford). Because you rely on sneak attacks and swift dagger strikes, magic (of the healing variety, in particular) is also largely a bad idea, the only worthwhile pursuit of such being the skill line Siphoning. (And even that relies heavily on potions.) I can literally sneak past enemies mere feet directly in front of them, in broad daylight, without being seen, but with so many quests requiring enemies be killed, that often doesn’t help.

I guess, in the end, the best thing to address these issues would have been a separate set of quests, objectives, or even paths within the same quest, specially tailored to different styles of gameplay. If you’re a Dragonknight, be gung-ho and charge into the enemy base to kill their commander; if you’re a Nightblade, sneak into the commander’s tent and steal his orders to sway the course of the war; if you’re a Sorcerer, go in with this entourage and keep as many of them alive as you can while they wipe the camp out, maybe helping speed things up with a summon or two. And if you’re a Templar, hey, fantastic! You’re well-rounded! You’d already be able to pick any of the three anyway, so go for broke with what you want to do.

A lot of those “branches” are already provided for Dragonknights and Sorcerers with the Fighters Guild and Mages Guild questlines, respectively; those are perfectly suited for those particular classes. Thieves Guild or Dark Brotherhood would be perfect for Nightblades, and apparently there will be questlines for each eventually as DLC, but for now there’s nothing along those lines. (And you still really ought to go through the storyline quests anyway regardless of your class, so in the end, that much doesn’t really seem to matter.) To be fair, some of the later quests do have multiple ways to progress, and I’ll be talking about that later.

This in and of itself is endemic to an overall problem the game seems to have: Certain parts, characters, classes, races, etc. seem to have an excess boon in terms of what the developers actually created for them. My present character, as I’ve mentioned before, is a member of the Ebonheart Pact, a shaky alliance formed hastily during a wide-scale foreign invasion from the continent of Akavir and remaining in the face of the constant threat of native invasions from the Daggerfall Covenant and the Aldmeri Dominion. (In fact, most of the beginning story quests for this faction revolve around beating back a Covenant invasion, and moves into similar against the Dominion.) Literally the only reason these three provinces of Morrowind, Argonia, and Skyrim are together in this Pact is proximity, both to each other and to Akavir. The native races of Argonians, Dunmer, and Nords are constantly at each others’ throats (the Dunmer had enslaved the Argonians before the Akaviri Invasion and the formation of the Pact, and the Nords are the most xenophobic race on Tamriel save for perhaps the Altmer), which makes for a fascinating story and setting to be sure, but ultimately makes the Pact’s story feel heavily contrived. While the other Alliances formed out of (mostly) friendship and camaraderie, this one feels as though the writers formed it for the same reason it was formed in the story: Out of necessity. This leads to the story quests feeling almost half-assed in concept; while I’ve not yet had the opportunity to play either of the other two factions, it seems to me that they would have much more solid, engaging storytelling.

A big part of this reason lies with a very important aspect of storytelling: In order to make a story interesting, you have to make it relatable. Most players (and probably most of the game’s developers and writers) are far more likely to relate to, for example, a union of states forged under mutual understanding, taking place in realms much more Earth-like in their nature (Morrowind and Argonia especially are noted for being “otherworldly”, and ultimately little of either is even shown in ESO:TU as of yet), and (much more importantly) with human — or close-enough-to-human, in the case of the Mer — characters. The Dunmer, Argonians, and I’m sure the Khajiit as well, seem largely swept under the rug, a surprising fact considering one of the main-line games actively took place in Morrowind, probably the most alien landscape on Tamriel. I suspect most of the writing staff for this game was not involved in that one (which wouldn’t be too terribly surprising, considering it was developed by a separate subgroup of the company). It just feels like a ripoff, at least in that department for that Alliance.

It’s still a fun game, and I’m still having a great time with it. I just have to wait to complete certain quests during the day when other players are present on the servers, is all.

