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The Elder Scrolls Online is an online multi-player game set in the Elder Scrolls universe. It is the first multi-player title in its franchise. It was first introduced as a subscription-only PC game in 2014, and it was converted to a free-to-play game running on both PC and consoles in the following year.

Vitals.


Title: The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Zenimax Online Studios
Genre: MMO
Reviewed for: Playstation 4. The game is also available on PC and Xbox One.
Release date: June 9, 2015

Overview.


Any discussion of an Elder Scrolls game needs to start with the history of the single-player games in the franchise, particularly the three titles in the modern era: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. These are swords-and-sorcery role-playing games from Bethesda Softworks, all designed primarily around a first-person shooter interface, all absolutely massive in scale. These games are each remembered as monumental events in the history of computer gaming, and have made the series in its entirety one of the most well-respected (and, for some, hated) game properties under active development.

Each game is enormous, and intricate, and long. Each drops the player into a massive open world where you can enter every building, look inside every drawer, pick up every object no matter how trivial, speak to every stranger, play the individual story arcs of the game in any order, and (eventually, exhaustively) master every skill. Most of the pleasure of the game is rooted in exploring the immense game and gaping at the sheer scope of it, how simultaneously big and detailed it all is. The games don't end, especially given the modding ecosystem which exists around each of them; you walk away because you've eaten your fill.

The Elder Scrolls Online, also called TESO or just ESO, is a significant departure from those single-player games. The setting is preserved. All the same cities, nations, races, gods, creatures, and history remain present. The story (such as it is) incorporates many of the same characters; this game takes place in the distant past of the single-player games, and many entities who are mythological figures in the later games can be met and conversed with during the course of play in this one.

The world is much less intricate, feeling more similar to a Dragon Age environment than it does to an Elder Scrolls environment. Instead of one continuous map, the world is divided into many discrete zones with fast travel (i.e., teleportation) between them. These zones are each populated by fewer buildings, comprising less-complete cities than were present in any of the single-player games. The scenic vistas are still present, and they can be beautiful at times, but the zone-by-zone nature of the level design takes away much of the open-world feel that usually distinguishes an Elder Scrolls title. Small verdant regions are ringed on every side by mountains you can't climb due to their steepness, walls with gates which don't open, or bodies of water you can't cross due to predator-infested waters. Most of the population can't be spoken with unless they give you quests or buy and sell stuff, most objects can't be picked up or touched, and those that can be taken almost all have a specific function. The game is very big, but it doesn't really feel that way because of the division of the game into discrete zones. Since the game revisits many locations first introduced in previous titles from the series, the result is something which preserves the lore of the franchise but feels in some ways like a betrayal of its basic essence.

The inventory system has been MMO-ified. No "carry weights," no slow-walking when you exceed your inventory limit. You can't exceed that limit by any means. Items in your inventory occupy slots. Identicial items will stack within a slot up to some limit. There's no attempt at realism here: a battering ram and a single mushroom both occupy the same amount of inventory space; the only difference is that mushrooms stack up to 200 units, and battering rams--like mushrooms of distinct varieties--don't stack with one another. Each stack in your inventory can be moved to a bank, and items deposited in one bank can be accessed from any of them. All this is a common way of doing things in an MMO, but again makes the game feel very unlike an Elder Scrolls title. (Limits on both your character inventory and your bank inventory can be raised, either through the use of in-game currency or real-money micro transactions. Many categories of item can be moved to a special unlimited-capacity container called a "crafting bag" which is only accessible to your character if you pay a monthly-rate subscription for the otherwise free-to-play title.)

Like with MMOs, almost every item present in that inventory is of use to your character. Weapons, armor, crafting components, consumable items like food to eat, potions to drink, poisons to apply to your arrows. Books can be read, but not picked up or bought or sold.

Character advancement is similarly altered. Mainline Elder Scrolls games all have your character improve with skills by using them, and unlock only limited new abilities as you progress. You pretty much know how to swing a sword from the first time you handle one, you just get better at it. Not much if anything in the way of new techniques; your same basic sword swing just goes from barely hurting a rat to gravely injuring an enormous dragon, with no differences in animation. This isn't so in The Elder Scrolls Online. In TESO, you have a "skill bar" into which you slot various abilities. You unlock the abilities by earning skill points, which you can earn either by gaining experience points and levels, by completing quests, by defeating difficult boss enemies, or through exploration. You spend skill points to unlock powers, level up the powers through use, then further morph the powers by spending more skill points. What you can unlock depends on how much experience you've earned while a given skill was slotted into your bar.

Yes, this game has experience points. Skyrim, Oblivion, and Morrowind all did without those.

