Embrace or ignore your new neighbours.
I saved a king, fought a werewolf and rescued a conflagrant village that was more than a little bit on fire. All in a day’s work in the Elder Scrolls universe, but this time, I wasn’t alone.
After the staggering success of Skyrim two years ago, Bethesda has challenged ZeniMax Online Studios with embracing mainstream popularity by answering its longtime fans’ pleas: The Elder Scrolls is becoming an MMO.
But not just any MMO. Creative Director Paul Sage told MMGN ESO is combining the best of the Elder Scrolls universe with the interactivity of MMOs. It’s not simply a generic massively multiplayer game under the guise of a Skyrim skin.
”We started making lists about what we liked about MMOs and what we liked about Elder Scrolls games and where those things paired up,” said Sage. “They’re not as dissimilar as you might think.”
Such an ambitious feat comes with a level of compromise. Stalwarts of the action-adventure RPG series have been relegated to the sidelines to accommodate the laws of an MMO and inherent limitations of a sprawling online economy that houses more than just one player. You can’t murder friendly NPCs, dropped items aren’t necessarily accurate to what character models are wearing and the levelling system has been stabilised. Environments won’t adapt to your competence as they did in Skyrim.
When I saved the king of Daggerfall from a premature demise, I was lauded as the hero; the only hero, even though everyone else was enjoying similar celebrations — in my world, I was the saviour.
Success will depend on the perfect fusion of the heroic single-player Elder Scrolls adventure and an accessible yet compelling MMO, comforting enough to reassure console players that PC gaming isn’t actually that scary.
After spawning as a Level 6 Dragon Knight during 90 minutes of hands-on time, I’m confidence ZeniMax will strike the perfect balance.
However, such ambiance will reply on seamless first-person integration — something I wasn’t able to experience myself. The development team walked us through a nostalgic video demonstration of ESO with the outstretched arms and dual weapons we’ve come to associate with The Elder Scrolls online. It was nothing like the third-person experience we were offered, and came with a promise that it would be playable in the beta.
The Daggerfall of my eye
Stumbling into the magnificent fortified dwellings of Daggerfall, ESO simplifies its welcoming user-interface to free your gaze to roam the rich world unfolding around you — don’t confuse “simple” and “accessible” to be mean reduced; all the functionality is here, just not jammed down your throat from the outset.
I was thrown into an open world to find a quest and forge a reputation as I pleased. The vibrant world is full of chatty, fully voiced, NPCs to gossip about the weather and local hooligans. Characters of importance are obviously marked with a bright yellow glow. Go talk to them to find out what to do, and follow the corresponding blimps on your mini-map representing points of interest for your current quest.
After helping a poor lass recover her misplaced pig (no surprise with those shoddy fences!), I was shamefully talked into confronting a murderous werewolf whereupon I encountered my first brush with death. It was the first enemy I had seriously encountered, and it took all my cunning to bury his brow and scavenge his deflated corpse — it was at this point I remembered the ability to block attacks.
With such a limited timeframe, I quickly frolicked outside the township’s walls to discover a burning village in distress from flying beasts wreaking havoc on the disgruntled settlers. After briefing aligning my goals with fellow battlers, I assumed the role of fireman, and bravely fought off an army of enemies surely not designed to be bested by a Level 6 commoner.
It was really the only time I bothered to form an alliance with other real-life players, as a bulk of my 90 minutes were played as if I was at the helm of Skyrim, not an expansive MMO and it seemed to make little difference to my success.
You can team up with random players on your server to fight some bad guys, or join your friends and play through a bulk of the game together. The Mega-server technology splits players into channels to ensure resources are balanced and 50,000 people aren’t trying to live within an economy designed for 30,000, but it’s easy to switch if your friends are lost within an alternate Tamriel.
Alternatively, ignore all these multiplayer shenanigans. The main story reinforces your status as the rising hero of the land — and you’ll be doing it by yourself no matter how many friends insist on following in your wake.
The individualised story alleviated my concerns that an MMO will diminish what made Skyrim such an atmospheric world by removing you as the lone hero, and making you one of many. When I saved the king of Daggerfall from a premature demise, I was lauded as the hero; the only hero, even though everyone else was enjoying similar celebrations — in my world, I was the saviour. In yours, it will be you. But we can team up and complete side-quests together.
This was achieved by privatised interactions. Whereas I fought alongside other players in a side-quest, they were gleefully unaware of my accomplishments and interactions with NPCs during the main story — some things aren’t there for other players to see. Had I continued, my actions would have had repercussions on me as an individual, not other players and not the world as a whole.
I’m still an adventurer like you — the arrow must be coming
I was impressed by the variety of the combat system which incorporates Elder Scrolls style with MMO functionality. Left-click handles melee attacks and responds in brute force to the severity of clicks by adding power by holding it down longer; while right-click is the all important block that you mustn’t forget (as I did). Latency-proofing means you’ll be punished for spamming attack without thought, as you’ll need the cycle to finish before you can block or use another ability. Hotkeys (in our case numbers 1-5) are used to activate spells or skills similar to Dragon Shouts, which will be the biggest deterrent to console players not familiar with a keyboard and mouse.
Seriously, console fans, don’t be scared by an MMO.
The basic interface is simpler than most games in the genre, you don't need to reply on other players as it suggests, and it has been designed to run, and run well, on a five-year-old MacBook. In the future, you might even be able to use an Xbox 360 controller if the keyboard and mouse seems foreign.
As a lowly Level 6, many of the key features, including detailed weapons swapping, were not yet unlocked, but it felt like an Elder Scrolls game. Only, not quite. I’m keen to see how all this translates into first-person. Watching a video just isn’t the same as experiencing it for yourself. Running around an MMORPG world in third-person with the emergent exploration of Skyrim should make ESO one of the best MMOs in years; but doing it in trademark first-person makes it an Elder Scrolls game.
It’s too early to make any definitive calls, but I’ll say this: I wasn’t ready to relinquish my keyboard when I got a tap on the shoulder saying time was up. The Elder Scrolls Online has the potential to not only open the mystical world of The Elder Scrolls to multiplayer bliss, but to broaden the minds of a generation of gamers who otherwise wouldn’t have dared go near an MMO.
MMGN attended a preview event for The Elder Scrolls Online in Los Angeles as a guest of Bethesda.