The Elder Scrolls is kind of an odd series, when you think about it. As players, we expect that we should be able to fly careening off-rails from the get-go, ignoring whatever fantasy story domino chain the writers have conjured up in favor of venturing off into any three-eyed gorilla murder cave we please. "Fuck being the hero," we say. "I'm gonna punch horses until an army of hooved hellions chases me across the countryside." But the very fact that Bethesda's games actually allow for that is a key reason many of us love them so much. So then, with TES charging into MMO territory under Zenimax Online's steady whip, can it hope to adapt the elements that keep the series from simply blending in with a suffocatingly samey fantasy pack? I ventured to Zenimax's frigid Baltimorian lair and went hands-on with The Elder Scrolls Online to find out.
Alright then, first the good news: I actually came across quite a few more traditionally Elder-Scrolls-y elements than I was expecting. Based on previously released gameplay footage, I feared the worst: Elder Scrolls' names and locations - the series' face, in essence - grafted onto some soulless MMO shell. "NaaAaaathan," I thought it'd say, spitting wet chunks of its own mouth in my general direction. "CooOme adventshfur wifth meeeee HEre is yooUr friend Cyrodial ThE Daedracrab." A few elements, however, made me feel almost at home. For instance:
Hoard ALL THE THINGS - OK, OK, Elder Scrolls Online is actually a big step back from Skyrim, Oblivion, Morrowind, and co in this respect. But, given that many MMOs nail their worlds down with railroad spikes the size of whaling harpoons, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I could swipe individual objects off tables, shelves, and things of the like. There was plenty of worthless junk, too, which is an aspect of TES' world-building that I think a lot of people gloss over. Typical game worlds stuff every nook and cranny with so much treasure that even their impoverished beggars should be buried under magnificent golden statues carved in their own images. Occasionally, it's nice to find something that means nothing. Hey, a cup. Hm, some bread. I can take these, but I won't because eh. Someone else probably needs them more than I do, anyway.
Books! - There's lore! And a fair bit of it, too. It's still not very good (I found a fairly rote record from a scholar on a temple excavation and few other mostly un-memorable passages), but it's present and accounted for. I probably came across somewhere around five full-blown tomes during my travels, in addition to heaps of tinier scratchings and scrawlings. The bigger ones gave me minor XP gains and stat boosts, too, which leads right into...
Open Progression - Again, this is an area where Skyrim has TESO beat in rather lopsided fashion, but - though seemingly more straightforward - skill progression in Zenimax's bouncing baby scrolly polly is still quite open. Sure, I was technically corralled into a "class" (I chose Dragonknight) at the beginning, but the "skill line" system gave me the option of learning any skill in the game, regardless of class. Unfortunately, my mighty Xenorc The Warrior Princess didn't quite cover enough ground to really break out of her box, but apparently unique skill lines will come from all over: level-based progression, special quests, PVP, world events, etc. Each one, meanwhile, contains a mix of active and passive skills, with actives leveling up through use and - once they hit level five - morphing into new, specialized skills of your choosing.
Real First-Person Combat - Remember when Zenimax said first-person combat in TESO would be akin to duct-taping a Cliff Racer to the back of your noggin? Well, it changed its mind/remembered that directional indicators exist. Admittedly, I didn't get to play any of Online's revamped front-and-center sword-biffery, but a quick behind-the-curtain peek at the ostensibly very new system gave me reason to hope. There were arms! Glorious, wriggly, graspy, flaily arms. No longer do characters abruptly sacrifice their precious limbs to the gruesome gods of technical necessity in exchange for sight beyond sight that trails well behind normal sight. Instead, the end result looks a lot like Skyrim - incorporating dual-wielding, timed blocks, etc - though I'm not sure how well it'll deal with high-speed dodge rolls, vision cones, and other mechanics specific to TESO. It could end up being an incredibly awkward mishmash, but we'll just have to wait and see. At least it's now existent, I suppose.
Stealth - Most of the time, when I let people know that a giant eyeball in the middle of my field of view tells me everyone's looking at me, they just look at me funny. But see? The eyeball's right! That is, however, also recent Elder Scrolls' approach to stealth, and TESO reprises it admirably. Or, well, it's there at least. I didn't come across many quests where stealth felt necessary, but the option was nice. Also, nothing in TESO's arsenal matched the sheer satisfaction of a perfectly taut, completely shadow-cloaked bow shot in Skyrim. The chewy twang, the deliciously instinctual knowledge that your arrow will dutifully find its fatal mark, the resulting ragdoll splay of perfect finality. If only. If only.
Guilds - First, the good news: the Mages and Fighters guilds are both in, replete with their own quest progressions, skill lines, and characters. Unfortunately, their Thief and Dark Brotherhood, er, brethren won't be able to make launch - probably because they're too busy cavorting about town, cackling uproariously while upending mailboxes with baseball bats. Also, BLOOD FOR THE BLOOD GO-- I mean Night Mother. Regardless, the two fan favorites will make their debuts as hefty doses of post-launch content, which Zenimax went out of its way to assure us there will be plenty of. Then they refused to discuss business models, because of course they did.
