The last time I played The Elder Scrolls Online, the upcoming MMO set in The Elder Scrolls world of Tamriel, it was rather nondescript. It wasn’t bad, but it also didn’t feel especially noteworthy in any particular aspect aside from its attachment to its namesake franchise. I’d even left my anemic page of notes untouched and didn’t bother writing about it, lest my preview contain the sole words “it’s an MMO” and an anecdote about how my character model was at some point a tree.
Things, however, have changed, and changed for the better. You could still quickly sum it up as “Skyrim as an MMO,” but now I find that lacking. There are bits and pieces to where it feels significantly different from many other experiences and feels much more like what made The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim the success that it was.
You start off immediately with the character creation process wherein you put in your name, pick your race and class, and futz about with a bevy of sliders, including one for your posterior. I chose a female Argonian Dragon Knight, named her Walterja Matthausus, randomly tweaked her appearance, and I was well on my way.
I (and the handful of other press members) was dumped into what appeared to be a house with an objective to talk to a Captain Rana of the Ebonheart Pact, presumably the woman in front of me where half a dozen other people are clumped together. I spoke her and she offered me up three ways to complete an investigation into some untoward oddities in the land of Bleakrock. I picked the one that sounded the furthest away and set off.
I did, however, engage Rana in conversation before leaving. I asked her about the various races of the land. When I asked her about the Argonians, she laughed at the idea of someone asking about their own race. Another press member told me that as a Nord, Rana said that it was “just like a Nord” to ask about himself. It’s a small touch but also very much appreciated in a genre about size and multitude.
As soon as I stepped outside, I opened up my character screen and set up my skills. Instead of deeply branching, constellation-based trees like in Skyrim, The Elder Scrolls Online offers a much more straightforward approach where you unlock a steady, downward progression of abilities in several different categories. As you use them, they level up until they’re able to mutate, at which point you choose one of two directions to go with them. It’s kind of like how powers in Mass Effect would evolve into one of two versions. I unlocked Slam, an ability that both knocks down an enemy and interrupts their attack, and assigned it to the 1 key.
Along my trek to my main story goal, several more goal markers popped up on my map in the lower-left corner of my screen. And a couple people ran right up to me and asked for my help. It reminded me very much in how Skyrim worked with the Radiant AI system. More so, my quest log eventually reached scrollable lengths, perhaps the greatest single indicator of this being an Elder Scrolls game.
One such quest was to hunt down a great beast that almost downed a hunter. He’d come to affectionately (and not-so-creatively) call it Deathclaw, but I called it a chance to try out the combat. The quest led me to this little gully that was filled with giant bones and wolves. I dove in headfirst and clicked frantically on the closest wolf. Holding the left mouse button would generate a stronger, slower attack while holding the right mouse button would allow me to block and mitigate damage. Casting Slam took a lot of stamina, a familiar resource that can also be taken up by sprinting and dodging by double-tapping a WASD key (one of many additions since the last time I played), but it kept the wolves down and unable to hurt me.
I then slipped into first-person mode and fought for a while like that, and it immediately felt 100% more like Skyrim and the other Elder Scrolls games, including crouching and sneaking and slashing like a god damn Slap Chop. The only difference was that it took what felt like a few too many hits to get an enemy down. As I progressed through the demo and reached level five, level two enemies would still take a while. While the combat of Skyrim was never anything to write home about, The Elder Scrolls Online’s mechanics certainly feels much more like an MMO than anything else. It just looks like Skyrim now.
That’s not to say, however, that it’s bad. Being a mobile and agile character allowed for at least some tactical maneuvering; coming out of even these small scale skirmishes untouched made me feel like a god. An interesting wrinkle that I noticed when fighting bears was that when they reared up to do their attack, a sort of vision cone would appear on the ground, showing where I was liable to be damaged when they struck. The same went for when archers would do their raining blows from above and litter the ground with arrows. Seeing and not just guessing where such attacks were coming in from definitely put a focus on movement, which is a nice change from standing there and clicking until RSI set in.
The quests also didn’t feel like traditional MMO “go here and kill things to collect things to bring back to a dude” quests. There still were some of those, but there was at least a layer on top of them that made them feel much more than that. For example, once you return to Captain Rana with your concluded investigation, you must gather up the locals and evacuate the town from an impending assault. So when you have to travel about and find three people turned into skeevers to transform them back into humans or clear out some wolves, it feels like it has purpose.
Two quests in particular stand out, though, as uniquely Elder Scrolls events. The first involves acquiring a bandit outfit, disguising yourself, and sneaking around to collect evidence. When you have to enter a mine, you can’t even continue forward unless you’re disguised and the gatekeeper thinks you’re part of the group. If you slip up, you’re likely to die as there are many, many enemies around that would love to stab you over and over. If you die, though, it’s not that big of a deal as you can simply choose to revive there or transport to a nearby settlement.
The other quest involved entering an icy cave to rescue someone. Supposedly, he had been taken hostage by a Frozen Man, some crazy fellow with magical powers. You had to go about this bear-infested cave to collect evidence as to who he was until you finally confront him in his frozen chamber. At first I thought I was going to have to literally guess his name by typing it in or something, but instead he just creates two extra instances of himself and you have to attack the one you think is real. I couldn’t quite grok how you were supposed to tell it was him, but I got it on the second try anyways.
There is also a sense of permanence in regards to the game. You are given a choice at any point to evacuate the town before collecting all 15 missing persons, so those absent folk will always be gone from your game. And once you start the evacuation, the attack from the Daggerfall Covenant begins and, it seems, everything spontaneously combusts into fire and pain. It makes me wonder how they’ll handle showing different versions of the same area to multiple players, but I was told they’ve got it handled.
The Elder Scrolls Online has very much the veneer of an Elder Scrolls game. Over the course of the two-hour demo, I collected and equipped several weapons, each stronger than the last; I killed a man’s livestock just to see what would happen (he yelled a lot); and I spent a lot of time in menus talking to people and wonder what I could craft (also, yes, crafting exists). The parts of MMOs that have largely turned me away from the genre seem to have been painted over with a healthy coat of Bethesda and ZeniMax sheen. Some of the problems still poke through like prolonged, tedious combat loops and a few generic fetch quests, but I think I’m finally excited to jump back into the world of massive player numbers.
Look for The Elder Scrolls Online sometime in the future.