If I had to pick a handful of gaming moments that will stay with me forever, three of them would be stepping into Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim for the first time. Another would be my first few days in World of Warcraft. At face value, combining Elder Scrolls with an MMO should lead to instant RPG nirvana. But the reality of the situation is much different.
Elder Scrolls Online is being created in an era of acute MMO fatigue. An era in which gamers who put off term papers to work the slot machine of mostly-samey content direction look to any new entry in the genre with the suspicion and cynicism of a too-many-times-spurned romantic. (Not that I would know anything about that.)
It was with this in mind that I went hands-on with ZeniMax Online's new contender to ask the question: Is this just another MMO with an Elder Scrolls veneer? Or has the dream of a living, multiplayer Elder Scrolls world been realized?
If you're looking for a comprehensive rundown of the game's headline features, meanwhile, Chris has discussed them all in some detail in his Elder Scrolls Online hands-on preview - including the newly announced first-person mode, stealth, skills and more. You should also check out our video interview with game director Matt Firor and lead gameplay designer Nick Konkle about their experiences crafting the game.
What I loved
Elder Scrolls-style combat. ESO has been designed around a lot of the same basic ideas we're familiar with from Skyrim and Oblivion. Left mouse to attack, right mouse to block. Holding block and attacking executes a bash that can interrupt spellcasting. Arrows and spells have to be aimed with your reticle. You do have a hotbar, but it's pared down to about Guild Wars 2-size, and the devs have clearly stated that they don't want you worrying about it too much in combat. You also won't be forced into Tank/Healer/DPS roles. Adhering to said roles will help players manage the game's hardest enemies, according to the devs. However, they're looking to maximize the variety of builds that are viable against such challenges.
This isn't to say that it feels exactly like Skyrim or Oblivion... but we'll get into that on the next page.
You can build your character however you want, and skills level up as you use them. You do get a token choice of "classes" (which are kind of boring and unnecessary, and will be discussed on the next page), but it's a choice that can be completely ignored if you choose. Your class determines three of the Skill Lines you have access to, while the others, universal across all characters, are based on weapon types, fighting styles, armor classes, and magic schools.
You have to have a certain overall character level to unlock new skills (think perks from Skyrim, or talents from other MMOs), but once unlocked, they will progress in power through repeated usage. It's not precisely the same as the way it works in Skyrim, but if you, say, hit level 5 and unlock a two-handed cleave, that cleave skill on your hotbar will get stronger the more you use it.
The music and art style feel like Elder Scrolls. Some of the early previews we saw seemed to feature slightly goofy, overly-cartoony character models. That was not the case in the build I played (though it could be an issue of starter armor looking more Spartan and realistic). The models seemed proportioned correctly, and the textures, characters, and architecture struck just the right balance between fantasy and gritty realism we've seen in the series' history.
The environments still suffer from "MMO gigantism," which I'm told has something to do with camera distances, though I've never really bought its necessity. Luckily, from what I saw, it's not as horrendously distracting as it was in The Old Republic.
Full voice acting, and quest choices that matter. Every quest in the game will feature voice acting, and from what was shown, it mostly rates somewhere between okay and good. You'll also get to make choices in quests that affect more than an alignment meter, with recurring characters sometimes living or dying based on what you do. And unlike TOR, some of them will actually show up again if you spared their lives. We didn't get to play enough to see how far this extends, but it already seems to be more impactful than the "Take your Light/Dark Side points and never speak of this again" model that TOR used.
A promising crafting system. I could count the MMOs that have done this well on one hand, following an unfortunate table saw accident. ESO's crafting is actually one of the more potentially fun systems I've had a look at in a while. In addition to base ingredients, you'll be able to introduce additives to your creations, each of which have four random properties (like Skyrim's alchemy ingredients). It encourages experimentation in a way I found entertaining.
Oh, and every armor piece and weapon that was shown in the demo can be made in one of nine racial styles, tied to the playable races of Tamriel. All crafters start off able to craft their own racial style, but can learn others.
Enemies that work together intelligently. The most unexpected thing that impressed me about ESO was the design of the enemy AI. As they move about in combat, enemies will adjust their tactics based on how many allies they have nearby, the position of those allies, and what their allies are capable of. Humanoids will call to each other, allowing you to react to their intentions. Synergies are created when rogue-types douse the ground in oil, so their mage friend can light it aflame under your feet. In a particularly extreme example, a group of necromancers sacrificed one of their own in a ritual to summon a powerful, undead bruiser.
