We know for a fact that we're not the only ones who wish that the Elder Scrolls games could be played in co-op. Creeping through dungeons in coordinated teams, closing down Oblivion gates in pairs, tag-teaming dragons and giants, storming bandit camps with flame and fury. With daydreaming like that in mind it's easy to see the attraction of an MMO set in the same universe that yielded up Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim, with groups of players partying up to cut their way through some of Tamriel's most notable landmarks.
The trimmings that frame the action in this MMORPG have Elder Scrolls stamped all over them, though it's more Skyrim than Oblivion when it comes to interface and presentation. The compass directing you around the world is similar to what we've seen before, although the menu system isn't as elegantly designed. Still, it looks like part of the series, even if it doesn't always feel that way, and for the most part there's enough familiarity to create a convincing facade.
There's nine different races to select from, and each of these falls into one of three factions. Beyond that there's a host of options, including choosing your character's class, gender and physical appearance. All of the races from the single-player series are correct and present, and there's plenty of customisation options available. You can choose between Khajiit and Argonian, and there's the usual spread of Orc, Elven and Human races. The races are banded together into groups of three, and these triumvirates make up the three factions; the Aldmeri Dominion (Altmer/High Elf, Bosmer/Wood Elf, and Khajiit), the Daggerfall Covenant (Bretons, Redguards, and Orsimer/Orcs), and the Ebonheart Pact (Nords, Dunmer/Dark Elf, and Argonians).
True to form each character's story begins in prison, and we're immediately greeted by one of TESO's key selling points; the cast. Michael Gambon provides the voice of The Prophet and starts the narrative ball rolling. All characters from all three factions start in the same cell, talking to The Prophet and then participating in the same jailbreak. Streams of convicts run through the darkened tunnels, grabbing weapons and striking down skeletal warriors as they go. We meet our first ally, who explains that we're dead, sacrificed to a Daedric prince called Molag Bal, who's goal is to bring the spirit world and the real world crashing together. So all characters run the same introductory stretch, meet John Cleese, battle skeletons and antronachs, and learn basic stealth and combat mechanics along the way, but after this initial chapter comes to a close the story diverges and we head off in different directions depending on which faction we choose.
Each of the three factions starts on an isolated island. It's a chance to get to grips with the controls and subtleties of MMO play. Some players will come to The Elder Scrolls Online from World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic, but others will come fresh to the action, drawn in by the lure of a familiar and enticing fantasy IP. Seasoned MMO players will quickly adapt to the systems in place, but for those more accustomed to the solo Elder Scrolls experience, there's much to learn.
The three islands are deceptive in their size. A glance at the map reveals a sizeable landmass, but navigating the terrain takes very little time. Stros M'Kai (the Daggerfall Covenant) has a middle-eastern feel, with dusty hills and sand scorpions lurking over the brow of every hill. The story involves piracy and theft, with the player sent to bring together the various characters needed to pull off the perfect heist. Khenarthi's Roost (the Aldmeri Dominion) is much greener, and home to the Khajiit. Here we're running through lush green environments, dealing with hurricanes and trying to make a name for ourselves while tensions simmer between the Aldmeri Dominion and the Maormer. In the third island, Bleakrock Isle (the Ebonheart Pact), we're transported to a place not dissimilar to one that many of have recently visited. The snowy hills and icy landscape of the island takes us back to Skyrim (well, an island just off it), even if the environment doesn't have that same epic feel.
The three opening areas each yield up a different story, along with side-quests and plenty of local wildlife to cut through. Moving across the space feels very MMO-like, with creatures and enemies waiting in stationary positions or on limited patrols. You can stealth in and out of engagements, and your enemies appalling awareness means it's usually pretty straight forward to edge around them and take them from the flank. In this respect TESO has more in common with its MMO brethren than it does with the Skyrim et al. It feels much less organic than the single player experience. Charging into battle with a companion does crank up the fun level, but it also destroys what little challenge there is (in these early stages at least). In our playthrough with a Breton mage we were waltzing through tunnels sending lightning bolts down onto the heads of our enemies while a summoned familiar was getting stuck in alongside our human companion in front of us, acting as a buffer to danger. There's the odd enemy guarding an objective that puts up sterner resistance, but most will fall without too much difficulty.
Magic is just one option; there's the opportunity to express yourself in different ways. On Bleakrock Isle we controlled an Argonian warrior, with an axe in each hand (like our first Skyrim playthrough, although that character was an axe-wielding Nord) we traipsed through the snow. While it lacked the epic splendor of its Bethesda-created stablemate it felt good to be crunching through frosty environments once again. By far our favourite of the three starting areas was Khenarthi's Roost, which had a more enigmatic opening and what felt like a greater variety of activities to get involved with. Walking through the Khajit town of Mistral was a nice touch, and scratching underneath the local politics between the different characters felt like we were almost getting to that sweet-spot that the main series hits so often, whereby the complex prejudices of the series' different races inform and guide the story, making it more than just another clickathon MMO experience.
When it came to control and movement, special moves and base stats are unlocked and improved as you level up, which is done by killing enemies and completing quests. Special attacks are mapped to the number keys, WASD controls movement, we steer with the mouse and click to attack, block and break incoming special attacks. Mechanics are designed to mimic the systems found in the main series, but despite the best attempts of the developers, it doesn't feel as tight or controlled as fighting in Skyrim. You can, inline with the series, shift perspective from first to third-person, but even this isn't enough to consistently mask the number crunching that's going on under the surface. Enemies that are out of range will hit you despite your best attempts at dodging and there's no heft to the swordplay, it still has the feel of systems working together, ostensibly in the background, but sometimes it's clear that it's not the fluid and organic experience that it could be. It's aiming at being a mixture of two different styles - the free-flowing combat of the single-player games and the staple tropes of the MMORPG genre - and while it works in the main, there's still something noticeably lacking.
What they have managed to do is capture the mood, and although some of the combat felt sticky and/or unresponsive, for the most part we had fun taking characters from the three different factions through their respective starting areas. There's still much to be done and plenty of polish to apply, but so far The Elder Scrolls Online is headed in the right direction. Zenimax Online has taken on the challenge of growing the renowned franchise, expanding the setting, the lore and the size of the playing area. While it certainly looks like they've achieved this, it remains to be seen whether bigger is better.
We'll be tucking into another round of the beta in the very near future, investigating the game's combat and systems more deeply. If you've a preference of which faction we play as for the next preview (which will also focus on PvP), drop it in the comments sections below and we'll see what we can do.