Published on June 24th, 2013 | by Hubert McReed0
The Elder Scrolls Online – Hands On
If making a game is a scary proposition then making an MMO must be pants wettingly terrifying! Server costs, player load, longevity, crafting, PvP, the word MMO alone is enough to bring the average developer out in cold sweats. Just ask anyone who used to work at BioWare Austin or the hardworking folks at the now defunct Paragon Studios. It’s this kind of thinking we suspect that has made Matt Firore and his colleagues at Zenimax Online do everything they can to not call The Elder Scrolls Online the most dreaded of terms, an MMORPG. Their multi-million dollar project work is a role-playing game which you can play online with potentially a massive number of online players in a persistent open-world, but it isn’t an MMORPG. Yeah okay.
This somewhat uncomfortable repositioning of The Elder Scrolls Online’s image to the masses does inevitably seems like more of a marketing trick than any kind of readdressing of public expectations, especially after the recent reveal that this game is coming to next-gen consoles. And after we chatted with Matt for 20 fascinating minutes, even we had to admit, we came out of the interview thinking ‘Well if The Elder Scrolls Online really isn’t an MMORPG, then exactly what is it’?
After sitting down at a demo stations for 20 minutes we finally got our answer, and the good news is we really enjoyed ourselves.
The Elder Scrolls Online really is an Elder Scrolls game first and an MMORPG second, with classes boasting a freeform structure with any classes being able to wield a shield and sword, bow and arrow, mace or staff regardless what choices they made in the character creation stage. Any weapon you use you’ll get more proficient at and unlock new skills with class choice only governing the natural alignment of that character’s expertise.
For our hands-on we had a number of level 6 templates available to select, along with class and race choices. We went for an Templar Ork because the green ones are known across Tamriel for their armour expertise and that choosing a Healer class is a good test of any MMO… sorry online multiplayer RPG. Instantly my rather fetching Warrior named ‘Grunter’ was flung into the city-state of Daggerfall, surrounded by other European press all jumping around for attention wondering what to do next.
The UI felt like an MMORPG with skills tied to a hot-bar at the bottom of the screen, a points-based unlock skill unlock system mapped across multiple trees and dance, cheer and sit emotes to allow for quick personal expression, but the world itself was much more ripe for playful hijinks. Options to steal from villagers and interact with books nestled in a vendor’s shelf brought instantly brought us back to the feelings we felt in Skyrim, even with a mini-map and quests placed in the top right-hand corner of the screen.
Following our personal Elder Scrolls tradition we decided to ignore every quest in the modable UI and instead headed out into the open-world and soon found ourselves in the neighbouring region of Glumbra where we came across a serene lake and a forest free of roaming enemies. Unlike lots of other online games it seems The Elder Scrolls Online’s landscape isn’t chock full of enemies. Like Skyrim there’s lots of open areas to just wander around and those little touches like butterflies flittering across the landscape offer an ambience and atmosphere, a lot of other games lack and of course the flying insects can be instantly plucked from the air granting players wings and other easily craftable items. All loot has its basis on reality, so you won’t somehow get a sword from a dead elk or whatever. What you loot is the creature itself, not whatever crazy item they had implausibly eaten that day.
We guided our character for a good 10 more minutes, just admiring the lay of the land and seeing where the wind took us. There were no pop-ups telling us we weren’t powerful enough or over-levelled for a particular area, and the landscape in-front of us was varied and stretched on and on. Zenimax has nailed that sense of exploration Elder Scrolls games seem to exclusively possess, but their approximation of combat is a bit more traditional.
Even though The Elder Scrolls Online doesn’t rely on auto-targetting the increased latency of combat, and the necessary requirement to only look in the direction of an enemy in order to sling out ranged attacks did bring back that MMO vibe. We found as we came across our first prey – giant red ostrich-like birds fostering their young in mountain caves – that combat just felt a little cold and predictable with our charged up javelin-throwing enemies back off cliff edges for easy kills. Yes, there’s still room for a player to use their ingenuity in battle, but as we instantly switched between sword and bow and arrow weapon choices we never found an option which really clicked. This may be due to the lack of any first-person mode, which Zenimax assured us would be in the final release build, but we think the nature of the online infrastructure means that combat cannot be so active or, put more accurately, latency heavy.
Combat aside, we definitely felt connected with this world and that connection increased as soon as we got to try out our first quest.
Like Skyrim before it, quest givers don’t have massive exclamation marks on their head, instead they glow with a subtle aura and when you initiate conversations the face of the NPC fills the left-hand side of the screen while the right-hand side holds the conversation options.
Some offer quests, others are vendors and the occasional miscreant mumbles the same set of lines over and over, but as we ventured further into Glenumbra we found a small village circle with a bunch of NPCs occupying the middle. We approached a fellow Ork named ‘Bumnoy’, who told us that he needed assistance helping two brothers who had gone missing in the local nest-filled mountains which we had been harvesting for kills previously. We didn’t come across any brothers or any pop-ups alerting us to a nearby quest. Nevertheless we accompanied the unfortunately named Ork to his bungling friends Balin and Amrel who were blaming each other for setting ground-based traps for birds, told of their hunt to capture said giant fowl for the benefit of a town lord who was investigating why the foes were so enraged in the first place. Inevitably all was not what it had appeared and this quest unravelled in a way which was not only surprising during every step, but the result of it also made us think about how adopting the moral high ground can sometimes stop one from getting paid.
There were multiple moral choices along the way, including an option to lie to a leader of the struggling mercenary group to allow his fellow men to get paid, as he was far too kind to be involved in such a cut-throat (sometimes literally) business. A particular player action governed whether the group continued or be disbanded to the detriment of its members, but then Elder Scrolls always offered personal, challenging and well-written questlines and Zenimax Online has produced at least one really great one.
During this quest we didn’t really get a sense of the grand narrative involving daedric prince Molag Bol trying to pull the land of Tamriel including his hellish dimension or how the 100 vs 100 PvP end-game would work, but we did get a sense of how The Elder Scrolls Online would play moment-to-moment and the great news is that this is very much the multiplayer-enabled Elder Scrolls experience Zenimax has promised all along with UI, quest make-up and world design all echoing the epic fantasy franchise.
After spending a brief hour with their work it’s easy to understand why Zenimax and Bethesda want to move away from labelling The Elder Scrolls Online an MMORPG, as there really isn’t any need to group up to play. Aside from seeing those aforementioned fellow ‘journos’ team up and take down one of Molag Bols anchors by taking down a boss and a few minions, we could easily see this game more suitable for a two- or three-person co-op rather than giant raiding teams. Thankfully the world isn’t instanced and instead takes place on one giant shard, so in theory it would be easy to put together massive 50-person raiding parties together but really we didn’t see any need for that.
We were told it is possible to tackle almost every piece of content from level 1 to 50 including the main questline and factions on your lonesome, which for seeing as Bethesda are telling folks that’ll take 150 hours minimum to get through that’s a big ask, but we can see the most committed Elder Scrolls fans doing it as this ancient period, set 1,000 years before Skyrim, is new territory for the series.
Obviously there’s still plenty of questions left to be answered regarding The Elder Scrolls Online, including which payment model we’ll be given, how level-gated content will be and just how the currently PC-only interface will work on consoles, but the good news is that this is shaping up to be a well-rounded, entertaining and worthwhile online experience whichever way the masses decide to label it. Some will say it’s an MMO, others will call it an RPG but the vast majority of players frankly will be having too much fun to care, and that really is the main thing.