Arts (And Smithing And Alchemy And Cooking) And Crafts - Elder Scrolls Online has five professions - alchemy, enchanting, armor smithing, weapon smithing, and cooking/provisioning - but that's not really the important part. What's key is how they'll function, with simple, easily snapped up recipes getting the boot in favor of experimentation. Various items have their own properties and work best with different additives, and the onus is on you to perfect your craft. Zenimax believes this more open system will ensure that many of TESO's best items actually come from crafting - not some pre-determined top tier of monster-farmed god armor.
Vampirism And Lycanthropy - Both were heavily hinted at during the demo session, and lead gameplay designer Nick Konkle later confirmed to me that they'll be included as skill lines. So yes, for better or worse, probably expect this fresh Tamriel's early days to look a lot like Halloween once everybody catches wind of the proper quests. Or Twilight, I suppose. But I like to think Elder Scrolls fans are better than that. Maybe? Please?
Oblivion Gates (Basically) - They're being called "Dark Anchors" here, but there's no denying that TESO's dimension-hopping Daedra hives sound a lot like Oblivion's, er, Oblivion gates. Navigate desolate, twisted environments! Fight Daedra! Get special items! Etc. These will probably tie in to the game's central Daedric enemy, Molag Bal, as well. He's stolen your soul, you see. I get the impression he's not very nice.
Lockpicking - Yes, there's a lockpicking minigame, thank goodness. It's basically the one from Skyrim, only you push bolts down instead of up. Gears click, chests unlock, and - somewhere, off in the beautiful beyond - a deserving angel's wings are stolen in an act of petty theft. Just as nature intended.
Mudcrabs - Mudcrabs!
Smooth-ish sailing so far, right? Now, however, it's time for the flipside: the elements that didn't even feel remotely like they belonged in an Elder Scrolls game. That said, don't get me wrong: some of them were actually kind of good! But others, well, not so much. Here's the rundown:
Questing Quest Of Quest Questingness - As soon as I began my demo session, I did as any self-respecting Elder Scrolls fan would: abandoned all pretenses of following the main story and struck out on my own, ready to turn the world upside-down and shake it until every last crumb of adventure fell out. I pointed my Orc in one direction, and off I went.
I gave up in 20 minutes.
The sandy, sun-scorched starting area felt largely lifeless when quests weren't leading the way, so I eventually relented and bounced between golden, ultra-obvious circles on my minimap - ultimately gaining passage to a new area once I'd wrapped up the main plot of the first. I was hoping the more expansive locales around Daggerfall would offer greater variety, but alas. No such luck. For my troubles, I got semi-compelling, fully voice-acted tales of treachery, woe, and the undead, but I felt like I was methodically working my way through a theme park - not paving my own path through a sandbox.
There weren't any crazy AI shenanigans or moments of utterly unexpected player interaction. For better or worse, everything functioned as expected. I felt like I was playing a competent - and in some places, even fairly impressive - MMO, but The Elder Scrolls' trademark spark was dim, sometimes invisible against a backdrop of pre-scripted heroics and canned conversations.
I Want To Go To There (But Can't) - This was probably the most damning moment for me. In the first area, I saw a highly tantalizing temple door. It called to me from across the sandy sea. "I probably hold fabulous riches beyond your wildest imagination," it whispered seductively. "Or at least candy." So I ran to meet its embrace. Adrenaline shot down my spine. I was ready for something wondrous.
What I got was a brick wall. I felt like Wile E. Coyote slamming face-first into a painted-on picture of a tunnel. It looked like I should've been able to waltz right in, but instead all I found was window dressing. Later, I also came across a couple mysterious doors that only opened once I took their corresponding quests. Thankfully, when pressed, Zenimax told me that was a glitch, and that all enticing hideaways should be explorable regardless of quest status. Here's hoping.
But even assuming all goes according to plan on that front, TESO's landscapes still felt decidedly confined. Something didn't quite gel with me while I was exploring, and I realized it was my inability to see far off into the distance - to sight a mountain and set my heart on it like a child laying eager eyes on a candy/toy/obnoxious loud things store. Small hills and other outcroppings constantly rose up to block my line of sight. I never felt like I was roaming this giant, continuous world so much as I was clomping through a series of rigidly defined zones.
Synergy! - Admittedly, the bits that felt more MMO than Elder Scrolls weren't all bad. Some of them were even quite interesting, as a matter of fact. The biggest standout was easily collaborative battle options, which extend to both players and baddies. Basically, players can buff up each others' spells and abilities by lending a helping click during their humble beginnings. A nova spell might become a supernova with proper time and nurture, etc. It's fairly straightforward, but adds an extra element of teamwork that, thus far, seems smartly implemented.
