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The Elder Scrolls Online preview: proving ground

by Steve Watts,, Mar 19, 2013 7:30AM PDT

Fairly or not, The Elder Scrolls Online was almost immediately faced with a flurry of skepticism. The market has been unkind to massively multiplayer games lately, and so yet another one seemed destined for the chopping block or an icy sales reception. Our own first look was disappointed with the game as an also-ran vying for the World of Warcraft throne. Happily, hands-on time left me with a much better impression than those early fears, with only a few remaining reservations.

My play session covered the earliest stages of the Daggerfall Covenant starting area, one of three available at the beginning of the game. Most significantly, playing the game felt less like an existing MMO with an Elder Scrolls skin, and more like an Elder Scrolls game that has added multiplayer features. I could (and did) play through several missions on my own, and they were indistinguishable from the quest types offered in a game like Skyrim. Fighting creatures, performing voluntary quests for extra experience, and upgrading my skills felt easy and familiar, especially once I switched to first-person perspective. The third-person perspective animations have gotten a significant upgrade, making less of a gulf between it and first-person but still appearing somewhat awkward.

Midway through my play session, I voluntarily paired up with another player and we quested together. This didn't significantly alter our play styles, though we did find that sometimes quests would be roped off if we were at different stages of our progression. (ZeniMax Online later assured us that this bug was unintentional, and would be mended as it finds individual cases during development.)

One curiosity regarding the difference between my own narrative and others came up when choice factored in. A character, dying of poison, was near an antidote. It was up to me to decide whether or not to treat her, and being an upstanding citizen, I did. But other people may not have chosen the same, dooming that character to death. The choices may have an effect in the world as far as I see it, but I have to wonder how ZeniMax will marry these divergent points when multiple people with different choice subsets are playing together.

The main plot revolves around Molag Bal, one of the Daedric Princes, who steals the player's soul as part of his plan to bring the world into darkness. Since he is stuck in his own plane of Oblivion and can't enter the physical world, he uses Dark Anchors to drag chunks of the plane of reality into his own realm. The Dark Anchors will occasionally attempt to grab pieces of the world, tasking players with doing battle to break the anchor's grip.

The opening hands-on area had simpler beginnings, as I woke on a pirate island attempting to get back to the mainland. The Daggerfall Covenant portion allowed me to recruit any or all of three NPCs before proceeding, each of whom made my early tasks easier in some way -- by providing items that I'd otherwise have to find myself, for example. Once recruited, ZeniMax representatives said, those characters stay loyal throughout the game and will continue to lend aid in missions.

TESO appears to be aiming for reasonable goals at launch: only the Fighters and Mages Guilds will be present, with the possibility of Thieves or Assassins to come later. Fighters receive contracts to destroy Daedra and the aforementioned Dark Anchors, which then earns reputation to trade for new abilities. Mages, meanwhile, search for books to research Necromancy, of which Molag Bal is the patron demon. Housing won't be due at launch either, though the company did remark that mounts are being planned.

In higher levels, enemies will become stronger and start relying on "Synergy" attacks. For example, a soldier might throw down oil so his fellow fire mage can light it ablaze, or a Spriggan can grant extra power to nearby forest creatures like wolves and bears. Even more threatening are Factional Synergy attacks, when like-types combine for a more devastating strike. We were shown a group of necromancers in which one sacrificed himself, and the others participated in a ritual to turn his corpse into a powerful monster. Your best answer for this are Synergy attacks of your own, such as teaming up to turn a Nova spell into a Supernova. A feature that ZeniMax calls "pack AI" will have enemies prioritizing threats, which means you can't necessarily count on a tank to soak up all the damage.

Higher levels also mean unique skills. Standard skill lines include the usual like Class, Weapon, or Racial, but others will be found within the world itself. One such world skill line, for Vampire, was left with a mere mention. Skills can also be upgraded once, morphing to more powerful variants.

Crafting comes in five variations: weaponsmith, armorsmith, alchemy, enchanting, and provisionist. The game only grants a set amount of crafting points, so you'll have to choose between being passable at all the traits or specialize in one. ZeniMax promised that crafting creates some of the best items, making the skills valuable for trade and the in-game economy, and it relies largely on experimentation with different ingredient types. Primary and secondary ingredients define the item, while additives grant special qualities, and a racial "style" defines the look.

The Daggerfall Covenant alliance is one of the three available, but one character can explore all three with a significant time investment. Upon reaching the max level of 50, you can swap to another alliance and play a harder version of that content, and then again for the third and final alliance, for better loot than would be found in those alliances under the standard difficulty.

Those alliances also define the PvP system. A brief gameplay demo showed a keep under siege by trebuchets and dozens of forces, as one side attempted to crack open the walls and the other fended them off with attacks and vats of hot oil. The battle takes place over multiple points, so if one area is particularly well-defended, the aggressors can move elsewhere to attack a weaker point. A larger layer of strategy can be adopted by attacking transit lines to break the flow of resources, or by letting two factions weaken each other before moving in for the kill as the third.

What I saw was heartening. The Elder Scrolls Online appears to have a solid foundation and, judging strictly from the small snippet of my hands-on time, hits the right tone for the Elder Scrolls series. That puts all eyes on its business model, which ZeniMax Online was notably silent on during our presentation. The company promised details in the months ahead, so time will tell how it will monetize the game. Skepticism regarding The Elder Scrolls Online was mainly regarding its business model, at a time when subscription models are failing and free-to-play is taking over. While that important factor is still an open question, I left feeling much more confident in the strength of the game itself.

This Elder Scrolls Online preview was based on a pre-release PC demo of the game at an event where accommodations were provided by ZeniMax.