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

Eventually it becomes clear that the Aldmeri Dominion are running out of options and I'm going to have to infiltrate the viper's nest myself. This ends up being much more straightforward than I would have liked. The maormer embassy is watched over by a force of guards that seem unconcerned by my snooping and let me right in through the front door. After spiking a watchman's drink with a pinch of conveniently placed skooma, I have all the damning evidence my superiors need to demonstrate to the locals the maormer's ill intentions.

I'm not even harassed on the way back out, and it seems to me like the whole mission was much too easy. I didn't have to find my own way in, fight anyone, or even really use The Elder Scrolls Online's stealth system – making it hard to live out my fantasy of being an elven Jason Bourne. It was a stock MMO quest that didn't live up to its exciting premise, and which made little use of the ideas that TESO has imported from previous games in the series.

The way The Elder Scrolls Online tries to dress itself up like Skyrim often ends up emphasising the ways in which it's different. The trappings are there – the horizontally-aligned compass in place of a minimap, the crosshair, the first-person view and the magicka, stamina and health bars. Looking at a screenshot, it might be hard to distinguish it from a Skyrim mod – but it's a bit like a clumsy hunter trying to blend-in among his prey in a well-crafted bear suit.

Khenarthi's Roost started to feel staged to me, rather than an actual, lived-in place. It wasn't just the maormer guards who weren't paying attention. None of the local authorities seemed to have been trained in the ways of Elder Scrolls' traditionally rigorous approach to crime and punishment. The wandering townsfolk were immune to my attacks, and my petty thefts went unpunished even in the presence of attentive-looking guards.

asked creative director Paul Sage about the absence of a proper crime system in his game, and he told me that the plan is to introduce both NPC and player-enforced justice with an update that will also add the popular Thieves' Guild and Dark Brotherhood factions. “If you came in and you could just steal things from people, and I could come in and react to that,” Sage says, “maybe I could call the guards. Maybe I could kill you outright if I'm a protector of that town or something of that nature. You want to make sure that the game is in a stable enough way before you allow those kinds of systems, and that kind of player-toplayer interaction.”

Taking my misgivings into account, The Elder Scrolls Online isn't just a standard MMO dressed up in Elder Scrolls garb. The option to use a first-person view and the way the combat system emphasises positioning over the rotation of hotkeyed abilities help to establish it as a legitimate Elder Scrolls sequel that happens to lean on certain MMO game mechanics.

There's still a lot of TESO's take on Tamriel that has yet to be seen by anyone. ZeniMax Online Studios have only permitted slight glimpses of the 12-player endgame dungeons and massive PvP. There's a lot still to be discovered.

In the previous games, it was always my first few steps into those richly-detailed worlds that stuck with me. Whether I was setting out into the marshes around Seyda Neen or exploring pastoral woodland on the outskirts of the Imperial City, so much of the wonder of a new RPG is owed to the way those initial experiences suggest innumerable new experiences just out of sight. As I left Khenarthi's Roost for the mainland, that feeling returned. I found myself looking forward to continuing my life as a wood elf archer in a strange land, just as I had in Morrowind a decade ago.

“The way we've built our content, it's meant to be completely nonlinear,” Paul Sage tells me. “I can go over to this point of interest and say, 'That place looks cool. What's happening over there?' Then I can get introduced to the story, if it's a quest area, or maybe it's something else. The entire idea is that you can ignore us entirely, and go off on your own, and do whatever you want.”

Right now, what I want to do is to play more TESO. I want to push beyond the next grove of trees, walk around the next bend in the road, and see what awaits on the other side. For all of its rough edges, The Elder Scrolls Online feels full of promise in a way that no other MMO has since my first experiences with the genre over ten years ago. That sense of discovery is a powerful thing.