This game also has meaningful, differentiated character classes. Those earlier titles only had a vague concept of class but class only influenced your starting statistics, every possible starting character converged toward the same multi-talented hero in the end-game.

In TESO, there instead are four possible classes: Templar, Nightblade, Dragonknight, and Sorcerer. Players can customize a character from any one of these classes to be focused on magicka or stamina (or generalized to use both, at the cost of being less effective with each) and in customizes these classes, aims to fall into one of three roles: DPS (meaning damage-per-second), healer, or tank. Roles are mostly an abstract concept in most game modes, but become an explicitly assigned thing during some of the game's cooperative multi-player content. Like most MMOs, TESO also gives you slots for multiple characters (or "toons", as many players call them) and these characters diverge from one another in terms of abilities.

Like the single-player games, this game is very long. But it's long in the tradition of MMOs, rather than being long in the tradition of the single-player games. In a single-player game, depth-of-experience is emphasized throughout the story; the beginning of the story is just as important as the middle or the ending, and the experience is largely about the character's progression through the story. The beginning of the story places more emphasis on introducing the player to the protagonist, the world, and the basics of gameplay; the end tries to wrap things up. Throughout, there's (at least hopefully!) an attempt to keep the player drawn-in and engaged. In an MMO, a character's progression hits a functional maximum relatively quickly (20-40 hours) and there's an extremely long tail of end-game content, much of which will be played repeatedly as players hope to get the best "rare drops." This reward system is what engages the player. The characters themselves are largely interchangeable, as they must be in any game where there is no single protagonist and where the player population is intended to be immense.

This game does have a story. At a high level:

  • You are a mortal from Tamriel, which is a place in the Elder Scrolls universe where people live.
  • You wake up dead in Coldharbour, which is a place in the Elder Scrolls universe where demons (called daedra, or dremora) live.
  • You--poor, dead you--are about to be enslaved to Molag Bol, a daedric prince. With help from other mortals trapped in Coldharbour, you escape bodily back to Tamriel, having lost your soul.
  • Being soulless is an advantage to you; it means you can be resurrected when you die, and it means you're more powerful than the average person for various reasons. Due to this advantage, you are recruited by a mysterious Prophet (who you rescued from Coldharbour during your own escape) into an epic war to stop Molag Bol from pulling the entirety of Tamriel into Coldharbour using magical Dark Anchors. (I'm sorry. I didn't write this stuff.)
  • Tamriel is, meanwhile, in the midst of an intense civil war, where three factions each located geographically at different corners of the continent are fighting for control of a central region so that they can crown a member of their faction to the seat of emperor. The rightful emperor was unseated prior to the opening of the story; the first emperor in the dynastic line still ruling at the outset of the main series has not yet been crowned.
  • You start the game as a member of one of these three factions, battle to resolve various internecine conflicts destabilizing that faction, eventually return to Coldharbour and defeat Molag Bol, and then restart the game as a member of each of the other two factions to fight your way through the internecine conflicts of those factions.
  • At any time you can depart from this main story branch to enter the central region of Tamriel, called Cyrodil, and participate in the direct civil war, a module of the game known as the Alliance War.
  • At any time you can depart from this main story branch to enter downloadable content story branches, which feature end-game content but temporarily scale lower-level characters up in level to match the difficulty of the end-game content, while scaling down the rewards these characters receive to be appropriate to their real level.

Impressions.

