Going handson with The Elder Scrolls Online
Last week, I ventured forth from the subtropical paradise (read: sweltering wasteland) of the Florida panhandle to the frozen northern wastes of Maryland to visit the studios of ZeniMax Online to spend some time with the studio's premiere foray into the MMO space, The Elder Scrolls Online.

The Elder Scrolls Online has caused quite a clamor since it was first revealed back in May. Since then, everything has calmed down, everyone is discussing everything reasonably, and... I can't keep a straight face. In reality, MMO gamers are deeply divided about TESO, and some vocal potential players are most displeased to see the venerable sandbox world of Tamriel being reduced to yet another themepark MMO experience.

So after about four hours of hands-on time with the title, I'm here to answer some questions. Have the folks at ZeniMax run The Elder Scrolls off the rails, or have they just taken it in a bold, new direction? Join me after the cut and I'll tell you what I think. Let me first answer the question on everybody's mind: Does it feel like an Elder Scrolls game? It does, mostly. The game's art team has done a fantastic job of recreating the kind of beautiful scenic vistas that players have come to expect from the series, and it's clear that much attention was paid to keeping the world consistent with previous games. I was delighted to notice that the very same unique Nord urns I had looted the crap out of in Skyrim were scattered around the various tombs and barrows I explored in TESO. Of course, TESO deviates a bit from the previous titles in the series, mostly by necessity, but I'll get to that later.

Going handson with The Elder Scrolls Online
For my time with TESO, I was able to play only the Ebonheart Pact faction, which is made up of the Dunmer of Morrowind, the Nords of Skyrim, and the Argonians of Black Marsh. Being the filthy elf-lover that I am, I went with the Dunmer. The two classes available in this build of the game were the Dragon Knight and the Templar. The Dragon Knight was described as a front-line fighter with reality-altering magic, while the Templar was more or less what you'd expect from a class called the Templar: magic, support, that kind of thing.

Now, TESO does character building a bit differently than most games in that any class can wield any type of weapon and wear any type of armor. In addition, all characters have access to a common "pool" of abilities granted by increasing skill in particular fighting styles (one-hander and shield, dual-wielding, two-hander, etc.) plus an additional pool of abilities granted by investing points (awarded upon leveling up) into one of your three main stats: health, stamina, and magicka. For instance, I invested most of my points in the stamina stat, thereby unlocking a passive sprint speed bonus and an ability that granted me health and stamina after I killed an enemy. Because of this system of progression, a player's class really dictates only the class-specific abilities he unlocks as he levels. So with that in mind, I chose the Dragon Knight because the description mentioned altering reality, and I'm a sucker for the Alteration school of magic.

My Dunmer began his journey in a remote island northeast of Skyrim known as Bleakrock. Off the coast of the isle, scouts had spotted approaching ships thought to be an invasion force of the enemy Daggerfall Covenant (consisting of Bretons, Orcs, and Redguards). It's worth noting that this starting experience begins at level 2 after Molag Bal has stolen my soul and all that good stuff, but that opening segment of the game wasn't available to us. At any rate, my now-soulless Dark Elf was assigned the task of searching Bleakrock for missing villagers while the rest of the village prepared to evacuate. With my goal set for me, I sallied forth into the icy mountains of Skyrim.

Going handson with The Elder Scrolls Online
If you've ever played an Elder Scrolls game, TESO's controls will be immediately familiar to you. WASD moves your character, the mouse controls where you're looking/aiming (no tab-targeting here, folks), spacebar jumps, shift sprints... you get the idea. The combat controls are also taken directly from previous TES titles. Clicking the left mouse button will swing your weapon, whereas holding it down will charge up a power attack and holding right-click will block incoming attacks.

So while we're on the subject, let's talk about combat. I mentioned earlier that TESO varies from previous titles in a few ways, mostly by necessity, and combat is one of those ways. It's obviously very difficult to implement the combat of, say, Skyrim directly into an MMO. And honestly, I always thought that combat was one of the series' weaker points. As a dual-wielding character in Skyrim, I got very familiar with the "strategic" combat style of running up, spamming power attacks, and backpedaling furiously. Maybe it's just me, but I never found it terribly tactical or exciting. TESO captures the spirit of the series' combat in a way that is better-suited to an MMO environment, and in my opinion, considerably more engaging.

The closest comparison I can draw to an existing combat system would be Champions Online, but it has a few twists of its own. One of the features I thought was pretty awesome was the finesse system. During each fight, you're rated on your combat prowess based on how efficiently you take down your foes. For instance, enemies will periodically charge up power attacks that can be blocked by holding down right-click. After the player blocks a foe's power attack, the enemy will briefly be "exploitable," which means that performing a power attack on that enemy will do major damage and knock him to the ground. Properly blocking attacks and exploiting enemies will earn you finesse points, which serve a few different purposes.

Going handson with The Elder Scrolls Online
First, you're granted an experience bonus based on your finesse score, and if the score is high enough, you will also be given a loot chest that can contain shiny new gear. Secondly, finesse points charge your ultimate ability, the first of which is unlocked at level 5. My Dragon Knight's first ultimate ability (I was told that players can unlock different ultimates as they progress through the game) was called Dragon Armor, and when activated, it gave me a sweet set of spiky armor that caused fire damage to any enemies within proximity. All of the abilities I was given access to had pretty high "wow" factors. My personal favorite was Fiery Reach, which shot a flaming chain to my target, pulled him to me, and stunned him momentarily so I could take my leisurely time in laying the smack down.

