The Elder Scrolls Online hands-on: trouble in Tamriel
There are a set of features common to all main Elder Scrolls games. They've all been injected with a near-lethal dose of lore, they all start in a prison, and, once freed, they all offer the player an initially paralysing level of choice and freedom. The Elder Scrolls Online checks the first and second boxes perfectly. It's that third point - the freedom - where things start to get complicated.
After escaping the realm of Daedric uber-jerk Molag Bal, you emerge not into a vast and mysterious world of possibility, but instead a small island full of low-level questing. It's a moment that hammers home that, yes, this is an MMO, and one that mostly follows a much-trodden path. Mostly, but not always. TESO does, in places, evoke Skyrim; just not as you'll remember it. It's like a Hollywood remake of a favourite foreign film. For all the similarities, everything feels slightly off-kilter.
There are strong caveats for everything I'm about to say, and I think it's important to make them clear upfront. The most obvious is that TESO will be both long and broad. There are three factions, each with their own areas and quests leading to the level-cap. I've played a character from one of those factions - the Ebonheart Pact - for somewhere between 10-15 hours. For all I've seen, there's overwhelmingly more that I haven't.
It's also important to note that, for all my issues with the beta, none of them are about the game being either too much like an MMO or too much like Skyrim. I like MMOs. I like Skyrim. I was primed to enjoy TESO, whichever end of the RPG spectrum it settled on. The problem is that the combination treads an unnatural middle-ground of warring concepts. As a result, both sides suffer.
For instance, the freedom of exploration. Once I'd completed Tutorial Island, I was shipped off to a slightly larger post-tutorial area, before finally being let loose on the first of Ebonheart's five main zones. Here things opened up significantly. While I was still being hemmed in by the traditional MMO smattering of higher-level enemies, I at least had the space to explore a relatively large and unbroken area of the map. The question became what to do in it?
The answer was questing. There are some collectibles hidden around the map - crystals which, when enough have been found, give you extra skill points to assign. For the most part, though, there was no sense that exploration would be rewarded with some entertaining or mysterious secret. I quickly fell into the MMO routine: hunting out the blue quest-giver arrows on the compass, accepting their task, and checking off a laundry list of actions. Eventually, I became more focused on my own basic character progression than in finding myself immersed in the setting.
It doesn't help that the world feels stiff and rigid. Even the swaying of trees is barely perceptible, giving my faction's environments an almost sterile quality. That lifelessness was an unfortunate theme of the time I spent in TESO, seen in the disinterested voice acting of minor quest-givers; the way warring soldiers would ineffectually swipe at each other in perpetuity (or at least until a player stepped in); and the bizarre celebration after I defended Davon's Watch, in which groups of three NPCs would line up for some unconvincing fist pumps.
On the plus side, the game does interesting things with the scale of the world. Because of the choice between first-person or over-the-shoulder third-person viewpoints, your perspective is much closer to your characters. Wandering through the city of Davon's Watch, I was impressed by how large it felt. When the game's released, and the zone's are filled with players, it's easy to imagine the world feeling bustling with activity.