The Elder Scrolls Online Hands-On Event

The First Eight Levels
My obese argonian exited the pocket of Oblivion known as Coldharbour only to land in another frigid region: an island off the coast of Skyrim. I was immediately asked to speak to an NPC of importance in a small village in the center of the rather anonymous isle. My initial surroundings resembled those of The Elder Scrolls V, complete with roaming deer and icicle-bearded hillocks. The music and voice acting were far from complete, but thus far the atmosphere remains faithful to the Skryim we've come to know.

The Elder Scrolls Online ScreenIn an effort to see as much of TESO as possible, I hastily accepted a story quest and made my way to locate three missing villagers. The ultimate goal was to herd everyone together and depart the island. No doubt the disappearances were hardly coincidental. Indeed, the events that followed would provide the basis for the Ebonheart Pact's alliance story. I could imagine players being almost too excited to see all three alliance stories to stick with a single character. No doubt many will play three separate characters simultaneously.

Out of fifteen missing villagers, I decided to rescue just three. This was the first real narrative decision I had to make, and it came quite early. I never learned about the consequences of my cruel actions (if there were any), but I certainly pondered the fate of the unfound villagers. Regardless of my musings, to find just three villagers I had to investigate a spoiled tomb, save an NPC's missing brother, and infiltrate a heavily-guarded mine.

The tomb was a straightforward dungeon delve, simple and brief – what one expects from an early quest. To find the missing brother, I had to unravel the mystery of an amusing and villainous personality who called an ice cave home. Such a quest wouldn't be out of place in a single-player RPG, and the villain was far from the faceless quest-granting automatons found in most MMORPGs. Infiltrating the mine illustrated TESO's potential to offer multiple solutions to a single problem. I could either don a disguise and walk alongside my enemies or ignore the camouflage and attack. I chose the latter. Each quest required a combination of exploration, combat, and light puzzle solving or investigation. Progressing was enjoyable, and I earned a few levels and gained a few abilities along the way.

In my hurried explorations I also ran into a woman whose opening dialogue was a series of squeeks. When she found out I wasn't a skeever like her friends, she led me to a wand that evidently had the power to reverse the enchantment it put on said friends, who now ran about the island as giant rats. I never found the friends in my eagerness to progress, but this is testament to the thought put into even the smallest side quests. Hopefully the entire game is riddled with similar bouts of imagination.

Occasionally, other players would attack my enemies, but TESO awarded both me and the stranger with equal experience and loot. There's no waiting in line to kill an enemy or fighting over loot. When in a group, items are rolled for in typical fashion. Since I enjoyed the combat, having others finish off my enemies became annoying at times. The Dragonknight's grab ability was another source of irritation. I would run into combat only to find my enemy suddenly transported behind me. In a group with solid communication, this wouldn't occur, but random players can certainly disrupt the flow of combat.

I would have loved to explore more, but I was eager to escape Skyrim. I saw only a small fraction of the island, and I expect various quests and dungeons were left undiscovered. After a couple of other simple quests, I boarded a ship and headed to mainland Morrowind, a realm I hadn't visited in years. I was the first among the group to reach those alien shores.

The Elder Scrolls Online ScreenWhile the two versions of Skyrim (that of TESO and that of TESV) resemble each other closely, TESO's Morrowind differed from that other Morrowind more than some might be comfortable with. The land was still covered in bizarre flora and fauna, but the graphics seemed less detailed and slightly too light and bright for the province. Enormous mushrooms and dust storms still punctuate the player's experience there, however, and perhaps the graphics will see more polish as time wears on. I wish I could have visited other provinces as well; Paul Sage reports that all of the major provinces make at least a small appearance in TESO. Those waiting to see the Khajiit homeland will finally be satisfied.

My objectives in Morrowind were less clear than those in the starting zone, and I spent a bit more time wandering the landscape. The threat from before followed me to mainland Tamriel, however, and continued to terrorize the recurring NPCs. Major NPCs are sure to follow you through the alliance narrative. Hopefully they have strong enough personalities to warrant multiple appearances. Unfortunately, I never got a glimpse of the Molag Bal storyline, which likely proves more interesting than the rather rudimentary alliance stories. Of course, I previewed only a small portion of the alliance story, which could hold surprising and delightful developments.

In Morrowind, I set Bull Netches upon my enemies, trained with some greenhorn recruits, and followed a secret passage to the coast. Combat continued to entertain me more than anything else. I didn't collect much equipment at this stage, although there were crafting components all around me. The crafting system is yet to be implemented, however. I also discovered the fast travel system, which costs negligible amounts of gold, but is quite limited otherwise. Players can only fast travel to select shrines – the same ones that serve as resurrection hubs. I found them too sparse and wished instead that I could travel to any found location.

The first section of Morrowind wasn't as memorable or impressive as the Skyrim isle, and I hurried along to the next zone, which featured a Public Dungeon. These are separate zones with particularly difficult "champion" enemies and their own quests and designs. Groups are strongly encouraged for these segments, but I actually found solo play possible as long as I was careful not to draw massive mobs.

The dungeon had a fantastic gothic aesthetic, with violet skies and fallings stars, craggy hills, and creepy enemies, including ghosts, massive gargoyle-bats, and will-o-the-wisps. The region was quite small, but dense, with multiple layers and two different quests, one of which involved sentient crows. This wasn't the most Elder Scrolls-esque area, but it stands out in my mind as one of the more compelling locales.

This was one of about two instances that I decided it best to break my solitude and join a group. Unfortunately, the three of us entered the dungeon at different times, which made completing quests difficult and confusing. Furthermore, one of the quests gave the option of two different objectives. If each player didn't choose the same option, someone may be left behind. That "someone" was me. This might not normally happen with friends and guild mates, but strangers rarely employ the selflessness required by such situations.

The Elder Scrolls Online ScreenI may have been left to my own devices against the bosses of the dungeon, but since it was a three-way free for all, I came out victorious. As I searched the room for loot, both bosses respawned, and I was rudely ripped from the world I had been immersed in. TESO's identity as an MMORPG became clear. I was reminded that this is a more manufactured experience than that of the more organic core Elder Scrolls titles. The sheer lack of novelty may deter Elder Scrolls fans when it's the desire for unique, personal adventures that draws them to Tamriel again and again.

I picked up a crow whistle for my efforts, however, which made me quite happy. I was able to blow the whistle and summon a murder of crows to devour the corpse of a fallen foe. A wonderful PvP trinket, and an indication of the level of detail and fun inherent in the game.

The final major event involved one of Molag Bal's Dark Anchors. As I approached the dark and malevolent twister towering over the beach cliffs, I accepted that whatever resided at the base of the cyclone would likely kill me. I fought off two waves of enemies, however, and succeeded in releasing the anchor from Morrowind. No doubt these enigmatic anomalies give some insight to the Daedric Prince's ultimate goals.

As time ran out on our preview, I swam out to sea in an effort to reach distant foggy mountains. Before long, a barrier of drowning forced me back with a curt warning, and I eventually leaped on an abandoned ship and zoomed the camera out for a dignified pose. A developer standing by cursed the lack of swim speed boosts for argonians, and I wondered who was more enlightened by our visit: me or the devs. They seek only to make improve the game from pre-alpha to beta to launch and beyond.

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