By Madeline Ricchiuto
Elder Scrolls Online officially launches on April 4th this year for computers and in June for consoles. This past weekend, I was part of the beta stress-test for the North American server and unlike previous beta tests, I'm finally able to talk about my experience playing ESO so far.
My first attempt at playing the game left me stuck under a dock due to a visuals glitch. I could not get my character unstuck from beneath this dock that suddenly formed around me, no matter how hard I tried to exploit the game physics. So when this past weekend rolled around, I thought I'd try and get my character out from that dock. It didn't happen. So I started over, and proceeded to almost get stuck under floors and stairs. I'd been expecting it, because the beta session was all about stress testing, and part of me was endlessly amused. The rest, well, my keyboard suffered some serious abuse this weekend. All things considered, the game was pretty solid. There were quest related glitches along with physics glitches, but over all the game worked pretty darn well, and there are still a few months left for the developers to work out all the kinks. Or most of them anyway. Some things will always come down to your internet connection and visual settings, which can be set anywhere from "minimal" to "ultra high" or custom.
In terms of the basics, Elder Scrolls Online is your typical MMORPG. You can form groups with other players, there's a chat window on the bottom left corner, and even PVP competitions. But the heart of ESO is rooted in the lore of the Elder Scrolls series of games. You are immediately immersed into a world with a vast history and varied cultures, where you take control of a character who will be responsible for massive changes. You aren't expected to know everything about the Elder Scrolls world of Tamriel, as ESO takes place much further back in the timeline than any of the previous games. You'll find no references to the Hero of Kvatch or the Nerevarine. There are mentions of the Dragonborn, but only those who are also Kings. IGN has a nice, neat timeline of when all of the Elder Scrolls games take place, in case you'd like a visual reference for the fact that ESO takes place 948 years before the events of Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
This deliberate choice to place the game in the Second Era (specifically 2E 583), where very little of the history is mentioned in previous games, is a fantastic decision for a game that will likely draw in a number of gamers new to the franchise. You get walked through quite a lot of the information that you need, slowly. Sure it helps some to know the basic lore of each province, but that information isn't necessary to the central plot, and there is always a dialogue option for explaining. It also allows for the players of the MMO to determine which faction takes over the rule of the Empire.
Your character is dropped into Tamriel, in the mid-Second Era, after an arcane explosion in the Imperial City of Cyrodiil set off a mystical aftershock that swept across the world of Nirn. This explosion left many mages mad or dead, and the Imperial City in the hands of Molag Bal cultists, who sought to destroy the border between the plane of Oblivion and Nirn. With no Emperor on the Ruby Throne, the provinces united into three separate factions, each seeking to reclaim the throne.
As is the custom with Elder Scrolls games, you start as a prisoner. Rather than just being a regular old criminal, this time you start off as a dead husk in Coldharbour, the realm of Oblivion home to Molag Bal, Daedric Prince of domination and enslavement of mortals. Once your character makes it out of Coldharbour, you get sorted into a sort of "intro" town with low-level quests to keep you from getting in over your head early on. This is where things get interesting, however. Depending on which of the nine playable races (Imperials aren't an option on ESO unless you buy the Imperial Edition of the game) you choose, you are automatically sorted into one of the three warring factions.
- Argonians, Dark Elves, and Nords are part of the Ebonheart Pact.
- Bretons, Redguards, and Orcs belong to the Daggerfall Covenant.
- High Elves, Wood Elves, and Kahjiit form the Aldmeri Dominion.
Your introductory town will be in one of the provinces linked to your particular faction. Each province has its own culture and architecture and political system, some of which will be new even to long-time players. The game is just as visually stunning as previous installments would lead you to believe.
Other than your political faction, there are five guilds you may join: the Mages Guild, the Fighters Guild, the Thieves Guild, the Undaunted, and the Dark Brotherhood. All of which are politically neutral and therefore joinable by any player regardless of their chosen faction. The Undaunted, being the newest guild in the Elder Scrolls franchise, actually ends up fulfilling the role the Fighter's Guild previously held by being the place to go for dungeon diving quests. The Fighter's Guild of ESO is dedicated to getting rid of Daedra and helping stop Molag Bal's attempt to take over the world and enslave all humans.
In terms of gameplay, ESO's quest log and directional tools are very much similar to those used in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, while the map and inventory are very similar to those in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. They remain rather intuitive even for new players, which is a definite plus. Much like in Skyrim, you can craft your own armor, weapons, food, and potions. My advice, when you start, learn how to craft armor, since it is very pricey and you don't make much gold easily.
The Dwemer and Nord ruins should be very familiar to Skyrim players, while many of the early Ebonheart Pact quests take their cues from Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and its lore.
The most notable changes in gameplay are those done to the class and skill options. Rather than being able to create your own class, choose from a list of over 30 options, or even specialize as you go ESO give you four options: Dragon Knight, Sorcerer, Nightblade, Templar.
- Dragon Knights are a warrior class that uses battle-magic, so they make great tanks although you can use a Dragon Knight as a ranged damage-dealer or assassin if you wish.
- Templars are your team healers, but they also use a variety of sun-based magic and weapons skills.
- Sorcerers can use whatever weapon they wish, but staves are the better option for this class, as a sorcerer you can use magic for conjuring creatures, manipulating the weather, or destruction/dark magic.
- Nightblades are the stealth class, with a focus on assassination, cloaking, and blood magic.
Each of these classes has three separate skill lines, and each skill can be "morphed" to further specialize your particular game style. So, while your options at the start are much more limited, with time you can refine and alter your class to suit your needs. Whenever you level up or collect three "sky shards" you get a skill point to invest in your character. You can have four toggled at once for quick access in a fight.
As always, the load screens take a while, but this time around you get to look at some stunning art for the area you're about to enter. The dialogue screens are useful, but also glitchy. I've gotten stuck unable to exit a dialogue screen quite a few times. Nothing logging out and logging back in won't fix, though I hope it isn't as much of a problem by launch.
The PVP campaigns in ESO are either something akin to a capture the flag game, or a race to see who completes an objective first. Honestly, the mechanics of how they put it all together when the game itself is hosted on megaservers is more fascinating than the actual act of playing them. For me anyway. There's only so much of "capture the keep" I can take before I start getting FPS flashbacks.
Essentially all you need to know is that Elder Scrolls Online is strange and familiar all at once, and infinitely wonderful.
Full disclosure: I have pre-ordered a copy of the game already, have been looking forward to its launch for over a year now, and would probably buy anything with the Elder Scrolls name on it. I'm replaying Morrowind because ESO got me incredibly nostalgic for that glitchy mess of an RPG. So feel free to take my words as those of a devoted fangirl and do with that what you will.