Elder Scrolls Online is the kind of thing MMO gamers have been dreaming of since Morrowind landed on the RPG scene years ago. "A long time coming" doesn't begin to cover it. Finally, after years of speculation and lots of doubting Thomases, ESO was announced and the gaming world ate up every bit of info they could get their hands on. Then, almost as quickly as you can say "Arrow to the Knee" the fan backlash began to surface. "It uses the Hero Engine!" (No, it doesn't.) "It's not Elder Scrolls enough!" (Yes, actually it is.) "It will be WoW all over again." (Not even a sliver of a chance.) After our presentation from Game Director Matt Firor (of Dark Age of Camelot fame), we quickly became believers in Zenimax Online's vision for the MMO version of Tamriel. No, it really won't be Skyrim Online. But that's okay. And here's why.
A SOCIAL MMO
One of the tenets of ESO's design philosophy is social connectivity. Matt told me that they'll have plenty of in-game systems in place, both organic and centered around the UI itself that foster player interactivity. Nothing does this as well as giving players reasons to play together and rewarding them for helping one another. Not only will the three faction PVP system do this (which we'll learn more about later), but the idea is that if you see someone in need of help you should want to and not be punished for doing so. In the video we saw, public dungeons put players together naturally. Players can attack the same mob whether they're in the same group or not, and share in the XP and rewards. No more: "Oh, I can't help him because I won't get anything from it."
In the public dungeons themselves, you'll find traps, puzzles, and all the other cool stuff you're used to in TES games, just with other people. Sure ESO will have instanced content, even raids many have come to know and love. But a large focus of the game will be on these open world dungeon delves, where it's dangerous to go alone. Heck, it's not hard to imagine PVP dungeons in this format. I asked Matt about the guild systems, and how they will foster this sense of social interconnectedness, and he could only tease me with the notion that in the terms of territory control and the three-faction warfare of course guilds and alliances will play a very large role.
ACTION COMBAT AND CHARACTER PROGRESSION
There's a minimal UI in place, with the same three main stat pools we're used to from TES: stamina, health, and magic. Blocking attacks with your shield will use stamina, spells use magicka, and health, well... it's health. The blocking is an active ability: think of it like the Lancer mechanic from TERA. There's no auto-attack, and from the UI we saw, there's only about six skills available at any one time on the hotbar. Some will be tied to your weapon choice, while others will come from your ability choices while leveling up through the game's 50 levels.
An example of PVE content we saw was really promising. Matt's tank character charged a group of three mobs, one frost mage, a necromancer, and a rogue-like mob as well. The mage raised a wall of ice to deflect incoming ranged attacks, and laid down a sheet of ice to immobilize Matt. Meanwhile the rogue got in close to try and take down Matt's HP. Matt dropped him quickly, but the necromancer raised the corpse into a skeleton. Meanwhile Matt's focus turned to the frost mage, as he used a jumping charge skill to leap over the wall of ice and take out the ranged damage dealer. The whole time he was blocking attacks, dodging swings, and slamming his shield into enemies in real time. It's halfway between TERA and GW2 in terms of pacing and "action", if I had to put it to a comparison. It's not as twitch-based as En Masse's game, but it's certainly not just another tab-target affair.
I asked Matt later how class progression will be handled, and here's where I got a really big smile on my face. You won't be able to create your own "classes", as everyone will choose an archetype from the start: tank, healer, mage, rogue, etc. But once in the game, it's up to you how you build that character. You can be a tank who wields a healing staff, or a mage who uses a sword and a shield. Sure a a real healer is still going to do that role better than you, but essentially Matt wants to make sure players can and will take on several roles with their play. Level 50 may be the cap, he said, but it's just a number. Progression won't end there.
GO WHERE YOU WANT TO GO
No quest hubs will be found in ESO. Yes, you have towns, and yes you have quests. But the famous compass system that's long been used in TES games is back once more, and it will let you know when you're out exploring when you're coming up on a dungeon, a chest, a random event, and more. There will be little caves, dungeons, and events littered throughout the world just like you've been seeing in Tamriel for some time. And quests themselves aren't about the usual kill ten rats, or collect ten this. One example we saw was a lengthy adventure that involved time-travel, ghosts, mini-boss fights, and zombie werewolves all from one random clue leading us to a field of undead.
Skyrim was great about letting you go where you wanted, by carefully leading you from one place to the next through quests. That's exactly the idea here in ESO. You will find zones that are too high a level for you, and you will want to do certain content at your level before going to later zones, but within each massive area you won't find yourself on rails running from quest hub to quest hub. You can just wander out and explore and play with people, against them, crafting stuff, and adventure. It's a theme-park, sure, but not the kind that says "You must ride this ride first and right now." Instead ESO will plop you in the world and say, "Go find the ride you like best and have fun with it."
MUCH MORE TO COME
There's still so much we don't know about ESO, from crafting to PVP, and guild functionality. But Matt assured us that the UI will be fully customizable: they'll be supporting mods from the get go with LUA. We know hat classes are in the game, but there's going to be an epic amount of customization both in terms of weapons and abilities. We know that combat focuses on the action and not on the tab target cycle and repeat mechanics we're so used to. We know that players can and will find it worthwhile to group, that there will be instanced and un-instanced dungeons, raids, and fully-featured three-faction PVP. Is it Skyrim Online? No. Is it Elder Scrolls Online? Most definitely. And we can't wait to dig deeper into how they're bringing Tamriel to the massive level.