Elder Scrolls Online review - hands on with PvE (beta)
We get our first real experience with the Elder Scrolls Online - find out how PvE quests play out here
The Elder Scrolls games have historically been epic adventures, filled with quests, locations to explore and characters to meet, but they have also been strictly solitary experiences. Bethesda is looking to change that with The Elder Scrolls Online, the first in the series to add other players to the mix. We got to put the game through its paces over the course of a week on the beta servers, in order to bring you some early first impressions.
Set a millennium before Skyrim and around 800 years before Oblivion, The Elder Scrolls Online takes in nearly all of Tamriel, not just one continent as with previous games in the series. You don't start off on the green plains of Cyrodiil or the cold mountains of Skyrim, however; you begin the game in Hell, or one of the realms of Oblivion to be exact. Daedric Prince Molag Bal has taken your soul as a sacrifice as he attempts to pull all of Tamriel into his realm. Luckily for you (and the rest of the world), your fellow captives have a plan to escape, and prevent Moalg Bal from achieving his goal. It's once you make your way out of Oblivion that the game begins proper, letting you loose on Tamriel to either complete the main story, or more likely explore and meet up with friends to take on quests as a group.
That Elder Scrolls feel
We instantly felt at home with TESO thanks to the familiar health, magic and stamina bars at the bottom of the screen, first person viewpoint and overly talkative NPCs. There are no hit markers, damage numbers or status icons to contend with, as Bethesda has tried to simplify the traditional MMO as much as possible to appeal to Oblivion and Skyrim players. This is an interesting approach, as with no way to toggle these numbers back on the developer may end up alienating existing MMO players with a lack of feedback. This would be particularly true during high level raids, but is less of an issue when questing in small groups during the early stages of the game.
The locations, characters and art style all feel familiar yet different
Crucially, TESO feels more like an RPG where your character plays a role in the story, rather than just being along from the ride as with other MMOs. There's a huge amount of exposition during the opening hours, which will likely set the tone for the rest of the game. You don't start by delivering post or killing boars, but by preventing a band of pirate wizards (yes, that is a thing) from summoning a typhoon, uncovering a Skooma dealing plot and sending a storm golem back to Oblivion. None of the quests we tried were simple fetch tasks, which is refreshing for any MMO, and felt in keeping with previous Elder Scrolls games.
Expect to encounter plenty of new Daedric enemies
Happily your choice of character race and alliance won't limit your choice of class, so you're free to play as either a Templar, Sorcerer, Nightblade or DragonKnight regardless of whether you join the Ebonheart Pact, Aldmeri Dominion or the Daggerfall covenant. All the familiar races are present, including the cat-like Khaljit, reptilian Argonians, Elves from across the realm and brutish Orcs. Bethesda has hired some fantastic voice talent to bring the main characters to life, with John Cleese, Michael Gambon, Kate Beckinsale, Malcolm McDowell, Lynda Carter, Bill Nighy, and Alfred Molina to name just a few, along with a huge number of other actors to voice smaller roles. Almost every NPC has something to say, which adds to the sense of immersion once you start exploring some of the larger towns and cities.
Still an MMO underneath
As much as TESO looks and feels like an Elder Scrolls game, it is still very much an MMO underneath the shiny exterior. Almost every skill is tied to an ability tech tree, including blacksmithing, cooking, woodwork, alchemy and enchanting. It's a slow grind to level up and is dependent on having the right materials, so don't expect to craft 1,000 iron daggers and reach the maximum skill level à la Skyrim.
The inventory screen is much improved over previous games in the series
In many ways this helps streamline the game in ways that were sorely lacking in Skyrim. The inventory system in particular is streamlined and easy to navigate, having been designed specifically for a mouse and keyboard input. It will be interesting to see if and how the interface changes for the Xbox One and PS4 versions. Colours indicate the rarity of your items, which lets you scan through your loot rather than hover over every single item to work out your best possible loadout.
