The Elder Scrolls franchise defines what we've come to expect from an open-world, single-player RPG. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was notable for its gigantic land mass and advanced 3D graphics, introducing pixel-shaded water and accelerated tessellation. In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, all communication was spoken, the storyline was refined, and the graphics were vastly improved. Of course, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim pleased us with the best-polished experience from the series.
Although The Elder Scrolls games historically targeted single-player gameplay, it was inevitable that the intellectual property would find its way into a multi-player title sooner or later. Previously, modders came up with their own workarounds to let friends join them in the world of Tamriel. But now the game's development team has a massively multiplayer version ready to go. Dubbed The Elder Scrolls Online, it goes live today, April 4. I was able to spend some time with the game back in March, though.
The Elder Scrolls Online takes place some 800 years before the events of Morrowind and Oblivion. It is a time of conflict, as three factions (the Ebonheart Pact, the Daggerfall Covenant, and the Aldmeri Dominion) compete to rule Tamriel. Of course, that gives players a good excuse to beat each other up in PvP battles.
Because this is an Elder Scrolls game, though, there's still an expectation of quality single-player progression. In my short time with it, the game appeared to tick all of the Elder Scrolls check-boxes. Quests were introduced in a way that fit the franchise, even if they were still rough around the edges. Actually, it felt a bit like Skyrim, if the developers were only given half as much time to ship. There was that lack of polish compared to the Elder Scrolls games I'm used to. But again, the finished product is only launching today.
My son described his impression of the game as Elder Scrolls Lite, and I don't particularly disagree. Some of this comes from the transition to a multi-player world, no doubt. Many areas are large and empty, presumably to accommodate throngs of online players. NPC homes look more like hotel lobbies than intimate living spaces. And that makes perfect sense in an MMO; there's just an aspect of The Elder Scrolls lost in translation.
Shared quest instances don't help. For example, I was tasked to perform a stealthy prison break. Once inside, though, I was one of 30 or so testers with the same quest, brutally swarming slowly-spawning enemies. It wasn't a covert mission; rather, we were part of a brute force uprising, breaking any momentum the narrative had. That's not to say I don't enjoy cooperating with strangers for a common goal. There were plenty of times I received unsolicited help, or had the opportunity to save another adventurer from certain death. The most jarring detractor, then, is also the game's most notable asset. It does feel like The Elder Scrolls, so the elements that don't fit my single-player expectation of the series are awkward.
The interface is familiar for the most part. You can sneak and see the classic sleepy-eye reticule. Character customization is incredibly robust for an MMO. Conversations transpire as you'd expect. Right-click to block; left-click to strike. Kill a giant wasp and loot a carapace from the corpse. Usually, when you try out a MMORPG, you start out cautiously as you get used to a new way of doing things. Not so with The Elder Scrolls Online, which is so familiar to so many gamers that you'll want to charge ahead. When something happens you're not used to, though, you may find yourself getting irritated, rather than allowing yourself to simply learn the game.
Personally, my favorite part of the game is that sense of discovery, which comes from exploring the countryside. Wandering around Tamriel is all about braving an ancient keep occupied by wraiths, stumbling into a secret door leading to an underground cave, or finding hidden treasure in a grove. In most MMOs, the landscape is merely there to travel as you run from one instance to the next. However, The Elder Scrolls games are distinctive for their details in between adventures.
Speaking of exploration, the changing terrain reminds you that this is not Oblivion or Skyrim, games sporting a fairly consistent look throughout the land. I spent my time in the game looking at Middle Eastern-looking deserts, European-styled seaside cities, and sparse, craggy islands. The diversity is nice, encouraging me to explore even more.
Then again, Skyrim and Oblivion rubber-banded to your skill level. The Elder Scrolls Online does not. So, don't explore a land that's out of your league. I never appreciated Oblivion's behind-the-scenes scaling as much as I do now. It allowed me to experience every corner of Tamriel whenever I wanted to.
I didn't get to spend as much time in the beta as I wanted, but those were my impressions. The game was a little disjointed at first, but improved as I went along. Hopefully, additional polish was added prior to today's official launch.
Regardless, the main purpose of going hands-on with The Elder Scrolls Online was to measure performance on the PC. Ready to have a look at this title's graphics quality and settings?