I make no secret of not having liked The Elder Scrolls Online [official site]. Believe me, I wanted to dig it, but nothing this side of Planescape Torment Kart could have felt more not like the game it was meant to be without being part of some fever dream. That said, I do admire the fact that the creators have spent their time since launch trying to fix it. The process hasn't always been subtle. People hate the tutorial islands? Kill the tutorial islands! People won't pay a subscription fee? Kill the subscription!
The other week saw by far the biggest change to the game - indeed, one of the biggest to any MMO I can think of since Square took Final Fantasy XIV back off the shelves to rebuild it and make it good. It's called 'One Tamriel', and it finally opens the world up to be the kind of free-roaming RPG The Elder Scrolls is known for being. Can it make it the game I wanted? Unlikely. But hey, this is TEScO. Every little helps!
The basic fact is that regardless of Zenimax's claims, The Elder Scrolls Online wasn't really The Elder Scrolls Online. It was Dark Age of Camelot 2, only set in Tamriel. The irony is that I loved DAOC back in the day and would probably have been up for that in and of itself. However, the decisions that made that game interesting had nothing to do with what makes The Elder Scrolls special. DAOC was about taking pride in your Realm - Albion, Midgard or The Crap One - and getting to the point where you could represent them on the field of battle. All of its decisions were geared towards that, from the unique look of each realm, to the peoples and classes available, to the lure of PvP as something to work towards instead of simply to do. You're an adventurer, but one whose destiny is to be a soldier rather than save the realm from some grandiose threat.
The Elder Scrolls meanwhile is the series about escaping from jail, standing in the middle of a seemingly endless world, and deciding "I'm going to go that way!" The two games couldn't have fit together much worse. From the very start, two thirds of the world were literally locked off to you based on the character you played, leaving just the promise that once you finished the main storyline quest you'd be able to move on and see one of the two. Well, balls to that! What Elder Scrolls player wants to choose between visiting Skyrim or Daggerfall?
Then, just as that began sinking in, the early promise of at least being able to wander and find adventure on your own terms was smacked over the head by entirely stock quest-givers standing around with entirely stock MMO quests to hand out, and standard strata of increasingly tough enemies down the only route the limited maps really allowed you to go on your linear path to maximum level. There was no way the game would ever have been as freeform as a single-player experience, obviously. But at least it could have played like anyone involved had ever actually sat down with an Elder Scrolls game at some point.
As said, to the team's credit, it's been working on it. Also, for all of its failings as an Elder Scrolls game, there is a lot that it does right. It's arguably got the best combat in the genre for instance, which feels and plays much like an Elder Scrolls game, but with a more complex and interesting levelling system for individual skills, bits of armour, trade abilities and specific weapons. All are based on both putting points into abilities and then levelling up further through actual play, including 'morphing' skills into different variants to better match your playstyle. Since launch, it's added basic stealing as a mechanic, complete with bounties for committing crimes, and the much demanded Dark Brotherhood faction. There's basic vampire and werewolf systems, with the curses acquirable by being bitten by the appropriate monsters or hunted out in quest form, or being consensually passed on by another player... or now just purchased in the store, if you're boring. I know several players who love the PvP mode in Cyrodiil, with its fortresses to fight over and besiege. There is good stuff in The Elder Scrolls Online, which shouldn't be forgotten even if the big picture was disappointing.
One Tamriel is by far the biggest attempt to make The Elder Scrolls Online feel part of the main series, and again, I admire the team for doing it. It's a dramatic change. First, while you still start by pledging to one of the three factions - or Imperial, if you've got that upgrade - you're no longer restricted to their territory. From the start, both other factions' starting Wayshrine is on the map and ready to jump over to for the equivalent of pennies. Even more dramatically though, the entire map is now level scaled.
Previously, it was possible for a basic level character to run across the map, avoid all combat, and go check out Skyrim some 30 or so levels early - I know, I did it - however every enemy on the way would be a one-hit kill and there was nothing to do once you got there anyway. Now things are much more like exploring a regular Elder Scrolls map. The idea is that with this and the open borders, there's now nothing stopping you playing with friends or picking and choosing the quests you want.
The main storyline is still triggered by reaching specific levels, keeping some degree of structure to the adventure, and it's still possible to get your ass handed to you if you go into a fight with just basic gear or skills. It's not going to be a one-hit kill, but TEScO still knows how to say 'come back later and maybe pick a couple of friends'. A cave in the Rift for instance that opens with a couple of casters and a Flesh Atronarch was too much for my intentionally low-rent hero in their rags to handle. Picking a fight with a giant was also a lesson in pain, albeit a fair one, with most of his attacks dodgeable... if I'd stayed alive long enough to finish whittling his health-bar away. A nearby Frost Atronarch meanwhile quickly proved why he was flagged as a group boss.
