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.
This isn't to say that it feels exactly like Skyrim or Oblivion... but we'll get into that on the next page.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.