They can't pull off the kinds of complex maneuvers a player party might, but compared to common world enemies in other MMOs, they're a few tactical steps ahead.
On the next page: What I didn't love.
Everything on the previous page has me pretty excited for Elder Scrolls Online, especially considering my level of indifference about it going in. But like a good skooma trip, the time always rolls around when you have to come down and face reality. ESO probably isn't going to be the mythical "WoW killer," nor the multiplayer game every Elder Scrolls fan has been asking for.
What I didn't like
The combat isn't quite there yet. Yes, I both loved and didn't love ESO's combat; it's one of the most important things for the game to get right. ESO has all the trappings of Skyrim's combat, but it lacks its immediacy and kinetic physicality. You feel more like you're swinging at or through opponents than actually connecting. Blocking and bashing, as well, are based on visual prompts, turning combat into more of a "hit the right buttons at the right time" exercise than Skyrim or Oblivion's gritty "keep your guard up and look for an opening."
I am willing to wait and see on this. There's still time for improvements before launch that wouldn't require a gutting of the entire system. And it's not terrible as it is: It feels about the same as Guild Wars 2, falling a bit short of Tera—the latter being the gold standard for MMO action combat, in my opinion.
Classes seem like an afterthought, and don't cover enough niches. ESO has classes. But it doesn't need them, and I don't really understand why they're there. Only four will launch with the game: Dragonknight, Sorcerer, Templar, and Nightblade. Those basically boil down to samurai, mage, paladin, and rogue. The thing is, you can already build more or less any of those character types using the universal skill lines that are independent of your class. Variety is nice, but I would have preferred the addition of more universal skill lines than these four, tacked-on, oddly-specific archetypes.
A lot of concepts are left out in the cold, since you can't just choose not to take a class. If I want want my build to be something like a Nord berserker, I can forge something along those lines with non-class skill lines. But I have to pick a class that doesn't fit my concept on top of that, leaving me with skill trees that will just sit, forever ignored, on my character sheet. I expect we'll see more classes added over time, but right now, they seem too narrow and almost vestigial.
The dungeon layouts draw from MMOs more than they do from Elder Scrolls games. The design of MMO dungeons—the ones scattered in the world, moreso than instanced content—is absolutely boring. I want to get lost in ESO's world, but in the game's cavernous, straightforward, open-layout dungeons, it would be hard for even a blind Moth Priest to get lost. Sure, the Dwemer ruins look nice. But they lack the sense of mystery, and the feeling of delving into the unknown, claustrophobic bowels of the earth that are such a hallmark of Elder Scrolls games. I want to pass through the threshold of a dungeon with the knowledge that I'll be plumbing its depths for hours, the sight of the sun becoming a fading dream as corridor after corridor of steam pipes and hostile constructs assault my hit points and my sanity.
If I had to pick one most obvious disconnect between the traditional Elder Scrolls games and Elder Scrolls Online, it's the dungeons. You can't make up for it with instanced group content, because it's impossible to have the same paranoia-filled, self-paced experiences in such areas. It's a key part of the Elder Scrolls experience, so this is a big problem.
It's zone-based. I don't think even the most optimistic people failed to see this coming, but it's still something that makes ESO feel more like an MMO than a genuine TES game. The world of Tamriel, expansive and open as it is, is divided up into level-based zones that make it difficult to explore as freely as you would in Oblivion or Skyrim. I didn't actually have the opportunity to go venturing off into the distance, as I had a limited amount of time in a build where portions of the world aren't even there yet. But there are separate zones designed for certain levels of characters.
The quest structure in the portions I played mostly led me by the hand from hub to hub, and I felt I was being whisked past experiences like getting lost and spontaneously adventuring into a cavern or a fort, as you do so frequently in other Elder Scrolls games. There is plenty to find off the beaten path, but the zone flow makes it feel like Zenimax doesn't care whether you find it or not. I also worry that partitions and loading screens will kill the sense of a seamless, immersive world, but I can't confirm how frequently these will appear.
All things considered, there are more reasons to be excited for Elder Scrolls Online than I expected to find, which was refreshing and encouraging. I could foresee it becoming a strong, second-tier contender in a league with Rift and EVE, based on the number of things it does right. Unfortunately, it seems to be cutting just enough key corners with the Daedric Knife of MMO Design Philosophy to fall short of the sublime, multiplayer Elder Scrolls experience we've all been dreaming of.
If you're anxious to see it for yourself, you can sign up for a chance at the closed beta on the ESO site. It'll also be playable at PAX East this weekend.