The Elder Scrolls Online preview: proving ground

Our first hands-on of The Elder Scrolls Online reveals a slightly more optimistic portrait than some skeptical early impressions, but the game's fate still rests on its business model.

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Fairly or not, The Elder Scrolls Online was almost immediately faced with a flurry of skepticism. The market has been unkind to massively multiplayer games lately, and so yet another one seemed destined for the chopping block or an icy sales reception. Our own first look was disappointed with the game as an also-ran vying for the World of Warcraft throne. Happily, hands-on time left me with a much better impression than those early fears, with only a few remaining reservations. My play session covered the earliest stages of the Daggerfall Covenant starting area, one of three available at the beginning of the game. Most significantly, playing the game felt less like an existing MMO with an Elder Scrolls skin, and more like an Elder Scrolls game that has added multiplayer features. I could (and did) play through several missions on my own, and they were indistinguishable from the quest types offered in a game like Skyrim. Fighting creatures, performing voluntary quests for extra experience, and upgrading my skills felt easy and familiar, especially once I switched to first-person perspective. The third-person perspective animations have gotten a significant upgrade, making less of a gulf between it and first-person but still appearing somewhat awkward. Midway through my play session, I voluntarily paired up with another player and we quested together. This didn't significantly alter our play styles, though we did find that sometimes quests would be roped off if we were at different stages of our progression. (ZeniMax Online later assured us that this bug was unintentional, and would be mended as it finds individual cases during development.) One curiosity regarding the difference between my own narrative and others came up when choice factored in. A character, dying of poison, was near an antidote. It was up to me to decide whether or not to treat her, and being an upstanding citizen, I did. But other people may not have chosen the same, dooming that character to death. The choices may have an effect in the world as far as I see it, but I have to wonder how ZeniMax will marry these divergent points when multiple people with different choice subsets are playing together. The main plot revolves around Molag Bal, one of the Daedric Princes, who steals the player's soul as part of his plan to bring the world into darkness. Since he is stuck in his own plane of Oblivion and can't enter the physical world, he uses Dark Anchors to drag chunks of the plane of reality into his own realm. The Dark Anchors will occasionally attempt to grab pieces of the world, tasking players with doing battle to break the anchor's grip. The opening hands-on area had simpler beginnings, as I woke on a pirate island attempting to get back to the mainland. The Daggerfall Covenant portion allowed me to recruit any or all of three NPCs before proceeding, each of whom made my early tasks easier in some way -- by providing items that I'd otherwise have to find myself, for example. Once recruited, ZeniMax representatives said, those characters stay loyal throughout the game and will continue to lend aid in missions. TESO appears to be aiming for reasonable goals at launch: only the Fighters and Mages Guilds will be present, with the possibility of Thieves or Assassins to come later. Fighters receive contracts to destroy Daedra and the aforementioned Dark Anchors, which then earns reputation to trade for new abilities. Mages, meanwhile, search for books to research Necromancy, of which Molag Bal is the patron demon. Housing won't be due at launch either, though the company did remark that mounts are being planned.

The Elder Scrolls Online

In higher levels, enemies will become stronger and start relying on "Synergy" attacks. For example, a soldier might throw down oil so his fellow fire mage can light it ablaze, or a Spriggan can grant extra power to nearby forest creatures like wolves and bears. Even more threatening are Factional Synergy attacks, when like-types combine for a more devastating strike. We were shown a group of necromancers in which one sacrificed himself, and the others participated in a ritual to turn his corpse into a powerful monster. Your best answer for this are Synergy attacks of your own, such as teaming up to turn a Nova spell into a Supernova. A feature that ZeniMax calls "pack AI" will have enemies prioritizing threats, which means you can't necessarily count on a tank to soak up all the damage. Higher levels also mean unique skills. Standard skill lines include the usual like Class, Weapon, or Racial, but others will be found within the world itself. One such world skill line, for Vampire, was left with a mere mention. Skills can also be upgraded once, morphing to more powerful variants. Crafting comes in five variations: weaponsmith, armorsmith, alchemy, enchanting, and provisionist. The game only grants a set amount of crafting points, so you'll have to choose between being passable at all the traits or specialize in one. ZeniMax promised that crafting creates some of the best items, making the skills valuable for trade and the in-game economy, and it relies largely on experimentation with different ingredient types. Primary and secondary ingredients define the item, while additives grant special qualities, and a racial "style" defines the look. The Daggerfall Covenant alliance is one of the three available, but one character can explore all three with a significant time investment. Upon reaching the max level of 50, you can swap to another alliance and play a harder version of that content, and then again for the third and final alliance, for better loot than would be found in those alliances under the standard difficulty.

