E3 2012 Preview: The Elder Scrolls Online

June 16, 2012

The announcement that the next game in the Elder Scrolls series was going to be an MMO led to some consternation among gamers. How could Bethesda possibly pull this off? Especially for a game series that has been built around incredibly deep, vast single-player experiences?

Well, with former Dark Age of Camelot producer Matt Firor on board, it’s fair to say that The Elder Scrolls Online is in pretty good hands.

Visually, the game is as good as you’d expect from an Elder Scrolls title. It looks a lot like Skyrim, with a lush, detailed world. though Bethesda have gone for a slightly more colourful look here. They’ve actually toned down the realism somewhat, allowing for a  cartoonish world that will help the game run on less well-specced hardware – the kind that would struggle with Skyrim. It’s still shaping up to be one of the best-looking MMOs out there.

Setting-wise, the game is set a thousand years prior to the events of Skyrim (which also sets it around 800 years prior the events of the three previous main ES games), during the Second Era. The game concerns the power struggle between three factions, the Aldmeri Dominion, the Ebonheart Pact and the Daggerfall Covenant, each trying to claim Tamriel after the fall of the Reman Dynasty. In this conflict, the Tharn family forges a pact with the necromancer Mannimarco to reanimate their dead soldiers and try to gain the upper hand. Mannimarco, however, is secretly working for the daedric print Molag Bal in an attempt to bring Tamriel into his realm. As part of this, Bol is stealing the souls of people, including the player characters, and getting it back involves saving the world.

For the first time since the very first Elder Scrolls game, Arena, the entire continent of Tamriel is open to explore. Bethesda are promising the largest map in the series, though that’s unlikely given how vast the maps for Arena and especially Daggerfall were, but it will certainly be much bigger than Morrowind, Oblivion or Skyrim.

Being an online game, it’s a no-brainer to bring the vast explorable dungeons from the main series into TESO as instanced, multiplayer dungeons. Instances will even have difficulty settings, providing incentive to return to them as you level and gear up. There will even be endgame raid instances for large groups. The sometimes complex puzzles that litter Tamriel’s dungeons will also make a return here.

Not only that, but there are also public dungeons, where every player can enter and be seen by every other player. In an interesting twist, however, helping others in these areas will give you full experience and loot rewards, solving perhaps one of the more annoying issues with this kind of dungeon.

In terms of character development, Bethesda are looking to move away from the MMO Holy Trinity of tank/DPS/healer. Everyone should be able to fulfil multiple roles within the group, meaning exclusion due to character type won’t be an issue.

The game will allow for the same kind of combat dynamics that we saw in Skyrim, with blocks and charged attacks. You’ll also be allowed to sneak, although there’ll be a stamina cost for doing this as well, which is unlike sneaking in previous titles. All the skills and classes available to players will also be available to enemies as well, allowing for some very devilish fights.

One aspect that will be preserved is the exploration and sidetracking aspect. As anyone who lost an entire evening to what appeared to be a short sidequest in Skyrim will know, its very easy to get sidetracked from the main storyline for hours at a time. The Elder Scrolls Online maintains this tradition by pointing out places of interest and quest locations as you near them. It can be worth doing these quests however, as they can affect things further down the road. For example, one quest involves helping restless souls defeat a powerful werewolf spirit. To do that, you have to travel back 2000 years. If you succeed, then you’ll meet one of the restless souls’ descendants later in the game.

Due to the online nature of the game, and the need to make sure players can progress regardless of what time it is in the game world, the complex Radiant AI system from Skyrim isn’t being used in TESO. While this helped the world feel more realistic, it’s simply too difficult to put into this game without compromising the experience for players.

Finally, the game will dedicate the entire province of Cyrodiil to PvP. In the story, this is the only province not directly controlled by any of the three factions. It will be possible to take over towns and villages for your particular faction. Bethesda say they’re aiming for over 200 players in a battle, though anyone who remembers the days of Tarren Mill-Southshore wars in World of Warcraft might be a little sceptical.

The Elder Scrolls Online is expected to launch in 2013 for PC and Mac.