One of the biggest draws of the upcoming Elder Scrolls Online is the possibility of taking the core and foundation of the beloved series and placing it in a living, breathing, populated world. What if the arena of Cyrodiil allowed you to bet on and watch competitive, dynamic matches between heroes controlled by real people? What if your cohorts in Skyrim’s Mage’s Guild were your real life friends? What if you could siege a bandit camp safe in the knowledge that your buddies-in-arms actually had your back and were holding their own in the fight?

It’s a lofty goal, considering the logistical and balancing issues related to crafting a massively multiplayer online game. Yet as a huge fan of the series and a gamer who doesn’t spend a lot of time playing MMOs, I went into the recent beta hoping to find encouragement that the game I’ve been hoping for is on its way. What I ended up finding was a game with some very familiar (if quite watered down) elements of previous Elder Scrolls games. It certainly looks the part, but in key areas the imposition of a very familiar (and effective) MMO structure comes at the cost of things that make the Elder Scrolls games great.

It’s worth keeping in mind that with a full month to go until the game releases, the missions and scenarios I experienced during the beta are subject to change, and at any rate only represented content you’re likely to see in the first 10 levels of play.

My character, in traditional Elder Scrolls form, escapes a prison in the opening scene of the game.

My character, in traditional Elder Scrolls form, escapes a prison in the opening scene of the game.

First things first. Character creation is typically slick, allowing you to pick between the nine races in either male or female genders, before letting you loose to customise the hair, facial features, tattoos, markings, age, and a whole host of other variables in as fine or broad a detail as you wish. In particular I’m noticing a lot more hipster mustaches and beards on the menu this time around, not that that’s a bad thing. This world needs a few more classy, hirsute orcs. The possible variation in the look of your character is truly impressive, and the character editor even lets you preview what your avatar will look like wearing high-level armor, which is a nice touch. I was disappointed however when I was asked to select a class out of a choice of four for my character. Of course defining a role to guide your character progression makes sense in an MMO, but the prospect of an Elder Scrolls game that doesn’t give you absolute control to pick and choice which abilities you’ll favour had me immediately offside.

The race you go with will determine on which side you fall during the three-way war that takes place over the course of the story content. I went with a Bosmer (wood elf) for my character, which aligned me with the Aldmeri Dominion of Bosmer, Altmer (high elf) and Khajiit (cat people).

After a brief tutorial dungeon I was transported to cat people territory and immediately began the main questline that involves preparing for the upcoming war. It’s here that my major concern with the game comes in, as the quests are easily the weakest part of the content available in this beta. Although the feel of the missions are comfortingly familiar Elder Scrolls fare, they are all entirely linear. Almost every quest in the beta could be accomplished by following the waypoint to your destination, hitting the interact button and then repeating until you arrived at an NPC who would complete your quest.The only exception to this is when the waypoint took you to a designated area in which you would have to fight mobs until they dropped an item you needed.

A mission from Raz, a key figure in the early story.

A mission from Raz, a key figure in the early story.

For example one quest had you eradicating a series of rats nests before a health inspector could arrive. It’s a concept that would have been right at home in Morrowind, but for the fact  the fun part — devising a way to accomplish the task and then actually doing it — is decided by the game. The quest tells you to raid thunderbug eggs and drop them on the nests to kill the rats, then it points out all the locations of the eggs and nests. None of the missions I saw had the Elder Scrolls’ trademark open-endedness or scope for creativity.

The result is a taste of the traditional Elder Scrolls experience but without the feeling that you matter at all in the world. Without the ability to interact with the world in a non-scripted way, fight or harm non-mob NPCs, steal, or chart your own course, the quests are reduced to travelling, talking and occasionally fighting, and nothing in the world reacts to you in a meaningful way. Compounding this odd disconnect is the fact that while the quest-givers tend to treat you as the hero of the story, numerous other heroes are running around you at all times, talking to those same quest givers and undertaking the same tasks as you.

One of the most common and most unintentionally funny side effects of this in the beta was that there tended to be a crowd of hero characters gathered around any NPC that was vital to the story. Nothing ruins the mood more than being sent on a secret quest to speak to a man deep in some hidden cavern only to find a whole group of other hero types lining up to talk to him, some already tripping over each other to run off to the next waypoint in their mission.  I understand such things are the bread and butter of an MMORPG, but the decision to make the game so stylistically similar to the past single player games makes this clumsy addition of infinite heroes feel really odd. Hopefully higher-level quests, PvP and party-based dungeons will prove interesting enough to counter this.

A pair of players plan their next move nearby an NPC.

A pair of players plan their next move nearby an NPC.

Players line up to talk to story NPC Cinder-Tail, who talks to each one as though they're alone.

Players line up to talk to story NPC Cinder-Tail, who talks to each one as though they’re alone.

