When it launches for PC and Mac on April 4, The Elder Scrolls Online threatens to become the all-encompassing RPG experience. It attempts to meld the supposedly unmeldable components of its single-player, open-world predecessors with massively multiplayer communities and content.
There's a lot that could go wrong, but a hell of a lot that could go so right. Can it place you, the player, at the centre of its world? Even as so many others out there fight alongside you? And can a series so proud of its densely packed worlds spread its systems convincingly over the vastness of an MMO space?
To be honest, and this speaks volumes regarding the sheer scale of the game, even after days ploughed into the pre-release betas, there are no solid answers to these questions yet. We've a Dragonborn's pocketful of impressions, but there's just so much game here. After the first ten action-packed hours of play, we zoomed out our map to see how much of the space we had explored and were blown away by how little we had covered.
There is one question every series fan will have that we can answer pretty much straight away, though: does this feel like an Elder Scrolls game? Yes, it does. The artistic direction behind TESO's Tamriel is clearly geared towards capturing the sense of place just as we remember it, while also offering up new ideas of its own.
We spotted Ayleid ruins - complete with ethereally glowing tree murals and jagged crystal pedestals - dotted around the Summerset Isles. Familiar sights such as these complement brand new environments. Canvas bazaar tents flap in the desert breeze of Stros M'Kai just south of the Hammerfell mainland, for example.
This depth of presentation carries through to the clothes and armour people wear, the architecture of the inns, shops and dungeons, and the infectiously mimickable accents and dialects of the unfathomable number of fully voice-acted characters you speak with.
One of our prime worries when approaching TESO was that the typical things a traditional MMO might task you with doing - killing 'X' number of spiders, or collecting 'Y' number of runes, for example - could deaden the unpredictable atmosphere of the places we know and love. Though we obviously can't speak for how questing will unfold months down the line after release, during our time within Tamriel's embrace each quest felt fleshed out, considered and even hand-crafted.
Even the ones where you are collecting or killing are bulked up with a sense of meaning and purpose. In the space of an afternoon, we had burned a series of demonic tomes sealing away ancient Deadric devilry, saved some shipwrecked marines from becoming a large snake-filling sacrifice, and halted an evil looking ritual in order to enlist the services of a shady crew of mercenaries.
On the face of it, these were collect, fight and fetch quests. But they were all wrapped up in lore-infused packages that Elder Scrolls fans will lap up. And then there are the really memorable quests. The ones that buck many prevailing MMO storytelling trends. After delving into a nearby ruined temple we had to make a choice.
"Each quest felt fleshed out, considered and even hand-crafted."
One of the two NPCs we had been travelling with had to be sacrificed to spend the rest of eternity trapped within a purgatorial domain with naught but a rampaging demon to torture / sustain them. We can't think of an MMO that has actually given us pause for thought like this. We were adventuring alone at the time (the press beta, presumably for reasons of smoothness, was fairly under-populated) but we can anticipate parties of players agonising and debating over these kinds of decisions.
Perhaps the most illustrative moment during our time playing through our starter area of Mistral City and its surroundings surfaced when we came to leave for the next area. A whole group of NPCs rocked up to see us off, all of whom we'd helped or hindered through our adventuring. Rather than simply boot you out into the next zone, TESO takes the time to frame the experience of the one you leave behind.
Before you start packing your alchemy gear and revising your dragon shouts, however, certain elements of this MMO-ed Tamriel seem to lack the (Daedra) heart that made The Elder Scrolls so compelling to begin with.
There are plenty of places to go and things to see across the many different zones, but too often we were 'distracted' by a point of interest that didn't quite deliver.
Our favourite Skyrim memories derived from simply looking around, reading the environment and seeing a world lived-in. Broken furniture, a bloody note scrawled on burned paper, a locked cellar door... "What happened here?" we would ask. TESO doesn't offer that experience. Embarking on a journey to Monkey Rest sounds like it should be tremendous fun, until you realise it's just a plain house with some monkeys in it. The end.
TESO's Tamriel, for all of its excellent writing and beauteous surroundings, doesn't capture this 'lived-in' feel. Like a showroom house, many of its locations look the part, but are without the threads of meaningful emotive tapestry fans will anticipate. There are other areas where the standard expectations of Elder Scrolls veterans have been challenged, too.
Combat has changed for a start, which may not be a bad thing. For all of its wonders, Skyrim was perhaps weakest when it came to getting your blades dirty. It required little more than flailing melee, the occasional bout of stealth/magic and a whole lot of back-pedalling. For combat to work in an MMO, with players working together, it needs to become decidedly more tactical. And it has.
