Welcome to Postcards from The Elder Scrolls Online, a look at Bethesda's new MMO. Stay tuned for more entries in the coming weeks.
Prior to writing about games for a living, I was spending much more time on MMOs than I do now. Once upon a time, I was hell-bent on topping the Everquest 2 server leaderboards for quests completed, and I put more hours into that game than I did my university course (maybe that's not saying much). After that, I got up to Level 65 in World of Warcraft – I even queued up for the Burning Crusade launch, something I've not done for any other game. Since then I've had brief skirmishes with Rift, The Old Republic, and Final Fantasy 14, but no MMO has grabbed me (and my time) like EQ2 and WoW did.
Still, the pangs are always there, so when Richard asked if I wanted to check out The Elder Scrolls Online, I was happy to. If anything, Bethesda Game Studios' recent efforts had done great jobs of satiating my hunger for games gone by. Skyrimin particular felt like a single-player MMO, constantly rewarding me for every little thing I did in its timesink of a world.
So, don't consider this a review of TESO. Instead, it's offered as my musings on returning to the fold with Bethesda's first foray into it. And in my first week I encountered Harry Potter flashbacks, smart-talking cats, and almost-naked epiphanies.
Gallery: The Elder Scrolls Online (Quakecon/Gamescom 2013) | 8 Photos
After I created my character, TESO whisked me to the familiar starting point of a mystical prison, with the familiar addition of a famous voice to keep me company. This time it was Albus Dumbledore, sometimes known as Michael Gambon. He's one of many celebs to be found in TESO, but I confess I've become fixated with his sheer Dumbledore-ness. His character, the Prophet, is a blind old sage, but as he gently but sternly orders you through the main story he may as well be an old headmaster mage. He creates portals for you and whisks you magically into his memories, all the while telling you in his Irish lilt to "walk with me, Harry" – well, as long as you're named Harry. As if that's not enough, in the prison area you meet a ghost played by John Cleese who was murdered by beheading – you have to wonder if Bethesda's dabbling in some seriously extravagant fan fiction here.
That said, Prophet Dumbledore is a great fit as your mentor from afar in the vast setting of Tamriel, where the pair of you eventually escape to. Where you start off in Tamriel depends on which of the three factions you rolled, while character creation also involves choosing your race and class, and the usual spending an afternoon on intricate aesthetic tools. There are no worries about bumping into your reflection in TESO, that's for sure.
There are four classes to pick: Dragon Knight, Sorcerer, Templar and Nightblade. You could insert Tank, Mage, Healer, and Rogue for them respectively based on their class-specific skills, but you go a long way to defining your character by the weapons and armor you use. While classes have their own line of skills you unlock, so do types of weapon, armor, and even types of crafting – there are a lot of skills to choose from in TESO. As per Skyrim, gaining experience in Tamriel levels up your class and your equipment rank, and that opens up more skills to choose from.
So, if you want, you can have a Dragon Knight bowman skittering around in light armor, or a frost staff-wielding Nightblade who is really into his cooking. How viable those builds are long-term, I'm not sure, and I'm thinking of going nuts with my alt character – more on her later – but I'm keeping it simple to start off, with my heavy armor-clad tank-like Dragon Knight Breton. I designed her lean and mean but maybe a bit too lean, so when she holds her greatsword above her head to attack she looks like a tree about to be timbered.
I'm a bit too early to really explore how deep the skill system goes – my main just dinged level 14 – but I can talk about what I'm enjoying the most in TESO, and that's the quests centered around the main story line. No, not the one with the scrolls, Dumbledore and the other celebs , but the quests specific to your faction.
I signed up with the Aldmeri Dominion, a faction that takes you to opening areas filled with the lush greenery, babbling brooks, and crumbling stone that made up much of Oblivion. (Mild spoilers) There you soon become the patsy in an treasonous plot, and a canny Khajiit called Razum-dar rescues you into the service of the Dominion's Queen as one of her personal secret agents, the Eyes.
I haven't been convinced by the overarching story quests in Bethesda Game Studios' recent work. In fact, I haven't much cared about them, because it's hard to when it's more fun to run around and do everything else except the main stuff. So, it was a surprise to find myself caring about this one in TESO, which centers around a young Queen struggling to keep a Dominion in balance, and your role as one of the few people she trusts.
It's not the writing or the characters, but how the whole thing interconnects. As an Eye, I feel important to the plot but not chained to it because of the secretive role. The opening area of Auridon is full of small quests that feel independent of the main story, but there are threads that intertwine around conspiracy and racial disharmony. It's a cohesion that MMOs often struggle with – and so has Bethesda Game Studios for that matter – and yet I genuinely want to keep up with the main story line as much as I want to roam.
I have to be careful of overselling the story, especially since I'm so early in the game and I'm just talking about one faction. Besides, it's hard to buy too much into it when important moments are underlined by tons of other players running around, defeating bosses for you or triggering the same bit of undercooked voice acting you just did – par for the course, I guess. Still, TESO has had its moments already, those little elements of narrative discovery that reward you for being crazy enough to run in one direction and hope for the best.
That said, I don't know what to make of exploration in TESO. Starting Skyrim and knowing you can genuinely go in any direction in so vast a kingdom is a liberating experience. In contrast, the starting area of Auridon is super huge, almost like a miniature Skyrim, and yet for all its size it doesn't feel boundless. Also, it's hard to escape how the levels rise and the story progresses as you travel north through the island, and, for all my running around, north was still my general trajectory. It's that kind of compromise between what I enjoy in Bethesda's games and more typical MMO design that leaves me a bit concerned.
So far, for example, my choices in quests have been binary and often predictable. I've chosen whether people live or die so many times I'm starting to feel like God in greaves. Will those choices be truly substantial later in the game? On the other hand, I like how I do have tangible effects on the world around me; if I save a village, it stays saved, so when I come back I won't find it engulfed in the flames I helped to put out. Maybe it's a superficial thing, but it's a touch that again makes me feel important to the world.
There's loads more to talk about in TESO, even at this early stage, such as the surprising usefulness of crafting and the distracting world of player vs. player content. I'll doubtless touch on those things and more in my next postcard, and certainly on my plucky wood elf Nightblade alt and her adventures in the deserts of the Daggerfall faction. One of my first quests there involved a man who was so drunk he thought he was a goblin, and when I snapped him out of it he raised his arms in a happy cheer, shed his goblin armor, and ran for town dressed only in his underwear. So I'm definitely spending more time there.