The Elder Scrolls Online
"Turn on your monitors, and for the next four hours, enjoy your hands-on with The Elder Scrolls Online." Last week, that tantalizing phrase kicked off my visit to ZeniMax Online Studios, but those words must have also conjured some ancient time-bending ritual because those 240 minutes flew by in an instant.

The first thing I did was create a character belonging to the Daggerfall Covenant, which means I was allowed to choose from the Breton, Orc, and Redguard races. There are two other alliances (Aldmeri Dominion and Ebonheart Pact) and six other races that weren't available for this preview (and the Imperials are NPCs). I had to buck my tendency to spend copious amounts of time customizing the minute details of my character in favor of actually getting to the gameplay. I did, however, take a look at some randomly generated characters of the three available races, and the models looked superb.

During class selection, I was given a choice between Dragonknight, Templar, and Sorcerer. The devs let slip that there will be a fourth class at launch called the Nightblade. In the Elder Scrolls Online, your weapon and armor options aren't restricted by your class. You can build your Sorcerer around using a mix of heavy and medium armor while wielding a greatsword. Or you can run around as a Dragonknight in light armor sporting a restoration staff if that tickles your fancy (and why wouldn't it?). While your class will determine some of the abilities you acquire, it doesn't lock you into a particular playstyle or role.

HandsOn With The Elder Scrolls Online
I decided to break stereotypes and roll an Orc Sorcerer named Vir'chuk Urd, and yes, you can choose a first and last name. The customization options were robust and plentiful containing ample numbers of sliders and colors that will entertain us for hours when ESO launches. I appreciated the age slider that allowed me to instantly transform Vir'chuk into the elderly curmudgeon I imagined him to be. I also felt that he must have a penchant for Tamriel's famous sweetrolls as I happily increased his gut size to the maximum. I would love to have seen the customization options for one of the more bestial races like the Khajiit or Argonians, but I truly can't complain about ESO's character creation.

While we weren't able to see and experience the initial tutorial area that immediately follows character creation, we were given a summary of the events that take place (jump to the next paragraph if you'd like to avoid spoilers): The Daedric Prince of domination, Molag Bal, takes you captive, has you killed, and steals your soul. It's kind of a bummer, but a man called the Prophet rescues you and helps you escape the Oblivion plane of Coldharbour. Your soulless body emerges from a portal off the shore of Stros M'Kai, where you're pulled out of the water by a snarky smuggler named Captain Kaleen.

Stros M'Kai, a tropical island off of the coast of Hammerfell, serves as the introductory zone for players who choose the Daggerfall Covenant as their alliance. A port town that shares the name of the island is home to privateers and scoundrels who offer a variety of quests to get you started on your adventures. On Stros M'Kai, you'll encounter a variety of enemies including assassin beetles, desert wolves, goblins, dwemer spiders, dwemer spheres, and (of course) mudcrabs.

Though ESO employs a traditional questing system -- complete with speaking to NPCs, accepting tasks, and turning them in for rewards -- you aren't put on rails that lead you from quest hub to quest hub. There's a main storyline that you can direct your attention to immediately, or you can put it on the back burner and occupy yourself with myriad side missions. I wandered around outside of the first area for a few minutes to get acquainted with the controls, and within minutes, my quest log looked completely different from the log of the fellow playing next to me, ZAM's Scott Hawkes.

HandsOn With The Elder Scrolls Online
Each NPC you encounter is fully voiced, which brings life to what would otherwise be unread quest text. Like other Elder Scrolls titles, your conversations with the denizens of Tamriel involve making dialogue choices that blend clues about quest objectives with bits of lore and flavor. Sometimes these choices have a noticeable impact on the story and your interactions with others.

For example, I was given the choice whether to save an evil woman who had been poisoned or to let her die. I chose to save her with some antidote, while Scott thought she should pay the ultimate penalty for her crimes. When we completed the quest, we compared the responses we got from the NPC who poisoned her. Scott was welcomed with open arms, while I was basically called a soft-hearted idiot!