The Elder Scrolls Online

Those alliances also define the PvP system. A brief gameplay demo showed a keep under siege by trebuchets and dozens of forces, as one side attempted to crack open the walls and the other fended them off with attacks and vats of hot oil. The battle takes place over multiple points, so if one area is particularly well-defended, the aggressors can move elsewhere to attack a weaker point. A larger layer of strategy can be adopted by attacking transit lines to break the flow of resources, or by letting two factions weaken each other before moving in for the kill as the third. What I saw was heartening. The Elder Scrolls Online appears to have a solid foundation and, judging strictly from the small snippet of my hands-on time, hits the right tone for the Elder Scrolls series. That puts all eyes on its business model, which ZeniMax Online was notably silent on during our presentation. The company promised details in the months ahead, so time will tell how it will monetize the game. Skepticism regarding The Elder Scrolls Online was mainly regarding its business model, at a time when subscription models are failing and free-to-play is taking over. While that important factor is still an open question, I left feeling much more confident in the strength of the game itself.
This Elder Scrolls Online preview was based on a pre-release PC demo of the game at an event where accommodations were provided by ZeniMax.
Editor-In-Chief
From The Chatty
  • reply
    March 19, 2013 7:30 AM

    Steve Watts posted a new article, The Elder Scrolls Online preview: proving ground.

    Our first hands-on of The Elder Scrolls Online reveals a slightly more optimistic portrait than some skeptical early impressions, but the game's fate still rests on its business model.

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      March 19, 2013 9:08 AM

      Is Daggerfall composed of nothing but spiders/monsters that look like spiders?

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        March 19, 2013 9:31 AM

        Actually, Daggerfall was mostly smaller creatures. Those screenshots look like they come from the later-game content that we were shown in video form.

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      March 19, 2013 9:31 AM

      Thanks for the write-up, it sounds like it could be promising. However, something pretty significant is missing from your comments, and I'm not sure if its intentional or not. Maybe you can clear this up for me. Did you actually have any fun with it? Did it seem immersive? I don't think that this game just started being developed yesterday, so I was kind of hoping for more than "well, it seems like a playable MMO that fits in with the Elder Scrolls line." If you actually mean that to be favorable, it's some pretty cold praise.

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        March 19, 2013 9:35 AM

        I tend to stray from giving specific value judgments in preview coverage, else it's just a review of an unfinished product. But that said, it felt a lot like Skyrim, and I gave Skyrim a very positive review on this very site! So yeah, I enjoyed myself, but without having personally entered the larger continent and being able to poke around there I hesitate to give much of a "good/bad" judgment.

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          March 19, 2013 10:01 AM

          Hesitance to judge games based on preview content is doing a disservice to your readers. With review embargoes and the push for preorders, consumers often don't have reviews to help judge whether something is worth buying. If games journalists want to have any sort of credibility they are going to have to start to show some balls and call a bad game a bad game every once in a while. Otherwise just call yourself what you are which is PR and marketing for games publishers.

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            March 19, 2013 10:38 AM

            Thanks for the feedback Rodney. I'm with you on having the courage to call out bad games, but skizl's question was more personal and subjective about whether I had fun. Personal enjoyment is more "review" territory, since so much of it is based on the evaluating the finished product as a whole.

            That said, obviously we can note reservations, like the third-person perspective still having some awkward animations or the business model being kept under wraps. Hopefully that clears up the distinction.

