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PAX East 2013: The Elder Scrolls Online Hands-On
Looking back at this year's PAX East, there were times when it felt like you couldn't go more than ten feet without feeling Bethesda's influence. That might be a slight exaggeration, but between the food truck, the massive party Saturday night, and the huge booth on the show floor, it was immediately clear that Bethesda Softworks is banking big on this fall's release of The Elder Scrolls Online.
And why wouldn't they? 2011's Skyrim blew past the 4 million sales mark in around a week, and has continued to pull in revenue for the company as a series of successful DLC expansions keep the game in the public eye. A fourth expansion was recently leaked via Steam, and should be dropping fairly soon.
But if there's one thing that became immediatey obvious when I put my hands on The Elder Scrolls Online, it's that this is not Skyrim. The experience of playing through one of Bethesda's single-player RPGs is a meandering and naturalistic one. Walking the countrysides and mountaintops of Skyrim, I felt at one with the game's version of nature. It was just me and the environments, and I could duck into any cavern or dungeon I wanted to and do some exploring.
The Elder Scrolls Online, on the other hand, ironically feels like a more guided experience despite its more massive nature. If you were expecting an MMO that felt and played similarly to Skyrim or Oblivion, you'll find nothing but disappointment here. On the other hand, if you are looking for a solid MMO that features slight yet meaningful tweaks on all of the tropes and mechanics of the genre that you've come to know and love, well sit down, because you and I have to talk.
My demo with the game began with the character creation process. There were three playable classes on the show floor at PAX East. This is perhaps the first major difference between this MMO and a normal game of The Elder Scrolls; the character creation process is a more guided experience, choosing to focus on classes instead of the freeform character building of the single-player games. Your class in Online will determine which skills you have available later in the game. You can use any type of weapon as any class, so the decision only effects your skillset. It might be a little more narrow that the usual Bethesda style, but it's still more flexible than many MMOs, which I appreciated.
Following your class selection, you are tasked with choosing a race. My favorite part of the character creation process in any The Elder Scrolls game is always sifting through the various races and their strengths and weaknesses. The demo today did not disappoint, with many of the same races as the core games being represented. Certain races are only available to certain classes, so you'll have to factor that decision into your choice of class as well.
Following the basic aspects of character creation, you will have the option to get granular with your customization. Just as in previous titles, you can zoom in on the face and tweak things such as nose width and eye depth. Since you'll actually be viewing your character in third-person all the time in this game, the customization options felt like they had a little more weight to them than usual and I spent more time on them as a result. In the end I didn't spend as much time making my character as I normally would have as a courtesy to the folks behind me, so I ended up playing a Breton of Daggerfall.
After making my character, I jumped right into some gameplay. I found myself in an lush forest environment, and while I was disappointed to find that you couldn't wander off into every little cave or crevice like you could in past The Elder Scrolls games, I was also met with plenty of side content seeded into the world through NPCs.
When taking on quests, I found the UI to be pretty conducive to juggling the various objectives and map locations. When the game was first shown off, I remember it having a very bare-bones look to it that I thought would be pretty cumbersome to navigate with. That whole system has been revamped, and I ended up quite pleased with the accesibility of the menus. I don't play a ton of MMOs anymore, especially since most of my gaming time is taken up reviewing titles, so the fact that I could slip into the game's interfaces so comfortably shows admirable skill on Bethesda's part.
It's also worth noting just how darn nice the game looks. Aside from the sleek UI, the models and textures are filled with color and life, something that was noticably absent in many of the environments of Skyrim. Being PC-exclusive has its perks, and lush visuals are among the best. Despite the huge environments and vast player counts, this is a significantly better-looking game than Skyrim was.
There are a lot more particle effects flying around, too, and they all look great. You might associate combat in a The Elder Scrolls game with weighty swings and methodical action, but with The Elder Scrolls Online Bethesda is looking to change that. The word that kept coming to mind as I played was "punchy." The combat has a speed to it that other games in the series would be jealous of. You have to keep your wits about you as enemies pelt you with AoEs and lumbering power attacks. Each must be countered in its own way.
Kill enough enemies and complete enough quests, and you'll inevitably level up a few times. I certainly did during my demo, and I took it as an opportunity to put the game's leveling systems to the test. Each level-up will get you one attribute point which can be put into health, magicka or stamina. You'll also earn a skill point, which you can invest in any of the skills that you have unlocked on your skill tree.
You can't unlock skills using skill points, however. To do that, you must play the game how you want to play it. It's similar to past titles in the series, although as mentioned earlier it is made a little less flexible by the necessity of choosing a class upon beginning the game. Still, it's only natural that you would level up your magic abilities by using more magic, or your healing abilities by healing more. It always surprises me that more games haven't ripped these intuitive systems from The Elder Scrolls, and it seems like they'll work well enough in an MMO setting.
If there's one downside to the progression system, it's that you begin the game as a vanilla soldier with no abilities. It's certainly a stark contrast to the powerful warrior/mage you'll likely be by the game's end, but running around during the game's early levels with no abilities at my disposal wasn't exactly the most exhilerating thing ever. The combat, by extention, doesn't really get going until you've reached around level 5 or 6.
Your opinion of The Elder Scrolls Online will probably depend on what you go into it looking for. If you're a fan of The Elder Scrolls single-player games and are anticipating playing a MMO that mirrors the values and gameplay styles of those games, you may want to wait until the game is released or for a hands-on session of some sort before getting your hopes up. Despite bearing the same name, this is not the same game. If, on the other hand, you've tired of the recent crop of MMOs and hunger for something new, this game should absolutely be on your radar. It doesn't revolutionize the genre, nor does it really try to. What it does, however, is bring meaningful changes to a system of customizaitons and upgrades that have remained relatively static in other MMOs. I look forward to playing more in the future, and that's not something I can honestly say about most games in the genre.