I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days playing a special press preview of Bethesda’s upcoming massively multiplayer online role-playing game, The Elder Scrolls Online.
I was keen to see how the famously single-player fantasy adventure series transitioned into a multiplayer world.
One of the appeals of the previous Elder Scrolls games, for me, is their ability to emulate the MMO style of gameplay without the time or the financial commitment required of their online brethren. I’d been playing MMOs since the original Everquest. But, as I got older, I just couldn’t afford the time to get the most out of them.
Whilst I’ve dabbled in the likes of Anarchy Online, World of Warcraft, City of Heroes and Age of Conan among others over the years, time just isn’t on my side anymore.
When The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion came out on Xbox 360, I was playing Age of Conan – which was still using the monthly subscription model. For the life of me, I couldn’t justify the time and money required to play Conan when Oblivion gave me a similar, but far more superior gaming experience. So I cancelled Conan and ended up playing Oblivion for about 170 hours over the next few years.
With The Elder Scrolls Online, it’s like I’ve come full circle.
The Elder Scrolls games started out way back in 1994 with third-person PC DOS fantasy game The Elder Scrolls: Arena. The follow up, The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall was released two years later.
The Elder Scrolls Online is my fourth visit to the series’ huge fantasy continent of Tamriel. My first time was with 2004’s The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. As a great fan of open-world gameplay, Morrowind blew me away. Not only did the huge immersive world capture my imagination, it looked and sounded great as well.
My second visit would have me adventuring in the heart of the Imperial realm of Cyrodiil, through the gates of Oblivion and on to the Shivering Isles.
Oblivion was a game that I picked up with my Xbox 360 on the console’s New Zealand launch day. The visuals were amazing, far in advance of anything else at the time. Cyrodiil felt alive and almost real. Even now almost eight years later Oblivion is still an amazing gaming experience.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, set in Tamriel’s cold northern province was my third outing to this fantasy land.
Skyrim probably ranks as one of the best, if not the best, games that I’ve ever played. It’s is an epic tale that offers players a level of immersion that doesn’t exist outside of The Elder Scrolls games. It’s a game that I got lost in and one that I still return to, both on PC and Xbox 360, some two years after release.
And so on to The Elder Scrolls Online.
This preview was a special press session on a different server to the beta program that has been slowly opening its doors to more and more visitors. As the game started the temporary game opening, which will be supplanted with a CGI intro for the actual game, it advised me that it was the year 582 of Tamriel’s Second Era. This puts the game’s timeline before that of all the other Elder Scrolls games, some 1000 years before the events of Skyrim. An interesting and somewhat logical choice considering the rich written history found in the previous games.
As you would expect, the player’s first task is to create a character. It’s your standard stuff and going to be very familiar to anyone that’s played a game like this before. You pick male or female and select your race.
There are nine races to choose from, divided up among three factions. The Daggerfall Covenant consists of Bretons, Orcs and Redguards. The Aldmeri Domination is populated by High Elves, Wood Elves and Khajiit. Lastly, The Ebonheart Pact is between the Agonians, the Dark Elves and the Nords.
After picking a race, you must choose your characters class from the usual archetypes. I chose a male Nord Templar with an appearance very similar to my old Everquest character.
The first part of the game is common across all races and factions and serves as a tutorial sequence. The introduction will be familiar to fans of the series, as your character finds himself or herself being released from captivity. This time you are in the realm of Coldharbour, Oblivion, a prisoner of the Dadric prince, Molag Bal.
The tutorial sees you armed with your first weapon and given a rudimentary understanding of the game’s combat system, which is virtually identical to Skyrim’s. But more on that later. It also gets you started on the game’s main quest by introducing you to the Michael Gambon voiced character, The Prophet.
The next location depends on your choice of faction. Were you to choose The Daggerfall Covenant you’d find yourself in the Middle-Eastern inspired Stros M’Kai. Members of The Aldemeri Domination end up in Khenarthi’s Roost south of Elsweyr.
As a member of The Ebonheart pact I found myself on Bleakrock Isle, just off the coast of Eastmarch. The snow-covered island is very reminiscent of the cold landscape found in Skyrim.
With the Covenant forces about to invade Bleakrock, I was charged, among other things, with gathering up missing townfolk. It’s a great way to throw a few introductory missions at a new player in a smaller and moderately safe environment.
Bleakrock has a great marketplace where players can start out on their crafting careers. Armourers, clothiers, alchemists and woodworkers are available to buy materials from and use their equipment. With a bit of hunting it was easy for me to fashion a modest set of armour for my adventures ahead.
With all the Bleakrock Isle townsfolk gathered up it was time to lead the exodus to the mainland. With the help of some smugglers the townsfolk and myself were deposited on the shores of Bal Foyen in the Province of Morrowind, near the village of Dhalmora.
Seeing Morrowind all polished up like this is a sight to behold. As I stood there with adventure beckoning I wondered just what wonders this fantastical realm had in store for me this time.
I couldn’t help being impressed with the games structure and presentation, especially during these first steps. I was initially a bit apprehensive about how the superb Elder Scrolls single-player gameplay would fare as a multiplayer online game. After an hour or so, The Elder Scrolls Online had me hooked in a way that an MMO hasn’t done in years.
The quests are very polished affairs, providing players with being fully-formed multi-part missions that offer interesting plot advancements and intriguing situations. It’s all just as you would expect coming from the same stable as the likes of Skyrim.