If the questing experience indicates the final game may play out less like an Elder Scrolls game extended into the online space, and more like an MMO with an Elder Scrolls skin, the combat does nothing to assuage this. There are a good range of weapons available, from bows and two-handed heavy weapons to one-handed swords and projectile-spewing staffs, and the combat system is nuanced enough for an MMO. At your disposal at any time is a light attack, strong attack, block and interrupt, with the promise that at level 15 you’ll gain the ability to switch between two weapons seamlessly and open the system up. The main issue is that the combat feels much more like deploying abilities than shooting a bow or swinging a sword. The slight lag between command and execution, plus the mobs’ general lack of visible reaction to your attacking means all your satisfaction will derive from dwindling down the enemy’s health bar as opposed to nailing a really sweet shot with the bow or a heart-stopping power attack with a mace.

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Bring it, skeletons.

The obvious addition to combat in ESO is taking on enemies as a group as opposed to as a singular walking tank. This will of course be the meat and potatoes for many gamers, and things on this front look promising.  The four available classes seem to offer  a good mix of MMO archetypes, with the Dragon Knight as strong DPS / tank, the Sorcerer as spellcaster and support, Nightblade as power DPS and Templar as a versatile area of effect support or tank. Each class has three distinct skill trees you can focus on though, so if you choose one at the expense of the other two you could shift your role within a group to something other than that I’ve just outlined. For example my character was a Nightblade with a strong focus on the assassination tree. This was mostly because I was playing alone and needed to hit enemies as hard as possible and in a group scenario I would have been buffing my attack speed and putting arrows in as many faces as possible.

Spending some skill points. I'm about to morph the now-useless Assassin's Blade into something more interesting.

Spending some skill points. I’m about to morph the now-useless Assassin’s Blade into something more interesting.

Outside of the class-based skills, the abilities available to you are decided by your race and the equipment you favour, and many add a nice variability to combat scenarios. While leveling up and improving your skills lacks some of the excitement and cool factor of Skyrim or Oblivion, the system is at least set up to keep your skill list relevant and simple. Each individual perk levels up as you do, and eventually they will max and and be eligible to ‘morph’ into a new, stronger ability. This means you won’t end up with a repertoire filled with old, useless spells and abilities, which has always been an issue in Elder Scrolls games.

Exploring the lands was a highlight of my time in the beta, and will be of particular enjoyment for any Elder Scrolls nerds. Although the lands stretch out to encompass all of Tamriel rather than any specific region, the map is entirely consistent with the lore and mythos of the earlier games. Meanwhile a lot of creative licence has been taken with some of the areas we’re seeing officially for the first time, and the result is that a town like Mistral — with its water-filled streets and eerie eastern fantasy architecture — feels like a part of the Elder Scrolls saga without being too much of a rehash.

My character, after purchasing a new loadout (sans shoes) in Mistral.

My character, after purchasing a new loadout (sans shoes) in Mistral.

A very Eastern look for the town of Mistral.

A very Eastern look for the town itself.

Though the world is far less interactive this time around, I was pleased to find that there is still plenty of literature laying around that you can read, which gives some context and background for the state of affairs in Tamriel at the time, this game being set several hundred years earlier than we’d previously experienced.

Next to Skyrim of course an MMO is not going to stack up alongside other Elder Scrolls games in the visual wow factor department, but for what it is ESO still offered some pretty impressive sights in the beta. The creatures in particular, both old and new, were variously fearsome and adorable to behold. Some, like the mudcrabs and thunderbugs found around the coast, mill around and go about their business until disturbed, while others are scattered around the place in more static aesthetic ways. I was surprised to find a section of the map with several tigers loafing around in the sun.

A lazy tiger, refusing to the rats his master wants destroyed.

A lazy tiger, refusing to the rats his master wants destroyed.

A mudcrab attempts to snag an easy dinner, in a pretty adorable canned animation.

A mudcrab attempts to snag an easy dinner, in a pretty adorable canned animation.

A magical storm envelopes a wreck.

A magical storm envelopes a wreck.

While my first hands-on exposure to the game has done nothing to assure me that ESO will be the game all Elder Scrolls fans are hoping it will be, it has proven at least that the potential is there. So much rides on what will happen a little later on in the story content when the factions start intermingling and your character starts to travel across the different lands. Will the game continue to treat each person as the one true saviour and hero while ignoring the fact that you’re fighting alongside people with the same abilities as you, or will the questlines break out and do interesting things with the fact that you’re just one among thousands of heroes? Can a progression system that needs to be fair and balanced above all else really empower you as an individual like the skill-trees in the singleplayer games do?

With a release date set for April 4 on PC and June 2014 for consoles, we should expect answers to these questions sooner rather than later.

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