I’ve always felt that MMORPGs are a genre built on compromise. When the scale of the world and the number of players inhabiting it are so large, developers inevitably have to take a few shortcuts. I’m not sure any MMO will ever be as polished or immersive as it’s single-player counterpart, but there are certainly times when the tradeoff is worth it.
That’s why, before going hands-on with The Elder Scrolls Online, all of my biggest concerns about the game basically boiled down to a single question: How well will it balance its MMO-ness with its Elder Scrolls-ness?
The answer, from what I played, seems to be something akin to an even split down the middle. I played as a stealth-oriented character from the first-person perspective, so the basics of combat were largely the same as what you’d see in Skyrim or Oblivion. I crouched down to sneak around my foes, performed a sneak attack from behind for massive damage, then whittled away at the rest of their health.
What didn’t feel like a typical Elder Scrolls game was how long it took to kill them. Rather than a few solidly placed whacks, it took quite a few swings to take each enemy down. There were a few battles where things got a bit tedious as a result, but for the most part, it was manageable. In general, combat felt a little more overtly game-y than you might expect from the franchise, with incredibly telegraphed attack animations and cartoony halos spinning around enemies’ heads when I’d stun them. Still, the core kernel of the combat is the same as it’s always been, making for something that’s much more skill-based and less of an outright grind than most MMOs I’ve dabbled in.
The other major departure is the new ability system. Rather than unlocking perks as you level up, you earn points to spend on abilities that you can then assign to the number keys. These work pretty much line any spell or ability you’ve ever seen in an MMO, drawing from your mana pool to inflict a bit of additional damage or special status effects. There is a Elder Scrolls twist, though. As in Skyrim, using an ability enough times will level it up, and also level up the broader category that skill fits into.
Beyond that, though, I have to say that my time with The Elder Scrolls Online felt surprisingly similar to the hundred-plus hours I poured into Skyrim. I explored the snowy wastes. I killed some mudcrabs who looked at me the wrong way. I did some errands for the people I ran into. I walked onto a man’s farm and murdered his pigs right in front of him while he begged me not to. Par for the course.
It certainly helps that a lot of the things that make The Elder Scrolls games so engaging have been kept intact, including fully voice-acted dialogue trees for every NPC. Even the robust character customization has made the transition smoothly. In fact, it’s better than ever. You can adjust styles and proportions of individual body parts and facial features, taking things to whatever extreme you feel like. That’s right, folks, I was finally able to accomplish my lifelong dream of exploring Skyrim as a morbidly obese Argonian, complete with a disgusting overhanging lizard gut. All the MMOs I’ve played suffer from identical looking characters that rely on loadouts to be distinguishable from one another, but The Elder Scrolls Online might be the game that finally puts that to rest.
In the end, I was amazed that the two hours I had with the game flew by as quickly as they did. It’s obviously hard to get a serious taste of what an MMO has to offer after only a few hours, but I like what I’ve seen so far. Call it a hunch, but I suspect the adventures of my lusty and morbidly obese Argonian maid are far from over.