The First 20 Levels of The Elder Scrolls Online

Familiar Beginnings

MMO players, stop me if this one sounds familiar. Over the course of your first 24 hours with The Elder Scrolls Online, you'll create a character from multiple available races and classes, begin in a private tutorial area, and transition to a public race-specific area for some introductory questing before jetting off to a larger, faction-specific town where the game's broader mechanics will be introduced. After spending the better part of your first days in this area, you'll finally be granted access to the massive game world at large, where you will make friends, compete in PvP, get a mount, and grab tons of loot.

It's a stock standard formula that's been clutch to just about every MMO from World of Warcraft to Rift, and yes, it's how The Elder Scrolls Online begins as well. Luckily for fans of Bethesda's traditionally single-player role-playing series, it's not the originality of the formula that wins it points, but the unexpected quality and depth with which it delivers those moments. See, ESO isn't just an MMO with the Elder Scrolls branding slapped onto it; this is a full-fledged Bethesda world, complete with tons of optional tombs and caves, scads of in-game lore, and hundreds (if not thousands) of unique, fully-voiced quest lines. It just so happens that there's thousands of other people exploring this world with you at any given time.

A spectral Watcher

Races and Alliances

Much like Skyrim and Oblivion before it, ESO begins with a very detailed character creation process. You won't find yourself tweaking forehead depth and nose bridge sliders with quite the same fetishistic attention to detail, but there's still vast potential for customization that should allow you to create just about any character you can dream up - within the confine's of the game's gender and races systems. 

There are ten races in ESO, split amongst three factions (or Alliances, as the game calls them).

The first faction is the Aldmeri Dominion, the youngest of all the Alliances. The Aldmeri are headstrong, which likely comes with their youth, and brazen in their goal to restore the Imperial City of Elven rule and cast down the villain Molag Bal. The Altmer, a race of dignified High Elves, are the leading race of the Aldmeri Dominion, but they are joined by other non-humans including the lithe Khajit and the diminutive but powerful Wood Elves of the Bosmer. Although the followers of the Aldmeri Dominion are passionate in their desire to overthrow Molag Bal and take back the Imperial City, they are not immune to their own vices of infighting and intrigue. Their youth and inexperience may yet prove to be their undoing.

As a side note, the Aldmeri are the only Alliance without a stock human race, making them extra fun for those of us more into the role-playing side of these games.

The Aldmeri are the only Alliance without human equivalents

The Ebonheart Pact is the next Alliance. This group consists of the Nords, who lead the Pact from their northern perch in Skyrim, and their Dark Elf and Argonian allies. Theirs is an allianced forged of necessity. The three races of the Ebonheart Pact have been forced to cast aside the animosity that has characterized their interactions over the last few Elder Scrolls titles and make peace with long-standing enemies in the face of a new threat - Molag Bal. Bal is the second threat that the Ebonheart Pact has faced together, with the first being the Second Akiviri Invasion. As such, the three races of the Pact are accustomed to fighting alongside one another... even if they don't like it. Inreactions with other races as a member of the Pact are often tense, as a long history of violence exists between the Argonians, Dark Elves, and the Nords, but each faction has enough territory in the massive, barren North, and there is relatively little infighting.

The third and final faction is the Daggerfall Covenant, a long-standing Alliance formed by the charismatic Bretons, the powerful Orcs, and the steadfast Redguard. This is a very power-focused Alliance, as the Orcs and Redguards are two of the most suitable melee classes in the game, and the Bretons use both buffing and elemental magic to provide support. With such a focus on synergy in battle, it's no wonder that the Daggerfall Covenant has managed to thrive since 2E 567. High King Emeric of the Bretons leads this Alliance, with the main goal of restoring the Second Empire to Tamriel and spreading prosperity through the land - something that can't be accomplished with Molag Bal on the loose.

