Bethesda Software

Elder Scrolls Online nails the “Online,” stumbles on the “Elder Scrolls” during our first hands-on

Elder Scrolls Online nails the “Online,” stumbles on the “Elder Scrolls” during our first hands-on

Disclosure: Bethesda paid for air and ground travel, as well as a two-night hotel stay.

The Elder Scrolls Online wants to give players the best of both worlds: the depth and impact of a single-player Elder Scrolls RPG with the scope and game play of an MMO. Developer ZeniMax Online invited the Report, along with several other outlets, to check out the game, offering extended hands-on time with a beta build.

Upon arrival at ZeniMax studios, we were ushered into a room full of computers, and given a short introduction explaining what we would be playing that day. We were told that they wanted us to play the game, not just hear about it. I got to work.

Dragonborn, schmagonborn

I chose Dragonknight for my class, since the flavor text made it sound like a good blend between survivability and melee-oriented damage-dealing. The other classes on display were Sorcerer, a mostly-ranged magic-based damage dealer, and Templar, a beefy healer and protector. The fourth class, which the game will ship with, is Nightblade. We weren't told anything more than its name - indeed, it seemed as though just letting the name slip was an 'oops' moment - but judging from that, I'd guess it'll be a rogue analogue.

Mind you, classes aren't as dominating in Elder Scrolls Online as they are in many MMORPGs. The leveling system isn't as free-form as, say, Skyrim, but you're not locked into the same progression as everyone else in your class. Instead, you'll differentiate yourself via the selection of skills that you choose.

Skill trees are broken down into seven categories: Class, Weapon, Armor, Racial, World, Guild, and AVA (Alliance vs. Alliance). These categories are then further broken down into sub-categories, which is where you choose your skills once you've leveled appropriately.

Let's say you're a fan of wielding a two-handed weapon, so you fight using a greatsword. As you fight, you'll gain experience in Two-Handed weapons. When you're ready to pick a skill, you'll go to the “Weapon” category, and then click on “Two-Handed.” There, you'll see a selection of abilities waiting to be unlocked and then dragged down to your ability bar. You can mix and match as you please.

You'll be able to level these abilities up as you play, and “morph” them into a more powerful, specialized version of their basic form. A Sorcerer who summons an imp can morph his ability so that he instead summons a clannfear. Someone who uses an ability that boosts their defense while damaging melee attackers can choose to morph that ability so that it deals AoE damage on activation, or boosts defense on activation.

My character was decked out with two abilities from my Dragonknight class - Fiery Reach and Spiked Armor - as well as two abilities from the Dual Wield weapon category - Twin Slashes and Death Stroke. Spiked Armor sprouted dragon spines from my character's back and forearms, giving me a boost to defense while damaging melee attackers, Fiery Reach threw a molten chain at my targeted enemy, Scorpion-style, and yanked them to within melee range, and Twin Slashes allowed me to strike with both of my weapons simultaneously. Death Stroke was a passive ability that gave a 20% boost to damage on enemies below 25% health.

All of my active skills were well animated, with more action and force behind them that even many of Skyrim's kill-cams.

I felt proud of my build, like I had created a unique and potent combination, and had done so intuitively on my own, not because the game had told me what to do. I like dual-wielding in games that allow it, so that choice was easy. However, focusing on that style meant a significant drop in my defense, so I chose Spiked Armor to make up for it. I figured ranged casters were my biggest threat, so I picked Fiery Reach to bring them to me, and fight the battle on my terms.

Using Fiery Reach and Spiked Armor in rapid succession completely drained my mana, however, so I took Twin Slashes, an ability that pulled from my Stamina. Since we were pressed for time and I wanted to level as fast as I could, Death Stroke felt like a logical choice for a passive, to help me kill my enemies and move on as fast as possible. No one told me to make those choices, to create that build. All my choices were made using logic and focusing on how wanted to play. The system is pleasantly intuitive.

Combat itself is fluid; no standing in one place while channeling a spell or waiting for a cooldown to finish. Instead, you left click to do a basic attack with your weapon, and right click to block. Holding left click will cause you to do a power attack, and clicking both mouse buttons will cause you to perform an attack that interrupts spells and other abilities that take time to charge and activate.

You have one quickslot in which to place things like health or mana potions, five hotbar abilities, and one slot reserved for an ultimate ability. Combat is much more focused on watching your opponent and reacting to what they do instead of planning out an optimal ability rotation. When an enemy glows yellow and is about to do a power attack, block; the resulting recoil will stun them for a moment, allowing you to get in a power attack of your own, which will knock them down. When an enemy glows red, you have a chance to interrupt their ability, which will likewise stun them. It doesn't quite feel like Elder Scrolls combat, but it's as close as could be reasonably expected given the MMO format, and it remains enjoyable.

Saturday morning Scrolls

My character was part of the Daggerfall Covenant, a collection of Orcs, Redguard, and Bretons. The starting area for this faction is Stros M'kai, a small island not far from the city of Daggerfall. I started on a ship, where a helpful Argonian told me of Captain Kaleen, who had fished me from the water.

