My career as a criminal begins in the little town of Rawl'kha, just after I, ahem, accidentally slam my two-handed sword into the face of a guard. I'm just goofing off in town as I always did before Elder Scrolls Online's transition to buy-to-play, but today he's not amused. He's vulnerable. What's worse, he's angry. And so he chases me down and demands around 260 gold to let the incident pass, but cheapskate that I am, I run instead to the lonely fields of Reaper's March, initially planning to let the bounty dwindle away while offline. But that gets boring; I instead succumb to the thrill of crime under TESO's new justice system. I kill NPCs and steal with abandon. By the time a guard cuts me down in Narsis, my bounty's up to 15,612 gold, and it all automatically comes out of my own pocket.
By the Nine, ZeniMax, why wasn't this kind of stuff in at launch? It's a shame you can't hunt down players under the system (although that'll come "later"), but this—this is Elder Scrolls. Elder Scrolls Online never disappointed me as much as it did Chris Thursten, but it's impossible to argue that TESO's initial release didn't fall far short of the promise inherent in the Elder Scrolls title. Tamriel Unlimited changes much of that. Today, not only can I attack guards and non-essential NPCs, but I can pickpocket and kill them as well and thus expose myself to bounties and attacks from town guards. In my more peaceful moods, I sneak around houses and shops, stealing provisioning supplies and pilfering goods that I later sell to a fence. It's great stuff, and this feature suffices to elevate a fairly generic MMORPG experience into something unique and memorable.
The sprawling extent of the changes does much to justify the 2.0 descriptor normally reserved for a new expansion. They fundamentally change the game, and almost always for the better. It wasn't too long ago, for instance, that I could safely joke that this was "Elder Mages Online," owing to the overemphasis on magicka in endgame group content. I may have spent my time leveling as a Nightblade and a Dragonknight with the bladed weapons traditionally associated with similar classes, but in the raid-like trials, it was all light armor for magicka regeneration and a destruction or healing staff, which were near-necessities. I wanted to smash things with big swords; this wasn't what I signed up for.
The new Champion System fixes that. It pops up when you've hit the ostensible level cap of 50 in the form of constellations that recall Skyrim's skill trees, and you fill it with up to 3,600 points that alter your playstyle. (Reaching that number will likely take years. If you do use all of them, I think it's safe to say you have a problem.) Want to be an effective bow-and-dagger Nightblade? Toss some points into stamina regeneration and critical chance. A better tank? Throw some in damage reduction. I sometimes worry that the system runs the risk of alienating newer players who'll be hopelessly behind a few months from now, but a rested XP system of sorts that eases the process of gaining a new champion point goes a long way toward remedying that. It's a good system overall, and it nudges TESO closer to the ideal of playing how you want, when you want.
ZeniMax took a page from ArenaNet's Guild Wars 2 to keep the cash rolling in and introduced a cash shop filled mostly with cosmetic items like costumes and mounts. The difference is that I actually want to buy items from Guild Wars 2's cash shop; ZeniMax's offerings are almost insulting in their mediocrity. Costumes exist, yes, but for the most part they're merely complete versions of humdrum gear you can already craft in-game or see on any NPC faction grunt running around Tamriel. Where's something like the iconic Dovahkiin armor from Skyrim? Where's some kind of barding for my horse as an inside joke referencing Oblivion's much maligned Horse Armor DLC? The best items on sale are the new guar mounts, but even they seem frivolous for loyal veterans like me who've already spent 42,700 gold on their Midnight Steed.
That's a shame, since the game practically screams for the introduction of certain cash shop items. Hell, there could be a "potion" for around five bucks that saved your current look as a costume or more simply, an option to change names. If we can't be allowed to change our races or factions (which makes some sense, considering the game's design), why can't we at least get a "makeover kit" that lets us get rid of that awful beard we chose at character creation?
If that seems like an excessive amount of ink to spill over a peripheral feature, it's only because it hints that ZeniMax still doesn't fully grasp how to handle the MMORPG crowd. Multiple examples of unintrusive but appealing cash shops already exist, and yet TESO's Crown Store comes off like a rough draft that somehow got mixed up in the official launch. At worst, it makes me wonder if they'll take the same approach to future content.
But that shouldn't detract from the simple truth that buy-to-play is a good move for TESO. Stripped of the pressures of its required subscription fee, TESO becomes an enjoyable RPG that delivers content at one's own pace and allows extensive playstyle choices. Features like the justice system shake up its former predictability, and should only get better when ZeniMax adds PvP elements to the fun. Annoyances like the sloggy Veteran levels remain, but ZeniMax's work here gives me hope that these troubles can be fixed in a decent timeframe. Tamriel Unlimited isn't anywhere near the kind of makeover that Square Enix accomplished with Final Fantasy XIV in 2013, but it was created in the same spirit, and it transforms a comparative failure into a world that feels new, fresh, and worth living in.
Or at least, you know, until the next single-player Elder Scrolls game comes out.