I’ve since moved on from Deshaan, a region in central Morrowind, through the next portion of the Ebonheart Pact lands, Shadowfen; comprising the borderlands between Morrowind and Black Marsh/Argonia, Shadowfen is largely a massive swampland laden with ancient Ayleid ruins (the Ayleids were a race of elves that used to inhabit the central province of Cyrodiil), old bastions of Argonian civilization, and more recent remnants of Dunmer slavers and invading forces. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in Stormhold, the region’s biggest city; a Dunmer-occupied city built on an old Argonian village built on a former Ayleid site, the city is a strange mixture of cultures and people. The Dunmer hire mercenaries to keep the Argonian people “in check” (read: under their thumbs), while the city’s government is run by three vicecanons, one each Nord, Dunmer, and Argonian. The more I see of this region, the more I love it; it’s so distinct, so very unique, and the air about it has a great deal of mystery. It’s actually a lot of fun to explore.

I was a good ten levels underleveled as I got into the final Ebonheart Pact story quest of the region, and it showed; thankfully, now that I was out of Morrowind, much of the difficulty that came from massive necessary boss fights seemed to have ebbed, and many of the quests, story or side, did now allow for sneaking through them. (Actually, several of the quests strongly recommend it!) Through this, I’ve realized I actually do greatly enjoy games that employ stealth, as opposed to what I’ve stated before; just, most games do a piss-poor job of emulating that stealth, which often leads to unnecessary difficulty spikes that only serve to be frustrating.

Much of the difficulty I was having before, as I discovered, stemmed from the fact that I wasn’t employing many of the available skills and buffs for my character; now that I’d learned how to more effectively use them, much of the difficulty I was having before had largely melted away. Yes, I did still die very quickly (more so in Shadowfen, because of the beefing up of the monsters and their groupings, introducing the new aforementioned “swarms”), but it wasn’t as frustrating when it happened.

The biggest frustration I’m experiencing now has to do with armor. Being a stealthy individual, the armor best-suited to me is the Medium Armor class (it’d make more sense that it’d be light armor, but light armor is highly tied to magic users instead); Medium Armor is crafted with different qualities and types of leather, depending on the level of the material (low to high: rawhide, hide, leather, thick leather, fell hide, topgrain hide, iron hide, superb hide, and shadowhide), which in turn is dependent on the level of the creature from which the material originated. (Unfortunately, I cannot find a definitive ranking for this, but I suspect it would follow the level of the items made from that material, i.e. 4-14 Rawhide, 15-24 Hide, etc.)

Here’s the thing: Material for Light and Heavy Armor (as well as metal weapons, and wooden weapons and shields; Light Armor is crafted from plant fibers) comes from “nodes”, sources on the ground that are readily available and always provide ~3-4 units of the raw material. (Ten pieces of raw material are needed in order to refine 7-10 units of refined material, which can then be used for crafting weapons and armor.) There are passive abilities that make it easier to find these nodes by lighting them up in a very obvious way.

Leather, however, has a much steeper curve for finding it. You must attack enemies to get it (which I mean, it makes sense because it’s leather, but still, there’s a difficulty curve present that isn’t present in merely gathering the other materials), and if the creature drops the raw material, they drop one, maybe two pieces of it, considerably less than the nodes. As a result, farming the material is a hell of a chore, much more so than it is for the other three material types. I’ve leveled up more trying to obtain raw material for properly-leveled armor than I have playing the quests of the game. (Which, I suppose is kind of a good thing, but still, definitely indicative of a problem.) I’m definitely not the only person to have noticed this, either; I’ve found forum posts from over a year ago complaining of this exact same problem, meaning it’s unlikely Zenimax will fix it with a patch. I’ve taken grim amusement in the literal piles of monster corpses littering the landscape near where these creatures with the proper drops spawn, from other players seeking out the exact same thing.

I’m also disappointed in the overall missing portions of Tamriel; huge swaths of land from most provinces are completely absent (actually, I think the only two that are completely present are High Rock, save for the conspicuously-absent region around Orsinium, and Valenwood), and there is almost no exposure whatsoever of either Elsweyr or Black Marsh (though supposedly the latter will be getting an Adventure Zone [a Zone designed for four-player group exploration], Murkmire, some time in the future). Even Cyrodiil, the central region and only one designated for PvP, is conspicuously tiny compared to the actual province. I get that they have to have room on their servers for everything that goes into the game, but it’s still kind of disappointing. Makes me hope the legends of The Elder Scrolls VI: Argonia are true.

