The Elder Scrolls Online hands-on: trouble in Tamriel

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.

Phil Savage

Phil has been writing for PC Gamer for nearly a decade, starting out as a freelance writer covering everything from free games to MMOs. He eventually joined full-time as a news writer, before moving to the magazine to review immersive sims, RPGs and Hitman games. Now he leads PC Gamer's UK team, but still sometimes finds the time to write about his ongoing obsessions with Destiny 2, GTA Online and Apex Legends. When he's not levelling up battle passes, he's checking out the latest tactics game or dipping back into Guild Wars 2. He's largely responsible for the whole Tub Geralt thing, but still isn't sorry.