Matt Firor, President of ZeniMax Online Studios (who has worked on Dark Age of Camelot and all of its expansions), gave us our first look at gameplay for The Elder Scrolls Online. Working closely with Todd Howard and his team to ensure the lore and continuity holds across all titles, Matt and his team have set out to make the socially connected MMO ever built. They want you to make friends, make enemies, and do so in a way that is natural to gameplay. Core to the Elder Scrolls titles is the concept of player choice. Unlike any other MMO, they want to allow players the chance to play this MMO the way they’d play the epic single-player RPGs they’ve come to know and love. Before we got into gameplay, we got to take a look at the warring factions that are involved in the struggle for Cyrodil.
The Elder Scrolls online takes place roughly 1000 years before the events of Skyrim, just before the rise of the Emperor Tiber Septim. The entire continent of Tamriel is at war, and players will be able to join the battle as a part of one of three factions. The Aldmeri Dominion are comprised of Altmer, Bosmer, and Khajiit, and their symbol is a bird of prey. The Ebonhart Pact are composed of Dunmer, Nords, and Argonias with their symbol being a dragon. The final loop of the title’s uraboros symbol is that of the Daggerfall Covenant which the Bretons, Redguard, and Orcs call home – their symbol is that of a lion. In the middle of these alliances is Cyrodil. Cyrodil, fearing invasion from all sides, has raised an undead army to rise up against the other three, or at least protect themselves, and that army serves as a central point of contention for the player to deal with.
On the player side, the Daedric Prince Molag Bal (you might recall Molag Bal as the supposed source of the vampires in Morrowind, and a major sidequest character in Skyrim as well) has stolen your soul, and you’ll literally have to save the world to get it back. This main mission can be played entirely solo or with friends – once again the choice is yours.
As this title is an MMO, it is inherently difficult to demonstrate in a short period of time. To that end, Matt shows us a very quick flyby video that shows some of the creatures, people, and places we’ll see in The Elder Scrolls Online. We see Wayrest City, a beautiful shrine, a windmill on the hillside, the Cities of Daggerfall, Mournehold, Skyrim, Sentinal (the capital of Hammerfell), and Ebonhart, as well as many creatures and player types including Bretons, Dark Elves, Argonians, a mudcrab, a Dwemer Centurion Sphere, a Clannfear, and even a Fire Atronoch. Graphically the game looks very much like Skyrim in terms of quality. We also get to see some of the great environments we’ll encounter in the game including a beautiful coastline, a desert landscape complete with little lizards running around, a swamp with hanging moss trees, a ruin, and much more. Day transitions to night showing the beautiful lighting engine underneath the hood. Seeing the Dunmer homeland once again brought back a lot of memories playing Morrowind.
Though we didn’t get to see much of them, the game just wouldn’t be the same without dungeons. The team has standard group instance dungeons, which will have a Heroic setting on them for additional difficulty, but they are also fucused heavily on end-game raiding. The dungeons are heavily focused on traps and puzzles, and we saw a small example of that with a constealltion map puzzle that had a person trapped underneath a bubble shield.
As I mentioned, Zenimax Online is trying to make this game very social. To that end, they’ve ensured that you are never punished for helping another player. They want to use public dungeons as a main social driver by incenting players to help one another. This means that when you enter a non-instanced public dungeon you may see several people battling tough monsters, and you can join in to help getting full rewards for your effort. Everyone gets XP, everyone gets loot, and your skills are bumped up temporarily as you help others. Since the class system gives players more than one role to take in a group, there is a better than average chance that you’ll be able to find your niche in a pick-up-group, even if you’ve never met your party members before now.
After all of that setup, it was time to see combat in action. The combat engine had two primary goals – first, make it more action oriented than a traditional MMO, and second, make sure it works within the Elder Scrolls paradigm set by previous games. To that end, the combat engine revolves around health, magicka, and stamina – all familiar elements from previous games. While some skills do have cooldowns, all of your skills and powers are directly controlled by those three stats. In fact, even the cooldowns that I just mentioned can be shortened by putting enough points into a particular stat. Even stealth can be engaged without a cooldown, though how successful you are is determined by your skills and what types of armor you might be wearing at the time.