You may be noticing a through line at this point. While all of the Alliances are ultimately out for their own gain, the three of them are at times united by the necessity of killing the fiend Molag Bal, whose Anchors appear in the sky and rain massive beasts down upon the land. This happens in the same manner as in the impressive CG trailer released by Bethesda last week - a thorny metal ouroboros appears in the sky, massive chains anchored by huge mace heads implant themselves in the ground, and enemies start raining down from above. It's quite the spectacle to behold, especially in the often reserved MMO genre, and it looks beautifully terrifying on Ultra High settings.

Combat and Dungeon Crawling

Dark magics abound

But before I could get around to fighting the agents of Molag Bal, I had to choose a class. I went with a Khajit (named Sir Catnip, Esq.) due to their speed with weapons; I like me a good DPS character, and shortly after escaping from an otherworldly prison cell I had equipped myself with two axes. As I ran through the prison, NPCs hastened to escape past my by the dozen. Though the circumstances were mysterious, they were soon demystified with the help of an imprisoned phophet, whose projected voice revealed that I was dead, and my spirit imprisoned. 

Gameplay began in a first-person view by default, making me feel right at home as a veteran Elder Scrolls and Fallout player. A variety of third-person views are also available in case you want to admire all the hard work you just did in character creation, but in keeping with tradition I proceeded in first person and unsheathed my weapons for battle. It is worth noting, however, that certain animations such as swimming require a third-person view, which animates much more convincingly than it has in past Elder Scrolls games. It seems like the third-person experience was a big focus for the team, most likely to accomodate players who have become accustomed to the standard MMO viewpoint.

Escaping from the first area was a trifle, designed mostly to get across the game mechanics. Anyone who's familiar with The Elder Scrolls will feel at once at home with the base combat and exploration, which feel exactly as they do in Skyrim. However, big changes were in store for me once I escaped the first room.

Firstly, ESO adds a skill bar to the mix. Like in mst PC RPGs, hitting a number key will activate one of your equipped skills. Skills are divvied up by race, class, Alliance, and weapon. For my first, I chose an Aldmeri skill which lassoed my enemies in a spectral chain, pulling them towards me so I could beat them down with dual weapons. It proved quite handy, and immeidately added a speed and fluidity to the combat that I had never seen in a core Scrolls game before.

Combat is fast-paced and frantic

It feels weird to say that this MMO contains the most reactionary, skill-based combat in the entire series, but it's true. Fighting in ESO makes the combat in Skyrim seem lethargic by comparison. Soon after gaining my first skill, I was taught a double-tap dodge move via pop-up tutorial prompt. Certain enemy attacks hit a wider area (marked on the ground by a red target that shows where the damage will land), and must be either dodged by double-tapping a direction, or distrupted by hitting the attack and block buttons at the same time. 


With all of the new combat techniques in hand, I escaped the prison, beat down a trifle of a first boss, and emerged into the Khajit city of Elsweyr - about 20 feet up in the air. Seems the portal I had escaped through hadn't been the most precise of methods. After I had recovered from the fall (and my fellow Khajit had recovered from seeing a dude fall out of the sky), I was off questing. One thing that immediately struck me about ESO was the variety in its quests. The boring MMO standard of "go here and kill [X] monsters/collect [X] items" doesn't seem to apply here, or if it does, only n the smallest of doses. Elsweyr provided several low-level quests for me to kick things off with, only one of which required me to go around collecting items. This one I skipped in favor of exploring a dark cave, fighting a giant snake, reconstructing a crashed ship, and joining up with some pirates... er, privateers.

It seems that I had stumbled upon Elsweyr at a dark time; a hurricane had just ravaged a fleet of ships, and now their inhabitants were all landlocked. Tensions were high, and only began to mount as crew members began to discover their friends murdered, with strange markings carved into their flesh. Without spoiling the specifics, the culminating quest line led me through dark rituals, a magically-powered hurricane, an attempted human sacrifice, and an eventual invasion of Elsweyr. It was a hell of a way to kick off a game, but as it turns out, ESO was just getting started. 

