When I think about The Elder Scrolls series I think about the thousands of hours I’ve spent exploring every inch of Tamriel. I’ve plumbed the depths of the Red Mountain. I’ve scoured the provinces of High Rock and Hammerfell to recover the Mantella. I remember my swashbuckling adventures as Cyrus the Redguard. My wallet remembers having to upgrade my machine to run Morrowind, spending every waking moment stuffing my pockets full in Bethesda’s first hand-crafted world. I’ve entered the gates of Oblivion and defeated many filthy mudcrabs. I’ve challenged dragons, learned their language, and walked through the Throat of the World. I guess what I’m saying is…I’m kind of a fan. You can imagine that I was very excited to finally get my hands on The Elder Scrolls Online, jealous at every post on Reddit where some random reader got their invite to test it out.
Unlike most of the hands-on demos at E3 this year, we had free reign over the machines. Left to our own devices, we were free to explore the interactive world, customize our character (though our options in this area were limited in the interests of time), and otherwise try out anything and everything we’d care to discover.
Much like Skyrim, the game focuses heavily on exploration. Unlike some titles where you go to town, gather up all of the missions for the area, and then set out to solve them en masse, TESO turns you loose and lets you discover things in a more natural way. As you solve the quests in one area you might spot a point of interest on your HUD, enticing you to go discover what’s literally over the next hill.
The demonstration area for our time with the game was both familiar and new – Daggerfall City. Wanting to discover things off the beaten path, I immediately set out for the countryside to see where my wanderlust would lead me. The first thing I noticed is that all of these leaked videos of the game in motion do not do the visual quality of TESO justice. The early build we were playing didn’t contain the much-anticipated first-person perspective, but this instead gave us a look at the details from third-person. The cloth on my selected caster class flexed and bent naturally, flowing under my feet as I ran around and engaged in combat.
Cresting a small foothill I spied a nearby Mill that was on fire – an obvious chance to try out the questing and reward system. Something off to the side caught my eye, and given my rogue-like tendencies, I couldn’t resist. Stepping up to the nearby box I dispatched some wolves that had decided they didn’t want me hanging around their den. Squatting down I pulled some lockpicks from my bag and set to work on the tumblers. My skill was low and the lock was tough. Each tumbler has to be lifted into position, but not too far lest it spring back into the bottom position. Given the rapidly draining timer and the finite amount of picks, I steeled my nerves and carefully clicked each in place. As the last tumbler fell into place I popped open the box, netting some leather and a shiny new dagger for my efforts. Slipping both into my pack, I decided the Mill had burned long enough.
As I looked around the surrounding forest area for crafting materials I found myself suddenly facing a small bandit camp. Ducking down I saw the familiar eye icon appear – I was hidden. Combat is as intuitive and straightforward as it was in Skyrim, giving us basic attacks on the left mouse click and heavy attacks being charged with a long click. Like nearly every MMO, you also have a quickbar full of goodies to swat down your foes. Being a caster class I knew using my staff wasn’t going to do me any favors, so I snuck up with my dagger and attempted a backstab. Flubbing the attack, my foe turned on me and I spent the remainder of my time trying to regain distance and crush him with my minor level five spells. Before you get an image in your head of sitting back and just hitting the 1-5 keys like World of Warcraft, let me dispel that for you. In this case spells and attacks are unleashed immediately and with no cooldown. This makes it feel more like what you’ve played in Skyrim and Oblivion, giving players a chance to be a true spellsword or any other combination they can concoct in their heads. The fantastic part is that it immediately felt familiar – the team at Zenimax Online has turned what was a single-player combat experience into something that everyone can enjoy together.
Your success or failure in TESO is, as it was in Oblivion or Skyrim, tied to three stats – health, stamina, and magicka. Health is obvious, magicka fuels your spells (again, no cooldown so unleash at will), and stamina handles things like your class-specific special attacks, dodges, blocks, and any sort of melee strikes. Leveling up gives you points that you might invest in those three areas, as well as a skill point for you to spend. Unlike Oblivion, the trees are less single-player-centric but still very consistent with the universe that Bethesda has provided us for all these years. Want to stack your thief heavy with a sword, shield, and full plate armor? That character will be a tough cookie, but good luck with that stealth, Mr. Clunky. Want a wizard who is also a thief? Easily done. Want a warrior who can flip between offensive and defensive roles? I expect we’ll see a lot of them. The great part is that the choice is entirely yours – the class is almost arbitrary, minus a specific skill path that exists only with that class.
It wouldn’t be an Elder Scrolls game without guilds. There are factions already present in the game (though The Dark Brotherhood and Thieves’ Guild won’t be in at launch) and you are free to join some, all, or none of them as you see fit. I was even told “vampires, werewolves…uhm….maybe I shouldn’t have said those last two” during the event, so shifter fans can be happy. It will be interesting to see how those guilds benefit players, and how much control over the populace will have over them.
Finally with enough materials to do some crafting, I called over one of the TESO team to give me some insight into the whole system. There are five total professions in the game at this point – provisioner (read: cook), armorsmith, weaponsmith, alchemist, and enchanter. You are free to play with all of them, but you may only master one per character. The great part is that all of them support the dangerously fun experimentation system that we saw in Skyrim. Popping open my pack, I had managed to scrape together enough for a weak healing potion. The developer pointed out that each thing you build unlocks other hidden properties that come with practice and reverse-engineering of things you pick up. These hidden properties can then be applied to items you craft, giving you more potent health potions, stamina potions that also have minor short-lived invisibility, or even adding lightning to a sword. While they weren’t talking a lot about PvP, the team member did mention that crafting is inexorably tied to it as you’ll be crafting and upgrading siege equipment.
Once you complete the areas tied to your particular faction and you hit level 50, you’ll be asked to choose a second faction. If this sounds like the MMO version of “New Game+” you’ve got the right idea. You’ll be able to access new areas with ramped-up difficulty level and rewards to let you see previously locked zones without having to build a new character. Pull it off again and you’ll get a swipe at the third faction. It’s a pretty elegant method of creating end-game content while letting players continue enjoying their favorite toons.
So obviously given the length of this “short preview” I enjoyed the game. I found myself already figuring out which faction I wanted and mentally planning out my gameplan for skills and professions. What was the key to making me this excited? TESO has put Role Playing in MMORPGs. I was pretty amazed at how the team had managed to make something that has, since my childhood, been a single-player experience and expanded it into something that I can enjoy with my friends. The prospect of high-level abilities like limited flight, a massive PvP system with siege warfare, and the ability to stuff my pockets full of everything that isn’t bolted down has got me excited to jump back into an MMO – something I’ve not felt for a long time. I’d like to thank the team for the opportunity to finally get my hands on the game, and let them know that they can throw me a beta key any time now……aaaaany time…..my birthday was the 3rd of July – just sayin’.
The Elder Scrolls Online ships for PC this Fall and on Next-Gen consoles in early 2014.