Welcome to Player Attack!
The Player versus Player (PvP) system in The Elder Scrolls Online is just a clone of Guild Wars 2's WvW. At least that's what it appears on first glance, and doubtless that's what you'll hear a lot of in the weeks ahead.
It's not an entirely unfair comparison. Like Guild Wars 2 (read our 2012 WvW preview), The Elder Scrolls Online's big showpony PvP mode is a three-way fight on an enormous map divided along the main storyline's alliances. When you create a new character you're also choosing a side in the war. Bretons, Orcs and Redguards form the Daggerfall Covenant. High Elves, Wood Elves and the Khajiit (cat people) are the Aldmeri Dominion. And the Argonians (lizard people), Dark Elves and Nords are the Ebonheart Pact.
Choosing an allegiance at the start of the game, and with no explanation provided, is probably something most people won't give much thought to, presuming it won't have a lasting impact on their game. And if they never go into the PvP mode it may not matter. Yet, given the finality of the decision and the impossibility of knowing whether you're comfortable with your compatriots before you play, I'd be very surprised if there isn't a way to change the side you're allied with some time down the track.
As it stands the only way to play with the Ebonheart Pact is to roll an Argonian, Dark Elf or Nord from the start. Or preorder the game, which inexplicably removes all the race/alliance restrictions as one of the bonuses. (Not a preorder bonus I'm particularly comfortable with, I must say.)
After reaching level 10 you can join the war effort. All characters in Cyrodiil, the massive PvP battleground at the heart of the empire, are automatically boosted to level 50 in terms of health, magicka, stamina, gear and the power of their abilities. What they don't get is all the extra skill points to spend improving their character, nor the strongest gear compared to genuine high level characters. They're not just wall fodder for the other alliances to mow down with impunity, but an equally proficient level 10 and level 50 player won't really be a fair match, one on one.
You should rarely find yourself fighting one on one though as you'll want to be rolling along with other members of your alliance whenever possible. You can't capture even the easiest locations by yourself as the NPC guards will focus their attacks and destroy you in seconds. Bring some friends.
Capturing a mine or farm by itself doesn't help your team directly, rather it reduces the bonuses granted to the attached keep. Take away the farm and the NPC defenders have less health, capture the lumber mill and all the doors will be easier to knock down and grabbing the mine weakens the walls.
It looks like capturing keeps is going to be a big part of your alliance's activities. You need them to control the map, they offer fast travel between other keeps your side controls and, most importantly, controlling the six key keeps around the capital will grant the title of Emperor to an alliance's most valuable player.
Yes, you can be the Emperor of all Tamriel. Well, probably not you specifically. More realistically it's going to be people who live and breathe the PvP campaign, but it's an intriguing notion nonetheless.
Becoming Emperor grants a special skill tree to advance through and spend points in like any other. Even once you are inevitably deposed you retain access to this tree. It's not entirely clear but there may be a PvP-only buff for the Emperor as well. I am unsure and know only that as part of the Ebonheart Pact we assaulted a keep defended by the Emperor (an Empress, at the time, from the Aldmeri Dominion) and found it quite difficult to put them down, only winning due to our greater numbers.
Taking a keep or outpost starts with a reasonably large group setting up some siege engines in range of the walls or a battering ram at a door and pounding either into submission. If you've chosen your target well there won't be any players around to defend it, though some almost inevitably arrive during the siege. Knocking down a wall is a protracted affair after all.
Defenders will often set up their own siege gear on the walls and try to return fire, without getting immediately smashed into the ground. As your ballistae and catapults and trebuchets and battering rams must be deployed on level terrain and they take a few precious seconds to erect and then sight on a target, running out onto the battlements during bombardment can be very risky, though rewarding if you can pull it off. Leaving the keep to sneak behind the lines of a sieging army is a viable tactic, especially when coupled with some siege gear. Returning to a keep that was under siege after one of my many deaths I discovered the enemy had moved onto the outer walls of the keep I had been defending... abandoning the half ruined walls to the north from which they launched their initial result.
Well, that position was close enough to hit our walls and it served equally well to hit their newly relocated siege equipment. Three of their trebuchets fell to my ballista before they had any idea where the fiery bolts of doom were coming from.
Siege gear can be purchased from a quartermaster in most keeps, spending either the special PvP currency or your general gold supply. They have a durability rating which is reduced both by firing the weapon and, of course, taking damage. There's no predefined locations, you just need a flat space large enough to accomodate your chosen machine. When you're done knocking down a wall or door you can pack away your gear for later deployment elsewhere, which makes the prices seem much more reasonable. If you could only place it once you wouldn't see them in action anywhere near as much. As it is you can guarantee there'll be a line of siege machines hurling hunks of rock, flaming bolts or sickening bags of diseased meat at the enemy keeps and large battles feel much more epic as a result.
Once all the doors and/or walls are out of the way it's a simple matter of clearing the area around the flags at the center of the keep. Hold the position long enough and your alliance will gain control of that location, allowing you to repair whatever you broke on the way in, access any vendors or make use of the fast travel system.
If you're part of a guild you can claim captured keeps in their name. I was never quick enough to do this for the mighty Player Attack guild so I'm unsure what benefits this provides beyond bragging rights. An important benefit on its own, of course.
Given the occasionally irksome lag on the PvE side of the game my hopes were not high going into PvP, but it holds up surprisingly well. You're still at a disadvantage when trying to play from Australia, but I never felt like I lost my life due to lag, rather than just getting stomped by better players.
Overall the PvP battles in Cyrodiil are enjoyable and seem well thought out. There's a very clear goal for each side to work towards, yet still enough in the way of side quests and locations to explore to have it feel just like the rest of the world.
My only concern is that there seems to be no system in place to encourage an even playing field. The Ebonheart Pact was routinely smashed by the Daggerfall Covenant and the Aldmeri Dominion, with the Dominion's Emperor having reigned for nearly a week at the time of writing. The sides don't need to be perfectly matched but if one of the three is routinely muscled out of contention they may stop showing up.
It's not an insurmountable problem, but one that does need to be addressed before release.
Avid gamer, book reader and consumer of donuts.
Occasional writer of things.