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The Elder Scrolls Online is Elder Scrolls first, MMO second (preview)

Right inside the gates of Daggerfall, a dog named Gibblets came over to sniff my leg. The dialog prompt should have been warning enough. You don’t converse with a mangy stray in the middle of Tamriel and expect to simply walk away unscathed.

Sure enough, Gibblets led me to an out-of-the-way corpse … which quickly spiraled into battling acrobatic assassins, uncovering an entire spy network, and thwarting a plot to kill the local king. I swear, all I wanted was to try my hand at crafting something. Instead, I got sucked into the ever-distracting world of The Elder Scrolls. Again. Only this time, it’s a massively multiplayer game, and those warriors and mages dashing around the city are other players also madly trying to close side quests that just keep twisting and turning.

The Elder Scrolls Online (due to release this year on PC and Mac) looks and plays almost exactly like the last few offline Elder Scrolls games. The experience felt so 1-to-1, it’s tough to really single out any genuine MMO tropes from my 90-minute, hands-on session.

The Elder Scrolls Online

Maybe that’s because The Elder Scrolls already has so much in common with the typical MMO — large maps, lengthy mission-based structures, dungeons to raid, etc. Either way, my luxurious amount of time spent in Tamriel didn’t offer anything close to a deep dive, but it did say one thing loud and clear: This is an Elder Scrolls game first and anything else second.

Set 1,000 years before The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, ESO’s main plot revolves around the unsavory daedric prince Molag Bal, who’s stolen your soul and, just for good measure, hatches a plan to annihilate the entire world. My play session dropped me in well away from those events with a Level 6 Redguard human playing the new Dragonblade mage/fighter hybrid class. All the playable races Elder Scrolls fans know are here, broken into three factions, with returning Nightblade and Sorcerer classes joining the Dragonblade and Templars — a precursor to the vampire-hunting Dawnguard. Yep … vampires return, and ESO has day/night cycles for them and werewolves to plan around.

Not that you’ll stand around idle for long. Within seconds of spawning, displaced villagers begged me to clear their town of flying fire imps and tree-like Spriggans. And no, they didn’t tell me the whole story.

The Elder Scrolls Online

Combat with those nasties seemed a little loose — my sword sometimes whiffed the air when I felt it should have connected. It probably didn’t help that my demo defaulted to third-person view. First-person play was available (and will be for launch), but developer ZeniMax Online hasn’t added the hands to first-person yet. The interface itself feels oddly sparse for an MMO, with barely more than a reticule and a few customized hotkeys in evidence.

And despite those options, the most useful move I found was a simple bash that stunned enemies charging up their magic. Not only did that spare me the pain, but it turned my would-be attacker into a convenient piñata. Non-magical opponents, like Rogues who circled me in pairs and Bloodborn Assassins who flipped over my head to stab me in the back, put up a better fight.

Dying gives you the option to head home or stick around right where you fell, spawning first as a ghost before becoming mortal again. It’s a nice way to get you right back in the game without losing ground … with an option to run away from the fully healed enemies that just killed you while still in spirit form.

Now, it’s important to note that all my adventures in that 90-minute session happened either inside or within shouting distance of Daggerfall, which is stuck out on the end of Tamriel’s western-most peninsula, and I accidentally picked up another six or seven side-quests without even trying. It’s slightly terrifying to consider just how much content’s waiting for you once you start heading inland.

The Elder Scrolls Online

Unlike past Elder Scrolls, which limited their stories to one geographic location, Online expands to cover the entire continent of Tamriel — you head into Cyrodiil, the setting for Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, for player-vs.-player action. That scale is either encouraging or disheartening, depending on what your future leaving-the-house plans are and/or how many hours you put in to Skyrim. I topped out around 50. I know others who walked away after 200 with lots of unfinished business. Elder Scrolls Online feels like it could years to sift through.

Those could be some epic years, too. Molag Bal can’t invade Tamriel, but nothing says he can’t bring Tamriel to him. Like Skyrim’s random dragon attacks, ESO has regions where colossal anchors fall from the sky and hook into the ground for Molag Bal to drag Tamriel into his own plane of existence. It’ll be up to players to cut those chains … and anything guarding them.

I didn’t get the opportunity to party up with anyone outside of backstabbing a few imps for other players, I didn’t see much of its economy at work, and Zenimax won’t even give up the game’s business model quiet yet. But at nearly every point, Elder Scrolls Online nails its source material cold, and it’s not tough to see it pulling existing fans into an ongoing Elder Scrolls experience.

Whether it can draw in MMO players from outside that loyal fan base remains an open question.


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