I can hear all you non-MMO fans sighing already at the thought of a purely single-player series like The Elder Scrolls being turned into one packed with others. But, if you put your hasty judgements and preconceptions aside, it seems that Zenimax Online has done a stellar job with this new and different entry into the series. After having spent two hours playing through the closed beta PC build at this year’s Gamescom, I’ve been left itching to jump right back in.
Before I even got a chance to sink my teeth into the story and gameplay, things already felt very much like an Elder Scrolls game thanks to the incredibly rich character customisation the series is known for. As this was an early beta build, I was only allowed to pick races from the Ebonheart Pact (Dark Elf, Nord, Argonian), but the final release will see access to races within the Aldmeri Dominion (High Elf, Wood Elf, Khajiit) and Daggerfall Covenant (Breton, Redguard, Orc).
Having chosen to make Slugger a female Dark Elf, it was time to chose her class. Unlike picking a class in other MMOs, here it effects the skills you can use and armour you can wear, but doesn’t limit you to one path from the off. Of course this means that you’re going to have access to specific new abilities, but I suppose this decision is because it adheres to the same starting system found in other Elder Scrolls titles. Because I like to wield a sword and dish out heavy melee damage – whilst also taking the chance to sneak my way through other sections – I opted to take Slugger down the path of a Nightblade.
Once that was all sorted, it’s time to start shaping how Slugger looks. As you can expect, I was greeted by an immense amount of sliders to determine how she would look, even down to the finer details of forehead slope, chin size, neck thickness, and – bizarrely – hand size. Still, if you’re going to be spending a lot of time in the land of Tamriel, it makes sense to create a character you’re absolutely going to love.
Now Slugger was all sorted, I was dropped into the world of Tamriel on an island known as Bleakrock Isle, situated near Solstheim. Having started at level 2 after the tutorial introduction, I was instructed to seek out Captain Rana and lend a hand in her efforts to keep the island’s town safe. As her major forces had been sent out to investigate a suspicious approaching ship, this meant I had to do the odd jobs to keep peace on the island. It was here that I was, again, presented with a choice of three quests to undertake.
Having opted to investigate the mines of Hozzin’s Folly, in which bandits had entered and were digging to uncover secret artefacts from the plane of Oblivion, I set off into the wonderful landscape of Bleakrock Isle. From exploring the environment, which is very much like Solstheim in geography – i.e. quite similar to that of Skyrim – it’s clear that Zenimax Online has really taken care with the franchise when creating and mapping out all these previously unseen areas.
Indeed, no part of TESO feels like it doesn’t belong in the series. The navigation compass sits at the top of the screen just like in Skyrim and points out points of interest and undertaken quests as you’d expect. The HUD also never appears unless you’re making use of it, such as fatigue bar appearing when sprinting or the magic bar forming after you fire off a spell or two. The standard quickbar for battle spells also makes an appearance here, but only when in combat so exploration remains completely uncluttered by information – unlike many other MMOs that tend to leave that all on the screen for you to deal with.
It’s also worth noting that playing in first person is a completely viable, and my preferred, option. However, playing in third-person isn’t as damning to your experience as it used to be in previous TES titles. Yes, that’s right, third-person animations actually look really rather good. You no longer seem to float around on the surface, nor jump really statically straight up on the spot. If Zenimax Online’s title has any impact upon how Bethesda create TES games, then I hope third-person animations are the one element that sticks.
While I would have happily explored this subtly stylised world of Tamriel for hours on end, I had a quest to do, but not before a distressed hunter approached me seeking help. It appeared that she had been turned into a Skeever by a malicious mage and had managed to revert herself back to a Nord. However, she was only one in a party of four, and it’s here I had to head out and discover her hunting party – which were all still Skeevers – and revert them to their original form with the mage’s wand.
It wasn’t anything more than a distracting sidequest that took a couple of minutes to perform, and was ultimately a fetch quest that so many MMOs have, but the dark humour interwoven into it really helped make it feel less like a chore. This nature of providing something a little different reared its head again when I finally reached Hozzin’s Folly. Instead of wading in and cutting down foes on my way into and through the mine, I was tasked with disguising myself as one of the bandits and then hide amongst them as I attained information on why they had been digging around.
Now, I’ll be honest here, I failed at this a couple of times. Initially it was because I was spotted by a torch carrier, who appear to be the only ones who can see that you aren’t who you appear to be. The second time came when a stray sword swing hit me when another player was spotted and chased after. It has to be said, that was incredibly annoying to be discovered like this, but it didn’t really matter thanks to the open-ended gameplay that TESO offers up. I just teamed up with another player and massacred the enemy forces with relative ease.
However, and I must make this point clear, combat was only easy because I had a helping hand from another. While I could happily slay a wolf, frost spider and the occasional bear; warriors, barbarians and so forth – especially those who come in groups – can overpower you with incredible ease. This isn’t down to the combat mechanics though, they feel exactly like those in Skyrim, just with a slight delay between attacks to bring in that somewhat turn-based combat system familiar to MMOs. Instead, by making opponents strong, you feel inclined to team up with others to overcome them, and that’s crucial to making TESO feel like an MMO.
I say this because in my two hours, I felt like I was playing a new entry into the Elder Scrolls series. That’s definitely not a bad thing, especially if you love the series but dislike MMOs, but it’s hard to imagine it as a game where you’ll ever find a need to play with others. Obviously it’s not the best setting to judge this as it’s in the early stages of a closed beta, and that’s something we’ll really touch upon when our review comes around later on. But thanks to the immensely story-driven gameplay, tons of books to read, areas to explore and dungeons to crawl through, it’s hard to imagine The Elder Scrolls Online not striking a chord with TES and MMO fans alike.