When we first get to see the game in flight, it’s clear that the UI philosophy is very simplified. Certainly, there are placeholders for graphics in place, but even those minimize when they are not needed. Blocking uses a stamina resource, so initiating a block brings up the stamina bar – the same is true of stealth. The team believes that they will be able to minimize all of the items on screen so as to allow the player to simply enjoy the beautiful vistas of Tamriel.
Finally getting to cross swords with an opponent, we tangle with a female fighter. The combat goes back and forth, with us finally blocking a regular attack with our shield and then taking her down with a charged sword strike while she is stunned. All of this combat occurs in real time, so you’ll have to do more than just hammer the number keys to last in combat.
In a concept called Synergy, the enemies will also be able ot use these real time attacks and blocks. Since the enemies don’t use pre-scripted character builds, you may encounter a mage, a fighter, or something in between every time they spawn. In this case we see a frost mage that sets up a frost shield. As we take down another fighter, a necromancer NPC raises a skeleton from the fallen body. We use a skill called Dragon Skin that pulses heat, damaging everyone in the area. Doing well in combat generates finesse – we see the rewards of that system in the form of an extra box full of reward goodies. Playing this same battle again, but with another player might generate more finesse as one player uses AOE attacks while the warrior engages at point-blank range.
In our first quest demonstration we start off towards the city of Camlorn (a city-state kingdom near High Rock). The city has been overrun by a group of werewolves. We can choose to investigate this issue and help the mage’s guild, or we can wander off to another point of interest that beckons on our compass, including other dungeons, chests, special npcs, and more. In the end, we choose to end the werewolf threat. As we get to Camlorn we see an NPC with a gold shroud around him – an indicator that he’s an NPC we might want to talk to. After our fully-voiced converation with the NPC, we head off to check out the Alessian Wraiths in the nearby old battlefield. These spririts represent the risen dead of a battle that revealed something never before seen – an undead werewolf. This wolf turned the tide in this ancient war, and we are now going to try to reverse it. Talking to a ghost named Alana Relin we travel to the past to try to reverse the outcome of this battle, or at least glean information that could benefit us against the threat in the current time. Before we battle Faolchu The Changeling we run across a friend that needs rescuing. Our choice of whether or not to rescue her will have direct ramifications in the future – in the end we do the right thing and set her free from her bonds and she reveals that Faolchu is vulnerable to fire. As we fight him we lure him into nearby fire sources, causing him to revert to human form which allows us to slay him. With knowledge in hand, we travel back to the future. The spirits are quiet now, and we are armed with information that will allow us to defeat the undead werewolf – we have discovered his weakness, and we have changed the past.
PvP play is a huge part of some player’s enjoyment of an MMO, so we got a chance to check that out in brief video form. Based on the alliance setup detailed above, the objective is to have huge battles with hundreds of players on screen at once. All of the factions are fighting voer Cyrodiil, and you must capture and hold keeps and castles as you press deeper into the country, eventually crowning a player Emperor. We see a battle with over 150 players on the screen battling it out as meteors rain down, necromancers steal life, and warriors clash sword and shield. They intend to push the engine harder to get much higher numbers as the game moves closer to release.
In the end, the direction that Matt and his team are trying to make is clear – this game is about going where you want to go, doing what you want to do, meeting friends, and making enemies. It is your Elder Scrolls game – you will play it as you see fit. The developers are trying to make the game’s specs much lower than you’d expect, as well as driving it to be very laptop friendly. While we don’t have exact numbers on those specs, we’ll keep you posted when they get firmed up.
The Elder Scrolls Online launches in 2013 on PC and Mac. Stay tuned – this world is huge, and we’ll be hearing a lot more about it in the coming year.