The Elder Scrolls, now in PDF
The Elder Scrolls Online has had a lot to contend with since it was announced. It’s a fantasy MMO coming a long time after many big hitters have already passed their peaks including World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, Lord of the Rings Online and Everquest 2; it’s going to use a subscription model as well as a real money story; it’s the first multiplayer entry in a long established single player series with a new development team leading the way; it’s got a lot of obstacles in the perception of gamers at large. Thankfully it’s also a fantastic Elder Scrolls game and that will almost definitely be its saving grace.
Starting up our gameplay demo the first thing we got to do was create a character. This will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s played an Edler Scrolls game, allowing for a heft amount of cosmetic customisations as well as a class archetype/ There’s much less restriction on class compared to other MMOs, anyone can use whatever weapon they like and any armour, but it will help to define what skills you can get as you level up throughout the game. We didn’t want to waste our demo time on the character creator so we quickly whipped up a green-scaled Argonian Sorcerer and took him out into the wilds. Or rather out into the snowy village as the demo takes place in what looks a lot like an area of Skyrim. Rather than confining the game to a single region of the Elder Scrolls world, Bethesda have decided to open up the MMO to include all of the regions so it is possible to travel all the way from Skyrim to Morrowind, and possibly even the planes of Oblivion. When we spawned we were in a small village that looked extremely similar to towns like Whiterun, and were promptly asked to go to a bar to see someone about a quest. Along the way I stopped to try /dance and much to my amusement the dancing animation appears to be better than any other animation at the moment, clearly Bethesda understand MMOs.
Graphical fidelity has taken a hit in the switch to MMO but it’s still impressive for the genre. Vistas go on for miles and character models and animations are well defined and more natural than we’ve come to expect from previous entries in the series. There’s much less you can interact with in the world, but there’s still more than in any other MMO I’ve played, with items on shelves often being able to be stolen or examined. The UI is just lifted out of Skyrim with the same icons, fonts and graphics. This helps with consistency and goes a long way to making the game feel like a real Elder Scrolls game. When you speak to NPCs you get dialogue choices, you can go into first person if you’d like and it’s a true first person with your hands and weapons in front of you with casting and fighting animations. The only hint that you’re in an MMO are the other characters jumping around occasionally, acting in ways that AI never does. It’s an exciting feeling to be able to enter Skyrim and see other players, and one that didn’t leave us all the way through the demo.
After being given a number of quests we set out into the wilds and immediately started throwing fireballs at everything we could to see what happens. There’s a lot of wildlife and that definitely dies if it’s hit with a fireball. If you click attack you send out a single fireball, if you hold it down you can cast up to three at a time. We were given a single skill point to start off with which I spent on a snare that had purple spikes shooting out of the ground to hold enemies at a distance, allowing me to pick them off with fiery orbs.
Heading off the beaten track I wanted to see what TESO could offer in terms of exploration. I almost instantly spotted a huge temple built into the side of a mountain and as I approached I had to contend with skeletons that were much tougher than the deer I’d previously be massacring. Combat feels more like an action-RPG than an MMO but not a particularly good one. You can dodge and targeting is important, but your hits lack any real sense of weight as only certain enemies seem to even react to hits at all, such as bears that flinched if I hit them with a strong enough attack. There’s no variation on the hitboxes so if you hit someone in the head it’s going to be just the same as if you’d hit them in the knee.
Exploring the temple was fun and while the quest was reasonably simple (find three runes, set them up, go inside) the fact other players were running around fighting the same enemies and in many cases actually helping out made it more exciting. It felt more like a Skyrim quest than one from World of Warcraft and there was no sign of ‘kill 5 boar’ type quests in the short time we played. Later I happened upon an ice cave that had a much more interesting mission. There was a man trapped in the ice, and some kind of malevolent spirit who wanted to play tricks on me unless I could find out his real identity. I needed to go round and find clues scattered about the cave (with no exact waypoint showing the way) and complete a brief jumping puzzle until I was led to fight him in a larger area as he created many copies of himself. The voice acting was fantastic and the writing was funny as well as interesting, hopefully this is a sign of things to come for the game as a whole.
We went into The Elder Scrolls Online with trepidation and expecting to be disappointed, we came out knowing we’ll pick it up as soon as it launches. It’s an MMO, but with the Elder scrolls universe and aesthetic as well as what appears to be elements of the same great writing that have earned Bethesda their status over the years. Hopefully the combat will be tightened up before release and the subscription fee won’t put too many people off (it’ll be interesting to see what’s included in that subscription) since an MMO is no MMO at all if there isn’t the community to play it.