You know that giddy feeling you get when you load up a new game in one of your favourite series? Or when you see the trailer of the next season of your favourite show? That feeling, that tittering, inane kind of joy, is what I was wracked with in the tender first few hours I spent with The Elder Scrolls Online.
It’s natural, in the gaming industry as it stands at the moment, to let cynicism wash away that excitement. We’ve all gotten so used to disappointment that we go so far as to berate people for daring to be optimistic.
It starts, as so many of the TES games do, with you in prison. Except with the caveat of being dead and apparently haunted by the ghost of Michael Gambon. Under Dumbledore’s careful guidance you escape back to Tamriel in the middle of a three-way war that takes place roughly 1000 years before the events of Skyrim. As far as I could tell after creating a few different characters the game drops you in a random starting area relevant to your faction – I created two Nords, the first was dropped into a city in Morrowind, and the second on an isolated island in Skyrim.
Returning to Skyrim feels like home for anyone who has spent a significant amount of time submerged in its vast expanse of blood and snow. Initially, the game feels like your typical Elder Scrolls title. But when you break out into the world and see that it’s genuinely populated, not just filled with wandering NPCs, it becomes an entirely new beast. Yes, this is Tamriel, as we’ve all explored alone time and time again. But now we’re all doing it together.
I created Edrik, a tall, lean Nord who looks a bit like he belongs in some weird goth/folk metal band, and struck out into Tamriel. I’m lucky enough to have a PC that plays the game on maximum settings, and it looks gorgeous. The starting area, a prison of souls controlled by Daedric Prince Molag Bal, is a pretty bleak place, but it’s alive with detail and rich lighting effects. As you take your first tentative steps, light from nearby fire flickers and dances across the shadows, which in itself lends an incredible sense of atmosphere.
And atmosphere is where TES is already shaping up to blow its competitors out of the water. Admittedly, there are very few MMOs that already have a bestselling game series behind it to set the tone and develop the lore as extensively as the Elder Scrolls has, but you don’t for one second feel like you’re just going through the motions and grinding your character up. You are following a story, one set in a living, breathing world. It’s impossible not to shudder with anticipation when you’re creating your character for the first time and the first few notes of the unmistakable series theme begins to play.
I had a bit of time to play around with three of the four available classes which at time of writing have a really nice balance and progression structure. Just four classes, I hear you say? Ridiculous! Not at all. Leveling works pretty much exactly how it does in Bethesda’s flagship series. The full range of races were available, aside from the Imperials, and naturally they each have their own special perks that make them suited for particular tasks and armour proficiencies. You learn by doing – using skills levels them up, and it all contributes to your overall level. Along with class skills you can learn weapon skills, and naturally, professions, although I was too absorbed in the world itself to take a closer look at how they worked.
PvP in Tamriel is brutal. This isn’t the click-and-wait combat of your daddy’s MMO, it’s real time skill based combat that bears a striking (yet refined) resemblance to Tera. You’re going to have to dodge and block and interrupt special attacks based on your own reflexes. It all feels balanced so far, though – a sorcerer has the natural advantage over a heavy-armoured Dragon Knight at range, but chances are once the distance is closed that mage’s friends are going to be picking bits of him out of their beards for weeks. One of my favourite moments involved chasing down a Bosmer archer who had been hounding me for the entire game, always just out of reach of Fiery Grip (the Dragon Knight talent ripped straight from Mortal Kombat’s Scorpion). He was running and occasionally pelting me with poison arrows, but the moment I started getting close he’d tear off into the distance. If this was a lesser MMO this would just be infuriating. But these kinds of encounters in The Elder Scrolls Online it’s exhilarating. Gear and level obviously play their part but at its heart this is a game about skill, perseverance and the kind of sheer dumb luck you just don’t get with casting bars.
It makes the losses hit hard. When you die because you didn’t block at the right time or you just so happened to dodge straight into a volley of arrows, you curse your own inadequacies and your stupid fat fingers. But it also makes the payoff all the sweeter. The archer that had become an almost personal vendetta in my eyes ran out of stamina and his defense strategy failed him. I sprinted full pelt towards him and dragged him kicking and screaming into melee range with Fiery Grip, almost yelling “GET OVER HERE!” in the process. Right into my twin axes and a flurry of flaming strikes that decimated him. It was a tiny victory, really. One kill in a much bigger game. But I felt more a part of my character than I ever had before in an MMO. We hadn’t won on the basis of damage rotations or invisible dice rolls. We’d won because of skill and dogged brutality. Because we blocked when we needed to, and struck hard the moment we had the opportunity.
Naturally, about five seconds later after this epic grudge match I got completely decimated by a smarmy mage and the entire experience was put into perspective. But it carries through. Victories have real weight in this game. The sense of achievement and exploration is unmatched. Even in this relatively early stage, The Elder Scrolls Online is coming in spells blazing. Every now and then an MMO swings around that people start talking about like the second coming. Inevitable phrases like “WoW-Killer” start getting thrown around. From what I saw this beta weekend, we shouldn’t even consider it in the same league as the Starbucks of online RPGs. TES is in a class all of its own, and it’s going to be incredible to watch Tamriel come to life like never before next month.