When you write all this down in this manner, it seems more than a little silly. That's because it is silly, but that's okay cause the story is inherently beside the point. The point of any game like this is to advance your character into the end-game, and then grind repeatedly through various tiers of end-game content in order to be able to access progressively more challenging tiers of similar content. The business model for the developers is to keep drip-feeding progressively more advanced end-game content to the players, gradually deepening and extending this end-game in exchange either for a $15 monthly subscription fee or for one-off purchases of content for $20-$30 on an approximately quarterly basis. I'm a few hundred hours into that end-game at this point. When I first started playing in the spring, the game had been available on PS4 for about six months and had only released two DLC modules:
  • Orsinium, a new region of the game focused on an orc king and his attempts to rebuild the ancient capital city of his race.
  • The Imperial City, the capital city of Tamriel and the center of Cyrodil, the world's PvP-focused central region. This module offered new PvP gameplay as well as new PvE content.
Since I started playing, several more modules have been released:
  • The Thieves Guild, adding a new guild for the player to join, and updating the "justice system" of the world to have more sophisticated gameplay around various forms of theft. More pockets to pick, more homes and strongboxes to break into, more ways to bribe the City Guard, more places to hide, more ways to get caught. Since none of this was folded back into the original game, the result often feels like someone made an homage to a different game as a mod for this one.
  • The Dark Brotherhood, adding a new guild for the player to join, and further updating the "justice system" to have additional gameplay around the murder of the game's numerous civilians. Again, none of this influences the basic game in any real way.
  • Shadows of the Hist, adding new dungeon content for cooperative play, with new gear to use when you finish it all for the 15th or 20th time.
Other patches not related to these new modules have significantly updated gameplay, changing class balance, removing and adding various features, fixing and introducing bugs, and gradually paving the way for further expansions to the game universe. In addition to these DLC modules, there is also a lot of premium content available for purchase, offering cosmetic differences such as new mounts, new outfits, new crafting styles for your equipment, and also offering accelerated progression through the game via various means. Where a traditional single-player game offering downloadable content typically has a lifecycle of continuing development for the title which ends after a year or two, the same is not true for this or any MMO; ongoing updates and refinements will continue with no end in sight until people stop spending sufficient amounts of money on it. The eventual result can be, to put it politely, a bit of a pile. TESO is, as of this writing, just starting to get to this point. So, we have four general kinds of gameplay:
  • The story-driven game, which progresses your single character through several different story arcs, and from level 1 through level 50 and into the "champion ranks." This is the bulk of the game, currently consisting of 22 different overworld maps plus three more introduced in DLC modules. Other players can be encountered on any of these maps, and can cooperate with you on any of the content, but the experience isn't designed with this in mind and you will find yourself competing for resources more often than not.
  • A cooperative game, which consists of specific challenges on these overworld maps geared toward multi-player gameplay, as well as a few dozen specific "dungeon" maps with content that explicitly requires multiple players. Most of this content requires four players: 2 DPS, 1 healer, 1 tank. Some ("trials") are designed for 12 players instead. The game has matchmaking and grouping functions designed to ease players into this world, but not to succeed in it. Success mostly requires membership in one of the game's guilds, groups of up to 500 players given access to common text and voice chat channels as well as a few other features.
  • A PvP game, which consists of a base module called Alliance War and the Imperial City DLC module. Alliance War has large groups of players engaging in siege tactics over a very large land-area with an emphasis on territory control more than on direct individual-to-individual combat. The Imperial City has players engage in challenging end-game class PvP content but also fighting each other at the same time.
  • A PvE end-game, which features the same kind of gameplay as the story-driven and cooperative portions of the game, but dramatically escalates the challenge on these to the point where they cannot be successfully completed without finely-tuned character builds, optimal tactics, and some amount of access to the game's most elite end-game gear.

Stacked on top of these are various forms of meta-game, including an economy where players can sell gear to one another, a crafting system which takes literal months of time investment to fully access, and weekly and monthly gear lotteries where only the most elite and otherwise time-invested players can get the best items.

Every aspect of this experience is a moving target: Game developers reserve the right to remove or alter any of it at any time. Objects of intense scarcity can become widely available, turning your 16-hour recipe to find a Banana Surprise crafting recipe into a sad joke; game balance on abilities can change, turning your finely-tuned killing machine into a lurching disaster. As an individual player, you have very little influence over this process unless you participate in one of the various online message boards devoted to the game--and even here, it's widely understood that the developers are less accountable to make a fun game, or even a stable one, than they are to make a game which keeps the money coming in.

Conclusions.

As a player who came from experience with the traditional Elder Scrolls games, I found the stories to be disappointingly simplistic, the gameplay to be too grindy, and the world itself to be almost a pastiche of the content I have so mythologized in my own memories over the years.

As a player who came from MUDs and from previous experiences with MMOs (notably City of Heroes and Destiny) I like games like this less and less the more I play them. I've written previously about how when I play single-player games, I tend to think of them as a dialectic between the developer and the player. At its worst, the slow drip-feeding of new content for a price makes this game feel more like a dialectic between the developer and the player's wallet.

The intention of DLC and of long-tail endgames are to keep players engaged in an experience over a long period of time as they build and maintain a community amongst themselves. But the time scales are so warped by the need to keep players engaged for months or even years on end that the result is a largely toxic and embittered community which has little to offer casual players and which forces the heavily-invested 40+ hours per week set into direct competition with one another, even in the notionally cooperative modules of the game. A game where the story doesn't make sense and where some of the dialog is so outlandishly bad that quoting it to other players will elicit universal groans of outrage. (One of the races in the game, bipedal lizards called Argonians, will periodically express an emotion by saying something like "I erect the spine of sympathy." The only reason that players aren't forced to endure hours of dialog like that is because it can all be skipped, usually without any consequence whatsoever.)

