We’ve seen Elder Scrolls Online at a number of events, but up until recently I’d never actually gotten my hands on the game. Thankfully, that all changed at this year’s PAX East, where I got to spend two hours exploring the island of Stros M’kai. Veteran fans of the Elder Scrolls series will recognize the island as the setting for The Elder Scrolls: Redguard and fittingly I chose to play a Redguard in the Daggerfall Covenant during my play session.
I’m not going to get into all the nitty-gritty nuance of the game, as we’ve gone over that extensively in our recent preview coverage. What I really wanted to do today is give you my take on the game as someone that has gone from apprehensive to cautiously optimistic since the title was announced last year. I’ve previously mentioned that I was discouraged by some of the language used to describe the game in the initial months following the game’s announcement. The Elder Scrolls Online seemed to sound more MMO than Elder Scrolls and this got me thinking that Zenimax Online was really missing the point.
MMO gamers can see through the flashy veneer of an IP-based MMO by now. You may get them to pick up the box and check your game out with an awesome IP, but they aren’t going to stick around if you’ve just reskinned a standard MMO with elements from your IP. Thankfully, I think Zenimax Online must have realized this soon after the initial reveal, because the game began to look and sound decidedly more Elder Scrolls throughout the rest of 2012.
Like many of you, I’ve been burnt on far too many MMOs, and I wasn’t going to give Elder Scrolls Online a pass just because Zenimax Online was using one of my favorite RPG IPs for their MMO project. Having now played the game at PAX East, I can confidently say that I wouldn’t have needed to.
The first thing I noticed about how I was playing ESO was that I was trying to play it like it was any other MMO. My sort of preconceptions about the game, that it couldn’t possibly play like an actual Elder Scrolls game, had me trying to just go through the typical MMO motions. However, what I soon began to realize is that ESO actually does play like an Elder Scrolls game. Instead of trying to play the game like MMO X, it was actually best to just play ESO like I was playing Skyrim or Oblivion. You have to sort of switch mindsets a bit, and once you do that it all gels together quite well.
Everything from the incredibly robust character creation tools, to the combat, to the quest structure, and even the UI elements, all scream Elder Scrolls. After a couple of minutes of fidgeting around I found my footing and began employing familiar Elder Scrolls skills. I found myself deftly dodging attacks, blocking powerful attacks with my shield to stun my opponent and then retaliate with a power attack of my own, and more. It really just clicks once you treat ESO as another Elder Scrolls game.
I must offer this one caveat though. At least based on what I’ve played so far, it’s not as satisfying to play moment-to-moment as say, Skyrim. But anyone expecting a 1:1 recreation of that experience with ESO has their expectations set too high. Some things are going to have to be compromised on when doing an MMO. Still, I’d say Zenimax Online is doing an admirable job translating many of the core aspects of the Elder Scrolls games into the ESO experience. What’s important to take away from all this is that it doesn’t look like Zenimax Online is just creating a lazy cash grab using the Elder Scrolls IP. It really feels like the team is actively tuned into what Elder Scrolls players are going to want and expect from ESO as a title bearing the beloved Elder Scrolls name and it comes through in just about everything you’re doing in the game. I deliberately spent most of my play session just putting this to the test. I ran around aimlessly, just digging into the nook and crannies of the play space provided to me, looking for interesting points-of-interest and doing whatever content I felt like doing at any given moment. MMO veterans will recognize a sort of themepark design under the hood, but the content isn’t forced on you in a linear fashion. You aren’t going from quest camp to quest camp picking up quests, for example. You’ll still be doing a lot of questing to progress, but you seem to get to choose what you want to do and there is a significant emphasis placed on stumbling onto all sorts of content. It all feels natural and encourages exploration.
I had to also use this opportunity to poke some of the team members for answers to some of my own questions and concerns. I recently put together a column discussing the possibility of having your selection of race actually mean something in an MMO again with ESO. After all, the Elder Scrolls games have always put an emphasis on the pros and cons of selecting a particular race for your character. This sort of butts heads with contemporary MMO design, however, which has shifted away from placing significant importance on your choice of race or species. I asked Zenimax Online’s Paul Sage about racials and was told that not only are they in, but that each race will even have its own racial skill line to go down. Awesome!
Another topic high on my agenda was AvA (or RvR, if you prefer). Two of the main issues that seem to plague just about any MMO with large-scale PvP are the prevalence of AOE spells and the general lack of purpose for melee characters altogether. Much of the large scale PvP I’ve experienced seems to break down into blob vs. blob combat where everyone is just slinging ranged spells and abilities at each other for as long as they can possibly get away with it. Paul Sage addressed both concerns by explaining that since Elder Scrolls Online doesn’t use cooldowns, Magicka based characters that would be slinging these huge AOE spells will be limited by their Magicka pools. As for melee, I was told that in internal tests they’ve run, melee characters using magic reflection abilities allowed them to survive the charge into the caster line and do some serious work. It’s a bit early at this point to say if what Zenimax is doing here will ameliorate the issue, but it was an encouraging response worth mulling over nonetheless.
Ultimately, I’m switching my outlook from cautiously optimistic to optimistic at this point. I’m really digging a lot of the stuff Zenimax Online is doing to bring Elder Scrolls into the MMO genre. And most important of all, I came away from my demo feeling like Zenimax Online is handling the IP with a great deal of respect for the source material and the series’ storied history. This should be encouraging for anyone who has been worried, like I have, that Elder Scrolls Online may not be “Elder Scrolls enough”.
Read all of our terrific Elder Scrolls Online previews: