The Elder Scrolls Online Preview

7 Feb 2014  by   Tim McDonald
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I know, I know. It’s bad form to look at a game based on what you want it to be rather than what it is, but with something like The Elder Scrolls Online, I can’t really help it. As a series, The Elder Scrolls isn’t something I play for the lore, setting, or story – while fairly well-formed, it’s not a big draw for me. It’s not a series I play for intense, heart-pounding combat. It’s a series I play for freedom.

It’s a series I play because I can walk from one end of the map to the other, picking up quests along the way; I can wander into a shop and steal everything that’s not nailed down; I can abuse magicka and enchantments to give myself a phenomenal edge and break the game wide open if I really want to. It’s a series I play so that I can explore both the world and the mechanics. None of this, for obvious reasons, is really possible when following the standard MMO template.

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On the plus side, everything looks rather bloomin’ spectacular.

The Elder Scrolls Online follows the standard MMO template. From what I’ve played it has more freedom than most, but you’re still moving from area to area, completing quests based on their level, and punching monsters in the face. Quest rewards offer you incrementally better gear, although you can also get better stuff from vendors or crafting, if you’d rather do that. As for freedom of movement… well, trying to land on a roof led to me inexplicably slipping off the side. Apparently, Daggerfall denizens have started coating their houses with oil.

There are plenty of nods to standard Elder Scrolls mechanics, of course. Reading books will often increase one of your skills by a point, and you can enchant items and charge them up with soul gems. You can investigate the majority of crates/pots/tables/desks/bookshelves/whatever nearby, which will usually reward you with some sort of junk that you can use for crafting, and will normally fill up your inventory slots (no weight limit here) in about five minutes flat. And, naturally, you’ve got a gargantuan skill tree.

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Skyshards are hidden around the landscape, and finding three of these nets you a free skill point. If you’re thinking SWTOR’s Datacrons, you’re not far off.

Skills are actually one of the more unique things that The Elder Scrolls Online does. Each class has a variety of skills available – from two-handed weapons, to bows, to magical staves – and each of these has associated skills. Any experience you get feeds into any skill trees currently relevant (if you’ve got a lot of one-handed skills in your quickbar then you’ll get one-handed experience; the same goes for armour types) and levelling up those skill trees lets you both unlock higher-level skills, and morph the ones you currently have. If you’re a Dragonknight, you might have the ability to pull enemies to you with a big fiery chain. When that levels up enough, you can morph it so that it will also taunt the enemy, or so that your next post-chain attack does more damage.

Odd as it might sound, The Elder Scrolls Online is also… um, very console-focused. Your quickbar can support a whopping five abilities, plus one ultimate. Quick-use of items is done via an item wheel. The reason for this – other than “to make it work on consoles” – is that combat also adopts the ability-less hack-and-slash combat of Oblivion and Skyrim. You can attack, or perform a powerful attack, or block, or interrupt, without needing to use abilities (although you’ll have to watch your stamina gauge). There’s not a huge amount of depth to this – if an enemy has white sparkles above them while they’re charging up an attack, you can block it to stun them. If they have red sparkles above them, you want to interrupt it to stun them. Stunning them means more damage on your subsequent attack, and they won’t hit you for a little while. Hooray!

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Unfortunately, this battle with a werewolf did not result in me contracting lycanthropy, which would’ve been a rather interesting twist. Assuming it wasn’t just part of a quest line, anyway.

If I don’t sound overly enthusiastic, it’s because I’m not. Sorry. This is less an Elder Scrolls MMO, and more a standard MMO with Elder Scrolls elements. It’s not bad at any of this at all, but thus far, nothing within has really managed to capture my attention. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn had a ridiculous amount of choice and stuff to do, insofar as a single character could level up everything; getting bored doing one thing meant I had about a dozen other things to try. The Secret World had unique character-building, fascinating lore, and some thought-provoking quests. World of Warcraft perfected the theme park MMO years ago. The Elder Scrolls Online… well, it’s a largely standard MMO with Elder Scrolls stuff, but not necessarily the stuff that makes The Elder Scrolls series so damn fascinating.

Thus far, the quests are a mixed bag. The quests threading through the main plot – which seems to be about fighting the minions of Molag Bal and trying to reclaim my soul after the cheeky bugger nicked it – afford an amount of choice. Early on I was stranded on an island and needed to find my way off, which resulted in me enlisting the help of a privateer… but only after I’d helped her with a heist. And performing that heist required me to find and recruit at least one other person, with a full three available. Recruiting all three made things a lot easier, and even gave me some additional help in subsequent quests once I got off the island. That, at least, is rather neat, although I have no idea how much the decisions in these quests (and in other quests, like the one in the video that should also be popping up right now) will actually impact future events.

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A fair few quests offer decisions as to how you want to handle them, although I can’t yet speak of the long-term ramifications of these choices.

There was the quest to free some people held hostage by bandits, which required me to sneak around, disable traps, and wear disguises. There was the quest involving Sheogorath, the Daedric Prince of Madness, which was thematically rather fun even if the quest itself boiled down to “hit these monsters until they fall over.” Then there’s the flipside, which are the quests that revolve around picking up five sparkly bushes or hitting six beasties until they fall over. There are quite a few of these.

The MMO aspects also lead to certain inevitable pros and cons, too. There was the time when I was taking on a slightly-too-hard quest, and wound up helping out – and being helped out – by another player trying the same thing. Then there was the time I was exploring one of the game’s numerous dungeons, and actually getting quite into the combat; I was facing off with multiple foes at once, and I had to block, dodge, and time my attacks properly to survive. Right until the level 30 Orc ran in, one-shotted everything, and left.

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The standard MMO rule applies here: STAY OUT OF THE FIRE.

Being an MMO, it’s worth noting I’ve had relatively limited playtime and it does appear to be improving the more I play: while the first two areas were small, linear tutorial zones, everything opened up a lot more once I actually hit Daggerfall, which I’m assuming is the hub area for my particular faction. I still daren’t wander too far from areas that are level-appropriate for me, but I’m at least surprised by the occasional NEW QUEST marker popping up on my compass when I decide to go for a stroll in the wilderness. Other than being certain that cities will lead to quests, the game hasn’t really been threading me through the typical level-dependent path, telling me where to go to get my next set of quests. My finding quests, at least, has been pretty much entirely up to me.

I’m going to carry on adventuring in Tamriel for the time being, so my opinions are currently fluid. Like I said above, I’ve not really encountered anything within that’s outright bad – I just haven’t found anything overly unique or interesting, either, and I’m finding it really hard to get particularly enthusiastic or excited, which isn’t a good sign at all. Those who adore The Elder Scrolls for reasons other than the freedom to go anywhere, do anything, and smash the game’s mechanics with the blunt force of min-maxing will likely find this to their liking, and the same goes for those who just want a new MMO to play. But those hoping for something more than a typical MMO – and I feel that’s going to be quite a lot of people – may want to wait for my revised opinions in a future preview before plonking down their money on a pre-order.

Update: Read the second report after a further week of playing and thoughts on PvP.

Watch the IncGamers Plays: The Elder Scrolls Online video

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