While my usual MO is to get stabby as a stealthy assassin type in MMOs and RPGs, during my run in the recent press beta for The Elder Scrolls Online, I made a Nord Sorcerer this time around to try something different and bring some freshness to the experience. I've played destructive mages before, and in fact, that's my second choice in terms of classes, but not for a while. I prefer third-person MMO combat to first person, so I found myself fighting while in third a lot, but I did do some switching around. Were I playing a melee class, I think I'd stick to first person most of the time, but as a mage with some AOE, I think I liked the extra vision more. Your mileage is going to vary, but I'm happy the option exists.
I admit had been skeptical about the limited hotbar in the game. The Elder Scrolls Online does feel like Skyrim with a hotbar, and that isn't a bad thing. I love RPGs and there's obvious control influence from Skyrim here (including to make it easier to translate to consoles as that single player game did), but when it comes to MMOs, honestly, I've never been a fan of limited bars and prefer lots of choice to create one's own routines and play style. Once I got in, however, my skepticism didn't want to hang around.
The Elder Scrolls Online (and TES in general) has a real sense of freedom, since you can simply pick something up and learn to handle it, and even learn to be good with what you choose. Sure, some racial traits will lend a small bonus to one thing or another, but that sense of freedom is definitely present in ESO. So much so that I was impressed by the skill system and what it meant for combat.
Although the pace of the game might feel slow to some of today's gamers, I think it's a huge positive for the game. Finally, it doesn't feel like an MMO is designed to be blown through in a week's time again. Subscription games gained criticism in the past for feeling slow in order to make players feel like they'd have to continue paying their subs, and I foresee the same criticism from some corners. The so-called content locusts will somehow find a way to plow through anyhow, but for many people, I think this pace will be a welcome change.
That doesn't mean combat is slow. But it is focused. You can unleash a basic attack with left click, hold it down for a heavy attack, hold right to block, or both mouse buttons to block incoming special attacks. The basics are simple enough. You can also dodge. Some will find the pace off-putting but for others, it will be just right. With later PvP on the horizon, I wonder how it will hold up, but that is for a later time. Some of the tricks you'll get away with in other MMOs won't work here. And that's a good thing. I jumped up on a rock to get some focus on my attack on a polar bear running toward me inside a tight cavern, and it followed me right up there, teeth firmly going for my leg. Nope, hopping around won't save you in this MMO. If you've played Skyrim, you'll have a feel for the deliberate combat that will have you focusing on just what to do next, with skills only limited by your magicka and stamina. This gives players a lot of freedom to just use their skills instead of keeping an eye on cooldowns, which makes it both fun and challenging, especially when multiple enemies join in. I mistakenly dropped undisguised into a house containing what I thought were two enemies when I quickly realized there was a third behind me. I went down that time for the first time, and it was a lesson learned.
Another thing I like about the game is that the aggro isn't turned up to crazy levels. While things will see and attack (and sometimes be hidden by the terrain), the aggro range seems to be reasonable enough to let one walk (or sneak, if you'd like) past some enemies and even avoid some of the combat in certain situations. What this does is help reinforce the feeling that this is The Elder Scrolls mashed up with a themepark MMO. What this means for combat is that with the paced nature of it, not having every wolf in the area come running at the mere sight of you or vague scent of your delicious flesh on the wind is a good thing, since you don't want to get overrun.
Your skills fall into several categories: Class, Weapon, Armor, World, Racial, and Craft(ing). By level four, I had over half my hotbar with four skill slots occupied, and a passive or two also selected with skill points, which felt sufficient for everything I had to face. Skills will develop over time and with their use, as you level up, you can invest in new skills and passives. Getting around the surface limitations is the ability to Morph skills, so you can decide how you want to branch off and thus choose your play style. The class I chose, Storm Calling, has its first skill Mages' Fury. At Mages' Fury IV, it was ready to morph, and I could choose to leave it alone or pick a branch and change it to Mages' Wrath I, which included a damaging explosion or Endless Fury I, which let me recover magicka for each enemy killed using that move. I chose the latter and voila, finishing move.
Using a Frost staff, I was able to ready a heavy attack to pull an enemy, then use Destructive Touch to freeze, then Soul Magic and finally, Endless Fury. Lightning Form worked for close AOE. It was a satisfying series of moves. Although I did not play far enough to unlock a second weapon set, crafting brought a whole new perspective to my skills (and combat), by letting me change the staff I bore. I'm quite the fan of killing things with fire, so once I had an Inferno staff in my hands, some more depth was already involved, even without the second formal slot open.
Ultimately, if you go in expecting combat to feel familiar after playing Skyrim, you will be on the right track. Mixing mechanics to allow for MMO gameplay is deeper than it might appear at first, and after some time spent hands on with my fire and ice wielding Sorcerer, I'm strongly considering recreating her at launch.
Christina Gonzalez / Christina is a freelancer and contributor to MMORPG.com, where she writes the community-focused Social Hub column. You will also find her contributions at RTSGuru. Follow her on Twitter: @c_gonzalez