PREVIEW: The Elder Scrolls Online [PC]

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It’s hard to accurately convey the depth of my love for the Elder Scrolls series. Like seemingly everyone else on the internets, my journey begins with Arena, the original game, though it was Daggerfall that really sank its hooks in me. The freedom to go anywhere and do anything was unparalleled at the time and indeed to this day.

Yet as the world has moved more and more towards connected, multiplayer affairs, the Elder Scrolls series has remained resolutely a singleplayer experience. Until now, of course, with The Elder Scrolls Online coming soon to PC and consoles.

My initial scepticism regarding this shift was not assuaged by my first few minutes inside the new MMO. As is tradition, you begin the game in jail. Exploring your cell reveals a goblet and a plate with some food beside it, usually prime material to begin your life of petty larceny.

Then the horror sets in. You can’t pilfer anything. It’s all nailed in place. And as you progress through the opening stages of the game everything remains disappointingly unpurloined.

Eventually you do get past the lack of plunderable items and begin finding the typical barrels, crates and urns to put your sticky fingers in and all is once more right with the world. There’s more than enough random odds and ends to pick up to keep even the most klepto Khajiit happy.

Standing in the way of your epic potion and gem collection are all the usual suspects. Skeletons, dreugh, daedra, atronachs, mudcrabs and many more are just itching for a fight.

During character creation you pick a class from the four available and this dictates your base skill trees. Each class has three distinct trees, but you’re not restricted to choosing just one to invest in, nor having to divide your attention between all three. In fact you don’t even have to spend any of the skill points you earn in your class tree at all! A Dragon Knight could instead invest in their preferred weapon and armour lines, gaining special abilities and passive bonuses in that fashion. Or perhaps eschew combat skills altogether and focus solely on crafting.

Skill points are earned via a combination of experience levels, quest completion and discovering special shards scattered throughout the world. They can then be used to unlock new skills, passive abilities and modify existing skills to do new things. Each skill you can use, like the Dragon Knight’s fiery breath ability, has its own little experience bar. As you breathe fire upon and defeat your foes it adds to your expertise with that skill and that of the whole tree it belongs to. Reaching specific levels in a tree will make new skills available to unlock, individual skills can be modified after reaching the fifth level of proficiency.

Gaining experience in a skill doesn’t make it immediately more powerful, but when you morph them into a new version, there are options to increase the range or duration of an effect or even add an entirely new effect to an existing skill. What once may have simply burned an opponent might now knock them down or daze them as well. This presents you with some tough choices early in the game where you need to decide whether to improve one skill or unlock a newer one.

And if your class, weapons, armour and crafting trees weren’t enough you can join certain guilds or societies that grant new trees to advance through, should you so choose.

It’s a heck of a lot of options, but with a lot of skill points available it seems the intention is for players to slowly unlock everything they want for a specific character, all with a bunch to spare.

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Combat is the more action-oriented style that has become popular in MMORPGs of late. Being in Australia made the learning process a little more challenging as there was lag to deal with on top of the game itself, but perseverance paid off and in short order I was parrying special attacks, dodging out of the area of effect of others and generally moving into more advantageous positions.

Each weapon has a basic attack, like a sword slash, arrow shot or magical beam of hurting. Most then have a heavier attack, executed by holding the mouse button down instead of tapping it. Right click blocks, regardless of your weapon choice and clicking both together will interrupt an enemy’s attack. Very handy as many enemies telegraph their more powerful moves, giving you time to stop them or get out of the way.

Special abilities need to be slotted on the action bar, which has five run of the mill slots and one “ultimate” slot. Your regular abilities draw from either your magicka or stamina pools and are things like your stock-standard fireballs, whirlwinds both melee and magic based, healing spells and so on. The ultimate ability is slowly charged by engaging in combat, to be unleashed at an opportune time. These tend to be much more powerful or longer lasting effects, making them great for turning the tide in a tight battle.

Central to the game is a plot by Daedric Prince Molag Bol to draw Tamriel into the daedric realm of Coldharbour. As you start the game in Coldharbour, you know firsthand how utterly miserable that would be, so naturally you’re tasked with foiling his plan. But once you progress far enough in the story to return to Tamriel you can pretty much tell the story quests to sod off and strike out on your own, if you like. Exploring the world rewards you with experience points, there’s plenty of unattended chests waiting to be rummaged through and you can find sidequests everywhere from cities to dank caves.

Or you could attack the problem tangentially by signing up to the Fighter’s Guild. That’ll give you access to the Fighter’s Guild skill tree and a questline that deals with some of the side effects of Molag Bol’s plot. Your skills advance as you kill daedra and you’re often rewarded with a nice piece of gear or a skill point for completing quests.

Will you get to the level cap as quickly as you would by following the main quest? I don’t know, but you’ll be having plenty of fun, which is rather the point, isn’t it?

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There’s a ton more to the game, including a persistent PvP battleground system, surprisingly complex crafting and a ridiculously large world to explore. You can still read dozens of books in the world, some of which will grant added proficiency in a skill, as is traditional in the Elder Scrolls series.

And when you’re done with your starting alliance’s storyline you can take your character through the storylines and adventuring regions of the other two factions, with the difficulty scaling up appropriately. To say that’s a rare thing in the MMO space would be understating the situation.

Despite spending around 20 hours in the game over the course of a long weekend, I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface. I could have quite happily continued playing, had my time not run out.

If you’re an Elder Scrolls fan, this has that same feeling of stepping into Tamriel for the first time – and all that entails. If you’re not a fan yet, you should go pick up Skyrim first, then imagine it with a lick of paint, some new systems and the ability to play with your friends: That’s The Elder Scrolls Online.

If you think Skyrim-with-friends is a silly idea… Well, I did too. And I’m quite pleased I was wrong.

The Elder Scrolls Online is due on PC in April, with PS4 and Xbox One versions to follow.

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