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October 22, 2012
Elder Scrolls Online Preview and Studio Tour

By Jason Van Horn

Recently, Bethesda and ZeniMax invited MPOGD to a special preview event for their upcoming Elder Scrolls Online, which takes the up until now single-player RPG series and transfers it to the realm of MMOs. The game was only announced not that long ago and from that early coverage it seemed that most information was speculative and what the developers wanted the game to be and with maybe a little video footage on display too. I expected much the same and honestly I would have been happy with that as one of my fondest gaming journalism moments was watching video of Fallout 3 and seeing a nuclear explosion happen before a lot of people had even seen the game yet. So imagine my surprise then when we were told that they didn't want to just talk to us about the game, but rather have us play it and discover things for ourselves, and with a flourish the curtains were pulled open and there were computers running Elder Scrolls Online just waiting for us to get our hands on. People keep waiting for the next big MMO, and while many games have come and gone (or either found a little footing but not been a huge success) most have contributed nothing more than a minor innovation. Elder Scrolls Online borrows some of those innovations, while introducing some of their own and more importantly bringing the universe and gameplay of the Elder Scrolls series to the world of MMOs, and even in the game's current alpha state, I see a game I'm yearning to play more of than all the other MMOs right now on the market.

When approaching the task of bringing the hugely popular Elder Scrolls series to the realm of MMOs, the developers started by first laying out their philosophy, which was to create a "best in class" RPG, a great installment in the Elder Scrolls series, an engaging social experience, and finally deliver a premier service to the buying public. One of the early problems the developers faced was trying to create a game that both MMO players and Elder Scrolls fans would want to play and not segregate one community while focusing on the other. So the developers looked at what each community would like from a game and made a checklist in order to make sure that they were incorporated into the final product. By breaking it down they found that MMO players would want story immersion, exploration based content, remove rotation based combat so that the player wouldn't be playing the interface but rather the game, a variety of gameplay, a game where choices matter, a next gen social experience, meaningful PVP, and something new and fresh. Meanwhile, Elder Scrolls players would want the immersion of a living world, beautiful landscapes, continuity with established lore, familiar combat controls, a variety of ways to complete tasks, be able to play how you want, a game where choices matter, and being able to play an Elder Scrolls game with their friends. By pinpointing their philosophy, they realized that the four major elements they needed to focus on were world immersion, strategic and reactive combat, unique progression, and a modern social experience.

After getting a little insight into the working mind of the developers, it was off to the computers to actually start playing the game. I didn't want to spend too much time delving into the character creation system, but players begin by picking their race, which determines what faction they'll be fighting for. On one side there are the Breton, Redguard and Orcs, on another the High Elves, Wood Elves, and Khajiit, and then finally the Dark Elves, Nords, and Argonians. Players will also pick their class here, though only two were available for us: either the Dragonknight or Templar. Though those two were the only ones playable, the creation screen also showed Wardens, Sorcerers, and a class just currently being referred to as Temp Rogue. You'll then go on to give your character a first and last name, use a triangular slider/graph to determine their body type, pick a hair style, determine an age, any adornments they might be wearing, their eyes and eye color, eyebrows, etc. As I said, I didn't spend too much time fiddling with the character creation system, but even in this alpha stage there were a lot of options and ways to customize the look of your character.

Upon creating our character, we were thrust onto Bleakrock Isle, which is part of the Skyrim area. Players won't initially start here as we did, as the opening cinematic and starting area weren't available for showing, and instead we jumped ahead to where you'd find yourself just after this opening tutorial area. The level one area is mostly a tutorial, though it also kicks off the main story of the game. The gist of the story is that one of the Daedric princes known as Molag Bal has transported you to his realm and stolen your soul. Since you have no soul, you basically can resurrect yourselves (aka die and spawn) as many times as you like, as this is how death has been justified and worked into the story of the game.

