The Elder Scrolls Online represents a concerted effort on behalf of Zenimax Online Studios to bridge the gap between its franchise's diehard RPG fans and MMO enthusiasts which, aside from some perspective dissonance, is a goal the studio has achieved quite handily.
We got chance to play more of Elder Scrolls Online at PAX East, just a week after demoing the game at Zenimax's headquarters. Though there's still a few incongruous elements keeping the title from truly feeling like the franchise from which it was spun, the progression systems and open-ended character development are reminiscent of the games that fantasy gaming fans have come to love.
After picking one of the game's three factions, their respective races and then one of the base classes offered to the player — and, in grand Elder Scrolls tradition, after carefully molding a supremely attractive or gruesome avatar — development is largely up to the player. Skills are developed as they're used, a nod to the core series that translates quite well to an MMORPG. As those skills become stronger, and as the player levels up, new active and passive abilities can be unlocked.
My sorcerer, Barry Bluejeans, started out as a tonsured lump of clay which, even after my relatively brief demo session, felt unique after leveling a few times. Perhaps the boldest thing about Elder Scrolls Online is that every class can use every type of item. As you level up your skill in that type of equipment, you can spend your unlock points on skills for whatever it may be. Barry didn't get quite enough experience to specialize in anything during my demo, so I just equipped everything I found, turning him into a fairly chimeric adventurer with heavy leather armor, a dirk and summoning magic.
Hopefully, that means players will be able to viably play through the game with the kind of grab bag heroes that Skyrim and its predecessors allowed.
Skills are developed as they're used, a nod to the core series
Combat is fast and fluid, non-playable characters are fully voiced, quests are clever without solely relying on fetch questing and similar MMORPG tropes. There are a lot of modern MMO elements layered on top of each other here, which will probably endear the game to fans of the genre; but, for perhaps the most petty-sounding reason possible, it doesn't quite feel like The Elder Scrolls without the proper first-person view.
Yes, you can zoom the camera in all the way, but your hands, abilities, and animations aren't shown. The video we saw at last week's presentation wasn't being broadcast at Zenimax's PAX East booth. Again, it sounds silly, but that view is inextricable from the franchise's identity at that point. It informs every part of the design of the series: Art design is rendered with the player's eye level in mind, environmental scale is determined by human height, traps and other objects are placed and planned based on where the player is and isn't looking at any given time.
Zenimax Online promises that the game will have a classic first-person view option when it launches later this year. It's probably going to take a lot of work to get something like that into a game that's already so far along in development, but it could be exactly what Elder Scrolls Online needs to split the uprights between Skyrim and MMO. Check out our video preview from PAX East above.