Ushering in the New Era: Elder Scrolls Online Hands-On Impressions


The Bethesda booth at PAX East had an unmistakable presence. Loud crashes of weaponry thundered out from the big screen where the cinematic preview of the three way war between the Aldmeri Dominion, Daggerfall Covenant, and Ebonheart Pact looped. Crowds formed within the aisle way and often spilled out onto the rug of the Twitch.tv booth to the left and as far back as the escalators connecting the show floor and the lobby. This was just the outside of the booth, the demos waged on within the confines of the black walls; simplified with only a few murals and logos adorning it. I passed by it Friday and Saturday only visiting the Treehouse Brand Stores merchandise stand  that featured some nifty looking Bethesda game apparel because I was patiently waiting for my appointed demo time Sunday morning. It killed me to know that just on the other side of those thin ceiling-less walls was the game that I have been waiting for since playing Morrowind. But I would have my time, I would have my place.

Once Sunday arrived I navigated the grid-shaped show floor at the hastened pace of a parent searching for their lost child. Entering into the barricade I smiled at the ladies donning the exhibitor badges standing behind the book of power, otherwise known as the book with the names of those with media appointments. I gave my name and waited within arms-length of the door to destiny. When I walked in I felt the balance of my anticipation and excitement shift significantly in the favor of the latter. I was the first of that group to enter, the first to sit at a station, and the first the lay eyes upon the starting model of who would be my hero on this day. She was a female orc clad in golden and silver armor standing there with options surrounding her to change race, name, rotate model, and alternate customization options. We were promptly told that our starting character would hail from the Daggerfall Covenant; which meant we were going to be Orcs, Bretons, or Redguard. As a dedicated follower of the Ebonheart Pact I felt a slight disappointment but then quickly snapped back to reality and figured that even if I was forced to assume the role of a naked imperial the whole time I still would have not traded my opportunity to play the first available Elder Scrolls Online demo for the world.

My hands hovered above keyboard and mouse for the first time in a while, what must it have been? Two years, three years since I stopped playing World of Warcraft? It matters not, my faith in the smooth and successful transition from single player game to massively multiplayer online role-playing game for the Elder Scrolls franchise never fell from its resolute path. What I would soon find out is that I could not have been more right.

We were instructed to do as we pleased with our hour and a half time limit. Limited as the Oblivion and Skyrim character creation engines were I could still manage to spend a healthy 20 minutes on a new crew member. The first observation was that ESO’s creation system was tremendously more detailed by comparison; and not just more detailed but a hell of a lot better looking design wise. If I were not interested in getting right into the gameplay I could have easily spent my entire demo time putting together my Breton Dragonknight. Instead she got the 10 minute treatment only changing her class, hair style, hair color, face dimensions, and chest size (don’t judge me). This was easily about one fourth of the total options that will be available to gamers, others including skin tone, muscular definition, eyebrow height, facial hair, war paint, and even foot size. Zenimax Online has put together a creation agent which will ensure that no two characters will look exactly alike.

After entering into the world of Tamriel I found myself awaking from a presumably long slumber on a ship docked by Stros M’kai, a port city located on an island off the coast of Hammerfell. As an experienced MMO player I instantly took to the keyboard controls for movement and the next thing I noticed upon exploration of the ship was the extremely sensible and easy to understand user interface.  Granted MMOs will typically have an option to customize or even install a completely different UI found elsewhere for gamers, but developers have created a great default option to ease newcomers and veterans into the action fairly quickly. There is no clutter and the game screen itself where all the action takes place is always prioritized. Even menus such as inventory and skill trees are straight forward and are devoid of unnecessary décor that would make gamers uncertain of what tabs or icons to click.

Quite possibly what is easiest to appreciate about the simplified UI is that it allows for enough space to truly enjoy the beauty of the world around you. Graphically ESO is stunning; and this is still beta mind you. The trees, grass, water, sky, architecture; wherever you look the entire environment comes to life. My days spent in Skyrim come with fond memories of stargazing in the night sky and being amazed at how luminescent and detailed it appeared. When you consider how often players will really stop and look upward in the middle of gameplay for no real reason, it’s impressive to see how thorough some companies are willing to be in their design. The same philosophy is applied in ESO. In game the character models were not as clean with blotchy skin and dull clothing, but this is one of those areas where it’s good to be reminded that it is only a beta. If the gameplay models turn out to properly reflect their selection screen selves by release date, there will be no issue.

