The Elder Scrolls Online starts like an Elder Scrolls game - that is to say, with your customized hero imprisoned for unknown and fairly inconsequential reasons.
In an MMORPG released fifteen years ago, my orc Lurch probably would've woken up in a dirty cell with a a smattering of rats between him and the prison door. Once he crept past, he would have then dropped headfirst into a pile of half-naked player characters, each with only the faintest notion of what to do. Which sounds a lot like Elder Scrolls, come to think of it.
But it's 2014, so Lurch lumbered around his Spooky Blue Cell for a while until a Spooky Blue Vision appeared. He called himself a prophet and described Lurch as a "Vestige" (he must not be very good with names) and said they were both very important. Then another prisoner came and let Lurch out, after which he joined a stream of prisoners marching onwards. I thought it would be best if Lurch followed them.
Running down the prison hall, I scrolled in and out of Lurch's head. Whether the camera was in his noggin, or following at a few paces behind him, the game used a reticle bound to the center of the screen to interact with objects like doors.
From inside his skull, I marvelled at Lurch's tattooed arms - out of more than a dozen options, I picked the tattoos that looked like an X-ray laid over much of his body.
(The character customization process let me change many more things about Lurch than I cared to specify, so I just randomized him then tweaked a few spots to my liking: he started with strangely small hands and a board-flat butt on an otherwise thick body, for instance, and no orc of mine will enter the world with a dainty grip and nothing to sit on.)
The stream of NPCs broke around an arsenal. There were staves, bows, swords, shields, warhammers, daggers, and more, but the guy who let Lurch out of the cell was there and admonished him to take only one.
Thusly chided, Lurch grabbed a two-handed hammer and skulked off. I liked bows best in Skyrim, but two-handed weapons were a close second.
It's almost like the bastard knew there was going to be a skeleton around every corner from there on out. The game instructed me to swing Lurch's hammer by left clicking, and to hold the click for a more powerful swing.
Lurch took a defensive posture when I held the right mouse button, but I never found much need for it. By clicking both buttons at once when an enemy was preparing a big attack, he could stun them for a few moments. That never got old.
John Cleese was called "Cadwell" for reasons that escaped me, because he was clearly John Cleese though somewhat worse for wear
It felt kind of like Elder Scrolls combat, which is not a lofty aspiration. A few other additions, like dodging and unlockable class abilities, gave it some variety to make up for the loosey goosey feel of MMO combat.
Fighting became much more fun after Lurch escaped the prison halls. A valley full of demons and zombies gave him room to use stealth and cave their skulls in. He's not a rogue, but everybody in The Elder Scrolls Online has stealth abilities.
The series standard eye-of-detection made it easy to tell when to approach and when to back off, and the backstab bonus atop Lurch's powerful swing turned brawls that would normally take 15 or 20 seconds into two-second manslaughters. And yes, "backstabbing" someone with a giant hammer is as improbably as fun here as it is in Skyrim.
Lurch couldn't find an exit to his unearthly prison, so his Nord NPC friend recommended they ask John Cleese. John Cleese was called "Cadwell" for reasons that escaped me, because he was clearly John Cleese though somewhat worse for wear.
Anyway, the noted comic actor was the oldest prisoner of the unearthly facility who hadn't yet become a mindless ghoul, so he naturally knew a way out. Lurch could have lumbered off to destiny at this point, but instead I made him stick around and gab through some dialog menus. The Elder Scrolls Online's ratio of conversational NPCs to NPCs who murmur one-liners and keep walking is about the same as Skyrim's.
Many of those conversations are only interesting if you're invested in the expansive lore of Tamriel (maybe Lurch was, but I wasn't). The same can be said of its hundreds of readable books, but at least some of those provide skill bonuses. Lurch had to crack each of them open to find out, though - no more scanning their gold value to tell at a glance.
That's because there's no looting in The Elder Scrolls Online. Ok, that's not fair; Lurch pulled plenty of items from defeated enemies and plenty of tradeskill materials from crates and bottles scattered around the world. He even found a chest or two to lockpick with a fun little mini-game.
But there's no more putting a bucket on a shopkeeper's head and stealing all his potions, no more killing a bandit and pocketing her dinner off the table. Lurch found little material gain from wandering around the world and poking at stuff.
Speaking of Lurch, the little scamp did finally manage to escape the tutorial zone. He and the forgetful prophet arranged to meet up later, and Lurch set off... To find a bigger tutorial zone, the island of Stros M'kai.
The inherent appeal of Elder Scrolls games, for me, is that of a huge world to do whatever in, free and clear to disregard the main quest's shouting dragons or burning oblivions. You have to do a stint in a brief tutorial first but fine, whatever, pay your debt to society. The Elder Scrolls Online parole board doesn't think its players are quite ready for that.
Lurch went through three tutorial areas of increasing size before he finally arrived on Tamriel proper - more specificaly the coast of Glenumbra, home to the Daggerfall Covenant faction.
That brings me back to the first paragraph. An online version of a standard Elder Scrolls game would probably look more like those crunchy, merciless old MMOs than The Elder Scrolls Online: with a big scary world and no one particularly eager to tell you what to do in it. Instead, it's an Elder-Scrolls-flavored post-World-of-Warcraft MMO.
Here's the thing, though: I still had a good time running Lurch all over the place, smacking cultists, talking to beggars, cooking food, sewing shoulder pads. The game is packed with MMO standards, but each one is executed well. Combat skills are manageable bonuses assembled through play instead of maddening jigsaw puzzles assigned by class.
The crafting interface is legible: instead of an ever-growing list of color-coded entries, it shows a pictured list of archetypes. Want to make a leather belt? Pick the materials you want to use and craft away. Want to make a higher level belt? Use more materials. Want to make a different kind of leather belt? Use another race's crafting style.
Slideshow: the Elder Scrolls Online
Tracking quests and completing them is just as streamlined. Objectives are marked on the map and compass, and the rest of the interface melts away if you're not chatting or fighting. Relatively few villagers asked Lurch to bring them X of anything.
Instead they gave him novel tasks like sneaking around a camp to free prisoners or burning tree roots with flammable bug glands. He never needed to worry about running out of stuff to do because another quest giver was always over the next hill.
But there's the problem again. My favorite Elder Scrolls moments occur when the quest text is inside my head and it reads, "Ooh, I wonder what's inside that cave?" Lurch still did plenty of wandering, but almost all the interesting stuff he found began and ended with a quest dialog. It substitutes the satisfaction of filling a checklist for the fluttering elation of uncertainty and discovery.
After spending about ten hours with Lurch, it seems The Elder Scrolls Online is a very well-crafted MMO; it's intuitive enough that new players can quickly find their footing; it promises enough high-end goals like faction-versus-faction battles for the throne of Cyrodiil to keep hardcore players invested.
But placed alongside the freedom of Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim, it only suffers for the comparison.