Our early access was limited to the PC version, and the combat controls will resonate with old hands. Left-click and you'll attack with your chosen weapon, right-click and you'll block. Click both buttons together and you'll shield bash, useful for interrupting foes. Hold down your left button and you'll charge up a power attack. So far, so Skyrim.
But very quickly you're introduced to the reworked Skill systems of TESO. Each class has three unique skill trees to go with the various universal batches available to all. These are what will come to define your character and lend them the combat role affability necessary when working in a team.
Our Dragon Knight, for example, is able to control the battlefield, dragging enemies towards him - Mortal Kombat Scorpion style - and away from our lightly armoured teammates. Skills can be upgraded, too. Use a skill enough and it'll level up and morph into one of two altered versions. Our foe-pulling Fiery Grip skill, for example, becomes Empowering Chains, which ensures the next attack we land on our dragged foe does extra damage. We could have opted for Extended Chains, however, letting us grab enemies from further away.
Any class can use any weapon, so if you're a Sorcerer who likes wielding two-handed warhammers then power to you. Your hammer wielding skills will increase along with your class skills, should you use them regularly. This freedom when building a character means it's easier to commit to just one.
Any MMO gamer will tell you it can be annoying, months down the line, to suddenly want to play as an up-close melee warrior, but not being able to because you've committed too much time and effort into building a mage. From this early stage it appears as though TESO has a solution. Unbinding weapons and armour from classes does, however, make it harder to identify other players and their ideal roles in a party.
SLIDESHOW: The Art of Elder Scrolls Online
Your ability to use this huge number of skills whenever you want is deliberately hindered. You're only able to use six skills at any one time (12 total once you unlock an extra weapon set slot). Not only is this ideal when it comes to mapping the controls to PS4 and Xbox One pads, it also cleans up your screen for ample imp-bashing.
The age of 40+ hotkeys a la WOW appears to be behind us, thank Akatosh. Just like in the first Guild Wars, which limited you to eight skills, it's vitally important to determine these choices before heading into combat. We found ourselves discussing skillsets with our party each time we grouped up.
"Playing in first-person, while an option, will likely become known as the wrong way to play."
A noticeable side effect of this increase in tactical nuance is the redundancy of the first-person mode. Using your mouse wheel to zoom in and out, shifting between first- and third-person views is seamless.
Many enemy attacks are telegraphed onto the ground by red markers and you can dodge out of the way of these. If you cripple your view you're less able to see the things happening around you and less able to react as quickly. It's unfortunate, but playing TESO in first-person, while an option, will likely become known as the wrong way to play. While the combat system has changed to encompass the values of massively multiplayer play, the series' staple crafting mechanics remain as deep and as satisfying as ever.
It could change come the final release, but we found that keeping on top of our crafting skills ensured whatever we built felt effective. Rather than craft an item and then instantly salvage it for materials or sell it on (Guild Wars 2 and WOW are both guilty of this), TESO lets you harbour attachments to your crafted gear. Rarity-altering upgrades implemented with the materials you gather in the world help keep your favourite weapons relevant for longer.
Another nice touch is that rather than have you wander around looking for grindstones, furnaces and tanning racks, TESO allows you to spread your crafting skills more definably. Blacksmiths go to a Blacksmithing Station and Woodworkers go to a Woodworking Station, for example.
MMOs constantly evolve, and TESO will be no different, with additional packages of content already being collated for release every six-ish weeks. We're hoping that some of the smaller, easily fixable problems we encountered are already on Zenimax's to-do list.
The compass, which in time-honoured Skyrim fashion sits at the top of the screen, doesn't always relay the information MMO players will want. A minimap would instantly tell you where party members, merchants, quest givers and sometimes mobs are without the 360 degree turning hassle. So why no mini map? 'Following tradition' isn't a good enough excuse.
Little things, such as the lack of easily identifiable profession tags for important NPCs or the inability to loot multiple urns at once, will irritate those used to evolved MMO systems that have long been established and iterated on. Another bugbear: mounts.
Fast travel waypoints mean equestrian exploits aren't as essential as they might be, so why are horses so prohibitively expensive? The cheapest horse we found was 17,200 gold. After eight hours of play we had amassed just over 1,000. Whichever way you cut the sums, you aren't getting a horse for a while. And before you ask: no. You can't steal one either.
The world of Tamriel, with so much lore and history woven into its construction, ensures that TESO hooks us despite these eccentricities. There's simply too much fan service on display for us to want to stop playing.
But while we spent pretty much every second gushing over the size of the world, the depth of the quests and the memorable characters, we realise that TESO's take on the Elder Scrolls is a very different kettle of slaughterfish from what's gone before. Whether you're looking for more Skyrim or eager to transfer from another MMO, there's still work to be done.