With public betas well underway, numerous trade-show hands-on shutouts out in the wild and a console announcement under its belt, it's safe to say The Elder Scrolls Online is here. Not in the physical sense, of course, the game is yet to make retail, but as far as an online entity looking to bite into the MMO pie, it's a hard game to ignore.
Oddly enough, despite the ultra-successful The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim breaking records and itself into modern pop-culture, reception for The Elder Scrolls Online when it was first announced was equal parts scepticism and yawn -- something the brass at Bethesda were likely scratching their heads over (and rightly so). Yet despite this they listened to feedback, remained transparent and kept the conversation going. The end result is a game that, based on the popularity and history of its namesake, with ever-evolving and rewarding gameplay in tow, is destined to make the sort of splash the likes of Star Wars The Old Republic and anything from Funcom have only hoped for.
While I've already spoken at length about the game's focus on maintaining that Elder Scrolls single-player game feel, I'd be remiss to not talk about the visual and stability leaps TESO has made in just the short time from E3 to now. The iterative process going on internally at Zenimax Online Studios is listening to testers and players alike. The game's pacing continues to work progressive and emergent magic -- the slice I played while out here at Gamescom had me beginning at level 2 (I chose an Argonian sorcerer) in a small village on an island in Skyrim.
A single quest from here lead me out of the village and into the snowy plains beyond. The environments are all alarmingly familiar which should prove a tasty ease of entry for newcomers to The Elder Scrolls series from Skyrim, and it looks gorgeous, despite being an MMO. A Dragon Shrine stood stoically erected over a crest and, playing in first-person, I almost felt like I was back playing 2011's smash hit. Things are easy enough to follow, and as I've mentioned before, like other TES games, you level up simply performing tasks which makes just playing the game an ever-rewarding experience. Before long I'd cracked level 3 and had increased in Block and One-Handed Sword wielding. Familiar indeed.
But all of this is just par for the course, it's the team striking a solid balance between a game-world that is ever-present and respawning and rarely physically dynamic. Within half an hour of play I'd accrued so many quests I began to feel a bit overwhelmed, except the game's design works to ensure quests are wrapped in a relatively timely fashion and within a decent distance of your starting point. Of course none of this is new to MMOs, it's just that it feels fundamentally different here because the game delivers a more believable world to you, and the emergent quests that rear their head feel personal to you, instead of like you're just another player waiting for a trigger.
It's at this point I should also mention there's an awesome lockpicking system in the game that borrows from the series proper. You need to click down on a series of tumblers until they begin to shake and you hear a trigger sound. Let go and if you were successful, that tumbler locks down. There's a timer involved though, and depending on the complexity of the lock, the timer can be relatively long or short. You also have a limited number of lockpicks, just as you’d expect adding another small, familiar, factor to inventory and gameplay. Just really wanted to mention that.
Combat in the first-person is feeling more and more weighty, and I'm really looking forward to sinking my teeth into the game to move beyond basic sword and shield skirmishes. There's a neat evade move tagged to movement, where double-tapping strafe in either direction, for example, leaps you right out of the way (you can even spam it to move quickly when not in combat). Again, it's not game-changing but is mildly progressive for a game that is both factoring in traditional RPG rules with real-time combat. Of course all the usual MMO quick-bar and key binding options exist, I just haven't levelled up high enough to really experience an epic, over-the-top battle as any one particular race or class.
With roughly three hours (maybe a bit more) under my belt now when factoring in E3 and now Gamescom, it's still a long way off any definitive "this is the only MMO you should be playing" type of line, but I can tell you it's very good so far. This is most represented by the ease at which you can get into the game, how inviting it is once you're there and the stark differences it presents over traditional MMOs with its tie to one of the most popular single-player experiences in gaming history. It has the right hallmarks of the genre, don't get me wrong, but it shifts it up ten-fold through combat, exploration, leveling and pacing -- all coupled up with a unique emergent quest and personal gameplay system. It also looks amazing and with the promise of being able to move beyond Skyrim and Cyrodiil, and even visit Morrowind, there's a lot to be excited about if you're a fan of the series.
If you're not a fan, but play MMOs and are looking for something different, there's a lot of immediate value here. And with no micro pay system in sight beyond a traditional subscription model that features paying once for the game with a 30-day trial in tow, followed by roughly $15 a month, with a load of promised content post-release, it might be time to look into what The Elder Scrolls Online is offering, because in the face of what everyone else is shovelling, this feels like a familiar, yet crisp breathe of fresh air.
All that’s ultimately left is to see how group scenarios are handled and what the game’s higher level content will be like. Zoned spaces, mounts, instances, PvE and PvP are all ripe for inspection, but as far as enticing me back into Tamriel, TESO has me hook, line and sinker (oh, you can also actually go fishing).