As with most MMOs, there are NPC quest givers, though like in the single-player Elder Scrolls games these are used solely to guide you through the areas, work through the story of the game, and experience the main crux of the game. The quests you'll receive from these NPCs are far from the only ones you'll get in the game, as the others must be discovered through exploration. By exploring the world and looking at your minimap, you'll stumble upon other quest NPCs, who will offer you quests you can take if you so feel inclined. You'll do such things as find someone's missing friends who have been turned into skeevers, throw smelly egg bait at enemies to see if the local animals will attack them, or helping a local farmer find some of his missing guar. The quests are varied, fun, and also fully voiced, which is a touch that really pulls you into the world and makes you feel invested in the characters you come across.

For the main quest, I was given the task of helping the local villagers gather together in town and then leave, and while I could have only done a few and moved on, I chose to search every nook and cranny of the isle and save everyone I could (once again showing you that choices matter in the game). Another example happened once I arrived in Bal Foyen and was asked to choose whether to help defend a fort or head to the docks to pull my weight. The character who gave the 'fork' quest said that I'd be making a difference no matter where I went, but they certainly had a preference as choosing one quest over the other would help ensure that someone they cared about would come out unscathed by the battle ahead.

Speaking of battling, it should be familiar to anyone who has played the recent PC version of Skyrim, as it's practically the same (if you have, first shame on you, but maybe you'll have experienced a somewhat similar system in a game such as Guild Wars 2). Basically, what this means, is that instead of looking at a bunch of hot bars to know when a cooldown timer has finished, you'll instead be personally attacking using light attacks (left-clicks), heavy attacks (hold down a left-click), blocking an attack (holding down the right-mouse button), and using learned abilities by hitting one of the numbered hot bar keys (you won't have rows after rows, but rather one main bar with no fluff abilities that you'll rarely use). Combat is fluid, responsive, and really does an amazing job at making you feel like your character and as if every move you do matters and a false block or failure to block could mean death; being a proficient fighter will also net you bonus experience points for performing well in battle.

Though we didn't get to experience the content first-hand, we did get to watch one of the developers play a dungeon further into the game (Crypt of Hearts) in order to show-off some of the more advanced combat systems, namely how the mobs can work together and how players can cooperate too. As long as mobs are a part of the same society, they can interact and work together by producing dangerous combos. When a Foot Soldier and Fire Mage work together, for example, the Foot Soldier can lay down an oil slick in order to slow you down, while the Fire Mage can realize that there's now a spot of oil on the ground and then set fire to it in order to engulf the player in an AOE attack. Another example showed some ancient mechanical creatures working together, such as a mechanical spider placing up a shield in order to charge themselves up and make them more powerful, which other mobs in the area can also use in order to charge themselves up as well. The game features a number of ways in which mobs can work together, as they can fight together, heal each other, and buff each other. Enemy mobs aren't the only ones who can work together in such a way, as group players can also perform maneuvers such as this, like someone wielding a Lightning Staff placing an AOE down on the ground, which someone on the front lines can personally activate with a mere click of the X-button.

Elder Scrolls Online features five primary stats, which include Health (affects amount of damage one can take before dying), Magicka (amount of Magicka you have available to cast spells), Stamina (amount of Stamina one has available for physical abilities), Armor (decreases amount of damage you take from physical attacks), and Power (increase your damage and healing). As you level-up, you'll be given one point to either place in the Health, Magicka, or Stamina stats, much like you do in the recent Skyrim. You'll not only increase stats and improve them, but also unlock new passives and bonuses by placing 2, 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25 points into one stat or another. Take the Health attribute, for example, and you'd unlock the following:

  • Iron Hide (passive) - Brace blocks an additional 10% damage
  • Dragon Blood (passive) - increase healing received by 10%
  • Consuming Fangs (passive) - hitting target with a fully charged heavy attack heals you for 3 points
  • Scaled Armor (passive) - increases spell resistance by 80
  • Heart of a Dragon - after activating an ultimate ability, health regeneration is increased by 20% for 6 seconds
  • Deep Breath (passive) - gain 63 point damage shield for 6 seconds when your health is reduced to below 20%