Even so, based on what I've seen, I'd still rather things had been a little less cut and dried than scaling everything. Level scale the roads for instance, but flag specific areas as particularly dangerous (beyond group bosses and the like), so that there's places to look forward to coming back to once you're more buff and without needing backup. TEScO already has endgame levelling in the form of its Champion Points, which unlock new abilities. It would be interesting if the world was more splashed with obvious stuff with those solo players in mind. Leave the majority of quests open to all, sure, but make it clear what's a hero grade task. I know this is wanting my cake and eating it, but why the fuck else would you buy cake?
Even the adventure-zone of Craglorn, intended as not just endgame, but group PvE content, has been level-scaled to be open to everyone. I haven't played its current version, but I like the idea of it being more solo friendly. Still, as a zone, I'd have preferred it still be something to aspire to, and with the focus more on level scaling up from a single character to a group. Perhaps later content will look more towards that kind of thing. There's still plenty of Nirn left to be added, to say nothing of the more interesting Daedric realms than Coldharbour.
Surely this change makes TEScO feel more like a world rather than a linear path though? Yes and no. Yes, in that you can now play it much more like The Elder Scrolls, but no in that it's still obvious how it was all originally designed for progression. Each zone is reasonably spacious, but you can still see the path painted across the map in waypoints, and great swathes of the world around them aren't actually in the game. You can go to Morrowind, the province, for instance, but not the island of Vvardenfell, where Morrowind the game took place. The entire south east of the map around Shadowfen is completely untouched. In terms of complexity, they're all very flat, very spartan, very simple. Again, it's not reasonable to assume that Skyrim as a small piece of The Elder Scrolls Online will be even as third as interesting as a province that Bethesda proper pored over for years and years. Unfortunately, it's not even a twentieth of it.
All that said, there are definite advantages, not least being able to completely skip some of the awful, awful quests early on that are more sleeping aids than heroic opportunities and plunge straight into interesting stuff like hunting down Worm Cult necromancers and going down into dungeons. Played solo, it's now a very casual friendly MMO. With friends, it's that rare MMORPG that you can actually play on everyone's schedule instead of seeing someone inevitably fall behind and no longer being able to take part. Rewriting the whole world is a more dramatic way of handling the problem than looking at something like City of Heroes' Sidekick/Exemplar system, but definitely one that fits better here than it might have done elsewhere. It's interesting that World of Warcraft has also experimented with level scaling in its new Legion content. Could a similar overhaul of its earlier zones be on the horizon? Or World of Warcraft: Legion's fantastic new world quests head the other way, making Tamriel an evolving playground with stuff going on all over the place rather than focusing on what other landmasses can be added? That'd be my pick for keeping it interesting, instead of places like Skyrim being just zones to visit, hoover up, and never go back to again.
One Tamriel doesn't make The Elder Scrolls Online a game I want to keep playing. I find its take on the world too bland, the quests not interesting enough, and what it does well is done so much better elsewhere that I'd rather wait for the next Skyrim (and all its modding potential) than settle for this overly-diluted Ribena Light of an Elder Scrolls experience. Sorry. I don't like it. I don't think I'm ever going to like it. However, if you've been attracted to the game in the past, then both it cutting out its greatest weakness in the faction system and the other additions and tweaks that have been made since launch do make it a game I can recommend having a second look at - especially if it goes on sale. I'd be less inclined to mention sales if you didn't have to buy a couple of pieces of DLC to get the 'full' Elder Scrolls experience - both the Dark Brotherhood and Thieves Guild content are more than £10 each if you don't take out a subscription.
Still, short of the next proper Elder Scrolls having built in multiplayer, this is as close as you're going to get to joining friends for Tamriel-based adventures (Cue sound of "Ha! You forgot Battlespire!" from someone who never tried to get that sodding thing working). If you can enjoy it for what it is rather than what it could and arguably should have been, there really is quite a bit to like as at least a spin-off, if not actually The Elder Scrolls for an online audience. That may or may not do for now. Personally, the disappointment lingers. Still, the TEScO we have today is still a hell of an improvement on how it was back at launch, and love it or hate it, that's well worth respecting as achievement. So: Hurrah! Now, can we get the next real installment, please?