I’m also disappointed with the growing lack of material as the game progresses, again, at least for the Ebonheart Pact portion. In Stonefalls, the first region of the game, there was tons of stuff to do, three full-fledged cities, and even two mini-regions nearby as something of an introduction to the Alliance story. Deshaan, the second region, had Mournhold, easily the biggest city in the Pact regions, but that was it; Narsis was considered a big enough city to get its own map, but really it wasn’t very big at all. Sure, there were a few villages, but there were tons of villages in Stonefalls. Finally, going into Shadowfen, the only city in the region is the aforementioned Stormhold; Hissmir is almost a city, but it doesn’t even warrant its own map. And I blew through the main Alliance story quests in less than a day; Stonefalls took four+ days, and Deshaan took two. I suspect they’ll ramp things up again once we get to Skyrim, being relatively familiar territory, but that leaves us with a huge gap in, again, Black Marsh.

I mentioned this previously, but it comes across strongly as though the content creators on this game really didn’t want to deal with the intricacies of the “beast” races, the Argonians and the Khajiit, and it feels like they didn’t want to exclusively because those races “aren’t human”. It smacks of laziness, which is just infuriating when that’s the part of the game you’re most looking forward to.

Finally, there are the actual bugs I’ve found in the game. Easily the most frustrating and troublesome happens while fighting: Every once in a while, your character somehow “forgets” he’s wielding a weapon and the weapon disappears, while you retain your fighting stance; when this happens, you cannot attack until the server catches up with the fact that you’ve somehow encountered this bug, which usually doesn’t happen until you’ve died because you can’t defend yourself. This is actively game-breaking, and considering your equipment “decays” when you die, forcing you to pay a fee to get it all repaired, it’s a very serious problem.

Other issues that crop up during combat: It is literally impossible to dodge enemy attacks. As a character who relies on speed to quickly escape a situation or, as one might hope, at least dodge, this is also very serious. I’ve had many situations where I’ve been literally ten meters away from a melee enemy, running away from them, only to watch them swing their two-foot sword — and the attack to connect with that massive distance in-between. Shield-bashing rarely ever cancels an enemy’s spellcasting (the way the tutorials even say it should), meaning you can’t get out of stuff like that either. When one’s character dies after a matter of maybe four hits when playing in their properly-leveled area, this is a problem.

Enemy selection is terrible, too. If you’re being swarmed by a group of enemies, it’s near-impossible to land consecutive hits on the same enemy, thus reducing the numbers you have to fight. If your reticle is so much as a pixel off the enemy you’re actually aiming for, many attacks don’t connect; I’ve actually had an incident where I was trying to attack one enemy with a spell that transports me to them to slice them with my dagger, only to be flung twenty feet away to attack another enemy, the same type, but clear on the other side of a room. When you rely on being stealthy, THIS IS A PROBLEM.

Final points:

  • UI and meta-game, for the most part, is fantastic. The game feels like an Elder Scrolls game, rather than an MMO, which I do consider a very good thing.
  • Leveling is broken.
  • You must play when other players are playing, or else you’ll never beat the boss characters the game expects you to attack as a group, and you’ll likely never get through certain dungeons.
  • The story for the Ebonheart Pact portion of the game feels contrived.
  • Crafting Medium Armor is far, far more difficult than crafting literally anything else.
  • Large swaths of Tamriel disappointingly missing.
  • Material seems to dwindle as the game progresses.
  • Bugs GALORE, especially in combat situations.

Ultimately, in spite of its flaws, I am greatly enjoying the game. (Otherwise, why am I still playing it?) It’s a lot of fun exploring the regions that are available, and though it feels contrived, the story is still interesting enough that I continue to follow it. If this were a standalone solo game, I doubt it’d be nearly as well-received, but I suppose that’s why they decided to make it an MMO.

I’d probably give this game a C+. It’s worth trying out if you get the chance, and if you like what you see, give it a shot. Do not expect it to be WoW, because it isn’t; but by that same merit, don’t go into it expecting Skyrim, because it isn’t really that either.