Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited represents the modern-day version of the dehydrated capsule craze, except that instead of just adding water, developers are just adding multiplayer. For the most part, ESO plays exactly like its single-player predecessor, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim—and with the exception of co-op dungeons, extremely rare world events, and a chaotic PvP component, it’s almost best enjoyed alone, lest the annoying public area chats drown out the immersive fantasy of questing.
As a follow-up to Skyrim, then, ESO is, at best, largely adequate. The boilerplate plot puts players in the shoes of an amnesiac ghost, reanimated by an enigmatic Prophet and tasked with saving the world. Every five levels or so, the Prophet reveals a little bit more about the treacherous Mannimarco’s plans to summon the Daedric prince Molag Bal from ethereal Coldharbour into Tamriel proper, but beyond that, players are free to wander around as they please. There just isn’t very much incentive to do so: Crafting is a tedious (and often random) chore and the optional off-the-beaten-path dungeons (“delves”) are light on story and heavy on recycled assets.
These aren’t unique problems for ESO (Skyrim had them too), but they’re more visible, and it’s easy to see where the game was stretched thin on account of the original plan to charge users a monthly subscription fee. ESO isn’t meant to be completed in a hundred hours; it’s a literally never-ending story, thanks to the PvP campaigns. Moreover, it’s filled with intentional irritants designed to get players to use real money to access shortcuts. Instead of grinding in-game currency in order to afford a mount, players can simply pick one up from the Crown Store; rather than upgrade that steed every 20 hours, there’s the option to simply buy a training manual. It’s not as drastic as Elder Scrolls meets Candy Crush, but it’s similar, and whereas a pro golfer sometimes takes a handicap in order to make a more compelling game, ESO is more like someone who fakes an injury in order to not have to work as hard.
On the other hand, ESO fully justifies its MMO framework when it focuses on co-op play. The four-person dungeons require precise teamwork and have the richest stories, on account of being self-contained novellas. Nothing’s tedious or wasted in these unique areas, and there are no mindless fetch quests: These are twisty, action-packed encounters from start to finish. For those seeking something on the other end of the spectrum, the massive PvP zone of Cyrodiil hosts up to 300 players simultaneously—100 from each of the three main alliances—and sets them in the middle of open-ended, lightly structured wars. Here, players can rally giant groups together to siege and capture enemy territories, using ballistae and trebuchet (or cauldrons of hot oil, if they’re on the defense), or can cautiously infiltrate enemy territory on their own as a scout.
ESO works best when it’s doing things that Skyrim wasn’t capable of, and falters when it attempts to impose time-based restrictions on single-player content. That said, not all of these new MMO features have ported cleanly from the computer version to the console one. The in-game matchmaking is solid enough to put Bungie’s Destiny to shame, but managing friends and guilds post-dungeon is awkward, especially when typing of any sort is required. Though crafting supplies can be accessed at any time once they’re in the bank, limited inventory space makes it difficult to get those items there in the first place. And there’s a lack of shortcuts on a controller, which leads to a lot of redundant menu-scrolling, especially when tracking quests or hunting down skillpoint-boosting skyshards.
Unsurprisingly, though, ESO runs as well on consoles as its predecessors, and its tried-and-true combat is a clean fit for the MMO format, though switching to third-person view feels necessary when attempting to avoid telegraphed attacks. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, and it’s irksome that some of the post-game content simply involves porting players to leveled-up versions of the other two introductory regions, essentially starting the plot over. But it certainly doesn’t hurt that there are so many ways to do things in the game. The “Unlimited” tagline represents the shift away from the original subscription model (though there’s still an optional VIP membership). But with 10 unique racial abilities and four classes to choose from (and more skill trees to be unlocked over the course of the game, should players become a master thief or get bitten by a vampire), and by far the largest map in an Elder Scrolls game, ESO comes close to earning that description all on its own.