Some choices have an impact that reaches beyond mild sprinklings of flavor text. Captain Kaleen enlists your help in assembling a crew to assist with a major heist she is planning. You're given the names of three individuals who have special talents that can be useful in such an endeavor. Crafty Larisa wants you to help her rescue some of her captured crewmates in exchange for her assistance. Jakarn needs to be freed from prison before he'll agree to help you, and Neramo wants you to help him explore an ancient Dwemer ruin.

You can choose to recruit all, some, or none of these characters, and your decision will alter how the heist plays out. Jakarn can steal a key, which makes things a bit easier for you. Neramo can silently deal with a guard who blocks your path, and Crafty Larisa can provide a disguise so you can move around more freely. You can complete the heist on your own, however, giving you the freedom to customize your experience.

The combat system will immediately feel familiar to Elder Scrolls fans. Tapping left click on the mouse will perform a light attack with the weapon you are currently wielding. Holding left-click will charge up a more powerful attack, while right-clicks are used for blocking. As a Sorcerer, I started the game with a destruction staff that spewed spiraling bolts of fire when I attacked with it. During the course of my play session, I also wielded an over-sized greatsword, a one-handed axe, and a slender bow. All of the weapons offered a different style of play, and I thoroughly enjoyed employing them against my enemies.

HandsOn With The Elder Scrolls Online
One bit of feedback that hardcore Elder Scrolls fans have been vocal about is ESO's lack of hands and weapon animations while the player is zoomed into first-person perspective. Without those animations, these folks say, it wouldn't feel like an Elder Scrolls game. While I wasn't able to try it out in my hands-on session, ZeniMax president Matt Firor did tell me that full hand and weapon animations in first-person perspective will be available for launch. We even watched a video in which the feature was demonstrated; it looked incredible.

Since ESO is an MMO, there are some aspects of combat that differ from its single-player predecessors. Double-tapping a direction key will cause your character to dodge and avoid attacks. There's also an action bar, which is used to slot in various active abilities. The first class ability I selected was Mages' Fury; it allowed me to call down bolts of lightning from the sky to damage my foes. It was a great finishing move as it did extra damage against enemies with less than 20% health. The second ability I chose was Unstable Familiar in the Daedric Summoning skill line. This allowed me to summon a blue imp pet that was good at scooping up aggro from monsters and making unseemly gurgling noises.

ESO is embracing the more recent MMO trend that pares down your action bar to only a handful of slots. This ability deck-building allows the designers to offer many different skills, so it's up to the player to determine which ones are actively available. These abilities come from a series of skill lines unlocked by the players as they adventure through Tamriel. I started out with a class, weapon, and armor skill line. Each of those had various trees to select from, and each class has three different tabs in its class skill line.

For my Sorcerer, I could unlock abilities in the Dark Magic, Daedric Summoning, and Storm Calling trees. Armor skills were broken down into light, medium, and heavy paths, while two-handed, hand and shield, dual wield, bow, destruction staff, and restoration staff were the options available to the weapon skill line. I was told that there will be at least 15 different skill lines available in ESO including abilities that are learned for joining either the mage's or fighter's guild. The devs also teased that players can unlock a vampire tree in the world skill line, but naturally, they want players to discover how to do this on their own.

I'll be honest, I've played three of the Elder Scrolls games over the years, and while I thoroughly enjoyed them, I was dispassionate when the Elder Scrolls Online was announced. We've seen many intellectual properties (from both inside and outside of the gaming world) attempt and fail to make the jump to a compelling MMO offering. It's become common to regard these projects with a healthy dose of skepticism, but I'm happy to say that for ESO, the proof is in the pudding. I've barely scratched the surface of this massive online game world, and I already can't wait to get my elderly Orcish hands all over it again at PAX East.

Next, we interview ZeniMax's Paul Sage on ESO's endgame, PvP, and crafting!

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.