Episodic games don't have to be this awful, particularly not in the writing and the voice acting. I think the ideal format for gaming within a franchise isn't the series, but rather the anthology. You can have a game like Final Fantasy VI break insane ground having 16-bit sprites perform an intensely emotional opera, and not still be stuck telling stories about those same characters two decades later. Or you can--as the mainline Elder Scrolls and Fallout games did--have the particulars of each chapter get gradually lost to the mists of history, choosing some particular outcome as the canon one and leaving enough of the fine details sufficiently ambiguous that the jump between protagonists from title to title isn't too jarring. The work required to do something like what BioWare managed to achieve with Dragon Age and Mass Effect is too great, requiring too much content to be produced for too little reward in exchange. But even these are preferable to a descent into soap opera, and even a descent into soap opera is preferable to what's at play in this game. A good friend of mine has a term for this kind of thing and I find myself coming to it often as I play: he called it "mind poison." Zenimax is churning out this poison without much apology because the product they're stuffing it into isn't supposed to be a real story with a real ending.

I started playing this game in spite of my general misgivings about MMOs because I wished to join a friend online who wasn't playing anything else. I brought other friends with me. We got through the first 30 hours or so of story content individually, while engaging in voice chat conversations that had little to do with the game. As we started getting into the veteran/champion levels, we were all already burned out with the basic game--but we were gradually able to start cooperating, attempting the challenging multi-player content which is really the larger point of the game.

I joined PVP not long after that, the first of our small group to do so. In the process, I got introduced to a couple of different guilds, consisting largely of people who had been playing much longer than I was. (A guild in this context is a large, persistent group of affiliated players. Guilds serve to help introduce new players into the world, and to organize teams of players who can attack the end-game content together. End-game content is almost never single-player.) By playing in these guilds, I started seeing a new side of the game.

The thing I've noticed is that almost nobody is genuinely happy with the experience. There are plenty of moments of individual fun, moments when people finally overcome a difficult challenge and feel proud of themselves and one another. Moments of camaraderie. But these are heavily punctuated by frustration with the game itself. Its instability, its lag, its thoroughly repetitive nature, the frustrating slow progression imposed by the tyranny of the game's RNG, but especially with other people. New content drops and people aren't having long conversations about the story, or the art, or even how to overcome the challenges: they're sitting in the various chat channels recruiting players to repeatedly play through the content together to "farm" it for rare drops. Guilds aren't a way about playing a game you like with the people you like best. They're the only way to play the most challenging parts of the game at all. The only way to participate in the player-to-player game economy as anything other than a sucker-grade consumer. Guilds are the only way to win, to the extent that MMOs can ever be "won." Players aren't just in competition with one another to be the best, or the first group to see new things; they're in competition to actually experience the best content at all. The most coveted, elite items in the game aren't just rare, they're mostly only awarded on a weekly or monthly basis to the top few percent of people on the game's leader-boards. So, increasingly, the best are only willing to associate with the best, and the rest shun the inexperienced. None of this is unique to ESO, but ESO is the first time I've had to deal with so much of it in such a short time.

ESO's Alliance War game mode is particularly broken by these dynamics, not just because the mode reserves its best rewards for the winners, but because it reserves the best slice of those most-desired rewards for the individuals who played a team-based game mode the most selfishly. (Your position on the leaderboard is dictated by the number of Alliance Points you have. You get Alliance Points mostly by killing other players, and those points are shared with other members of your immediate group. Elite players therefore have an incentive to run in small groups and to put themselves not into situations where their experience and advancement would help the overall alliance the most, but instead into situations where they can almost constantly prey on less experienced players. These "farming" scenarios distort the leader-boards and the players who do it for hours on end get rewards in a hundred hours of gameplay that the rest of the players in the same campaign will not see in a thousand or more.) Individual moments of the game are fun whether you're winning or losing, but your entire experience is punctuated throughout by people who are raging because your performance could legitimately be costing them something. This is true whether you're doing well or doing badly, whether you're cooperating with them or trying to play elsewhere. It isn't just about ego, although ego seems to cause plenty of conflict too.

Matchmaking in the cooperative dungeons is just as bad. The game only randomly drops the dungeon's unique rewards and so players are forced to complete all of the dungeons multiple times in order to get everything they want to have. The content with the greatest rewards is the most challenging, and failure can become very time consuming. Veterans would rather quit a party than have their time wasted educating an inexperienced member, and so increasingly they join guilds where they only attempt the dungeons together--further worsening the experience of the less-fortunate or less-capable people still engaged in match-making. The game's hardest content doesn't offer match-making at all, most likely because this dynamic would even be harder to handle there.

