Gamescom 2013: The Elder Scrolls Online Hands-On Preview – Over the Hills and Far Away
Written Wednesday, August 28, 2013 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
We've often wondered what The Elder Scrolls universe would be like were it to be transported to the realm of the MMO. What it would be like if you could band together with other members of the community to engage in quests, share stories, fight together, venture into caves, castles and other far-flung lands, together. Now we don't have to wonder any longer. The Elder Scrolls Online is a thing, and we've played it for a solid two hours. A drop in the ocean for a game that promises countless hours of gameplay, if you can afford it.
When we played The Elder Scrolls Online for the first time, we were blissfully unaware of how much a monthly subscription would set you back. We'll address this later, but setting that issue aside for now, The Elder Scrolls Online is every bit an Elder Scrolls game, with all of the races you've come to associate with the series, the locations you've probably visited on numerous occasions and the combat mechanics that have become the Elder Scrolls signature.
Starting off at the character creation screen, the usual slew of customisation options are laid out in front of you, with the Altmer, Bosmer, Orcs, Khajiit, Breton, Redguard, Nords, Argonian and Dunmer races all available to choose from, as well as the ability to tweak physical attributes and what not. We opt for a female Dragonknight Dunmer (or Dark Elf), who's a dab hand with a sword and shield, but you can also choose to be a Templar, Sorcerer or Nightblade, if you prefer, each of which have their own set of expertise and abilities. Each race also falls under a particular alliance, meaning who you choose to play as will determine whether you're a part of the Aldmeri Dominion, Daggerfall Covenant or Ebonheart Pact, and how you'll interact with other races and factions.
Your ultimate goal is to save Tamriel from the nefarious machinations of the evil Daedric Prince Molag Bal, but for our demo, we're simply tasked with rounding up villagers on Bleakrock Isle in Skyrim, before evacuating to Morrowind. It's a journey that takes us from Captain Rana's encampment to investigate a possible scheme for invasion, across the isle to caves and tombs on a search for clues and missing people. From finding the injured Darj the Hunter, we progress to Skyshroud Barrow, where we need to locate and place runes to summon a dragon priest named Haldriin and gain entry to the tomb. Sanctify Haldriin's defiled body and Darj will leave with you to Morrowind.
One of fifteen people rescued, we destroy a magic staff making a woman believe she's a squirrel (or something) to rescue another, before embarking upon yet another quest to free a man frozen solid inside an icy catacomb. Numerous fights with skeleton warriors, skeleton archers and polar bears ensue, as we're taunted and cajoled by the spirit of a mad elf who makes us play his tortuous game. Dancing to the mad elf's tune, we soon confront him and find the key to freeing Eimon, the trapped frozen man, who joins our band of refugees with his sister. After a final mission that takes us to Oblivion to destroy a sigil, we decide that rescuing almost half of the fifteen people is enough, and return to Captain Rana to initiate the exodus to Dhalmora in Morrowind.
Completists can rescue all fifteen people and take them to Morrowind, but with time against us, we pressed on, lighting Bleakrock's signal fire, uncovering a Covenant invasion and initiating a frantic battle against Bretons, Redguard and Orcs, as Bleakrock Isle's village burned around us. The signal fire tower under siege, the battle brings The Elder Scrolls Online's combat to the fore, which in the case of our Dunmer Dragonknight is dual wielding sword and shield fare. Not that we don't have some formidable spells at our disposal, like a fiery chain that we can use to impale and drag enemies towards us like Scorpion from Mortal Kombat, and rocky spike armour that bolsters our defensive capabilities. Of course, you can exclusively wield spells, specialise in archery, go for two-handed swordplay and more if you want.
In battle, timing as ever is key, with blocking and parrying every bit as important as knowing when to get your hits in. Visual clues give you a heads up as to when you should raise your shield, and should an enemy hit you with full force, they'll bounce off dazed, opening them up for a charged counter attack. This proved to be a sure fire way to quickly chip away at an enemy, be it a bear, skeleton, wolf or a more combat proficient foe like a Covenant Orc, Breton or Redguard. Setting them alight with a fire spell from range also helps.
As we level up, our spells can be morphed into different versions of the same magic, and we're able to boost our health, mana and stamina bars, as well as unlock new skills and magic with points that we earn along the way. There's a constant sense of progression like any Elder Scrolls game worth its salt, and even dying doesn't set you back too far, spawning you at the last wayshrine you activated upon your journey, unless you have a stone in your inventory to revive your hero on the spot. All of the systems and mechanics are in place then, and seem to work exceedingly well, even if it's apparent that there's still some work and polish required to smooth off some of the game's rough edges.
Once we've set to work extinguishing the fires in the houses of Bleakrock's besieged village, we liaise with Captain Rana and head to Last Rest, a secret, trap-riddled subterranean tunnel that leads out of Bleakrock Isle and to a port where boats await. Sailing away to the shores of Morrowind, we play out the rest of our demo exploring the lands around towering toadstools, looking for missing Guar creatures and attempting to unearth precious skyshards. There are no shortage of things to see and do, and no lack of incredible vistas to contemplate in The Elder Scrolls Online, but the burning question still remains: is it worth the asking price?
At present it's hard to say. $14.99/£8.99 is certainly a lot to ask for a monthly subscription, even for a game that promises to be as deep and rich as The Elder Scrolls Online. When you take into account the initial outlay for the game itself and the subscription fees on top of that, you're looking at a hefty price of entry, even if Bethesda is promising to consistently deliver content and support for the game. The Elder Scrolls Online certainly looks nice enough and plays almost – if not quite – as nicely as Skyrim, but for our money, The Elder Scrolls Online just doesn't seem like a realistic, sustainable MMO model. Which is a shame, because otherwise, this could be a console MMO just begging for you to get lost in.
The Elder Scrolls Online is out in 2014 for Xbox One.