Not once did I feel like I was grinding to advance, the bane of the average MMO. Instead the game flows naturally with a variety of quests made readily available. It wasn’t long before my equipment was replaced by far superior looted items and quest rewards.
The character progression system is, again virtually identical to that of the previous games. As you complete quests and vanquish foes you level up. With each level you get to raise your magicka, health or stamina, just as before. You also get a skill point to allocate to one of your abilities, some of which will grant you special attacks or effects.
You can also gain skill points with every third skyshard that you find. These crystals are scattered about the game world and easily spotted from afar due to the beam of light that they shine into the sky. They are very useful, and worth going out of your way for.
The whole experience was quite nostalgic and I think a lot of it boils down to how the game played so similarly to the single-player experiences of Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim. In no way is it simply just the echo of The Elder Scrolls experience. This is a game that seems to fit in nicely with what has gone before.
Fans will be familiar with many of the names, places and legends in the game; as ESO draws heavily on the established Elder Scrolls mythology. I found this connection very important as it drew me into a world that I already knew and into events that I’d read about in my previous journeys across Cyrodiil and Skyrim. Even little things like the hum of Nirnroot make playing The Elder Scrolls Online like slipping into a comfortable pair of old shoes.
At the end of the day I played Elder Scrolls online as a sort of extension to Skyrim. Cast out into a vast world full of quest and estoteric lore, it was difficult for me not to feel that way. There was also the solitude; the server that I was playing on was sparsely populated, especially playing at social Australian times. When I met another player it was more of a novelty. When I managed to sneak into Skyrim at level 13 (Skyrim really requiring a character of a lot higher level that that) and embarked on a suicide run to Windhelm I found myself totally alone.
Some compromises have had to be made in order to accommodate multiplayer game-play.
One of these departures from Skyrim’s game mechanics caught me out: enemies re-spawn. It’s obvious as to why they do; if they didn’t the whole game world be empty in a day or so. But it does mean that you are likely to have to fight your way through a dungeon to a quest prize and then fight your way out again. I only got caught out once, but the result was a frightening scramble towards daylight, pursued by an angry train of mobs.
The combat has also been tweaked a little bringing it a bit more in line with your usual MMORPG.
As well as hit, heavy hit, block and dodge you can also equip special attacks and buffs to shortcut buttons. It is a bit rough around the edges. But some would say the same about combat in the likes of Skyrim and Oblivion.
The animations seemed to be a bit dodgy, with sword strikes dealing damage without really hitting their mark. Also, the first-person view makes it easy to get a bit confused when fighting more than one opponent. Many times I found myself being pounded from outside my peripheral vision and having to spin around frantically looking for the cause of those red flecks on the screen.
On the technical side, considering this is still in beta, the game’s performance was very good. I could run the game with all the setting turned up to the max on my i7 3820 Geforce GTX 680 32GB test rig. What the performance will be like with hundreds of players running about is a different matter entirely. Hopefully Bethesda has got this in hand.
The game is, overall, a very polished affair and the voice acting is top class. There’s an amazing amount of dialogue in the game, with some of the quest conversations rattling on for a good few minutes. Whilst it seems that we have been spared from woeful Nordic tales of arrows to the knee this time, the spooky “hello” half-whispered from the shadows by friendlies is a bit odd; especially late at night.
With just over a weekend’s play to explore and level up a character, the pressure was on to experience as much of the game world as I could. Despite this I had a lot of fun.
And whilst it’s easy for me to gush about what a great experience I had with The Elder Scrolls Online, I’m not so sure how the game is going to fare outside of my nicely orchestrated press preview.
I’m not so naive as to not believe that my experience was probably a little front-loaded, but I never actually noticed it and I never ran out of things to do. And whilst via my crafty excursion into Skyrim I can assure players that there is content in the game for high-level characters, I can’t vouch for how the game will feel after months of play.
Also, I can’t help but worry about what the game is going to be like when it is full of players all doing the same quest. It’s going to be a totally different experience and one that I believe will be far removed for the usual solo Elder Scrolls experience. I especially pity the Xbox One players once the denizens of Xbox Live enter Tamriel.
But the real threat to The Elder Scrolls Online is the game’s subscription payment model. Whilst this would be fair enough five years ago, it is a bit unusual nowadays. $15 a month is a fair chunk of green to play a game that you’ve already shelled out eighty-odd bucks for.
There are only a handful of MMOs these days that need a subscription, most having switched to the free-to-play or “freemium” micro-transaction method of funding. I know that The Elder Scrolls Online is good, but is it good enough to pay an additional $180 a year to play? If the likes of EA’s Knight of the Old Republic MMORPG is anything to go by, it wouldn’t surprise me to see The Elder Scrolls Online going free-to-play within a year.
Overall the game surprised me. I wasn’t expecting something quite so polished or quite so similar to the likes of Skyrim. I had a great time, mainly soloing through the beautifully rendered Morrowind. The main plot regarding the three warring factions was intriguing enough to make me want to find out what happened next, with the plentiful supply of side and guild quests fleshing out a world that seemed very much alive and part of the Elder Scrolls mythos.
It is going to interesting to see where Bethesda takes us with this one and how it will affect the eventual single-player follow-up to Skyrim. But, despite my misgivings, the four or five days I’ve spent playing The Elder Scrolls Online has been enough to make me want to pick the game up at release and take it from there.