Game Informer has picked up the first official screen of The Elder Scrolls Online (above) and, well, hmmm. I feel like, if I sighted it while at some sort of game screenshot social gathering, I'd congratulate Kingdoms of Amalur and WoW on their successful coupling, and ask them what they're naming it. Then Elder Scrolls would walk up and inform me that it - and not Kingdoms of Amalur - is currently seeing WoW, and a lightbulb factory's worth of scandalous thoughts would pop up in everyone's heads, but no one would say anything. It'd be really awkward.
And yet, despite the inbred fantasy genes of that image, I'm still rather interested in this game. Why? Well, it might not be the Elder Scrolls you know and love, but maybe that's not such a bad thing. If done properly (and, mind you, that's a big if), it could be even better. Let's explore.
The primary thing that an MMO can do, which even Skyrim could not, is to break down that feeling that the game world is really just a play put on for your eyes only. Skyrim's world felt utterly static in spite of your earth-shaking actions, and the entire place - despite claiming to be a living, breathing ecosystem - felt like it revolved around the player. I mean, by the end of it all, I was the Dragonborn, head of the Dark Brotherhood, gleaming-grin-wearing leader of the comparatively saintly Companions, boss of the Mages College using only my colorful array of level one spells, and savior of a down-and-out Thieves Guild. My resume read like that of an over-imaginative six-year-old ("And an astronaut! And a train driver!"), yet no one batted an eyelash.
This, then, could be a good chance to finally make a place out of what is still - at the end of the day - a rather traditional videogame setting, from a structural standpoint. Most modern games of this sort (MMO or not) thrive on Big Damn Hero moments, but The Elder Scrolls tends to drop the ball when it puts the weight of the world on your shoulders. It's the one world where I like being a faceless adventurer and building a (largely imagined) identity based on random experiences I have moment-by-moment. The Elder Scrolls' strength has never lied in its lore or pre-scripted stories. It's the little moments that make it huge.
And on that front, there is hope - whether it's riding to battle in WoW's technicolor cartoon dream pants or not. The Game Informer post explains that our intrepid fantasy archetypes are, in fact, making very mean faces at Storm Atronachs, who you may (not) recognize from Skyrim. Meanwhile, if you ride this link over to the full image, you'll spy Daedric ruins - an Elder Scrolls exploration staple, which will apparently be joined by "various dwarven ruins, ancient nordic tombs, decayed dwemer buildings, and many other ancient locales, some of which players may have discovered in previous Elder Scrolls games."
So I'm glad there's a big emphasis on exploration here. Games like WoW basically murder the majesty of their giant worlds by turning them into meticulously interwoven quest chains linked by a progression of orderly hubs. It's all so... mechanical. Meanwhile, aimless wanderings are an Elder Scrolls cornerstone, and - in necessitating more naturally structured worlds - create a irresistibly alluring sense of mystery. The series doesn't tell me what's lurking around every corner, and I love that.
It looks as if TESO has pretensions towards the same sort of thing, and if they get it right in an MMO setting, it could be quite evocative. On top of that, having thousands of other adventurers in the mix - one of whom can even become Emperor - will only accentuate that feeling of being part of something far, far larger than myself. If done correctly, it could be a living world. Granted, there are very few believable worlds in MMOs right now (*cough* Eve *cough*) but there's always a good reason to try.
That, however, is where The Elder Scrolls Online as we know it begins to struggle and strain under an over-encumbered inventory of good intentions and questionable executions. As Adam pointed out, combat's king - even where the Emperor's concerned. 100 vs 100 battles sound wild, especially with former Dark Age of Camelot devs at the helm - and player-driven conflicts are at the top of Elder Scrolls Online's priority list. This does, however, detract from the overall Elder Scrolls type nature of the thing. As Adam put it: "No vampires, no werewolves, no homeowners, just power-hungry leaders with little regard for the democratic process."
Imagine, though, if all this outcry causes Zenimax to reconsider and expand players' potential roles a bit. Replace Elder Scrolls' rigidly scheduled NPCs who won't shut up about the knee-maiming sensation that's sweeping their nation with real, unpredictable human beings, and you've got a world I wouldn't mind simply existing in. No, that general idea didn't work out so well for Star Wars: Galaxies, but that was a different era for this genre. EVE's made a sandbox MMO work, and The Elder Scrolls could - if done correctly - find a nice middle ground between EVE and World of Warcraft. It could be a sandbox MMO for those of us who can't quite hash it as Captain Number-Crunch of the SS Evil Economic Mastermind while also getting The Elder Scrolls over its current evolutionary hump.
Yes, there is still every reason for us to be cautious. TESO is leaning heavily on over-familiar tropes - from an art style that looks derivative of something widely considered to be quite derivative itself to combat . One or two or 250 fresh pairs of eyes can help see new solutions to old problems (look no further than Fallout: New Vegas for an excellent example), but there's also a big danger of losing sight of the source material.
The Elder Scrolls isn't just a name. It's exploration and house-ownership and horse-ownership and being able to kill anyone, anytime and sudden cases of vampirism and Lydia and silly glitches and rolling cheese wheels down mountains. It is, however, greater than the sum of those parts, and it could be more still. But it could also easily be less. Zenimax is walking an incredibly fine line. Right now, though, I'm kind of hoping it loses sight of its main quest and gets a bit lost. Who knows? Maybe it'll find something incredible.