Overall, the combat has a strong action flavor and flows really well. Taking on a group of enemies and surgically blocking, retaliating, and using abilities while watching your finesse score rise has a way of making you feel like a badass. Unfortunately, the combat suffers from an incredibly finnicky targeting system that can make fights involving multiple mobs and/or ally players somewhat frustrating.

In essence, you can attack or use abilities only if your targeting reticle is currently over a valid target, so if you and three of your best buddies are going to town on some hapless zombie, it's pretty easy for abilities to simply not trigger because your friend's attack animation put his pinkie finger in the way of your targeting reticle. I'm admittedly a bit disappointed that there's no real-time hit detection, so you can't simply swing your sword and hit the enemies in the arc of the blade, and there doesn't seem to be any way to dodge incoming projectiles. I can understand why those things can be problematic to implement, but the current targeting system needs a great deal of work.

Another thing that long-time players of The Elder Scrolls are surely familiar with is robbing entire towns blind by looting every last wheel of cheese from the poor townsfolks' cupboards. Those players will be happy to know that this capability returns in TESO but in an understandably more limited fashion. While every single urn and crate isn't lootable, many are. And unfortunately, no, you can't put a basket on a shopkeeper's head and then rob him blind. In fact, most of the containers I came across contained crafting materials, which were useless to me because crafting hasn't been implemented, but the devs assured me that crafting will be quite valuable in the finished game.

Going handson with The Elder Scrolls Online
One thing that really stood out to me was TESO's quest design. You always hear people talk about how they want to nix the kill-ten-rats style of quest design, but TESO is actually taking strides in that direction. While there were a few kill X mob quests, most of the quests I encountered weren't so tedious. The moment I noticed the change in design happened when I was given a quest to free some members of the Fighters Guild from spider webs in a cave. In any other game, there would be a number of generic "Wriggling Web" NPCs that I'd have to destroy, and some of them would contain enemies I'd have to fight, while others would contain nothing at all, and I'd end up searching 20 webs before I found the three people I was looking for.

But this was not the case at all. Instead, all of the webbed NPCs were the guild members I was looking for (and I'm fairly positive it wasn't just some fluke of the RNG), and the combat of the quest came simply from fighting the nearby spiders as I searched for the trapped folks. The game also attempted to put a more entertaining twist on the kill X mobs quests it did have.

One that comes to mind is a quest in the Bal Foyen area of Morrowind that had me throwing netch eggs at Daggerfall Covenant troops to cause nearby bull netches to attack them. Overall, I noticed that I wasn't constantly looking at my quest tracker, wondering when I'd complete this stupid objective, and I wasn't fixated on my XP bar, either. It also helps that the game actively encourages exploration with out-of-the-way points-of-interest that can contain shiny loot or interesting side-quests, which mimics the time-honored Elder Scrolls experience.

I also had the chance to experience some of the game's group content in the form of a public dungeon known as the Crow's Wood, set in a plane of Oblivion. The surreal flavor of The Elder Scrolls' outer planes was well-captured by a series of quests involving talking crows, giant bats, and a sorcerer's deal gone sour. That last one is of particular interest because it served up an interesting moral dilemma.

Going handson with The Elder Scrolls Online
Long story short: A sorcerer made a deal with a hagraven that involved the hagraven's granting the sorcerer arcane knowledge under the condition that the sorcerer spend the rest of his (presumably unnaturally long) life with her. Surprising absolutely no one, the sorcerer tries to renege on his end of the deal, and it's up to the player to decide how things play out. Do you force the sorcerer to keep his part of the bargain or free him from the hagraven's bondage? Or maybe you just kill 'em both because you can't be bothered with such silly trifles. Personally, I made sure Mr. Magician upheld his word because I don't like a double-crosser and anyone who's making bargains for eldritch power is never a good sort.

Group combat against champion monsters was satisfying aside from the combat targeting quirks I mentioned earlier. The champions present a reasonable challenge that requires a bit of strategy, but of course the loot they drop is usually worth it. I wasn't able to go up against any bona fide bosses, but if the champion mobs are any indication, players should expect fights that rely on quick reactions and high mobility to survive.

One of the last bits of TESO I got a look at before my playtime was over was a Dark Anchor. Dark Anchors are anchors sent by Molag Bal from his plane of Coldharbour in an attempt to pull Tamriel into his domain. Of course, we can't allow that to happen, so players are able to destroy these Dark Anchors in a public-quest-style encounter. All players have to do is run up to the Anchor and get to killin'. All players in the area will get credit for helping to send the Dark Anchor back to Molag Bal, and destroying Dark Anchors will earn players favor with the Fighters Guild. While I took down my Dark Anchor solo (we had about five minutes left, so everyone was running around like a madman), I can see them being a fun distraction but not much more than that unless the difficulty ramps up immensely when more players are participating.

Ultimately, I left my time with The Elder Scrolls Online feeling considerably more optimistic than I had expected. The team at ZeniMax Online has done a great job so far recreating not just the world of Tamriel but also the feeling of an Elder Scrolls title. A few small quirks aside (and really, it's pre-alpha; I didn't go in there to nitpick bugs), TESO is shaping up very nicely. If you're one of the folks who thinks that what ZeniMax is doing to The Elder Scrolls is tantamount to blasphemy, I urge you to fight back the rage and keep an eye on this game because it may end up surprising you as it surprised me. If you've got any questions or if you'd like to question my loyalty to The Elder Scrolls, feel free to speak up in the comments and I'll answer everything the best I can.

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?

This article was originally published on Massively.
The Stream Team: October 22 - 28, 2012