All this is an emergent feature of the game's approach to scarcity near the outer edges.

It doesn't help that gamer culture here is as toxic as it is anywhere. People rage at each other, troll one another, blame one another, and spam one another--and that's just over text chat. Get on voice chat, especially in a big, active guild, and it gets worse. People shouting over one another, screaming children in the background of Sony's cheap microphones, people blasting music as they play, hitting bong rips directly into the microphone, drunkenly babbling, shouting all manner of racist and homophobic slurs, sexually harassing anyone with a female voice, ridiculing children for being children, telling stories which are beyond crass to total strangers--some of whom might have the chat audio piped into television speakers with young children in the room. The game's stealth mechanic involves crouching, so we even get some teabagging (sexual assault, pantomimed as an expression of dominance and contempt) ported over from first-person shooters. There's no serious discussion about ending any of this, of making the game's demanding end-game a safe space for anyone who isn't okay with 100% of it.

These games are designed to punish ineffective cooperation, but they do nothing which even attempts to curate the kind of social experiences we will have as we play. The game gives you real incentives to turn a blind eye to those toxic personalities, because guilds offer so much safety-in-numbers and the moment you kick one of these toxic people from your group you'll just be competing with them for the same finite resources.

I don't know how to fix that. I didn't know how to fix it in Destiny when my real-life friends were trying to expand our regularly-online numbers from three to six. I especially don't know how to fix it in ESO where the guild that recruited me is trying to keep its numbers closer to 50 concurrent players. My real-life friends would all be welcome additions to that group, but none of them are okay with the epithets or the gross stories or the bong rips. Neither am I, and I shouldn't stay silent, but I do because those personalities are going to dominate every guild in the game which is willing to recruit strangers in sufficient numbers to get anywhere.

But I think it probably can be fixed. I'm picturing a matchmaking system which actually works. Where I can choose "avoid this player" and give reasons like "not on voice chat", "not on text chat", "selfish", "background noise", "racist", "drug use", "age difference", "incompetent", "argumentative", "streams his gameplay" or similar. Where I never meet this player again, and further where my feedback lowers the chance of being paired with someone else who has gotten similar feedback from others. Where I can choose "prefer this player" and give reasons like "helpful", "respectful", "funny", "experienced", "laid-back", "streams his gameplay" and so on. Where I might or might not ever meet this player again, but where my feedback increases the chance of being paired with similar people in the future. Where all the feedback I give, good and bad, increases my chances of being paired with people who had similar feedback about our common playmates, and where all the feedback I receive increases my chances of being paired with people who received similar feedback from others. Where every time you give honest feedback about a bad experience, you have a legitimately better chance of having a better experience the next time. Where participation in the player-feedback system has in-game incentives which encourage its widespread adoption.

MMOs aren't e-sports. You don't need to be in contact with the entire user-base in order to experience the entire game. You just need to be in contact with a sufficiently unobjectionable fragment of it to play the game the developers intended you to play. Introducing you to these people and excluding the others is, with a sufficiently large user-base, nothing more than a machine learning problem. E-sports, a culture where fierce competitiveness is prized to the point where some amount of interpersonal conflict is tolerated for the sake of maintaining an elite playing-field, could still exist as a small self-selected enclave within the greater community. But this game isn't collecting the data needed to construct and train that machine. A lot of the people I've met online would probably tell me that this is because the developers don't care if we're happy as long as we keep paying to play--or, more likely, before we could get more than a few sentences into that conversation some third person on the same channel would bark "clear comms" into the microphone and then start raging at the new guy for not setting up enough siege weapons.

You'd think, having written this, that I'm ready to be completely done playing this game. I'm not, at least not yet. The Scourge campaign just ended today and as soon as I get home I get to see if my end-of-campaign rewards included any gear I want to start using next. (I finished somewhere around 75th place in total Alliance Points for my faction, which I'm told left me right on the cusp for access to the Good Shit.) And I'm thinking about creating a second character soon, especially given how promising some of the patch notes for the October update are looking. My friend doesn't seem to be anywhere near quitting, and I would miss her if we weren't still playing together.

Hm. That hook is in me pretty deep, isn't it?

tl;dr: I probably shouldn't be playing this game, and I guess I don't think you should either. But if you can get past its slow start, you'll have a decent amount of fun before it starts to burn you out--especially if you can share the experience with people you already like, instead of ending up shoulder-to-shoulder amidst a press of creeps and jerks and lonely, angry addicts.

tl;dr2: Standard-issue MMO. Mostly harmless.

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