This article was originally published in PC Gamer UK Issue 252.
It starts, as it always does, in prison. But The Elder Scrolls Online's take on the series' traditional opening is a little different. You've been captured and sacrificed to the Daedric prince Molag Bal, harvester of souls. You wake in Coldharbour, Bal's particular plane of Oblivion. Unlike Mehrunes Dagon's Deadlands – which you stormed through again and again in TES IV – Coldharbour is a drab, lifeless reflection of the surface world. Your escape from this place and back to reality constitutes The Elder Scrolls Online's tutorial. My time with the game began immediately after this point.
Where you end up after Coldharbour depends on which of the three factions you belong to. The Aldmeri Dominion, composed of High Elves, Wood Elves, and the catlike Khajiit, are imperious conquerors from the south. The Ebonheart Pact are an alliance of convenience between Skyrim's Nord, Morrowind's Dark Elves and the stealthy Argonians – they're keen to hold on to their independence, but need each other in order to do it. I played the first six levels of the game as a member of the Daggerfall Covenant: the Bretons, Redguard and Orcs who form The Elder Scrolls Online's final faction.
As such, my character began life in the sea off the coast of Stros M'Kai – an island not seen in the series since the 1998 standalone adventure Redguard. I was rescued by pirates and put to work recruiting specialists for a heist that would secure my new crew passage off the island. So begins the 50-level personal narrative that leads you through Zenimax Online Studios' take on Tamriel, zone by zone. So far, then, so MMO.
Those who feared that The Elder Scrolls Online would amount to another cash-in MMO with a big name behind it have it wrong, but the counter-position – the promise of a casualty-free marriage of emergent RPG and online game – doesn't quite hit the mark either. From my first moment in game it is clear that TESO is the product of a measured and ongoing negotiation between opposing forces: the traditional MMO and the singleplayer game, ambition and technology, the demands of the community and the views of its designers. Its successes and failures alike are produced by that process.
“We're not trying to top Skyrim,” game director Matt Firor says. “If you want to play Skyrim – go play Skyrim! We're doing something a little bit different. It should feel comfortable to people who play Elder Scrolls games, but it's its own game in its own right.”
The first thing that struck me, wandering the streets of the coastal town of Hunding, is how minimal the interface is by MMO standards. Most of the time you'll only be looking at a crosshair, a minimap, and a subtle chat window in the corner of the screen. Status bars and numbered hotkey slots only appear when they're needed, leaving your view of the world uncluttered.
There'll be a first-person option, too. While it wasn't present in the build I tried, I was shown the game being played Skyrim-style in a later demonstration. This should come as a relief to players who feared that one of the defining features of the series had been ignored, and I asked Matt Firor why the company had kept its inclusion so quiet.
“We always knew it was something players were going to want. We're still in the process of doing it. In a first-person singleplayer game, all the graphical effects are tuned to be [only so far] in front of me. In a multiplayer game, the same effect has to work far away from the camera when you're looking at it, and from a hundred meters away when another player is looking at you.”
The developers anticipate that players will prefer a zoomed-out view for certain styles of play – particularly the Dark Age of Camelot-style mass PvP – but the option is there, and it works. First-person view also makes it easier to appreciate the above-average degree of interactivity in The Elder Scrolls Online's world.
Books on shelves and tables can be read, and in some cases these lead to quests or earn you experience. Potions and other consumables can be gathered from barrels and chests. It's not as high-fidelity as Skyrim – there are no dynamic physics objects, and the greater majority of items are static and cannot be interacted with – but it works as an MMO adaptation of a traditional Elder Scrolls idea.
Combat gets a similar treatment. As in the previous games, you press the left mouse button to swing or fire your weapon and hold the right mouse button to block. Power attacks can be charged up and enemy spells can be interrupted with a bash. On top of this is six hotkeyed abilities, an ultimate ability, and a hotkeyed consumable item such as a healing potion. Spells and special moves are cast instantly and have no cooldown: instead of establishing a combat rotation à la World of Warcraft, it's a lot closer to how Skyrim and Oblivion handled favourites menus. Unlike those games, however, spells don't need to be assigned to a hand before they can be cast – so expect to see a lot more mixing and matching of weapons and magic. Success in combat is a case of expending your reserves of health, stamina and magicka to suit the situation. Blocking, dodging and using special melee attacks, for example, all consume a regenerating stamina reserve, making split-second decisions just as important as theorycrafting a great skill build.
“You can't pause the game in an MMO, so what we did was provide you with shortcuts,” lead gameplay designer Nick Konkle says. “That's something that was necessitated by what we do in MMOs, but actually I really enjoy having access to multiple different spells. I like what that does to our game.”
The main weakness of the combat system at the moment is feedback. Ditching the scrolling numbers of a traditional MMO to enhance immersion is praiseworthy, but it needs to be replaced by something and at the moment The Elder Scrolls Online's animations and sound effects don't sell the impact of your blows strongly enough. Remember whittling down an unresponsive dragon with an iron sword in Skyrim? This is one area where the game could do with breaking from the past.
