After its successful release last year on PC, the industry’s most heralded fantasy RPG series finally goes MMO on console systems with “The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited” ($59.99; rated M).
For the newcomers – and before we get lost in the Forest of Obscure Acronyms – RPG stands for role-playing game, the genre in which “Elder Scrolls” is franchise royalty. MMO is short for MMORPG, or massively multiplayer online role-playing game, in which large groups of players can interact, team up or fight one another online.
‘One hero among many’
The “Elder Scrolls” single-player RPG titles are considered by fans to be state-of-the-art – up to and including the most recent installment “Skyrim.” But the MMO is a different kind of animal, and those expecting “Skyrim Unlimited” should prepare to make adjustments.
For one thing, as a player you are now one hero among many. Moving through shared areas, you’ll see other online players darting about with gamertags hovering over their heads. This necessarily diminishes the game’s verisimilitude, but what can you do? That’s how MMOs work.
The upside is that you can now tackle the monsters and dungeons of Tamriel with friends, forming teams that ideally maximize the effectiveness of a mixed fighting unit. Since the days of pencil-and-paper tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy RPGs are best played in small groups, where you can mix the strengths of archer, warrior, sorcerer, etc.
“The Elder Scrolls Online,” or “ESO,” facilitates this by way of the usual MMO grouping mechanisms, for playing pre-planned sessions with friends or teaming up with strangers on the fly. The designers have opted for a voice-only chat system on console, which makes sense, since keyboards aren’t typically handy. And you can convert over any existing high-level characters from the PC game. (It’s a one-time only copy-and-paste, though – no cross-platform play.)
In my testing on PlayStation 4, the technical aspects of the game worked surprisingly well, considering “ESO” had just launched and the game’s servers were swamped with new players. Wait times were reasonable, and I didn’t hit any major glitches. The game’s default settings are geared for maximum action immediately. I was fighting, chatting and trading with other players in no time.
But it must be said that, in terms of visuals and combat, the MMO experience suffers in comparison to the single-player RPG experience. Particularly if you’re coming off something like “Witcher 3,” with its eye-popping console graphics and complex combat system. Detailed renderings aren’t a priority with MMOs, and some environments look oddly spartan and bare.
Old school ‘hack-and-slash’
But that’s because everything is built for speed in “ESO.” The vibe is more about old school hack-and-slash as you race through areas and dungeons, dispatching the endless spawning monsters and vacuuming up the loot. Combat is nicely designed for this pace of play – you attack with the left trigger and block with the right -- but there’s no options for customization. Controls are mapped permanently to their respective buttons, so forget about adjusting inputs.
The appeal with MMOs is building up your character and earning enough experience to tackle the game’s high-level areas, where terrible creatures stomp and the weak fear to tread. Players who are very serious indeed sink months and even years into their characters.
The good news is that, with the release of the console versions for Xbox and PlayStation, “ESO” is a one-time purchase and no longer charges a monthly subscription. The predictable followup to that announcement: Console play requires an Xbox Live Gold or PlayStation Plus membership – the subscription fee has essentially been offloaded to the console network systems.
For MMO fans, “The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited” is a square deal, as far as these things go, and an opportunity to explore a favorite game world in a new fashion. Devotees of the single-player RPG will want to wait for the next standalone series installment. Or just play “Witcher 3.”
New This Week: Lots of news out of the E3 expo in Los Angeles this week, including the long-awaited announcement of “Fallout 4,” the latest in the insanely great post-apocalypse series, set for release on Nov. 10.