Class, race, armour and weapons skills all level up independently, and can be upgraded with extra effects when they reach a certain level. Our beginner fireball spell became an area of effect firestorm once we'd sunk a few skill points into upgrading it. Using particular equipment or skills will increase their individual levels, which encourages players to seek out enemies on their route between quests. You use skill points to unlock new bonus attributes or abilities too, which are earned every time you level up or by finding in-game items.
Levelling up your character is almost entirely quest dependent, however. Whereas previous games would see every increased skill count towards your character level, we only ever earned a new rank when completing quests. We purposely ignored an early quest then returned to it much later, to discover it awarded us with a level up on completion. Finishing early quests in other MMOs would merely reward you with a pittance, so this is likely Bethesda's way of ensuring you follow the story.
We're going to need a bigger map
Even based on the small amount we've seen so far, The Elder Scrolls Online is huge compared to previous entries in the series, with 22 separate areas including the whole of Cyrodiil, which will form the main theatre of war for the PvP campaign. You'll be able to enter once you hit level 10, although we can't go in to details until next week.
Each location on the right is a new map, often larger than the one shown here
Is it fair to compare Tamriel to Azeroth at this early stage, particularly as Blizzard has expanded the World of Warcraft with multiple expansion packs over its near 10 year lifespan? Probably not, but it's great to see so many areas already in the game at launch. They are varied, too, with coastline, mountains, forests, deserts and jungles to explore.
Every location looks beautiful too, although if you're coming from a heavily modded PC version of Skyrim you may not be completely blown away. Even on the highest detail settings, the high fantasy locations look vibrant and colourful and the characters beautifully modeled, but textures aren't quite pin-sharp and many objects feel a little flat - at least in the beta areas we explored.
We spent a long time walking across each of the maps we had access to in the early game. There's currently many areas that feel empty, with few enemies or small non-quest related dungeons to explore, but other locations are packed with characters, small side quests and distractions such as fishing spots, which must be used to acquire ingredients for improving cooking and alchemy skills.
First person questing
The Elder Scrolls Online simply wouldn't be a true Elder Scrolls game without a first person view, so we were very happy to see Bethesda include it as the default view when starting a new game. As one of only a few MMOs that can be played from a first person perspective, there's no question TESO feels more immersive, making sure you feel each hit when in combat, but in many ways MMOs simply aren't suited to a first person view. Depending on your connection speed it can often feel like weapons are missing their targets, but at other times your skills and abilities appear to auto-aim towards enemies.
First person view lets you get up close and personal during battles
These player skills and magics are much more important than regular attacks, which struggled to do any real damage during our time with the game. Even when returning to previously visited areas after leveling up, we couldn't breeze through any of the level one enemies with a single hit. Bethesda is clearly playing the long game here, as it will take many hours of play before you are truly overpowered for the opening areas.
Of course you can play from a third person perspective if you prefer. This will most likely come in handy during hectic raids and boss encounters, where waves of smaller enemies can obscure your view of friendly players.
Cost of entry
You can play TESO like any other Elder Scrolls game, as other players don't really get in the way. It can be a little confusing when they wander into your currently active quest to complete it themselves, but quest-specific items and enemies are instanced, so you don't have to worry about other players stealing your kill or looking the objective before you get the chance.
This is just a small skirmish - we've been told to expect 1000 player PvP battles
When it launches in April, the game will cost £40 initially then £9 a month thereafter, making it one of the few MMOs outside of World of Warcraft to stick with the subscription model rather than move to freemium or free-to-play. If you're looking for a new RPG to play with friends this price isn't too extreme, but if you simply want to play more Elder Scrolls by yourself, the monthly fee starts to look expensive.
We'll have to wait and see whether an established franchise will be a big enough draw to players looking for more Elder Scrolls before the inevitable fifth main game arrives. There's still several months before the game arrives, so Bethesda has time to tweak player feedback from these beta tests - we'd like to see some more incidental content to reward players for exploring every corner of the map, and less of an emphasis on quest completion for levelling up. Otherwise we've enjoyed our time with TESO so far, and will hopefully be bringing you some PvP impressions next week.
The Elder Scrolls Online will be launching on PC and Mac on the 4th of April, with PS4 and Xbox One versions to follow in June