Satisfying the Unlimited Tastes of Gamers: Review of “Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited”

Nostalgia is a tricky thing, making us desire things without fully thinking them through and falling into the perils of The Twilight Zone in which you have to be careful what you wish for. For years, gamers have been asking for more and more in their games, even while simultaneously citing titles with very specific beginnings, middles, and ends as their all-time favorites. Now, they’re starting to reap the “rewards” of their petitioning, with titles being stretched thin and past the point of enjoyment in an attempt to grind out length over quality. That’s not to say that a title can’t have both–there’s a reason why Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn has been able to maintain its subscription-based model–but it was clear from Elder Scrolls Online‘s decision to go buy-to-play (hence the “unlimited” subtitle) that you’d get what you were willing to pay for, and nothing more. There’s a decent, if boilerplate, story within ESO, but that’s to be expected given Bethesda’s success with Skyrim, Oblivion, and Fallout. The choice to turn a successful single-player franchise into an online behemoth is just the consequence of market research, and so ESO offers a bunch of grinding, time-suck features that really aren’t needed or appreciated.

My full thoughts and review on the subject can be found, as always, at Slant Magazine. But the larger question remains as to why we need a seemingly unlimited game in the first place. Why are we so afraid of endings? Our books and television series (even soap operas!) are self-contained pleasures, so why do we put unreasonable expectations on games to overstay their welcome? There’s nothing in the fiftieth hour of Elder Scrolls Online that I hadn’t experienced by the twentieth, and the rewards for sticking around are ever-more diminished. Likewise, the immersion of the single-player content is tarnished by having to watch other player characters running about, generally making a nuisance of themselves and stealing your precious resource nodes as you patiently wait for your horse-dismounting animation to run its course. My favorite portions of ESO were those with beginnings, middles, and ends–the four-player dungeons, which played like novellas (or D&D modules)–and I actually found myself growing weary of the grinding that was necessary to unlock the next tier, let alone the idling about that I had to do while waiting to queue up with a party. There were whole swathes of PvP that I felt entirely excluded from on account of having not played enough of the game–it was a popularity contest all over again. In attempting to be everything to everybody, the game is therefore plagued by long stretches of void-worthy nothingness. A few of the better written solo quests and the main content stood out, but the majority of it bled together. One Dwarven ruin was much like the next; I longed for the ability to slaughter an entire tribe of Ghost Snake worshippers because they’d dared to waste my time.

If we must compromise, then, show me a world in which a rich single-player campaign is backed by an open-ended multiplayer one (like the upcoming Uncharted 4). Not one in which the two modes have to compete with one another, or where the good parts of ESO are stretched thin (asset recycling is frequent) in an attempt to ensure that single-player fans don’t complain about the lack of things to do. (Note to developers: there will always be those who complain, no matter how much you add.) Destiny is a clear example of a single-player game subsumed by the multiplayer hordes; ESO demonstrates time and again how much multiplayer is interfering with some of the basic pleasures already perfected by Skryim. It’s odd that in a time when developers are publishing more titles than ever, they’re simultaneously creating infinite games: we’re all going to move on to, say, Batman: Arkham Knight tomorrow (and something else a few weeks after that), so it’s not even as if ESO will have the dedicated users necessary to last forever (especially with all the other competing time-suck MMOs). If a tree falls an unlimited number of times but people eventually stop watching it, is it now limited?

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