Sinister business is at work in Elsweyr

I can't stress enough how impressed I continue to be by the ESO team's dedication to writing quest lines that really matter to the world of the game. While you'll certainly stumble across the odd questline that has you looting furs or picking plants, my first 20 hours as a Khajit implied that must in-game quests will be lore-driven, and will continue to uphold the standard of some of the stronger quests from Skyrim and Oblivion. Even in the safer areas, dark magics and evil forces abound. As I levelled Sir Catnip, I came across possessed denizens, vile plagues with mysterious origins, ancient curses, caves filled with old magic, and trying Anchor battles. And that was just in the two starting areas.

As with Skyrim before it, it seems that much of the most compelling content of ESO comes from the side missions and not the main story, which frankly came across as generic by comparison. It should lead to some intense PvE battles, though, and that's enough for me.

Cooking, Crafting and Gathering

Crafting, cooking, alchemy and the like are mostly unlocked once you get to your faction's city, in my case the Wood Elf capital of Elden Root. These mechanics function much as they do in Skyrim. If you find a forge, you can build or enhance weapons, while if you find a cooking fire you can craft food from ingredients you collect around the world. I was discouraged from doing much experimentation in these realms because of the scant inventory limit, however. In the beta at least, there is no weight limit like in Skyrim, but you can only carry 50 items at a time. That incudes weapons, armor, potions, ingredients, and other miscellaneous stuff. It's harder to get rid of your items, too, until you learn the layout of a town; the in-game map downright sucks at this point, as it doesn't even show you store locations and other important information. That could all change in the future, though; remember, this is an unfinished beta build we're working with here. We've reached out to Bethesda to ask about the map, but haven't heard one way or the other just yet.

Crafting and alchemy work much like they do in Skyrim

Whether you choose to craft your items or to loot them from your environment shouldn't matter much to your bottom line. Early on in the game, it's more effective to craft weapons than it is to wait around for good drops. You won't be facing any bosses, and you won't be going on too many lengthy dungeon raids or anything of that nature, so the best weapons are to be gained by forging them yourself. This is especially true as your starting weapons begin to lose durability and you have to keep maintaining them. However, once you pass level 10 the drops start to level out, and the best loot is often grabbed out of chests or through quests, not through forging. Again, this is the beta build, so that's subject to change.

The World at Large

After 20+ hours of questing, the game's larger world will open up to you. You should be in the late teens or early twenties in terms of level when this happens. I just managed to reach this point myself before the preview period started to close up, as this is where Bethesda intended the press experience to end. However, what I did manage to see almost scared me in terms of its size and scope. ESO will eat my life when it releases in April, and that's something I'm totally okay with.

Picture the open world of Skyrim. Now picture that mashed up with Oblivion's world, and maybe even some of Morrowind, too. Bethesda has stated in the past that ESO's world is bigger than Skyrim's, but it's got much more variety, too. Each race's starting experience will differ drastically from the other's, and the size of those stating areas is already bigger than any individual area in Skyrim by leaps and bounds. Once in the full world, you can explore any cave, any ruin, and any town you come across. You can read any book (some of which will provide you with unique quests, and all of which will add to the lore of the world), and you can fight any enemy. This is The Elder Scrolls done on a staggering scope.

I can safely say that I had more fun with the beta preview build of ESO than I've ever had with any other MMO, and if Bethesda and Zenimax can keep the bar raised this high for the game's next 100+ hours we may very well have the new king of the MMO genre on our hands. With a bigger world than ever before, frantic skill-based combat, and thousands of other players running alongside you, ESO has got us more excited than ever to take the fight to Molag Bal. 

Stay tuned for more preview coverage, as we'll be diving into PvP this weekend, and look out for a full review in April.

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Comments (1)

Said this on 2-7-2014 At 03:47 pm

How much did zenimax pay you for this "review"? You spelled "in" wrong.

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