Depending on the class you chose, you'll unlock new abilities as you level, which aren't permanent but rather always changing and adapting to how the player wants to develop their character. One move the Dragonknight receives is Slam, which when activated does 24 points of physical damage. After you've used the ability enough it will level up, and suddenly you'll see yourself using a Slam that now does 25 points of physical damage. Once an ability has reached level five, the ability will then split and it's up to the player how they wish to further develop the ability based on their play style. If we stick with Slam, once it reaches level five you can choose to upgrade it to either a Reverberating Slam or a Shattering Slam; each version will still give you a starting 26 points of physical damage and 50% bonus damage after blocking, but if you choose to go with the Reverberating Slam you'll also stun the enemy for 1.8 seconds and knock them back 800 cm, while the Shattering Slam will stun the enemy for 3 seconds and reduce their armor by 50% for 5 seconds. Both of the upgraded Slams have their advantages, so it's all a matter of personal choice by way of the player, which once again stresses you playing the game how you want and making your character your own.

Another way you'll shape your character's play style is by which weapon(s) you give them, as any character can wield any weapon or armor that they want (so if you want to be a tank using a bow or a magic user wearing heavy armor, you're perfectly able to if that's what you want). Whether the full list had been incorporated or yet I'm not quite sure, but so far players can use a Two-Hander, 1-Hand and Shield, Dual Wield, Bow, Fire Staff, Ice Staff, Lightning Staff, Heal Staff, or 1-Hand and Rune. Much like how the game handles abilities and how the single-player stresses becoming more proficient with weapons the longer you use them, the longer you use a single weapon the more powerful you'll get with it. While playing my Dragonknight, I chose to go the 1-Hand and Shield route, which features a leveling system such as this:

  1. Stalwart (passive) - reduce stamina cost of blocking 80
  2. Crippling Strike - deals 18 physical damage snare for 20% for 5 seconds and stacks up to three times
  3. Passive Aggressive (passive) - reduce stamina cost of blocking by 20%

There are a total of eight ranks by which you can increase your character's proficiency, and while any character can use any weapon, it seems that you'll want to focus on mastering only one or two at best.
For those wanting to test their prowess against other players, the game features a PVP system called The Alliance War, which will feature the three alliances vying for control of the Imperial Capital and the surrounding area. There will be keeps to lay siege to and walls you can destroy in order to let your people in, places to capture, and after the Imperial Capital has been claimed by one of the three factions, whichever player contributed the most to the winning effort will be crowned the game's Emperor until the next time the capital is overthrown (nothing is set in stone yet, but right now becoming the game's Emperor is more about a title and having status and maybe a special costume to wear).

While not fully implemented or still in the planning stages, a few other features of note include perks such as being a vampire, werewolf, or having special pets, being able to contribute to the Fighter's Guild (destroying anchors and killing daedra), the Mage Guild (finding tomes of knowledge and power), Thief's Guild and Dark Brotherhood (a potential criminal system could be implemented and have this play into one of these two guilds), crafting progression which will have brackets and allow for players to be able to partake in all of them but only be able to specialize in one, being able to do things like loot a city in order to find crafting components, and other such plans.

Another thing worth mentioning is the game's social aspects, which are sounding very promising and a definite evolution in the world of MMOs. For starters, instead of having shards or servers, there will only be one, and the system is currently being called a Megaserver. Basically, this means that every player will be on one server, there won't be any issues of servers being full or others being a ghost town, and you'll be able to be a part of multiple guilds (such as one for PVE, one for PVP, and one for role-playing). One of the most intriguing bits of info has the developers considering giving players a questionnaire to answer in order to put players with other like-minded people (or even age so you won't have to play with a bunch of children), intelligently putting players with their friends, and tracking things internally within the game such as knowing when you spent a lot of time grouped with certain people and then instantly putting you in the same instanced areas as those people since you might like to play with them again. Elder Scrolls Online also plans to have various social network features, such as Facebook, Google Plus and Twitter, so that people on your friend's list can instantly be added or you can get a guild together before the game is available and have it ready to go right at launch.

Though I got to spend a few quality hours with the game, it wasn't enough for me, as I wanted to play and didn't want to stop for lunch, bathroom breaks, or anything; I just wanted more. I don't know when the game will release, but I can only hope it's relatively soon, as I've seen what the next "true" great MMO is going to be, and for me it cannot come here soon enough.


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