If Far Cry 3 was Skyrim with guns, then The Elder Scrolls Online is Skyrim with people.
See, as in Skyrim, you can break into houses and loot unconventionally stashed cheeses from bedside tables, browse lashings of Tamriel lore inked on withered pages, hunt prancing deer with bow and arrow, level-up to a chorus of ancient drum beats, and kill conversations with a curt 'goodbye'.
But how does a game so inherently singleplayer accommodate the masses?
"Your perception is what drives reality," says Paul Sage, creative director on The Elder Scrolls Online. "When you talk to NPCs, your friend may talk to the same NPC and get a completely different response. We have internal layering, allowing players to see completely different worlds around them. In creating a world for one player and for thousands of players, what you've really got to do is get into those personal interactions."
"But, obviously we can't let players kill every important NPC in a town because if we did that then you wouldn't be able to find the NPC yourself."
Sometimes, however, NPCs will come find you. With no convenient quest boards, emergent activities come thick and fast. Our two-hour PC demo began on the Blackrock Isles, a snowy landmass about a quarter of Skyrim's size and positioned near its biting coast. Immediately upon leaving its main settlement, we were approached by a dazed woman who begged we turn her friends back from skeevers to humans.
Later, a distraught wife handed us a whistle to find her dog, which we tooted with presses of the E key. Farther down the road we killed a random traveller and discovered a note on his corpse detailing a bandit camp called Hozzin's Folly. After donning a disguise, we sneaked in and burned the supplies (we could have kept our clothes and silently infiltrated, however, or just straight-up murdered everybody).
Like Skyrim, the world begs exploration and rewards you for doing so. It feels lived in. Every person has a name, everything you kill (rats and cows aside) a story. One struggling farmer talked of his pilgrimage from Skyrim. Another, an Argonian called Three-Toes, raved about the deliciousness of mudcrabs. We're also told M'aiq the Liar will cameo, although who knows in what form - the game is set a millennium before Skyrim and 800 years before Oblivion.
In fact - and for an MMO, this is the crazy part - The Elder Scrolls Online actually looks better than Skyrim. Sunlight streams through haggard canopies, translucent ice glistens, and water froths and ripples.
"We've worked hard with Microsoft and Sony and we're committed to having new content out on a frequent basis"
Although we didn't see them, the standard will surely be matched by the parched deserts of Bal Foyen, the mushy green swamps and forests of Deshaan, and the game's largest and most environmentally diverse setting in Stonefalls. Of course, downloadable locations are in the works, but how does Bethesda reconcile the game's ingrained need for constant updates with PS4 and Xbox One's stricter regulations?
"One of the things that we've worked really hard on with both Microsoft and Sony," says Sage, "is to make sure that we can have a certain cadence of content and we're very committed to having new content out on a regular and frequent basis. I think they've been really good about working with us on that."
SLIDESHOW: The Elder Scrolls Online
Content delivery might not change, but control scheme will have to. Take hotkeys, of which you have five to play with. Assignable categories range from armour, racial, weapon and class, and within these are subcategories. Armour's subcategory, for instance, contains light, medium and heavy variations. Each of these subcategories (stay with us) contains a handful of 'active abilities', and these are what go on your hotkeys.
On consoles, however, hotkeys will likely be addressed with a less immediate radial menu. MMO mainstays such as chat windows and automatic running also raise questions for the controller, questions which for the moment go unanswered.
The Elder Scrolls Online's interface reflects its multi-platform-mindedness, accessible with either thumsbtick or mouse. Split down the middle, it shows your equipped armour, weapons and items on the left, and all other inventory on the right. You simply drag and drop between the two (a task albeit more cumbersome on pad than mouse, in likelihood). The menu also provides a clearer window onto background action. It needs to - remember, just because you're paused doesn't mean anyone else is.
The revised interface was best displayed during that great MMO ritual - the character roll. There are three alliances to choose from: Daggerfall Covenant, Ebonhart Pact and Aldmeri Dominion. Within each are three races: the Pact has Dark Elfs, Nords and Argonians; the Covenant contains Bretons, Red Guards and Orcs, and Dominion has High Elfs, Wood Elfs and Kahjiit. Any combination of alliance and race is further customised with four classes: Dragon Knights use martial arts and magic that pounds, shatters and physically alters; Sorcerers summon and control weather; Templars restore health, magicka and stamina, and Nightblades rely on stealth and speed.
Since any character can use any weapon, item or armour, could this limit variation between them?
"The reason we allow people to equip any armour or weapon is we want you to play the way you want to play," Sage tells us.
"So if you wanted to be a Dragon Knight, you could get a healing staff and heal, you could equip light armour and get all the bonuses from the skill line on the light armour.
"Its almost like if you imagine all your skills being this large deck of things you choose from, then the role you want to play is what you put in your shortcut bar. Later on we allow what we call weapon swap, which allows you have one more shortcut bar, which allows you to take on a new role more dynamically."
What if you want to start your character over, be it level one or level 100 where the game caps out? "Yes, [a respec] is one of those things that is going to have to be true because everyone demands a respec, but hopefully people will see that the game is friendly enough and forgiving enough to where, when you build your character, there will be enough paths for you do go down and you won't really feel like 'Oh I made a huge mistake that's unrecoverable.'"
Your items are sold on marketplaces, but there's no Diablo III-style global shop front here
With that character you might chase high adventure. You might go on raids with guild members (loot is instanced, so no more fighting over the spoils). You might battle others (Cyrodil is the only land containing PVP, and Sage tells us up to 200 people can fit on screen at once). You might test your mettle against hordes of creatures both old and new (nix-hounds, netches, ayleid, guar, scamps and deadra return, while harvesters, daedric titans and *gulp* polar bears are new). Or you might eek out a more miserly existence...as a cook.
Whereas in Skyrim you were the Nordic equivalent of a student with a microwave, here you're Gordon Ramsey, not only picking primary and secondary ingredients for the pot, but refining raw materials and deconstructing ready-made food in order to make more delectable drinks and nibbles. You'll need to level-up to cook some of the more intricate dishes like pies and mead, but the better the food, the more beneficial its properties, and the higher it'll sell for.
The sight of a level-80 Sorcerer making cupcakes will be a reward in itself, but you could feasibly turn tradesman and make a profit. There are five trade skills in total: weaponsmith, armoursmith, provisioner, alchemist and enchanter. Your items are sold on marketplaces, but there's no Diablo III-style global shop front here. Each guild (you can join up to five) has its own, and this, Sage believes, will spark a network of micro economies, each containing specialised traders. It's mutually beneficial - 'join our guild and make us stronger, and we'll sell stuff to make you stronger.'
Flaws with The Elder Scrolls Online concern the conflation of a massive singleplayer game with a massively multiplayer one. Your actions have little permanence in a land of cool-downs and respawn timers; the world is no longer yours and yours alone. Consoles also raise questions: how will they deal with intricate control schemes and constant patches?
Still, after putting hundreds of hours into Skyrim, we're ecstatic with the chance to do it all again - this time, with people.
The Elder Scrolls Online sees a Spring 2014 release on PC, Mac, Xbox One and PS4.