If you were to ask us what we remember most about The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, it'd be the game's ability to pull us into its virtual world. You're free to ignore main quests and talking dragons, and instead just strike out and explore the landscape, trekking through forests and into snowy mountains. As a result we were totally immersed in the fantasy created by Bethesda.
That same feel returns as we enter The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited. We've easily become lost in the best way, starting on one path only to find three hours have passed and we're in a completely opposite direction than the one we were originally heading. It's hard to concentrate on just one thing or mission, simply because there's always something new popping up on the horizon that simply must be discovered.
We've been exploring for a while now, and have yet to be bored. More impressive given the zone progression is admittedly very linear. There's always something to do and somewhere to go. Whether it's playing with the crafting system, fighting off demons that pop up every once in a while, or helping someone in one of the smaller villages that you've come across; there's always something to busy yourself with.
In keeping with series tradition, TESO:TU has a grand overarching story. Put succinctly, the game is divided into two main narratives. There's the overall story of the game where the three alliances - Daggerfall Covenant, Aldmeri Dominion and the Ebonheart Pact - fight each other to claim the throne and thereby the power of the leaderless Tamriel. It's within this setting that our story takes place. It's a story full of treachery and dark princes and the fight for our soul.
The game's also enriched with a deep and detailed mythology, clearly seen in the lore that's scattered around the country and through the many conversations you have with NPCs throughout the game. That said, it's easy to get overwhelmed. No skipping dialogue or wandering away to make a brew while characters' chat here. Do so and it won't be long before you're completely confused.
The main plot yet hasn't fully won us over yet - something other Elder Scroll games have been more successful at over the years. But the MMO leanings suggests the game's trying to keep players in for the long haul, and the plot has evolved for the better the deeper we've went in. There's an increasingly fascinating story here, but it takes time to develop, so you'll find other pursuits are more interesting for a while before the main plot hooks you.
Unfortunately the races in the game aren't equally fun to level up. You get to choose between nine when first starting the game - Dark Elf, Wood Elf, High Elf, Argonian, Orc, Redguard, Breton, Khajiit and Nord. Each of these races belong to one of the three alliances. Depending on which race you chose and which alliance you belong to, you begin your adventure in a specific starting zone. While questing with the Aldmeri Dominion, and at times also with the Daggerfall Covenant, it all seemed a little bland. In comparison the Ebonheart Pact was more enjoyable.
Not that its area is free of fetch quests, but it's here you'll experience the most peculiar and interesting side missions and mini-mysteries.
Zenimax has set the scene for a lovely nostalgic walk down TES memory lane. We recognise a world with the colourful, giant mushrooms and quirky wildlife. We hear well-known phrases (we haven't heard the "arrow to the knee" one yet though). Best of all we can experience Tamriel in all its glory. A lot of Elder Scroll fans will feel right at home in TESO:TU. But, while the game might live up to our expectations when it come to the feel of an Elder Scrolls title, what about the equally important MMO element?
To be surrounded by other players gave Tamriel a dynamism markedly different from previous titles. At times the trawl through dungeons and across lands in Skyrim felt lonely. The first (and not last) time you're rescued by strangers mid-fight feels fantastic and hammers home the enjoyment of a player-populated Elder Scrolls.
However, TESO:TU has some downsides on the social side that worry us a little. At the moment, the first and probably biggest problem is communication. Zenimax has dropped the text-based chat that PC players will know and instead have chosen to use an area-based voice chat system. We can understand why, and we can understand their vision: imagine stepping into one of Tamriel's larger cities and hearing different strands of conversation flowing as you walk by different player groups talking quests and NPCs going about their business. Cities would come to life in a totally new and dynamic way.
Alas, right now it falls flat as there aren't enough players to get the system up and running properly. As it is the dynamism of city lifer is reduced to background mumblings of NPCs.
Another issue is that it can be tricky to jump into a group. The ease of initial attempts lulled us into a false sense of security. After testing it in more dungeons it turns out it's a real pain to find groups; you can't just write in the main chat that you need a healer or a tank for a certain dungeon. You either wait for the game to pair you with a group, or you physically go to the dungeon, stand by the entrance and hope someone will join your party.
However, get the groups sorted for dungeon-crawling and voice chat excels. Yelling your commands and advice into the microphone instead of having to exit the battle and type it all out is much more engaging and efficient. We really hope that this feature will improve, and game-based conversations are favoured over background noise. When it worked during dungeons and PvP, it did result in a much more immersive role-playing experience.
The PvP part of the game, clashing with opponents while trying to capture points, is great (one solitary issue though is the play area, encompassing a one zone Cyrodii, is way too big), the battles enjoyable. The tactical aspect, as you try and conquer other alliances' keeps and resources, keeps PvP from being a mere exercise in hack and slash. Teamwork reinforces the need for strategy, and the in-fiction focus on dominating other alliances gives us clear motivation in battle. Overall we think the PvP is one of the game's real strengths, and if Zenimax would just shrink the area a little bit, we'd like it even more.
The controls are also praiseworthy, with the game proving a great fit for console. The mapping of spells and abilities along with the twin stick control makes for great combat flow.
The minimalistic ability bar makes sense here, and even a small thing like picking a lock makes more sense with a vibrating controller in your hand. On a DualShock 4 you find the block button on L2, the attack button on R2 and the special abilities are spread out on the face buttons and L1/L2. It all works well for the most part.
You have one primary ability bar and a primary set of weapons, then later you'll gain a set of secondary weapons and a secondary ability bar. To swap these even in the midst of battle you have to hit a button on the D-Pad, which feels unintuitive. There's also no option to remap the buttons, which we'd have liked.
It's also worth noting that the monthly subscription that the game launched with on PC has been dropped ahead of its console release. Now you only have to pay for the base game and then you're free to explore all of Tamriel. It gives you a greater sense of freedom to come back to the game when you want, rather than feeling you needed to just to get the most out of your monthly subscription.
Maybe we should end the review the way we started it: our Elder Scrolls itch has been well and truly scratched, and even though we've spent many hours in Tamriel we still haven't got bored and we're definitely going back for more. With a controller in-hand and with Tamriel under our (virtual) feet, we've experienced that immersion that was missing when the game first came out on PC. Even though TESO:TU still has areas to improve regarding its MMO elements, it's finally a game worthy of the Elder Scrolls series.