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'Elder Scrolls Online' levels the playing field for MMO fans on PS4, Xbox One

Even if they haven’t tried “Elder Scrolls Online” before, gamers familiar with the franchise — especially “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” — will feel right at home.

IN-GAME SCREENSHOT

By BRIAN BOWERS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 13, 2015

Tamriel is back where it belongs.

Chatting with furry Khajiit and battling scaly Argonians never felt quite right on the PC even though I spent countless hours playing “The Elder Scrolls Online” when it was released in early 2014. Even then, I was looking forward to the day when I could play the massively multiplayer online game on a console.

Not only was I used to playing the fantasy role-playing game’s predecessors on a console and a big TV screen, but I also suffered from irksome graphics issues that never plagued me on the Xbox or PlayStation. You see, my computer isn’t exactly up to the latest gaming specs — hey, I have kids and keeping a PC up to speed isn’t cheap. As a result, the best graphics I could expect were middling.

It got even worse when I joined the massive online battles for Tamriel’s imperial crown. In order to get my computer and online connection to function at anything approaching reasonable speeds, I had to knock the graphics pretty far down the scale. I’m not saying that my character looked like a Lego knight, but he definitely looked blocky. And there was also an impact on gameplay. Those with fast computers, high-res graphics and faster internet connections could spot me and take me down before I had much of a chance to respond.

However, with the release of “The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited” for consoles, these issues are forgotten. My Dragon Knight is crisp and clear and downright awe-inspiring. And he’s a deadly force on the battlefield, where everyone’s on a level playing field.

Of course those who are entering the game’s latest incarnation won’t necessarily appreciate these and other changes. They just know that they’ve entered a vast and exciting world that’s practically unique among the console games.

“ESO” is the most robust and dynamic MMO ever to appear on the Xbox or PlayStation. Admittedly, there hasn’t been much competition in the past, but it’s impressive that Bethesda Game Studios has been able to bring all of the familiar elements of computer MMOs to the console so smoothly.

You can roam a landscape populated by a multitude of other players as well as nonplayers characters. You can engage in solo quests or gather a party of adventurers and delve into a more complex battle in an underground dungeon. You can also join a few hundred others in the immense three-way battle to capture the imperial crown. And you can gather all the booty you’ve gained during these adventures and sell it to other players.

About the only thing you can’t do easily on the console is type messages to other players. The mechanic, which relies on standard console messaging, is rather clunky but the game has a great voice-chat interface that more than compensates.

Even if they haven’t tried “ESO” before, gamers familiar with the franchise — especially “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” — will feel right at home.

The medieval fantasy world is vast and filled with interesting adventures and unusual people and beastfolk. In addition to humans, elves and orcs, you will encounter – or can play as – catlike Khajiits or a lizardlike Argonians. Characters can still be developed to suit your playing style, too. You can blend the skills of fighters, magic users and rogues a unique warrior. And there’s a full range of crafting abilities, allowing you to forge your own armor and weapons, tailor your own clothing or create your own bow or magic staff.

The controls also are very similar to those of the previous console games so there won’t be a learning curve.

However, “ESO” isn’t exactly like playing “Skyrim” side-by-side with friends. The stories aren’t quite as deep and the graphics aren’t quite as good.

But one nice addition is the system of alliances. Each of the three alliances is based in a different territory and includes different cultures. Although the central story line is the same in each area, the other major adventures, side quests and nonplayers characters differ from alliance to alliance. This offers players three different experiences and adds tremendously to the game’s playability. On the PC, I spent more than 100 hours playing through just one faction’s story line, giving me two others to tackle on the console.

Those who enjoyed the early days on PC will find that many elements of the game have been tweaked or added. Overall, the gameplay is smoother and more balanced.

The most noticeable change is the lack of a monthly subscription fee. After plunking down $60 to buy the game, you don’t have to pay anything else. There are no fees for special weapons or gear that’s needed to advance in the campaign. However, if you’re really eager to spend your money, you can buy additional pets, horses or armor styles that look cool but don’t affect the game’s play. And if you really, really want to pay a subscription fee, there’s a premium package that grants “free” access to downloadable content and in-game bonuses.

“ESO” is a great option for fans of the “Elder Scrolls” franchise or gamers who simply want to play an MMO on a console. However, it doesn’t really reach the heights attainted by other recent single player fantasy role-playing games. Last fall’s “Dragon Age: Inquisition” and this spring’s “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” offer much deeper and richer experiences. In both cases, the quests, dialog and consequences of your actions feel much weightier. The primary characters are developed much more fully and have the ability to interact with nonplayer characters on a much more personal and meaningful level. And, of course, the graphics are better since they don’t have to use processing power to place dozens of other player-characters on the map.

Bottom line: “Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited” does a commendable job of bringing a massively multiplayer online action to consoles.

bowers.brian@stripes.com

Platforms: Xbox One (tested), PlayStation 4
The game is rated M for violence.
Online: www.elderscrollsonline.com

In “Elder Scrolls Online," players can join a few hundred others in the immense three-way battle to capture the imperial crown. And they can gather all the booty gained during these adventures and sell it to other players.
IN-GAME SCREENSHOT

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