The Elder Scrolls Online Preview (PC)

I once predicted that there was no way in hell that Bethesda were ever going to make an Elder Scrolls MMO. I thought it’d make the single-player games obsolete if they put all of Tamriel in a single title. I made this prediction just two months before Bethesda announced The Elder Scrolls Online, and my mouth dropped... well, until I saw it. Along with the rest of the world, I was amazed how bland it all looked, a typical fantasy MMO with very little Elder Scrolls about it. Since that reveal though developer Zenimax Online has been working hard to get the game ready and convince fans of the series and MMO players alike that it’s going to be worth their time. I managed to get an hour with the game recently , just barely enough to scratch the surface I admit with an MMO but enough to share some impressions with you.

The Elder Scrolls Online is set around a thousand years before Skyrim and is the first game in the series that allows access to the entirety of Tamriel since the original Elder Scrolls I: Arena. That fact alone should be enough to make fans of the series give it a chance. The general setup is that three factions are warring to take the throne of the Emperor of Tamriel, and my first choice was which of these factions I wanted to join: the Aldmeri Dominion (elves and cat-like Khajiit), the Daggerfall Covenant (Bretons, Redguards, Orcs), and the Ebonheart Pact (Nords, Dark Elves, and the reptilian Argonians). I decided to go for that fresh Skyrim feel (I only just “finished” the game) and play a Nord of the Ebonheart Pact. I got a quick go as a Warrior and a longer go as a Mage, to see how each played. Let’s begin.

Ah, happy days

Deposited on the Ebonheart Pact’s starter island, Blackrock Isle between Skyrim and Solstheim, my Elven warrior/mage was told to check in with Captain Rana, the commander of the camp. I didn’t have to of course, but if I wanted to get on with the quests (which I did) a chat was required. I’m hoping there’s a more interesting beginning in store in the final game since this is a rather drab opening to an Elder Scrolls title, especially after Skyrim’s glorious execution-and-dragon introduction. You’re not even a prisoner, which is a definite foul. Anyway, after Captain Rana gave me a few quests I had the option of wandering around the camp, checking out the shops, or exploring Blackrock Isle. Mindless exploration, I choose you!

Just like Skyrim you can choose between first and third-person, and I’m pleased to say neither play like a typical MMO – they play like an Elder Scrolls game. You aim, you whittle down a enemy’s health bar, you can equip swords, shields, staffs, bows etc and dual wield if you wish, blocking works the same, attacking works the same, lockpicking works the same. Skills improve as you use them rather than just by pumping XP into them. There’s still polishing to be done (picking things up or using things takes too long right now for instance) but the game is already feeling like a proper Elder Scrolls title in terms of gameplay, and that’s a big relief. Yes there are special moves and spells that can be assigned to the number keys in traditional MMO fashion, but they enhance the combat more than anything. It’s fun pulling a skeleton towards me with a magical chain and then smashing his skull in. Two changes of note though were that heavy attacks (done by holding the attack button, LMB) currently don’t drain the Stamina bar, which only seemed used for sprinting, and the rather cool idea that powerful enemy magical attacks were subtly highlighted on the ground so you have chance to avoid them.

The big problem with Elder Scrolls Online right now though, which may well be just the starting areas alone but they’re all I’ve seen so far (I’ve also seen Morrowind), is that graphically it’s not a next-gen game. In fact if we’re comparing Online to Skyrim it’s not even a current-gen game. Remember the huge mountain ranges and canyons of Skyrim stretching into the horizon even on Xbox 360? On Blackrock Isle there’s a wall of fog in front of me making me wonder if I’m playing on a Nintendo 64. There are some rocks, some grass, a lake, and I can see that cave over there, but the island’s design was definitely more than a little dull. I’m playing a PC-focused Elder Scrolls title and I’d be distinctly underwhelmed even if I could see anything. I’m hoping and guessing the fog is forced in for the beta, but even ignoring that the game just isn’t impressing me graphically yet. Let’s all hope Zenimax Online are saving the best until release, which I suspect will be the case since at the moment they need to impress to justify that subscription fee. Lord of the Rings Online looks better than this right now. Fortunately the UI at least is distinctly PC-focused and is much easier to get around in than the abominations in Skyrim or Oblivion.

