I'm on my way to ZeniMax Studios, and to see Bethesda's fantasy lovechild debut in the online world. There's been a lot of rumours and few hard facts about the project so far. So it's with obvious excitement that I get into a waiting car the morning after my arrival and head to the studios.
As prelude before we see the game, we're given a tour of the studio. The atmosphere is very quiet. The odd piece of small talk, but for the most, silence dominates. Expectation of a room full of Nerf gun fights breaking out is somewhat dashed. Maybe the departments are holding a truce during the duration of the press visit. At least there's some awe in the displays they have around the studio: Elder Scrolls weapons are exhibited everywhere, including the Holy Grail itself: an Elder Scroll. A copy only - I didn't go blind reading it.
With that, we finally sat down with the promise we'd soon be able to explore the game...but not before Game Director Matt Firor talked the team's design philosophy: to create a game that appeals to two groups, namely Elder Scrolls fans and MMO players. And it was with this thought in mind that I took my Elder Scrolls online.
It begins promisingly enough: detailed character designs that are on par with the recent Elder Scrolls games. The ability to alter facial features has become common in recent MMOs, but Elder Scrolls gives you as many options when it comes to body shape. There is simply nothing to fault.
After a bit of tinkering, I jumped into the game. We got to romp freely in the starting area of the Covenant Daggerfall, one of three factions in the game. My character's story begins with them awakening on the tropical island M'kai, with little idea how they got there. All that's known is that a Daedra has enslaved my soul in Oblivion, and while my body escaped, I won't be free until my soul belongs to me again.
It seems a hopeless endeavour: all I own is the clothes on my body and a sword on my belt. Without any further clues I look for work around M'kai, and soon get my first quest.
ZeniMax has chosen to focus on a more or less traditional quest system, but they have largely managed to make what's on offer more interesting than the stereotypical "kill ten rats". Just the fact that all NPCs are voiced makes everything more vivid. The game provides a context for what you are doing and thus draws you into the experience.
A early memorable side quest saw me stumbling across an orc who was torn between following his dream of being a blacksmith, and giving in to his family's wishes to be a warrior. I helped him kill a monster that threatened the village, and convinced him that he was not warrior material (even if I had the opportunity to recommend the opposite).
The world feels like an Elder Scrolls one, and fans of the series will see that it is rammed full of iconic and familiar locations and enemies. Even in the few hours I had available, I encountered mud crabs and Dwemers, just to mention a couple. So in this particular area I feel I understand ZeniMax's design philosophy. I wish I could say the same about gameplay.
My biggest concern relates to the combat system. It is obvious that ZeniMax has tried to make it more active, angling for a mouse-driven system not unlike the one found in TERA Online. The problem is it doesn't feel satisfying to fight. In TERA's there was plenty of power behind each attack: in TESO there's a lack of weight. It feels floaty. You can attack with either weaker, more frequent strikes or a slower but more powerful blow. The latter is performed by holding the left mouse button for a second.
There are positives. The enemy AI is the most impressive of any MMORPG I've played. Enemies will analyse your attack - be it from a distance or melee - and change their tactics accordingly. They'll decide which character they deem the greatest threat, be it the strongest warrior or the one who heals the most, and attack appropriately. They are also aware of other monsters nearby, and will cooperate with them in a much deeper way than I've seen before.
For example, I witness a duo of solider and magician working together, with the soldier placing an oil field and the magician setting it on fire.
But still, even with this impressive artificial intelligence on display, it matters little when the fight lacks substance, you feel you haven't actually fought anybody. It is important to note though that the version we played only the third-person mode was available, which may be reason for the disconnection from the world and I. ZeniMax promised that the game will be released with a proper first-person mode and showed us a short video clip to demonstrate it.
It looked promising, and felt far more like fighting in an Elder Scrolls game than what I had experienced myself. Though there's still some skepticism that it can deliver what's missing.
In addition, there is much that is typical of the Elder Scrolls series missing in The Elder Scrolls Online. Stealing is not possible, which is understandable enough, given that we now have to deal with a global economy - understandable, but missed nonetheless.
You can't dive under water, but are stuck swimming along the water's surface, which lessens the sense of freedom to explore everywhere and everything in the world. I also miss that almost every NPC has a rich history and a life of their own. Although i could converse with everybody, only a minority had something interesting to tell, which partially reduces them to cardboard characters intended to fill the world rather than populate it with actual personalities. When the game is released there'll be no Thieves Guild, no Dark Brotherhood to encounter, or at least initially: there is a promise of a post-release appearance.
With that said, much of the iconic series is represented in its online form. You can sneak, and you can customise your character to play in this game - even in PvP. You can also tinker with locks, albeit in more limited fashion than the rest of the series.
Progression is also inspired by the previous games, because outside a few exceptions, you're never locked to a skill set or role. You can unlock all the possible combinations in the game, allowing you to switch from being a warrior, a long-range attacker, a magician, or a combination of all. The freedom to experiment is key to the series: and you'll find it here as well.
We only got the chance to play the starting area, but we got some information on what we can expect come the higher levels. The focus on story continues all the way from starting to max level (which is 50), but even that is only the beginning. After you finish your story, you can also play through the game as part of the other two groups with the same character. You can become a member of both the Fighter's Guild and Mage's Guild, and enjoy the resulting side stories.
When it comes to group content, you must make do with dungeons for small groups, and there'll be no raids for larger guilds to tackle. Instead, you can embark on large scale PvP throughout Cyrodiil, where the three factions fight for forts and other strategic points. PvP mode is similar, at least superficially, to WvW in Guild Wars 2, but until we get more details it's hard to say how this PvP mode will pan out. One thing is certain, and that's that both major battles with hundreds of players, as well as minor skirmishes, will take place.
In conclusion? Only that there are no real conclusions to be the drawn yet. In its current state, the game can be said to be only partially living up to the design philosophy, and as such doesn't appeal to either Elder Scrolls fans or MMO players.
I feel they've sacrificed too much of what makes the Elder Scrolls games so engaging to facilitate online functionality, but they can't reach the quality of other MMORPGs on the market. With that said, there's still a lot of time for issues to be corrected before the game is released. The lack of first-person perspective may be what is missing, and there is still much room for general polishing. ZeniMax Studios has many issues to correct, but I'd not depreciate them just yet.