My Dragonknight spawned already equipped with a sword and shield, after discovering the basics of attack (left click) and block (right click) I quickly realized that holding down the left click would execute a powerful spinning attack. Simultaneous changes in direction of movement no longer dictate a particular type of power attack like in Skyrim; rather the only directional based skill at this time is a combat roll used to evade attacks. This can be performed by double tapping your movement keys. There was no real need for battle at this point except for exterminating a few rats aboard the ship and on the docks. I sheathed my sword and committed to memory my 10 second crash course on combat for a later time. Instead I focused on finding out just what was going on, which meant engaging others in conversation.

Coming up to the first person I saw, an Argonian female, she informed me that my life was mysteriously saved by the Captain of her ship and that the good Captain was ashore recruiting for a big heist. All of this was conveyed to me in beautifully articulated words in the appropriate accent. My concern was that as realistic as the voice overs sounded, ESO would simply follow suit from past Elder Scrolls titles and just toss in 5 or 6 different voices for each gender and race and call it a day. Not that it really ruined the experience in Oblivion or Skyrim, but when you are now dealing with the entire continent of Tamriel we are expanding the known population tremendously. Luckily between just the few people I spoke to leading up to main square in Stros M’Kai there was already a greater variety in speech, tone, and syntax. I instantly felt like while I was roaming this small island town, I was already a part of a larger world than Skyrim itself. I knew there was more out there, and I knew I had to discover it.

Gaining quests is fairly straight forward; highlighted character models indicate importance as do the icons on the mini map. Virtually every quest giver I encountered chained into several other objectives so there isn’t much worry of too little to do. On a related note, another welcoming facet of familiarity for Elder Scrolls veterans is that most every icon on the mini map denoting a particular structure found out in the world resembles the ones used in past games; dwemer ruins still look like little lanterns, and caves still looked like jagged onigiris. It is also exciting to see new icons which denote structures or areas specific to provinces not featured in the past.

I sought out the Captain of the ship and she started me off by offering a choice of people I can recruit to commit the heist; being in her debt for apparently saving my life it seemed the noble thing to do to accept. I was sent to a dwemer ruin to find a wizard of some intellect named Neramo. I ventured outside the city’s borders and found my path littered with wolves just waiting to maul me. It was time for battle. Not only was it key to time my slashes and blocks correctly, seeing as how my foes had power attacks of their own, but with every defeated wolf I found myself grow stronger. Yes I was sure now, leveling up was no longer achieved by increasing skills but by slaying those who opposed me. Of course completing quests rewarded me as handsomely as always but there is so much more to be concerned with now aside from basic leveling.

Each class has 3 skill trees to allocate points into upon level up; additionally those looking to be more skilled offensively or defensively can put points into your weapon and armor which will unlock perks such as special attacks or heightened damage mitigation. Setting and using activated skills is quite simple, drag and drop from the skill tree menu into your hotkeys located on the bottom middle of the screen and press the corresponding key in the midst of battle. The more you use an obtained skill, the quicker your aptitude with that pathway will strengthen so chances are gamers will want to favor one build over another. We were informed that later down the line it is also possible to obtain alternate skill paths both specific to characters and generally enjoyed by all. Needless to say there will be more than enough ways to build your own talents and stand out from the crowd in some way. Yet another aspect of ESO already vastly rich in customization.

Several wolves, a few mudcrabs, dwemer constructs, and 5 levels later I find myself disguised as a servant and sneaking into the head honcho on the Island’s mansion; this is where the heist was to take place. It was all part of the plan, and one false move or suspicious act could blow my cover. Well, I was informed that for the sake of the demo it wouldn’t matter what I did but in the future there will be moments where you must remain incognito by falling in line with your surroundings. After incapacitating the big man, treating his personal guard to some serious electroshock therapy, checking out the harem of servant girls roaming the complex, I procured my objective and returned to the ship. We set sail to our next destination, with more people to help, foes to slay, towns to discover, and lore to unveil. This signaled the end of my time.

Very rarely did I actually feel like I was in a beta, I spent more time thinking what my next steps would be to further my journey. While not technically perfect, even the finished product of previous Elder Scrolls games had their share of glitches; when taking Bethesda and Zenimax into consideration it almost becomes part of the charm. I wanted to play further but alas my time did come to an end and I bid farewell to my Dragonknight knowing that we would never see each other again. She had help take me on an adventure that I know if I had unlimited time would have turned me into one of the most knowledgeable and powerful beings in all of Tamriel. I reflected back on my time spent (as quickly as it felt) and realized that I had become immersed into an experience that was set to break some serious ground. The legacy behind the Elder Scrolls name is not wasted here; it soars to new heights and will only travel higher as development continues.

Post contributed by Senior Editor Matt J. Randisi. Questions for the author? Send an email to Mrandisi@gamesabyss.com. Follow him on Twitter: @SaveUsMatt.

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