Elder Scrolls is arguably one of the most well-established and respected franchises in gaming. So why shouldn't the series get its very own MMO spin-off? The Elder Scrolls Online was announced only a year ago in May 2012 and has remained a rather heated point of contention among gamers, particularly Elder Scrolls' most devoted followers. The initial unveiling surprised some and disappointed others, as early screenshots depicted a game much brighter and less realistic take on Tamriel.
But a few debut screenshots aren't indicative of an entire game, as everyone knows. MMOs are especially peculiar, as far as games go and how critics are forced to approach them. The MMO experience doesn't end after a few hours with a cinematic and some credits. It lives for weeks to months to years, evolving over time with its community.
Last week, a few of us were able to sit down (behind closed doors, mind you) and get some solid hands-on time with The Elder Scrolls Online. Well over an hour, actually. This early taste of the massively multiplayer online Elder Scrolls proved quite surprising, actually, and I'll share with you my thoughts, primarily as an Elder Scrolls fan.
That Elder Scrolls Feeling
I'm not going to go into too much detail about gameplay, given the focus of this entire article is the game's Elder Scrolls-ness, but I'm going to mention some of the gameplay as it ties into the subject matter. You know, just to give some background.
We started our adventure as members of the Daggerfall Covenant. That'd be the faction with the Orsimer, Breton, and Redguard. Watching over us were members of ZeniMax Online Studios, including game director Matt Firor, creative director Paul Sage, and combat designer and expert Maria Aliprando.
The team was, first of all, very eager to show off the character creation system. With so many customization sliders that dictate how your character might turn out (belly and breast sizes can be altered) it's no wonder the developers would want us to try it out. For the sake of time, however, we opted not to spend several hours playing with sliders in favor of actually, you know, playing.
Elder Scrolls Online does try to differentiate itself from other MMOs by implementing several gameplay mechanics distinctive to Elder Scrolls.
First-Person Perspective: Perhaps the most welcomed and unique feature is an optional first-person perspective, made to emulate the default perspective in previous Elder Scrolls RPGs. Is it necessary for TESO? Not by any means, but it's a great throwback to the MMO's roots, and any Elder Scrolls fan will no doubt feel more at home running around in first-person than third. I did, anyway.
Armor and Weapon Proficiency: In a typical MMO (and many other games), your class determines what kind of gear your character can equip. Elder Scrolls Online adopts a different system, also taken from the single-player games. Rather than be limited by class, players instead have weapon and armor proficiencies. This means a caster can equip heavy armor and a greatsword, while a Templar can pick up a staff and wear light gear. The only issue is how effective you are with a specific kind of weapon or armor type.
Nostalgic Dungeoning: Dungeons aren't a rare occurence reserved only for mid- to high-level players. At level 7, we were able to begin dungeon-diving around the starting zone. So what? I had a major nostalgia trip, is what. The area was littered with Ayleid ruins, better known as those elven ruins in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The architecture and dungeon designs were all reminiscent of the Aylied ruins, though Elder Scrolls Online did away with that claustrophobic feeling the single-player dungeons tend to have. By contrast, the dungeons we saw in TESO were more cavernous -- typical of the MMO medium.
Lockpicking and Bread: As we all know, Elder Scrolls isn't just about killing and looting. Sometimes, a hero needs to take some time off at the forge or in the kitchen. Yes, crafting professions will be crossing over (this is an MMO, after all), but so will other traits like Lockpicking. Stealthing, while most likely not a trait you can level, is worked in as well. So far, I haven't needed it for stealing, because as far as I can tell, every loaf and book in the game is free for the taking. I'd certainly like for theft to be made a thing, however.
MMO First, Elder Scrolls Second
Oh, I was plenty excited to find all of the above implemented or at least teased by ZeniMax, but for the time being, I remain unconvinced this is an MMO I can invest in. In many ways, it's still more of an MMO than an Elder Scrolls.
While the world is certainly open enough for free exploration, allowing players to basically rack up as many quests as their brains can comprehend, these are designed more for the MMO environment. Sure, this is understandable, because Elder Scrolls Online is, at the end of the day, an MMO first and Elder Scrolls second. Not every quest can be dynamic and world-changing, so we wind up with some pretty typical filler like "Kill (this many) harpies," then "Collect (this many) harpy eggs." Even with a bland story tying together the quest chain, I couldn't bring myself to actually care enough to finish. Running toward that gaping portal of death in the sky seemed much more appealing.
The character designs aren't to my tastes, either. In the Elder Scrolls games, we're used to seeing the various mer races with distinctive physical features, like generous brows and slanted eyes, among others. In Elder Scrolls Online, these are done away with in favor of a more generic design, where elves wind up looking like humans with pointed ears, and at a distance, you couldn't tell a Breton from an Altmer. I get that this was done in order to make the characters more appealing to a wider audience, the majority of which may not even be familiar with Elder Scrolls games, but as a bit of a diehard fan, I found this incredibly disappointing -- not to mention a bit jarring. When I walked up to a random NPC at one point and engaged him in conversation, I really had no idea he was an elf until he pointed out his race.
I'm also still wondering how the heck Argonians, Dunmer, and Nord manage to work together, but that's not entirely relevant here, given we didn't get to touch on faction-oriented content during the preview.
Overall, I'm appreciative of what ZeniMax is trying to do. During my time with the game, I was definitely surprised by the attention to detail and all the work that went toward making this feel like an Elder Scrolls MMO. But for me, it's still too much along the same vein of massively multiplayer online RPG as World of Warcraft to really feel at home in this take on Tamriel.
Right now, I get the feeling that Elder Scrolls Online is less for Elder Scrolls fans than it is for MMO players who happen to be familiar with The Elder Scrolls. I look forward to being proven wrong.
Follow Lydia on Twitter @RabidChinaGirl or check out her news, reviews and features every day here on Neoseeker.