An Ice Flame Atronach faces my deadly First Person Viewpoint

Fortunately the rest of it was a lot more fun, even if Blackrock Isle is a little sparse right now in terms of players, quests, and things to discover. All to be expected of course (either from being pre-release or just being the tutorial area), and all were there but just not in the floods you’d expect from a game called The Elder Scrolls Online. Still, what was there I enjoyed. For example at one point a girl called Molla ran up to me and started squeeking, which turned into a quest where I was assigned with curing her companions who had been turned into giant rats by a witch. These guys were scattered over Blackrock and I didn’t have time to find the last one, but I’m glad even at this early stage there are weird quests available. I often find them to be the most memorable.

One quest I did follow and see to the end was ‘The Frozen Man’. Another lady asked me to save her brother who had ventured into a frosty cavern, where I found him imprisoned in ice by the cackling and mysterious Frozen Man. This guy taunted me throughout the cave and tasked me with finding out his identity before he would release the brother. There were clues scattered around the cave, made more difficult due to the number of polar bears around that I had trouble dealing with at my low level. I zapped them with my magic chain, but that just brought them closer to me while additionally pissing them off a bit. That’s not a good thing to do with polar bears. So I ran around a lot firing Blast spells with my staff until they died. After solving the riddle of the Frosted Man and defeating him I somewhat ill-advisedly jumped from his icy lair and died. Um, respawn at camp please.

Another cool quest which I tried and somewhat screwed up entirely involved sneaking into a bandit camp by killing a guard, putting on his uniform and nonchalantly walking in. I failed when another group of adventurers stormed in and I joined them in massacring the bandits, and thus I got my first true taste of Elder Scrolls in multiplayer form. It really isn’t such a big deal if you’re worried it’ll screw up the single-player side, as I could’ve ignored them and carried on my way, plus encounters scale I believe based on whether you’re in a group or not. I just naturally saw some people in need and joined their attacks, like a dozen random moments in Skyrim. At the moment players were working together nicely and everyone was just plain having fun, so let’s hope that continues to the final release. No guarantees there, obviously.

Still a long way to go, but lots of promise. Hence this Morrowind pic

The final quest on Blackrock Isle saw my starting camp get overrun by the Aldmeri Dominion, and after fighting to and up a tower to fruitlessly light a beacon (shades of Dragon Age: Origins there) my time was sadly up. Other than having some other adventurers running about and that chat window in the corner of my screen (which I could turn off) I could just be playing an offline Elder Scrolls game. Frankly, that’s what I want to see right now… although Bethesda need to blow my socks off before the game is released to make me bite on that subscription. I’m hoping to get to join in the beta before release because I really need to see more of Elder Scrolls Online to see how it’s going.

Right now it’s fun, it feels like Elder Scrolls, and I know there’s going to be loads to explore and an Empire to actually properly conquer. However in terms of graphics the game does not look next-gen so far (despite some nice screenshots) and Blackrock was a little sparse when it came to things to do. Those things could probably be written off though as it was only the starting area and I’m sure Zenimax Online will tighten the game up before release, then we’ll see if this is the Elder Scrolls game to rule them all. And yes, I know that’s a different fantasy franchise. Elder Scrolls Online is (supposedly) out 2014 for PC, PS4 and XBOX One.

Most Anticipated Feature/Element: Oh, properly exploring the entire world of Tamriel at last. And this whole “become the Emperor” thing sounds right up my street.

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By Voqar (SI Core Veteran) on Oct 25, 2013
Skyrim is such an amazing game. There's no way that can be camptured in an MMO(RPG). I love MMORPGs too, and the world doesn't need yet another watered down and dumbed down (and overpriced, I hate F2P but if you're going to have a sub it needs to be worth it) weak entry in the MMORPG genre.

Everything about this game screams that it's a combo of two bad things - a weak representation of elder scrolls, and a weak representation of MMORPG features. I don't see how that combines to make anything remarkable (except maybe in a bad way).

We'll see. 1 hour really isn't much time to experience and MMORPG, for sure.
By The_Tingler (SI Core) on Oct 28, 2013
I think "we'll see" is the important matter there, as you're quite right that 1 hour isn't enough time to judge. I enjoyed what I played and am trying to stay positive, but there's still more work to be done.