The Elder Scrolls Online hands-on: taking a tour of massively multiplayer Tamriel

The island of Khenarthi's Roost lies off the coast of Elsweyr, homeland of the cat-like khajiit. In previous Elder Scrolls games I've read about Elsweyr in dusty tomes and heard about it from the wanderers that frequent the inns of Skyrim, Morrowind and Cyrodiil. I've imagined many times what it might look like – but until now I've never seen it with my own eyes.

It's with this sense of discovery that I begin my third extended session with The Elder Scrolls Online . This time I'm a member of the Aldmeri Dominion, one of the game's three playable factions. The Dominion is made up of the high elves, wood elves and the khajiit. I've chosen to remake one of my first Morrowind characters, a hardy dark-haired wood elf archer.

I'm pretty invested in Elder Scrolls lore, but taking my first steps in Elsweyr feels like setting foot in a foreign country for the first time. Khenarthi's Roost is a place of calm beaches and tropical forests. I progress inland along a neatly maintained dirt road, choosing to bypass the NPCs clamouring to offer me the usual array of kill-and-fetch quests. In Morrowind or Skyrim, you're allowed to wander in any direction you please from the moment you're released from the introductory sequence. In comparison, The Elder Scrolls Online feels much denser with things to do, at least in its beginning areas.

For the time being, I focus on taking in incidental details. Native khajiit fish in the open sea and tend marshy bamboo farms. Their shops are full of delicate-looking goods. Unlike the nomadic peddlers I've run into in other parts of Tamriel, the khajiit of Elsweyr seem like a serene and introspective people. In establishing their architectural style, ZeniMax Online Studios have blended aspects of East Asia and the Indian subcontinent.

But I can't soak up the scenery forever. As you might expect in a world wracked by three-way civil war and the depredations of a soul-stealing demigod, the people of Khenarthi's Roost are eager to enlist the aid of an experienced adventurer. Cultists with the power to command the fury of the sea lurk in hidden caves and tide-swept grottoes. Intrigues are brewing, and both the local population and my Aldmeri compatriots have suffered a series of mysterious disappearances.

The way each of these narrative threads weave in and out of the area's central plot makes the prospect of sticking to the main quest-line more attractive than I'd have expected from an Elder Scrolls game. Khenarthi's Roost is balanced on a knife-edge thanks to the machinations of the maormer, a race of sea elves thought to be extinct by the time of Morrowind. They're outraged by the Aldmeri Dominion's attempt to win over the locals, citing an ancient treaty that gives them ownership of the island. It's an intricate, morally grey political intrigue similar to Skyrim's Stormcloak rebellion or the interplay between the major houses in Morrowind. These are narrative flourishes that I've always admired in the series, and I was delighted to encounter similar depth in my first few hours here.

I am conscripted by the local Aldmeri Dominion commander to find a peaceful solution to this potential flashpoint. Investigating the whereabouts of some missing Dominion troops, I come across a blood-spattered sacrificial altar in a secluded grotto. After dispatching the cavern's guardian – a ravenous serpent large enough to swallow me whole – I examine the remains. It becomes clear that the maormer are working with the sea-cultists to expel the Dominion.

I rush back to town with this new information only to find that the negotiations have gone badly in my absence, bringing both sides even closer to conflict. The quest changes gear, and now I'm tasked with working against maormer manipulators on their own turf. One clandestine mission requires me to find loopholes in a legal document in order to construct a case against the conspirators, a welcome break from the usual MMO quest archetypes. Slinking through back alleys and meeting with hidden informants carries the tension of playing in a high-stakes poker game, only here my opponents are a legendary race that I've read about in the lore of previous Elder Scrolls games.