It's been a long time coming, but the Elder Scrolls Online -- the massively multiplayer online return to the world of Tamriel -- is on its way. We checked out the beta version of the MMO.
From the get go, it's pretty clear that you're playing an Elder Scrolls game. You start as a prisoner.
I may jest, but it's actually one of the nice callbacks to help remind you that you're playing in a very detailed world with a lot of backstory that's already been written.
There's a lot to like about ESO and there's a few things to be a bit cautious about. Let's play nice and look at what we enjoyed first.
Character creation: Just as intricate and detailed as you'd expect from an Elder Scrolls game. All the races are present and the appearance options are wonderfully varied. This is something you can easily lose a solid half an hour in if you want.
Character progression: There's a lot of room for you to customise your play style within the loose parameters of character classes. If you want to play the rogue-like Nightblade, but wear heavy armour and use destruction magic, then you can. (Not sure why you would...) This extends to being able to 'morph' abilities. At a certain level, you can make changes to some of your skills, be they weapon or armour or other abilities. These tweaks help make your character feel even more like your own.
Quest variety: So far, not one person as asked me to go kill 10 blahs or bring back 12 whatevers. In fact, one of the first detailed quests I did was about me finding three people to organise a criminal heist. It might amount to the same thing in the end, but it's nice to avoid the cliché.
The world: It's beautiful. It's certainly familiar, but it's amazing to explore anew. Towns and cities feel genuinely sizeable -- as if people lived there and it's not just somewhere for you to find a shop. Outdoor areas feel vibrant and living. It's truly great.
But for all that, there are a few quiet niggles in the back of my head where I'm just a little concerned.
The world (again): Yes it's beautiful and big, but there's not the same impetus to explore that was in, say, Skyrim. Mostly you're just moving from quest to quest, because that's how you'll get the XP and cash you'll need to keep progressing.
Combat: It's a little rote. You left-click for a basic attack, hold down for a strong attack, right-click to block and use both buttons to parry. There's a hotbar system for special attacks -- you can have five loaded at any one time (very Secret World-ish) with one additional passive ability. Certain abilities work well in combination, but what this means is that you end up making the same button presses. For me this was 5, then 2, followed by 3 and 1 if that didn't finish them off. In all the time I played, I rarely felt in any actual danger -- it's great to be a badass, but without a little peril, there's not much excitement.
It feels like a single player game: Which could be great, but it often feels like a single-player Elder Scrolls game where you just can't do some of the really cool stuff you normally do. There's a heavy frustration to running up to a rack of weaponry to discover that it's just set decoration: you can't use any of it. Nor can you pick-pocket shopkeepers, or steal their wares when crouching awkwardly to one side.
In fact, this is probably the biggest concern I have with ESO: they've done such a good job of making it feel like an Elder Scrolls game, that the minute you can't do something you'd normally be able to, it's very jarring.
Of course, it's early days still and we'll be playing right up until the end of the all-too-short beta period. As I said at the start, there's a lot to like here and, personally, I'm very keen to see what Bethesda delivers as a final product.