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Elder Scrolls Online Hands-On: A Compromise, But A Good One


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Adam Harshberger

We go hands-on with Elder Scrolls Online to find out if it's more of a Skyrim MMO than it looks.


Published on Mar 25, 2013

If we’re going to talk about whether or not The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) manages to capture the essence of its namesake franchise, then we better start by agreeing on what exactly that essence is.

For sure, it’s not the combat. It’s not really the lore and universe, either.

Think about it for a while and the only sound conclusion is this: the thing that makes Skyrim and its ilk feel like themselves is the way they create a world, with living, moving parts, brilliantly detailed and brimming with activity.

Oh, the possibilties!

They create possibilities upon possibilities, from theft to random acts of murder to the way your quest choices change huge chunks of the experience.

What the Elder Scrolls Online is trying to do is translate that experience to the MMORPG – but that’s not easy.

MMORPGs demand certain things – you have share the entire world with millions of others players, for one thing. Most people would frown upon their character being able to be murdered at any time.

If everyone in an MMO could kill NPCs, there’d be no quest givers left. These central tenants of MMORPG design are directly opposed to the essence of the Elder Scrolls series.

But ZeniMax Online Studios doesn’t seem to care about that. They’re forging a unique combination of MMO and Elder Scrolls that balances between the two and knows when to let one side or the other win. 

You’ve got to share

The world is far more static than previous Elder Scrolls titles. You can’t steal stuff. You can’t kill NPCs. In the areas previewed at PAX East this year, there wasn’t an abundance of locked doors for you to mischievously pick or cupboards to rummage through.

These seem like small omissions, but they’re part of the madness that makes Elder Scrolls games special – and it’s hard to see them go.

There’s also a lot less loot being dropped. That makes sense, given the genre. Too many loot drops would flood the game’s economy, and MMORPGs tend to focus more on specific, extremely powerful pieces of gear instead of a steady flood of lesser items.

Not having to vendor things all the time is nice, and allows you to explore the world with minimal annoyance.

A world stuffed to the brim

The PAX East demo we played featured the starting area for one the game’s three factions: the tropical Stros M’kai. Walking around it, nearby quests revealed themselves on the mini-map once you were near them.

Expect to find strange characters sleeping in tents in the middle of the deserts, or an old crown left amongst ruins that bestows upon you a quest to give it to an interested party.

One quest began when you come across a blacksmith Orc in the shadow of a statue. His mother has forced him to be a warrior, but all he wants to do is make swords – not swing them - and he needs your help to slay a monster.

These quests, from the epic to the quirky, feel decidedly Elder Scrolls-ian. So does the size – it’s huge, and it’ll take you a while to get from place to place.

There were limited fast travel options in the PAX East demo, which seems to signal that ZeniMax wants you to walk around the world and discover the many adventures waiting out there for you, even if it gets a little tedious.

Decisions, decisions

The trademark conversation response choices are there, meaning you and your friend could have very different experiences. It appears as if most responses tend to change the way the world responds to you – you’ll hear people say different things, essentially. 

The PAX East demo featured several such choices, from handing over a just-retrieved jewel to a brigand or whether or not to cure a just-poisoned pirate captain.

The game seems to move away from true branching paths, which can help avoid awkward situations that segregate players. It’s not exactly the most Elder Scrolls thing to do, but it’s practically a necessity. 

Character customization happens with each new level, where you can dump points into one of the games three statistical categories – health, magic and stamina – and also pick new abilities from several different categories.

Compared to Skyrim’s labyrinthine skill tree, it’s a little rudimentary.

The world itself has Elder Scrolls written all over it. The aesthetic is right in-line with previous games, from the clockwork Dwarven creations to the towering, shimmering building and the massive statues that line city streets.

Graphically, the game is not quite as impressive as Skyrim, but that’s not to say it isn’t full of impressive vistas and scenes. The scale seems a little different: in relation to the buildings, your character feels smaller than Skyrim. It helps to make the world feel massive.

A whole new way to fight

There’s one thing that is undoubtedly different: the combat. It works similarly to action MMORPG titles such as TERA or Vindictus. You move with WASD, attack with right click and block with left click.

Hold left and click right while an enemy is charging up an attack and you’ll stun them. You have a limited number of abilities and spells to place on a hotbar, meaning you have to be wise about what you’re taking into the fray.

You can also double-tap a directional button to dodge out of the way. Many enemy attacks are well telegraphed, and a large part of the action involves you making split-second dodges or stuns. It’s tense, dramatic and satisfying.

Compared to the combat in previous franchise entries – which feels sort of like trying to hit a piñata with a wet fish – it’s a revelation. It’s slightly slower than you’d expect – each missed swing is a significant mistake – and the thrilling satisfaction of dodging an attack is addicting.

Launching an offensive into a pirate camp, as we did at PAX East, means you’re tasked with facing multiple enemies at once. In these situations, you have to stick to your interrupts and dodges or you’ll face a quick death. 

Where past Elder Scrolls titles’ combat often felt like a crapshoot, this one is very reliant on player skill. Tellingly, you get gold bonuses for expelling enemies without taking much damage.

The combat is a highlight of the game, and you may leave wishing they could graft the same system onto previous titles.

A compromise, but a good one

Does the Elder Scrolls Online capture the essence of its predecessors? Yes and no. Visually? Absolutely. Writing-wise? Definitely.

And the way you can explore a world that is chock-full of interesting people, items and situations is spot-on – even if the fact you have relatively limited interaction with it isn’t true to the series’ roots.

The combat is a massive departure – but in moving away from tradition, ZeniMax has breathed new life into the series, allowing the combat to be a dramatic and fun element, not a frustration.

The Elder Scrolls Online is a different take on the Elder Scrolls formula, and it doesn’t stick to it exactly – but the feeling is there. If you’re nervous that Tam’riel won’t feel right, don’t worry. You’ll be right at home, and much less frustrated when your sword is drawn, here.



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Bethesda Softworks
Zenimax Online Studios
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Summary: There's a lot of compromise with the Elder Scrolls Online, but a lot of what it does right works well too.
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