Each zone has a primary narrative to follow with optional objectives branching off from it, and secrets to discover if you decide to push at the boundaries of the map. Moving on from Hunding I fought through my first Dwemer ruin, using a control rod to direct an ancient spider robot as I made my way through a series of environmental traps. Later, I unearthed a chest containing a note that led me across the map, following landmarks to find a buried treasure. As I did this, I was continually recruiting NPCs to my side: a High Elf researcher, a human scoundrel, and a stealthy pirate queen. These encounters ended in decisions about the fates of characters that I'm told will impact the story later on, and this promise was borne out in the composition of the group that I eventually left Stros M'Kai with – and who showed up in the second quest line I played.
Like World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria, The Elder Scrolls Online uses phasing to subtly change each zone to reflect the player's actions. Depending on the choices you make the NPCs you see – even the enemies you fight – may be different to those of other players. While this design decision somewhat punctures the sense that everyone shares the same world, its execution is impressive in the way that a good magic trick is impressive. Playing the game, I was aware of how it was doing what it was doing, but only rarely was I fully aware what it was doing. Briefly grouped with another player, for example, I noticed that he was accompanied by an anonymous mercenary. I was travelling with an important named character that we both must have met. Then I realised: that mercenary was the same character, but the game presented him differently to me to preserve the sense that my experience was unique. It's an act of deception, but I prefer it to seeing dozens of identical twins running around, Old Republic-style.
“The phasing is very local,” Konkle says. “It's not hammering you in the face. You can play with a group and not be aware certain things are going on that are necessary in MMOs.”
At the beginning of my time with the game, Firor explained that Zenimax Online set out to make an RPG first and an MMO second – and as overly neat as that claim sounds, there are areas where it holds up to scrutiny. I was particularly impressed by The Elder Scrolls Online's character progression and crafting systems, both of which have a shot at improving on what the Elder Scrolls games have achieved previously.
Levelling up earns you points to invest in your health, stamina or magicka pools, and a single skill point to invest in an active or passive ability in any of a number of skill lines. You start with around 15 – one for your race, three for your class, one for each type of weapon in the game, and one for each of light, medium and heavy armour. Bonuses are varied but consistent – medium armour, for example, is for stealth, while light is geared towards magic and heavy towards defence. There are no restrictions: if you want to deck your mage out in heavy armour and give them a lot of defensive perks, that's up to you. Your class is just an additional set of skill lines intended to diversify characters in the early game.
“I strongly feel that when you start to play a game you have a role in your mind that you want to do,” Firor says. “Having four classes gives you the ability to at least start out on a path.”
As you progress you'll pick up additional skill lines, including exclusive sets of abilities for members of the Fighters' Guild, Mages' Guild, vampires, werewolves, PvP players and more. The Dark Brotherhood and Thieves' Guild won't be in the game at launch, but these will also have their own skill lines in time. The strength of the skill system is how modular it is: there are plenty of hooks for Zenimax Online to expand it post-release, and given that each player has access to a finite pool of points it's easier to keep balanced.
There are five crafting professions: armoursmith, weaponsmith, enchanter, alchemist and provisioner (or 'cook'). It's possible to dabble in all five but only master one, and whatever you want to make will require experimentation akin to Skyrim's alchemy system. Ingredients gathered in the wild – through mining, exploration and hunting – each have four hidden properties that can be applied to items, and these unlock as you reverse engineer looted equipment and skill-up in your chosen craft. You can then use additives to customise the goods you produce: adding elemental damage to an axe, for example, or stamina regeneration to a healing potion.
Crafting and the economy will be closely tied to PvP, where each faction clashes over fortresses in Molag Bal-controlled Cyrodiil. You'll need craftsmen to upgrade your rams and trebuchets and to contribute towards repairing walls after a siege. Owning multiple adjacent keeps establishes a transport network enabling players to fast-travel to the front line, but territory can be conquered in any order, and the devs expect behind-the-lines guerrilla action to be a key precursor to a major offensive. The game itself won't have shards – all players will occupy instances on a single server – but players and guilds will be bound to particular 'campaigns' for PvP, so the faction war will exist in different states for different people. It'll be possible to guest in your friends' campaigns, however.
Having three factions yields serious benefits for PvP on this scale: it prevents one side from ever becoming truly dominant, and even underpopulated alliances can act as powerful wildcards in the broader conflict. The reason it's no longer common in MMOs is simple: creating three lots of content for a single game is a tall order when the average player will see, at most, a third of it. The Elder Scrolls Online's solution to this problem is clever: they've found a way for everyone to see everything.
Your quest to reclaim your soul from Molag Bal will take place in the territories of your chosen faction and lead you to level 50. Then, you'll be asked to choose a second faction to play through in what amounts to 'new game plus' mode. You'll go through previously-inaccessible zones whose difficulty and loot has been enhanced for a top-tier player. When you've finished, you pick your third and final faction and play through that. You'll still only be able to group and socialise with people from your own faction, but no content is locked off – so you can create a Khajiit without fearing that you'll never get to explore Morrowind.
Creating a stable and fair MMO means sacrificing parts of the Elder Scrolls formula that will alienate certain fans. Mods are, as you'd expect, out: as is stealing everything that isn't nailed down, murdering townsfolk at random, and filling ravines with cabbages. If you are willing to accept that this compromise is necessary in order to provide a different experience, The Elder Scrolls Online is worth paying attention to. An MMO doesn't need to inherit every aspect of a singleplayer experience to benefit from its influence.