It's not the first time we've been invited to give The Elder Scrolls Online a try. This time in the character creation we're limited to playing as Khajiit, Wood Elf or High Elf, as it's the Aldmeri Dominion that's the focus of this latest demo. It's one of three factions and the last one to be shown off to the press. As for my character, I opt for a Wood Elf Sorcerer.
The objective of the Aldmeri Dominion in Tamriel is to make sure that younger races, such as the humans, aren't given rule over the land. The alliance was created as human followers of Molag Bal took power in Imperial City, and the goal is to defend Tamriel from the devastating effects of the power hungry younger races.
As a freshly hatched Aldmeri Dominion player I awake in a prison cell (where else?), and the ghost of an old man asks me for help. I need to locate another prisoner and together with my new companion we must find the old man who's trapped in Molag Bal's dimension, where souls are kept as slaves for all eternity.
After this prologue the game starts proper, much like you'd expect an MMO to begin. It's still with a good portion of Elder Scrolls mixed in for good measure. You can also switch between third person and first person perspectives, much like in other Elder Scrolls titles. This is sure to please fans of the series, especially since it works really well, and it's easy to get back into your Skyrim groove as weapons and aiming behave as they should.
As for the combat system itself, it's a fun mix of the classic MMO formula and The Elder Scrolls. You aim freely, as in other Elder Scrolls titles, but enemies are marked with a red outline, so there is a clear targeting system underneath. It also feels as if enemies lock on more to your character than what we're used to, as simple moves from side to side are rarely enough to avoid strikes or fireballs. Instead you need to make use of the dodge system, two presses in the same direction result in a roll that allows you to dodge an incoming attack. It works well enough, but will take some getting used to for veteran Elder Scrolls players.
I make my way to my fellow prisoner and we proceed through the gloomy dimension in search of the old man's cell. There are lots of opportunities to take in the visual delights the game has to offer along the way, but sadly some of the charm that radiated from previous entries is missing. It's hard to put your finger on what exactly it is that is different, but the visuals give off a sense of trying to imitate an Elder Scrolls game rather than actually looking like one. Much like when the lead animator in a famous animated show is replaced, and it never quite feels the same.
After a prolonged battle against hordes of different enemies and conversations with some of the somewhat deranged locals, we find our way to the old man's cell and after a short ritual we are able to liberate him. Right here we confronted with one of the game's many choices, and my decision will have consequences for my character for the duration of the game.
It is explained to me that these consequences will make my experience different from those of my friends. For instance, if I choose to save a group of soldiers, while my friend leaves them to fend for themselves, I will be able to see and talk to the survivors afterwards in the village, while my friend won't be able to. It's a nice touch, but it's one that I hope won't produce awkward situations with other players (such as when you're standing by the soldiers while your friend can't see them).
After having made my choice to let my fellow prisoner take the place of the old man in the cell, I perform a ritual with the man that opens a portal to the world of the living. We step through the portal and we end up in Elseweyr, home of the cat-like Khajiit people. Fitting given my allegiance. The old man shows himself one last time as a ghost and explains that he doesn't know where he's ending up, but that he's sure we'll meet again.
From this point on the game opens up and I'm free to explore the small island where I woke up. The first thing I notice are the surroundings, as the most recent games in the series haven't dealt with tropical environments. Lush nature, palm trees and green grass, inviting beaches and glimmering water. My footsteps leave marks in the wet sand and it feels a bit foreign to what we're used to in The Elder Scrolls.
I start talking to the locals and it doesn't take long until my quest log is full of things to do. I walk out into the wilderness guided by my trusted compass - a friend that appears as reliable as in Skyrim. It doesn't take long before I find myself engaged in combat, this time with some of the less than friendly local wildlife, and I suddenly realise that some of that special Elder Scrolls feeling is lost. Instead of exploring the world and running into random enemies and monsters from time to time, enemies are clearly grouped in small areas where they patrol the same few metres until you, as the player, trigger their attack. It makes it a little more difficult to immerse yourself in the world, and I find myself agreeing with some of what the skeptics feared when The Elder Scrolls Online was announced.
After having played the early Aldmeri Dominion experience for a couple of hours I was told we were moving on to The Banished Cells - a dungeon designed for level 15 characters. I'm joined by a PR representative and a game developer and I get to create a new character that's leveled up appropriately. We're given instructions on how to best gear up, and shortly thereafter we're off to the dungeon.
We start out nice and relaxed and, as a veteran MMO player, I quickly got into my stride. We've assumed three basic archetypes, the holy trinity if you will, of tank, healer and DPS - as a Sorcerer I belong to the last. Predictably the enemies are much more difficult than the ones previously encountered, but thanks to some coordinated teamplay where the Tank distracts the enemies and the Healer keeps him alive, and I'm left to deal damage and drain the health bars of the enemies.
We make our way through the entertaining instance and the environments are fairly impressive, with great shadows and gloomy lighting - a good interpretation of a damp and mark dungeon. It still lacks some of the previously mentioned Elder Scrolls finish, with more rounded shapes in the architecture, but in spite of this it's hard not to be amazed by the surroudings. Dark passages lit by torches, bones on the ground, and the atmosphere is actually that of an Elder Scrolls title where this kind of dungeon has always been a common sight. This feeling grows stronger as we enter a room that contains three buttons that clearly will set something in motion that we may not be able to handle yet. I'm asked if I'm ready and are given the honour of pushing down the first button. A large group of enemies spawns in the middle of the room and an intense battle follows where all of us come close to dying, but manage to turn things around at the last moment. It's very entertaining, especially as we find ourselves shouting to each other in panic, while we hammer away at the keyboard and our mouse buttons. As the battle is over and done with and we gathered ours thoughts, I can't help but smile as the question is asked a second time: are you ready?
I find myself spent after we've pushed the last two buttons and defeated the following waves of enemies. It's a nice break to carry on our trek through the dark dungeon and taking on somewhat less challenging enemies we come across along the way. But it doesn't take long until we reach a room where a large and menacing monster awaits us. Once again we find ourselves locked in an intense battle. It's a real challenge, but we're finally able to bring it to its knees and to my great disappointment I'm told that there is no more time left in the session.
Afterwards I reflect on the last half hour of gaming in The Banished Cells. It felt much more like Elder Scrolls, but when I think about it a bit more I feel the use of classic archetypes and how you go about fighting enemies is a bit predictable. There is nothing wrong with this formula, but I had expected something a little more innovative from Zenimax Online Studios. And while I enjoyed the session, it wasn't with the same level of precision as when I play Skyrim, and I suspect that is the level of enjoyment fans of the series expect.
I travel home carrying a mixed bag of emotions. As a longitme fan of the Elder Scrolls series I'm happy to see another branch added to the universe, but The Elder Scrolls Online simply doesn't come across as finished yet. There are plenty of the elements that we're used to seeing, such as looking through chests for gold, lockpicking, and there is a very advanced skill system, lots of NPCs to talk to, but on the other hand things like thieving and criminality have been completely left out. The explanation for this given by the developers is that implementing a justice system with this amount of players in the world is very challenging. The idea isn't completely rejected, however, and it could be added at a later date when the playerbase has settled in.
The Elder Scrolls Online is a solid fantasy MMO. Expectations are sky-high however and it's clear that there is some way to go before these expectations can be met. Everything from gameplay to visuals requires further polish, but I remain optimistic that the developers can deliver on their promises as the game launches next spring on Windows and Mac as well as PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.