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.
Quest design seems to rank on the better end of MMO busywork. Yes, there are plenty of fetch quests but, in grand Elder Scrolls tradition, many take you to new caves or abandoned ruins. Better still, I encountered few "kill X thing" quests, and was even given some unexpectedly inventive tasks. I freed a prisoner from a crazed ice wizard, stole valuable wine from a tavern, and had the obligatory meeting with Sheogorath. At its best, The Elder Scrolls Online seems able to capture the silliness that often surfaces in the series' singleplayer outings. But even these high points are soured by my biggest issue with the beta: combat.
Creating my character, I was asked to select one of four classes. I picked the Nightblade - the stealthiest, stabbiest class on the roster. Asking to define your character so early at first seems like another attempt to remove player freedom, but the class choice only decides three of the many skill trees that can be upgraded as you level up and gather points. In addition, you can assign skills in any weapon or armour type, as well as various racial, crafting and guild trees.
With my Nightblade Argonian, I decided to focus on class skills in Assassination and Shadow, granting invisibility and spectral blade abilities, and also in the Dual Wielding weapon skills. Get a balance of ability types, and you gain more options in combat. Active class abilities drain Magicka, while special weapon attacks take Stamina. With a good mix of the two, my hotbar was filled with potential options across moment-to-moment fights, with plenty of options for future upgrades. While I didn't get far enough down any path to see the full scope for customisation, it seems huge, and is probably TESO's most promising feature.
It's with the standard attacks that everything falls apart. While abilities live on your hotbar, everything else - blocks, dodges and attacks - are done through WASD and mouse clicks. It's a direct attack system, like any other Elder Scrolls game, except here the combat sorely lacks impact. My dual wielding lizard would swipe away at enemies, with nothing to show for it except a slowly draining health bar.
Everything you fight is incorporeal. Walk into any enemy, and you'll happily clip through them. That's pretty standard in MMOs, but most are better at hiding the fact that their monsters have no substance. Purely hotbar-based online games give feedback through raw numbers, and the explosive flashiness of their effects. Even direct-attack MMOs like TERA over exaggerate the the sound of weapon hits, tricking you into a false sense of tactile feedback. In TESO, my dagger swipes offered no such visual or audio trickery, and as a result, combat became a chore.
Salvation came - perhaps unsurprisingly at this point - from character freedom. Not wanting to roll another character, I switched weapons to a destruction staff for my last session with the game. There was an instant improvement. The staff's ranged fireballs felt much deadlier - still not noticeably affecting the enemy, but providing a flashy effect to cover for their indifference. Suddenly fights gained a tension and immediacy they'd never had before.
While I'd initially thought a magic weapon would be at odds with my stealth 'n stab character, the attacks synced nicely. I could initiate with a Teleport Strike, stun the enemy with a Concealed Weapon attack from invisibility, then cause a knockdown with a follow-up close range fire blast. Finally, I'd dodge back, spam fire attacks, then finish with the Killer's Blade spectral dagger spell, doing extra damage to injured enemies and restoring some of my health.
In the alternate universe where I picked a ranged character from the start, this might have been a much more positive preview. As it is, my annoyance with the combat accentuated my other problems. That leaves The Elder Scrolls Online in a strange place. None of my concerns are insurmountable, even with the April launch quickly approaching. With populated servers and some extra heft added to melee combat, TESO could be a decent MMO, even if I'm not convinced it will be a great one. But Bethesda are already taking pre-orders, and it's a high price they're asking. On the basis of what I've played so far, I'd advise waiting until we see the finished product.