Review by Doug Waters
Edited by Sam Hughes
Developer: ZeniMax Online Studios
Composers: Brad Derrick & Jeremy Soule (Main Theme Only)
Sound Design: Joshua Smith, Michael Schwendler & co.
Reviewed on: PS4
Set 1000 years before the events of 2011’s award winning The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the main storyline of The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited revolves around a Daedric Prince named Molag Bal. Bal is invading the entirety of Tamriel by merging his plane of Oblivion with ours and it’s up to you, a mighty hero of Tamriel, to put a stop to it.
It’s been well over a year since The Elder Scrolls Online was initially released on PC, Mac and Steam, and ZeniMax Studios’ MMORPG has seen a lot of changes in the past 12 months! Earlier this year the entire game was rebranded as The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited, with the PS4 and Xbox One versions being released back in June. The game received mixed reviewed upon first release, many criticizing it for the amount of bugs, lack of promoting playing with others and not living up to the epicness shown in the trailers. Because of these perceived pitfalls, many gamers felt that it just wasn’t worth the initial payment for the game and a monthly subscription fee; a feature that was dropped in March of this year. Since it’s rebranding and release on current generation consoles The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited has received more positive reviews. So without further ado, lets take a look at what we thought of the audio!
With such a large world filled with many, many diverse characters and people, voice acting was always going to be important in immersing players in the world of Tamriel. Just as we might be able to recognize where someone is from based on their accent, so too can players recognize where a particular NPC comes from, for example, characters hailing from Orlais in Bioware’s Dragon Age series have a distinct French tone and use many recognizable French pronunciations.
However, with so many characters in the game, it would be near impossible to give each one a completely unique voice, even in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, voice actor Michael Gough alone voiced over 100 characters!
As with previous Elder Scrolls games, certain important characters have their own unique voices. In Tamriel Unlimited, players will be able to recognize the unmistakable, talented voices of John Cleese, Michael Gambon, Kate Beckinsale, Malcolm McDowell, Lynda Carter, Bill Nighy and Alfred Molina. For some of these actors, it’s their very first time as a voice actor for a video game. Kate Beckinsale for example, has stated that she’d definitely do voice acting for a game again. The voices of these celebrated actors really brings an individual life to their characters. It is so well done that you just want to hear their dialogue over and over again (I must admit, I did spend a long time talking to John Cleese’s character, Sir Cadwell, just so I could hear all his lines!).
Despite the incredible talent of the voice actors, I sometimes found the dialogue of other characters in the game somewhat stale and dull. I occasionally found myself not fully listening to, or taking in what a character was saying. It’s a great shame, as I had to then go over and listen to the dialogue for a second time, breaking my state of immersion in the game. I found that sometimes this was because of long and occasionally drawn out lines of dialogue, but also some voices just sound incredibly monotone in their delivery; especially those given to characters belonging to the reptilian race of Argonians. Perhaps this is just limited to the Argonians I’ve met so far in the game, but I recall the Argonians in Skyrim having much more emotion and depth to their voices.
Some of the voices also just seem better placed than others. For instance, although his voice has now been changed for Tamriel Unlimited, Brackenleaf originally sounded incredibly weak and unimaginative for a character who is a massive sentient talking tree. This begs the question, if this is one character that ZeniMax felt needed an updated voice, how many others have been just left as they were, as the studio ran out of time before release?
As many players of previous titles in the series will know, the Elder Scrolls games are always accompanied by absolutely beautiful and nostalgic music. Tamriel Unlimited is no exception.
Ever since 2002’s The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Jeremy Soule has been the main composer for the series. However, Tamriel Unlimited doesn’t feature a whole lot of music from Jeremy Soule, instead the reins are handed over to composer Brad Derrick, with a few works from Rik Schaffer. Jeremy Soule is still responsible for reimaging the Elder Scrolls theme for this game. Nevertheless Brad Derrick’s music still captures the same grandeur and magnificence seen and heard in previous Elder Scrolls titles.
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The music doesn’t follow a complicated system of layering or vertical re-orchestration, but much like previous games simply fades out one track in favour of another. In games of such scale that require many, many hours of gameplay (I put over 100 hours into Skyrim alone!), you have to ask just how much space is left for a complex audio system and is it even necessary? Tamriel Unlimited certainly doesn’t suffer from it, the music still works amazingly well to empower moments of action and immerse the player. I recall, during a particular mission I had to go and save my NPC comrades from an invading force, and the music that accompanied my flight to their aid made me feel truly heroic! I don’t recall many times feeling as heroic as that even in Skyrim!
With a game featuring easily over 150 hours of content, it would be incredibly boring for players to hear the same voices over and over again, and would generally break immersion a lot of the time. Now, consider just how many more times you hear sound design than voices in a game, and you’ll have some idea of how important varied sound design can be.
