The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was a dangerous game. Thanks to its quest-based approach to storytelling, an incredibly expansive terrain, and more post campaign content than I can accurately keep track of, it was not uncommon to see RPGamers sink well over a hundred hours into the game without running out of things to do. This was the type of RPG to turn typically productive members of society into malnourished, nigh vegetative blobs. That's not to say the experience wasn't enjoyable though. With The Elder Scrolls Online, it's clear that ZeniMax Online Studios sought to translate that same addiction to the MMORPG world. Admittedly, I was a sceptic going into my hands-on demonstration at PAX East, but after spending two hours exploring the islands of Stros M'Kai, I can comfortably call myself a believer.
The Elder Scrolls Online doesn't feel unfamiliar. As someone who has only casually enjoyed massively multiplayer online experiences, my greatest concern was that the legacy of The Elder Scrolls franchise would be compromised to fit the World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XI motifs. I was afraid that action would suddenly become stop-and-go, that the plot would buckle under a loose overarching narrative, and that progression would be slowed down by tedious menus and character micromanagement. It took only five minutes of gameplay to quell these fears.
Your monitor remains uncluttered by UI, allowing you to enjoy both the scenery and the heat of battle without superfluous data getting in your way. There are, of course, menus full of skills to select, inventory to manage, and ability points to attribute, but they’re easy to navigate and will feel familiar to any fan of the franchise.
The narrative takes place on the continent of Tamriel, roughly a thousand years before the events of Skyrim and about eight-hundred years before Morrowind and Oblivion. In this time, Daedric Prince Molag Bal appears as a major antagonist as he tries to conquer and subjugate the races of Tamriel — a tale previously alluded to in the logs of earlier elder scrolls titles. Players will have the opportunity to join any of the three factions warring over the throne of the Emperor of Tamriel. Naturally, there are dynamic, unplanned quests that take place outside of this plot, but it all sounds quite interesting on its own.
Basic combat is similar to that of Skyrim's, but in some respects actually feels like an improvement. You'll see enemies prepare to hit you with heavy strikes, and, providing you're fast enough, you'll be able to push back on your block before counter-attacking — dealing massive damage. It's a nice change from the tank approach most players take, as it requires both attention and thought. Advanced combat requires the player to actively advance their character, intelligently use their abilities and magic in conjunction with their environment, and know when and when not to be stealthy. Naturally, I only saw a horizontal slice of gameplay, but it would have been cool to see some of the more interesting abilities and combat strategies required at higher levels.
In the same vein as Skyrim, proficiencies in combat, magic, crafting, and stealth are gained through use. Not only does this mean that specialization is fairly straightforward, but also that no path is fixed. You can be an heavy armour wearing orc who specializes in magic or a wood elf who only uses great axes, if you so choose. Players will also gain one point per level to add to one of the three main resources: stamina, health, and mana. Levelling also allows you to learn new skills based on your class.
The size and detail of the game's terrain really can't be underplayed either. The game actually incorporates familiar landscapes from previous Elder Scrolls titles into a gargantuan map — the likes of which I doubt have been featured in any MMORPG prior. That said, everything is surprisingly detailed. At one point I even stopped to watch the blades of grass go back and forth. It's a lot to take in all at once. Thankfully, all critical quest locations are on a streamlined mini map, making everything easy to locate. There will be some gamers who will miss the way-point system of the main series, but I won't be one of them.
There are only two complaints I would level at the build of the game I got to play: (1) there was no opportunity to play against groups of monsters using your own party (which is an important element of gameplay considering that this is a massively multiplayer gamer), and (2) there were no real penalties for death outside of a mildly inconvenient respawn location. That said, both will likely be rectified by the final release, and the game is otherwise a complete blast.
Interestingly enough, I could see The Elder Scrolls Online gaining notoriety among gamers for being the MMORPG for those who hate MMORPGs. The game sticks to the series' excellent roots and places more value on NPC interaction, sprawling narratives, real-time combat, and dynamic character progression than it does grinding, fetch quests, and fast travel. It's a an approach to game design that feels both natural and refined. Based on this impression, I'd wager that The Elder Scrolls Online will be fairly successful MMORPG. Hopefully, it will also change the way things are done in the space.