Enemy AI, however, might just steal the show. In short, every single baddie is crafted with heightened battlefield awareness, making basic notions of aggro look downright archaic. Many of them are smart enough to work together, pooling both skills and resources to devise on-the-fly strategies to cope with whatever your party's dishing out. Humanoids will shout out to one another when they need healing or support. Tree-like Spriggans, meanwhile, can turn adorable forest bunnies into murderous whirs of fur and fang. Adorable forest bears, too, I imagine.
I actually witnessed the system in action for the first time while questing alone. I was wailing on a giant spider while screaming and crying - like you do - when it suddenly glanced around and sped off in the opposite direction. Confused, I followed it a short ways away, whereupon it began devouring the fresh corpse of one of its own kind. I imagined it sucking down each spindly leg like spaghetti, bristly hairs dissolving in its pincer like maw. Then I left Baltimore and never looked back and now here I am forever please make the memories stop.
Killing Is Wrong - Unsurprisingly, you cannot kill every NPC in The Elder Scrolls Online. Or even very many of them, for that matter. But then, it's a quest-oriented MMO. What else did you expect?
Low-Impact Combat - While first-person certainly seems like it could remedy this, TESO's combat just doesn't feel good at the moment. Sure, strikes correspond to individual mouse-clicks - ala other TES games or, perhaps more similarly, TERA - but they're about as hefty as WoW's auto-attack. Attacks and spells alike could stand to produce far more pronounced feedback, as I found myself relying almost solely on numbers to figure out whether I'd hit clean or missed entirely. And even then, the lack of specific information (Is my damage-over-time spell working? Etc) was glaringly noticeable. Also, while Zenimax is hoping to avoid pattern-heavy "rotation-based combat," I simply found myself in a rotation with a few extra steps. Timed rolls and shield blocks put a little extra on my plate, but I was still ultimately mashing hotkeys and waiting for bars to recharge.
More Than A Feeling - Impressively, The Elder Scrolls Online's quests are fairly diverse (by MMO standards) and laced with twisting twines of story. Well, when you're in quest mode, anyway. I was disheartened to find that environments told soberingly few tales, but a couple standout chains nearly made up for it. One saw me put together a crack squad of brigands to take down the nasty, manipulative leader of the starting area, and here's the kicker: I wasn't required to round up everybody. Only one of three would've been enough to get the job done, but the full set conferred more benefits in the final, impressively subterfuge-based confrontation. More surprising, however, was that choice's reverberation through the rest of my playtime. My ragtag band boarded my ship into Daggerfall, at which point they popped up in various quests I undertook around the area. But that's apparently just the beginning. Those characters stick with you through thick and thin, Zenimax told me, but only if you help them out of their respective binds during the story's early goings.
That said, wise-cracking scoundrels? Rah-rah-rah "gooooo team" moments? Maybe I'm being nitpicky, but the plot felt more like a rejected Pirates of the Caribbean script than Elder Scrolls' admittedly wobbly fusion of unabashedly epic and unsettlingly alien. The general tone and vibe felt all wrong, like someone had rearranged all my furniture and also set most of it on fire. For what it was evidently trying to be, it was decently - though certainly not extraordinarily - done, but I could never shake the feeling that something was off.
NOTICE MEEEE - This part really threw me. See, Daggerfall's initial zone is packed with Orcs that absolutely, positively despise outsiders. It's pretty standard Elder Scrolls fare, really - racial tensions, angry green people, etc. But here's the problem: I was playing as an Orc, and the others didn't acknowledge it in the slightest. They wanted to sew my mouth shut before I even opened it, which seems strange for a culture that fanatically cherishes its own kin. Granted, Zenimax later told me that they simply knew I came across the sea with a bunch of non-Orcs, so I was guilty by association. Unfortunately, however, when pressed further, lead gameplay designer Nick Konkle told me that player-centric racial recognition won't really be present in TESO.
That strikes me as odd, given that Zenimax is focusing so heavily on making players feel like "the main character" in an MMO setting. I mean, why not go the extra mile to acknowledge the "hero" I've personalized and intend to spend hundreds of hours swimming around in the skin of? It's an element of Elder Scrolls that always made the world feel more personal to me, and it allowed for exploration of some interesting, fairly important topics to boot. So that's a shame. Sorry, Xenorc The Warrior Princess. Someday, you will find a home.
So What? - The big takeaway for me? I felt like I was playing A Fantasy MMO with Elder Scrolls elements - thankfully, more of them than I expected - sprinkled on top. That's not meant to be a damning appraisal by any means, and there's certainly time for major changes before launch, as the suddenly existent first-person mode demonstrates. Based on what I was able to play, however, TESO's currently a competent but largely typical MMO with a few interesting buds that could blossom into something far more unique. Here's hoping it manages to really soar, but for now, we'll just have to wait and see.
Check back tomorrow for the first of two interviews with The Elder Scrolls Online's developers, in which I raise many of these concerns in an effort to find out why things ended up this way in the first place and - more importantly - if there's any chance they'll change over time. Also, mudcrabs. I asked way too many questions about mudcrabs.