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              March 19, 2013 11:19 AM

              I was responding more to the sentiment in your post more than the article itself. I think this preview seems pretty objective, but it becomes hard to tell when so many previews of games bend over backwards to minimize flaws and focus on the good. That can be fair sometimes when a product is unfinished, but by being fair to the developer are you being unfair to the reader? This is a question I think writers should ask themselves more in this industry.

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                March 19, 2013 1:59 PM

                I think part of the problem with previews is that the experience is so often routine and sterilized. Every "journalist" ends up seeing the same demonstration of the same features and reading one preview is just like reading the next.

                So, I'd definitely like to see more opinions about what works and what doesn't and yes, did you actually enjoy what you got to play of it.

                I remember pre-Fallout 3, a friend of mine got to go play it at Bethesda because he knew a guy who worked there, and I couldn't help but laugh when he came back telling me exactly the same shit I had read in several preview articles already.

                The entire preview process just seems far too geared towards being an early hype generator than is comfortable, IMO. And the more game journalists just go with it and don't point out serious issues they see, in favor of trying to remain in publisher's good graces, the more it makes me wary of the entire gaming journalism industry.

                So yes, if it was wonky and weird and didn't seem like a real game that's likely to turn into something fun, I do think it is entirely appropriate, even at an unfinished preview state, to let your readers know.

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                  March 19, 2013 5:20 PM

                  The state of previews wouldn't be so distressing if it weren't for review embargoes that keep reviews locked down until after a game is released, combined with preorder incentives. Publishers really don't want you to know how good or bad a game is until after you've given them 60-110 dollars.

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            March 19, 2013 10:48 AM

            The real problem are glowing previews, not ones where someone's hesitant to judge. You're beating up the wrong target, rodneystubbs.

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            March 19, 2013 9:49 PM

            People are dumb for pre-ordering games in the first place. If you don't want to get burned, don't pre-order. The last game I pre-ordered was Master of Orion 3, ten years ago.

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              March 20, 2013 5:52 PM

              Which is totally understandable why that was your last pre-order in 10 years, lol.

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      March 19, 2013 9:50 AM

      Fallout MMO next? Anything that doesn't involve swords and sorcery next?

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      March 19, 2013 10:10 AM

      In all of the articles you refer to the company as "Bethesda". Bethesda made the other TES games but it is not making this game. Zenimax Online is making this game.

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      March 19, 2013 11:23 AM

      Everyone, imagine being 14 and reading this tagline in the latest issue of EGM. What the fuck have we become

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        March 19, 2013 11:36 AM

        Seriously, I'm excited. Massively-multiplayer Skyrim with PvP being designed by Matt Firor from DAOC? I'm on board.

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          March 19, 2013 11:51 AM

          SCENE: Schoolyard, early recess

          JIMMY: Dude what business model do you think they will go for?
          BILLY: I'm dying to find out too! The Business Model that is!

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            March 19, 2013 5:56 PM

            SAMMY: Does it matter what their business model is? They're just going to cater the game to toddlers that still wear diapers.

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          March 19, 2013 11:29 PM

          As an old DAoC player, I'm actually more excited about his http://citystateentertainment.com/

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        March 19, 2013 11:54 AM

        I guess if I was 14 and stupid I would get excited about this sort of thing

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      March 19, 2013 11:57 AM

      RPS's preview.

      http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2013/03/19/experiment-playing-teso-like-an-elder-scrolls-game/#more-146289

      the plot felt more like a rejected Pirates of the Caribbean script than Elder Scrolls
      I felt like I was playing A Fantasy MMO with Elder Scrolls elements
      I felt like I was methodically working my way through a theme park – not paving my own path through a sandbox

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      March 19, 2013 1:45 PM

      For people interested, a guy on the TESO team did an ama on /v/ yesterday. Posted proof and everything. http://archive.foolz.us/v/search/username/Zenimax/tripcode/%21%210hkHW1XopaL/

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      March 19, 2013 5:02 PM

      wont be a good mmo and wont be a good elderscroll but willing to ditch some money for my "explorer" craving that only elderscroll games seem to fulfill

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      March 20, 2013 5:41 AM

      Sounds pretty good.. if it's F2P I'm in ^^

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