October 22, 2012
– The college-class setup implied a day full of lectures and Power Point presentations, but then the wall to our left parted and revealed the true event schedule: we were going to have an extended hands-on experience with The Elder Scrolls Online. Thus far Bethesda and Zenimax Online Studios have kept a rather opaque veil on the project, even at this year's E3, but the MMORPG is perfectly playable.
Over the course of three to four hours, I played The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) and took my character from level two to eight. The opening segment, which acts as both prologue to the story and tutorial, was unplayable, and that meant skipping level one. After this teasingly brief preview, we were given a tour of both the ample (and not yet fully populated) customer service center as well as the development studio, its walls decorated with impressive E3 artifacts (including a venerable Elder Scroll) and its cubicles cluttered with lavish Skyrim figures and Nerf guns. A small presentation and Q&A session illuminated sections of the game not yet playable, and then it was back to the hotel for individual interviews.
Zenimax Online Studios seek to appease both Elder Scrolls and MMORPG fans with a single game. This seems a monumental task, as both fan-bases are known to be vocally critical and demanding. To accomplish this, the developers considered what fans of each require and attempted to synthesize a compromise between the two. TESO is built on a foundation of great world immersion, strategic and reactive combat, unique character progression, and a modern social experience. Game Director Matt Firor ensured us that this is a premium service, a "best in class" RPG, and this philosophy permeates every design decision.
The event delivered into my hands a staggering amount of information, from miniscule quest details to the structure of PvP. Instead of a single, cumbersome wall of text, I offer you a TESO buffet from which you can pick and choose the information you most desire. Skip to PvP, stick to the basics, or read it like a book and devour every word.
What follows is a spoiler-free overview of TESO's basic features and premises.
TESO will feel familiar to both Elder Scrolls and MMORPG veterans. The devs have inserted the traditional Elder Scrolls objects, locations, and entities into the MMORPG framework. As a third-person action MMORPG, players will find and complete quests, explore a fully realized world, enter dungeons, and combat enemies alone or with friends. Playing TESO closely resembles playing one of the core Elder Scrolls titles with the option of having friends to fight alongside with.
In the spirit of the Elder Scrolls franchise, TESO provides a more sandboxy experience than the average MMORPG. The emphasis on looting has been reduced in favor of exploration, for example. Similarly, one can spend almost as much time talking to NPCs as fighting monsters in the field or in dungeons. The devs made each design decision with both Elder Scrolls fans and MMORPG players in mind.
The transition to third-person may deter some Elder Scrolls purists, despite having that option in the core games (but that never worked well, did it?). Combat functions almost identically to the PC version of Skyrim, and that's just what the devs intended. The PvE content seems reasonably solo-able, but scales to groups of players as well, which provides a means by which everyone can enjoy the game.
During character creation, the player selects one of three alliances, and this determines not only the starting area, but every area the character will be allowed to visit. Although the main story, featuring a soul-stealing Molag Bal, remains the same throughout each alliance, the smaller narratives differ. In other words, three playthroughs are required to see all the content. No doubt this requires an immense time commitment. Again, TESO stays true to the Elder Scrolls name.
A war-torn Cyrodiil provides the stage for PvP gameplay. The three alliances battle to secure keeps in an attempt to claim Cyrodiil as their own. An emperor is eventually chosen from among the top players of the victorious alliance. Of course, that title won't last long, as players must continually defend and attack to keep Cyrodiil theirs.
TESO eschews shards, ghost towns, and "server full" messages with the Megaserver, a single server for the entire game. There are multiple instances of each area, but the game acts intelligently about placing you in instances in which your friends or guild-mates exist. Furthermore, the devs hope to include a sort of gamer survey to tailor the online component to each player. This might tag you as a roleplayer, for example, or someone who wants to solo. The Megaserver would then place you in an area full of other roleplayers or solo gamers.
TESO is still in its pre-alpha stages. Even major components are subject to change and not all features were functional at the time of this preview.
The most significant choice, that of alliance, was already made for us. My character allied himself with the Ebonheart Pact, leaving the other two alliances (Daggerfall Covenant and Aldmeri Dominion) a mystery for now. This choice determines which areas your character will explore, including all the NPCs and minor narrative threads contained therein. All the classic Elder Scrolls races are represented, but each alliance has racial limits. Classes are universal, but only two were available, and I was unable to preview both. I chose the martial healing class called the Templar over the magic-infused tank named the Dragonknight. Every class has completely open weapon and armor options while special abilities and passive skills are unique to each.
Aside from a mandatory first and last name, character customization options were limited, but likely unfinished. My corpulent argonian was distinctive, but I can easily imagine a thousand other gamers having the same idea. Armor and weapon choices would increase diversity, but only to a degree. If TESO manages to gain millions of players, there would undoubtedly be a confusing number of identical twins. Hopefully additional cosmetic options are added before launch.