Tamriel Unlimited features some truly solid sound design, from the metallic clashing of combat to the intense sounds of spells to the wealth of monsters and creatures inhabiting the lands of Tamriel. As written on their website, Dynamedion (founders of the BOOM sound effects library) are responsible for the sound design of the various monsters and creatures your character will run into and are quoted as having designed more than 1500 creature SFX for the game! Michael Schwendler, Lead Sound Designer at Dynamedion stated:
“Working on a game with so many creatures was challenging and fun at the same time. Fortunately we had all the BOOM Library stuff. We used a lot of the creatures, horses, dogs and of course the wildcats. We are very proud of the result and being part of such an amazing project.”
Only once so far have I found that my immersion has been broken by annoyingly repetitive sounds. The incident in question involves finding and returning a dog to his owners, and while there was nothing wrong with the sounds that were being triggered, the dog was just constantly barking whilst running along. There were no sounds of panting, as one might expect from a dog that is running, just constant unending WOOFs! I understand it may seem picky to some and maybe your dog does constantly bark, in which case I feel for your ears, but it just stuck out far too much for my liking as something a real dog just wouldn’t do, perhaps let alone be able to!
It was always going to be difficult not to compare Tamriel Unlimited to the hugely successful Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, but you’ll find the two can be hugely different. Skyrim is a great, solid single player RPG experience with the same freedom of choice play-style that the series is known for. To be honest, at times I’m not sure even Tamriel Unlimited knows what it is; it sometimes leaves you feeling like it’s not sure whether it wants to be a single player RPG like Skyrim or an MMO experience akin to Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft.
The gameplay trailers shown in the lead up to the console release dates all showed how you’d finally be able to play with your friends and others in the world of Elder Scrolls; a setting you’ve come to know and love from previous games. However, at times I’ve found my enjoyment and immersion in the game ruined by just that, playing with others.
So I’m off on a quest with my friend to fight a massive boss that’s threatening the realm. Just like each of us would do in Skyrim, we decide to play it sneaky and take this new enemy by surprise. We’re both in position, ready to strike, and just at that moment another group of higher level players run in and kill the boss in seconds, completely spoiling our perfect setup, but more than this, ruining how much of an epic confrontation this was going to feel for the both of us.
Even worse than that, in some dungeons we came across piles of the dead bodies of the same boss, killed over and over and over again by players just waiting for the boss to re-spawn. It was moments like this that absolutely shattered our immersion and interest in the game. I’ve read many stories of the same thing happening to others; others that then switched over to playing games like Bungie’s Destiny instead. It’s just such a shame. Especially when those first few snippets of development and the storyline trailers showed so much promise. But, maybe I’m just not cut out for playing MMOs!
Alas, I digress, excuse my slight sidetrack; I’m here to talk about the audio of The Elder Scrolls Online!
Now I know I still have a lot to play, being only a handful of hours in, but from what I’ve heard, I’m overall rather impressed. With every audio aspect of the game, be that music, sound or voiceover, there are some truly amazing moments. During epic confrontations, the music reaches new and powerful heights that really empower you as a player, and I would argue is some of the best Elder Scrolls music we’ve heard in the series so far! The sound design is at times incredibly crisp and solid. The clashing sound of sword, shield and spells in combat make for some of the most enjoyable and immersive moments in the game, but is let down at times by not enough variation between consecutive hits and some elements (such as the dog mentioned earlier) just being overdone, distracting the player. Finally, what an amazing job the ‘big’ named voice actors have done with their parts, these key characters are made so much stronger, more human and with real emotions and feelings; at times you can hear the story of a character in just their voice. Yet, it sometimes felt like the same level of love and detail just wasn’t put into the other NPC’s voices; whether through poor scripting or unimaginative voice overs, the player is occasionally left bored and detached from the plight of certain characters.
The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited has seemed to be a mixed bag on many fronts, and after playing it for a few hours you can see what has caused the upset for fans of the series.
If you loved the music of Skyrim and films like The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, then I’m sure you will love the soundtrack for ESO: Tamriel Unlimited. The sound design and voice over work is amazing in many places, and alas it’s just let down by a few moments.
It’s a game I will probably continue to play for a while for Jemery Soule and Brad Derrick’s nostalgic, uplifting and epic music. But, I fear in time I may stop playing the game altogether, just purchase the soundtrack on iTunes and instead pray to Akatosh for the arrival of the next single player Elder Scrolls game.
Were there any moments when you felt the audio elements brought more to your gameplay experience? Or perhaps you just have a favourite piece of music from the soundtrack? If you’ve had experience of playing The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited we’d love to hear your views on the music, sound-design and voice acting!
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The Sound Architect