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VideAU Games Review: The Elder Scrolls Online - Tamriel Unlimited (PS4, 2015)

It’s been a year since Bethesda released the PC version of their massively multiplayer online role-player The Elder Scrolls Online. After promising a console version was forthcoming, and then suffering a number of delays, The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited has finally arrived on current-gen consoles. It’s often pretty hard to gauge the success of an MMO when the servers only came online very recently but, by the Nine, we’re going to give it our best shot anyway.

Bringing an MMO like TESO to consoles seems like a real slam dunk. Bethesda have gone out of their way to create a game that hews as close as possible to more recent single-player entries in the main series like Obvlivion and Skyrim while still offering the sprawling world and core social facets offered by the most popular MMO’s like World of Warcraft. As an example, pressing down on your D-pad switches you between the now-familiar Elder Scrolls first-person and third-person views. The controller has been implemented in a way that feels quite natural too, which is pretty important when transitioning from a keyboard and mouse arrangement. Getting into combat isn’t the ordeal it could have been - all of your moves and spells can be bound to your face buttons and bumpers, allowing for a greater range of movement during a fight.

Having ditched the subscription model with the Tamriel Unlimited update, the console version brings every last scrap of content available in the PC version across - this includes Veteran level quests and Cyrodiil PVP. All you need to get on board is to purchase the game in the first place. You’ll still need an active PlayStation Plus or Xbox Live Gold account to jump in, however, which is a subscription separate from the game. There’s a new shopfront called the Crown Store which is packed with items, cosmetics and mounts that can be purchased using the new in-game currency and, though I never played the PC version, I noticed that if I had I would have been able to port any characters from that version across.

TESO: Tamriel Unlimited also comes with a few fresh goodies of its own. The Justice System, a tweak to gameplay that lets you pickpocket or straight up slay any NPC’s that aren’t mission critical. Any items you pinch, much as they were in Oblivion and Skyrim are considered “hot” and will need to be properly laundered if you want to hang onto them or otherwise fenced if you’d prefer to turn a dishonest buck. If you get pinched or caught in the act then you’ll have a bounty put on you until you get your slate wiped clean or are otherwise brought low by the surprisingly tenacious local constabulary (found that one out the hard way - all I wanted was a lousy bow not offered in the blacksmith’s stall in Daggerfall. It was just sitting there on the rack, being all unavailable for sale! What’s an underfunded young Redguard to do?). There’s also a new way to level your character called the Champion System opens up after Level 50 and starts heading toward Veteran. For the minmaxers who absolutely must build a game-breakingly optimised character, Champion gives you what you want, letting you buff passives all the livelong day.

I’ve seen some complain that the console version doesn’t look especially pretty. I have to assume that these players are coming from the PC version because, despite a bit of a drab colour palette and some flat textures, the game looks fine to me. I’d even go so far as to call it the prettiest MMO I’ve seen this side of Guild Wars 2. Environments are huge and often contain the sort of towering structures that made you feel transported when first stumbled upon them in WOW. Bethesda are to be commended for their artistry in TESO - they’ve managed to make their entire world feel impossibly old and lived in, quite the feat in a game of this type. Similar attention is paid to the game’s audio - familiar music cues and some nice weapon, creature and spell sounds create a believable atmosphere. This is, of course, pulled apart somewhat by the now long-standing but somehow very endearing Bethesda tradition of hiring about three actors to record 27,000 hours of NPC dialogue.

Jumping into the character creation toolset, I was presented with my first choice - European or North American servers - and my heart sank. No Australian servers. Lag can kill an MMO where it stands. Many of us remember the torture of trying to play WOW before Blizzard finally gave us local servers, a time when a ping of 300 was a pretty good day. That same issue persists in the console version of TESO, as it does in the PC version - no Australian or Oceanic server means players here in Oz are forced to play with high latency. This means unless you can party up with a bunch of similarly lag-afflicted Aussies, PvP is completely unplayable. This leaves questing as the only truly viable option and even that is easier said than done due to lag. High lag means that enemies are closer than they appear and playing a ranged build was the only way I could be sure that I wouldn’t catch unexpected damage.

This means being able to communicate is more of a priority than ever. Given that this version eschews the keyboard for the controller means players are limited to microphone chatter. In some ways, this could be considered an improvement - being able to plan ahead with guildies is much easier and the HUD is devoid of a chat window which means that gold farmers can no longer spam the feed in their endless search for bites. Entering larger cities turns on a public chat freq that lets you hear others talking on the mic around you but it’s hard to take your role playing seriously when some German thirteen-year-old is blasting Meshuggah and cursing fluently with his equally boisterous friends.

What the removal of the text interface does make harder is on-the-spot group-ups when questing. Bethesda have rather helpfully build a proper tool for grouping up right into the game but the one thing it doesn’t take into account is an organic buddying up when you bump into someone running the same quest you are, which feels like a bit of an oversight to me. The only way to group up with that person is to exchange friend requests on your console’s dash and then use the aforementioned group widget. It's a nice way to build a broad social circle but chances are I’m never going to bump into that person again and now they’re on my damn friends list. In this regard, it does feel like Bethesda still have a bit of work to do.

All told, the console version of The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited is an extremely smart port. They’ve given the HUD and various interfaces a much needed polish, the controller puts the PC versions’s keyboard and mouse inputs to shame, you don’t need to subscribe and it’s bringing one of the PC’s most popular genres to consoles, a market that has precious little in the way of competition. Player-to-player interactions still need work but this version of the game feels like Bethesda are very much playing the ball where it lies, course correcting where required. If you’re a console gamer that has never played an MMO before (and you think you can stomach the lag), TESO is a great place to start.

Review Score: 7.0 out of 10
Highlights: Controller > keyboard & mouse; Huge world; So much to do!
Lowlights: Limited communication options; No Australian servers
Developer: Zenimax Online Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Released: June 9, 2015
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC

Reviewed on PlayStation 4