This was the first “uh-oh” moment. ZeniMax Online has clearly invested in a ton of voice talent for The Elder Scrolls Online, but the female Argonian made a poor first impression. Her voice was high-pitched and flavored with just the barest hint of a pirate-y accent, and the delivery felt off; it was just a bit too colorful, too cartoonish.

The Argonian wasn't the only one, though. Later on, I met up with a cowardly Orc who was trying to decide between being the warrior his mother wanted him to be, or the blacksmith he wanted to be. It was an interesting enough story, but again, the impact felt lessened by over-dramatic voice acting.

Another quest sent me to rescue a woman who had been captured by pirates, and the quest-giver sounded very concerned indeed. When I rescued the girl, she ran off with a loud and happy thanks that sounded less like someone who'd just been freed from potential torture, murder, and other unpleasantries, and more like a schoolgirl who'd dropped her books. Tee hee!

The Elder Scrolls universe can be a dark and foreboding place. This is a series of games where you had to sacrifice someone who either trusted you or had been paid to serve as your assistant to a demon in order to get every achievement. People are routinely tortured, brutally murdered, or eaten, so it's a bit strange to see such cartoonish animations and hear the equally exaggerated voices, though occasionally the dark tone comes through in the game's missions. One such quest had me re-live the life of a deceased orc, killing unarmed prisoners who had surrendered in order to discover how to open a dungeon's door.

It's possible the tone will change as you level up, but right now this doesn't always feel like an Elder Scrolls game. It feels good, mind you; there's nothing wrong with exaggerated animations or cartoonish dialogue, and Elder Scrolls games mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. This toned-down vision may not be a deal-breaker, but it's there, and it's noticeable.

As for myself: somehow, I don't think going, “Oh my god, you're so cute!” was the reaction ZeniMax Online was going for when a quest pitted me against an “Apparition of Hate.”

Pack mentality

The other journalists and I were shown to a small presentation room once our hands-on time had finished. Here, we were shown some content that was either off-limits, not in our build, or just simply too far along in the game for us to have reached with our few hours of play time. I've already explained to you how acquiring new skills works in Elder Scrolls Online, but here we were shown many, many more, including a vampire skill tree. So yes, it seems you will be able to become a vampire - and werewolf! - in ESO.

We were also given a fly-through tour of deadric prince Molag Bal's plane of Oblivion, Coldharbour. This particular plane looks quite different from what we've seen in previous Elder Scrolls games. The Deadlands from Oblivion were hellish, marked by corpses, torture chambers and lava, while Apocrypha in Skyrim was a Lovecraftian library, full of twisting tentacles. Coldharbour is dominated by a blue color scheme and shrouds of fog, with hundreds of humanoid slaves chained together at the neck in lines that stretch as far as the eye can see.

Bal is a greedy prince, and is fond of taking things from Nirn, the planet on which Tamriel exists. Therefore, you'll see plenty of familiar landmarks and architecture while visiting, though they're either twisted or mixed in with Coldharbour's natural landscape. Think Skyrim, Oblivion, or Morrowind, but plopped down onto LV-426.

We were also shown a live four-man dungeon run, which was intended for mid-level characters. Dungeons will have two separate modes, we were told: the first time you complete a dungeon, you'll also complete its story. On subsequent runs, you'll be able to skip all the story content, and grind out bosses and mini-bosses to your heart's content.

The dungeon we were shown had our heroes teaming up to take down a female spider daedra, who taunted the group as they progressed through her caves. We were told that dungeon runs wouldn't rely on the solo pull, aggro grab, tank-and-spank methodology of yesteryear's dungeons, partly due to sophisticated “pack AI.”

In Elder Scrolls Online, enemies will work together in dynamic ways. A group of necromancers might sacrifice one of their own to summon a more powerful undead creature. Spriggans will channel magic into wild animals in the area to give them a boost. In the dungeon run we saw, spiders feasted on the corpses of their fallen brood to gain strength.

Supposedly, this also means a more sophisticated aggro management system, but I didn't see anything that would revolutionize runs; our group still targeted small bunches of mobs before pulling them and moving to the next, though they were able to handle more of them due to their high level.

Enemies won't be the only ones who can take advantage of the game's focus on synergy. When the group we were watching finally made it to the spider daedra boss, we saw one caster place her ultimate spell, called Nova, underneath the monstrous creature. Nova is powerful on its own, and impressive from a visual standpoint, but once our group leader got within range, he was able to trigger a transformation that caused it to expand into a Supernova, dealing more damage and, frankly, looking more awesome.

With my own two hands

Before we ended our time with ZeniMax, we were told there was one last thing to be shown. Cue video showing… what's this? Could it be… yes, the first in-game footage of the traditional Elder Scrolls first-person game play.

Hands, weapons, and abilities were all on display, and all from a wonderful first-person view. We saw a character block a melee attack, and the camera rocked. The Fiery Reach ability I had used so much in my personal build looked fantastic in the video, with the molten chains flying out from the character's left hand while they held a weapon in their right.

It looked like Elder Scrolls, but, you know… online.

People in the audience gasped at that footage. They cheered and grinned in a way they hadn't during our hands-on time. It was obvious that that was the game we had all wanted to play. But that wasn't the game we played. We played something else.

Want to see what I'm talking about? The game will be at PAX East this weekend, so feel free to develop your own thoughts and discuss.