Zenimax bills The Elder Scrolls Online as a seamless merger of a sandbox singleplayer RPG and the best aspects of an MMOG. The game’s detractors have written it off as World Of Warcraft with a Tamrielic paint job. As you’d expect, the reality is more complicated than either take.
Structurally, The Elder Scrolls Online is an MMOG. Content is divvied up along well-understood lines: a main storyline for solo players, group content, dungeons, crafting, and large-scale player vs player combat. Despite top-level conservatism, however, a knife has been taken to the genre – not simply to better fit the Elder Scrolls mould, but to rethink long-standing orthodoxies.
The only persistent user interface elements are a crosshair, a minimap and a small quest tracker; your hotbar, health, stamina and magicka meters and other elements appear only when needed. When you level up, points can be invested in skill lines based on your class, your equipment, your race, your guild affiliations and multiple other elements, including whether or not you’re a vampire or werewolf. Active skills are levelled through use and can be transformed into one of two variants when a certain level is reached. A full firstperson mode – hands and all – is currently being implemented, allowing players to play in the traditional Elder Scrolls perspective if they so wish.
Combat likewise adapts familiar themes. Blocking and striking are bound to the mouse, with power attacks achieved by holding the attack button and a spell-interrupting bash performed by holding block while attacking. Blocking an incoming power attack stuns your opponent and leaves them open to a counter, but the same applies to you. These are the foundations of a reactive combat system that your hotkeyed skills then complicate.
Up to six spells, an ultimate ability and a consumable item can be bound at any given time, and these are cast instantly and without cooldown. The system is more Skyrim than World Of Warcraft – rather than establishing a rotation of skills, combat is about tactically spending your health, stamina and magicka in response to changing circumstances.
No damage numbers tick above enemy heads, and on-hit effects are subtle by MMOG standards. If anything, this is the combat system’s biggest failing: while the ambition to replace overly technical feedback with something more immersive is laudable, the animation isn’t currently impactful enough to sell the power of blows.
Out of combat, every character has access to stealth by crouching, which changes the crosshair into the traditional eye-like status indicator. Sneaking is an option for many quests, and a disguise system enables you to wear enemy uniforms over your armour. You move faster while disguised, but alert enemies are capable of breaking your cover if you get too close.
The Elder Scrolls Online’s instancing is subtle. Key characters change location, so it’s not uncommon to leave a dungeon to find the quest-dispensing NPC standing outside waiting to give you your reward, while hub towns are entirely optional. Convenience aside, there’s some impressive variability on display. The choices the player makes affect who will be present in their storyline and which characters will accompany them on missions. Although your progress from level 1 to 50 will be bound to your chosen faction, a subsequent new game plus option allows you to play through the other two sides’ quests with enhanced difficulty and rewards. It’s an elegant solution to endgame PvE.
MMOGs are necessarily the product of compromise between the needs of the individual and the needs of the many. In making a multiplayer Elder Scrolls game, Zenimax Online has chosen to compromise on dynamic town life, crime and physics, among other features. If that’s the sum of what the series means to you, then this is not the game you’re looking for. If you are willing to focus on other aspects of the Elder Scrolls formula, however – combat, questing and crafting in particular – then this is an MMOG with real promise, one that not only inherits mechanics from its source material, but also seeks to improve upon them.