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E3 2012: The Elder Scrolls Online [Preview]

6 Jun 2012  by   Peter Parrish
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From the moment it was confirmed in May, the major fear about The Elder Scrolls Online has been how Zenimax Online Studios will transfer a resolutely single player series to an MMO structure in a way that pleases fans of the series and prospective MMO players alike. How, exactly, will players invested in the Elder Scrolls world be enticed into joining a title based around rather different gameplay mechanics? There are those who love both the Elder Scrolls lore and the traditional tenets of MMOs already of course, but Zenimax needs to attract more than just these people if it hopes to sustain the game as a long term concern.

So far, nothing shown at E3 2012 has put those concerns to rest.

There has been much talk about the story and setting. We know it takes place around 1,000 years before the events of Skyrim on the universe’s timeline, in a period where the Imperial powers are in a state of disarray. Players will choose from one of nine races within three factions (Ebonheart Pact, Daggerfall Covenant and Aldmeri Dominion); alliances of convenience between traditionally hostile powers. It has been let slip that one of the faction goals is to crown someone within your alliance as an Emperor of Tamriel.

This emphasis on lore is important in maintaining a consistency between Elder Scrolls titles, but is not, in itself, going to be enough to convince everyone to make the switch to an MMO.

Zenimax has also hinted at the breadth of the world on offer in the game, which is something that could certainly attract Elder Scrolls fans to the title. The chance to see areas of the realm depicted in previous games, but rendered in a new engine, is an exciting prospect. During E3, the developers have reconfirmed that the game will allow players to “explore all of Tamriel” which includes familiar places like Morrowind and Daggerfall, along with exotic locations like Elsweyr.

The lengthy development time (The Elder Scrolls Online has been in the works for five years already) causes some concerns though. Based on the smattering of screenshots and in-game footage release so far, it’s not really clear how up to date and capable the title’s graphics engine will be. We do know that Zenimax is aiming to be able to show around 200 characters on screen at once, so that gives us some kind of benchmark for what the final engine will have to be able to handle.

Video released for E3 2012 has shown a little of the area around Daggerfall, which looked lush and green with wildlife (particularly deer) in abundance. Inside the city walls, medieval homes surrounded cobbled streets and creepers grew around ancient towers. While it doesn’t adopt exactly the same art style as previous titles like Oblivion, the game is clearly aiming closer to the realism end of the artistic spectrum. Overall, it gives the impression of being functional, rather than spectacular or unique. You can judge for yourself from the images dotted around this piece.

It’s yet to be properly addressed how the flexibility and choice exhibited in the single player Elder Scrolls titles will be reflected (if at all) in this release.  Choice-wise, it seems players will be able to customise within their selected class to some degree. The developers made it clear that they are not ready to talk about specific classes at present, but did indicate that (for example) if one class happened to be more roguish in nature, they wouldn’t be restricted to set weapon types. If the player wanted to use bows, swords or hammers (say), that would all be fine.

It was also strongly hinted that much-loved Elder Scrolls antics like becoming a werewolf or vampire would be implemented in some way. This, though, was not detailed or officially confirmed, and sounded as if it was a process that was still being playtested for balance. Mounts were confirmed too, albeit without any specific creatures being mentioned. Video footage definitely showed a horse or two, but that elusive dragon mount will have to remain a mere dream for now.

Combat is said to be both “active and reactive” with, interestingly, fewer interface elements on-screen than you may be used to from MMOs. Zenimax wants combat cues to take place within the engine so that, say, you receive a clue about when to dodge an oncoming attack from body language rather than an interface overlay. This sounds encouraging, though the claim that the game’s combat will be “completely unique” is definitely one to remain skeptical of for now.

The developers have talked a little about ‘public dungeons’, areas that are balanced for roughly “1.5 players” to encourage people to pair up with a potential friend. While they acknowledge that this will only lead to a permanent in-game friendship around 10% or so of the time, it’s not a bad way to ease traditionally single player-minded adventurers into working with others.

This will be vital, of course, as any MMO needs players working together to thrive. To this end, Zenimax has talked about “synergy abilities”; skills that can be enhanced through the participation of others. A couple of examples given involved player one putting down a trap, while player two (a mage) boosts it with a fire damage spell. Likewise, a mage character may set up a firestorm that another player then uses to harness and hurl fireballs.

For those concerned about whether a first-person viewpoint will be present in the game, the developers have confirmed that it is possible to sufficiently zoom in the camera to provide such a view. Reading between the lines though, it sounds like this won’t exactly be an ideal viewpoint for playing the game in. It seems likely that the camera will need to be in third-person for players to engage in combat effectively.

From what has been shown so far, it appears The Elder Scrolls Online will do a reasonable enough job of appending a great deal of Elder Scrolls back-story and lore to traditional MMO gaming mechanics. The major question remains; is this something that enough fans of the Elder Scrolls universe, or high fantasy MMOs in general, actually want?

The Elder Scrolls Online will be released for PC and Mac. A beta has been announced for 2013.

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