When it comes to The Elder Scrolls Online, the IP will bring its own set of expectations from both fans that have been with the series since the beginning and those millions that have come to TES via the hugely popular fifth entry, Skyrim. And it is to these last players that the starting area for the Ebonheart Pact will offer the most familiarity. After the tutorial intro level that everyone must play through regardless of race, those aligned with the Ebonheart Pact will find themselves on Bleakrock Island, right off the coast of Skyrim. The following will serve to spoil some of the starter quests and exploration of the island, so if you're avoiding spoilers, tread carefully.
The snow, the Nord villagers all around, the frost spiders (shudder) – it should all make players feel at home. As far as first impressions go, the game looks and feels right as an MMO followup to that game, and the series. Instantly, I was exploring, looting everything I could (it says empty – but inevitably try pressing anyway!), finding hidden chests, jumping over mountain crags as shortcuts, gathering plants, mining, even picking butterflies out of the air with a satisfyingly gross squish. Yep, while there is some limitation to the starter areas, the settings do feel appropriate enough. The characters you'll meet come to you with the characteristic humor and quirks sometimes and other times, with realistic troubles. Zenimax has done a great job preserving this for the MMO setting, while simultaneously giving players a minimalist UI with compass points to follow and the freedom to decide when you want to do your quests. In the starter area, it's the perfect place to gather and try out the game's crafting disciplines, get used to the combat, and even try a little fishing.
When I play an Elder Scrolls game (and any RPG), I tend to explore a lot before moving onto the scripted content, and this game does encourage that, with its quests and options to stumble upon. It is an MMO though, so there are some limits. It feels like Skyrim and a themepark MMO had a baby, but with a few key differences. The devs try to do their best to make the seams and constraints necessary for MMO gameplay not feel too confining. Though it can feel a little 'single player' in part due to the use of individual instancing (covered more here).
The main story quest you'll have in your journal is called “A Beginning at Bleakrock”. Once you wake up there, you'll meet Captain Rana, a Dunmer officer, who explains that there is a suspected threat coming. She's stationed there because she made a misjudgment and an error with serious consequences, but she's determined to prove herself a good leader. In order to get things started and investigate the threat, she'll need you to find three others who had all gone off to different locations. Darj the Hunter went to investigate rumors of Undead at a dragon shrine called Skyshroud Barrow. Eiman went off to Hozzin's Folly, a local cave said to be haunted and popular with those daring others to enter. Finally, Sergeant Seyne is off looking into recent inroads into the island by bandits that may hide something more. Guess who's job it is to find these three and round them up? These quests will take you to various parts of the island, and you're more than likely to stumble upon more quests (and villagers) along the way.
Finding villagers by chance won't work against you, since ultimately, part of your quest will involve finding as many as you can for evacuation, so explore Bleakrock to your heart's content. Two of these quests include the one started when a woman named Molla runs up to you, squeaking. She soon speaks more coherently, telling you that a sorcerer changed her friends into skeevers. You'll get markers to the relative area where each of these friends has gotten off to, and they're spread out enough so you'll do some exploration, running around, and orienting yourself. Another quest involves a woman named Halmaera, whose husband Geilund disappeared. She sent the family dog after him and he didn't return either. She asks you to look.....for the dog. You tell her you'll look for both if you can find them.
Eventually, the dog will appear and lead you to the injured Geilund. Given that you have to follow the dog through wolf-infested woods, I expected an escort mission with combat and all the other wonderful aspects of escort missions (sarcasm, if you couldn't tell), but they didn't attack and I didn't have to watch the dog's (nonexistent) health bar as perhaps another game might do. This was a little refreshing.