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Hands-on with The Elder Scrolls Online beta

A first look at this ambitious new MMO set in the world of Skyrim and Oblivion.

Screenshot by Dan Ackerman/CNET

If there's anything more fun than fighting monsters and casting spells in a sword-and-sorcery setting, it's doing it with thousands of other players in the same game world. That's the appeal of massively multiplayer online (or MMO) games, from EverQuest to World of Warcraft. The appeal for game makers is even more obvious -- the ability to create a recurring revenue stream from monthly subscription fees, on top of an initial game purchase.

But aside from the ever-popular WoW, few massively multiplayer online games have broken through to the gaming mainstream. Even games with built-in audiences, such as Star Wars: The Old Republic and The Lord of the Rings Online, have moved to a free-to-play model just to keep gamers interested without having to pay that set monthly subscription fee.

While it may not be as universally well-known as Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings (or even World of Warcraft), the Elder Scrolls series of games (dating back to 1994's The Elder Scrolls: Arena) is among the most loved, with the most recent installment, 2011's Skyrim, selling more than 20 million copies.

Announced in 2012, The Elder Scrolls Online, or ESO, takes that single-player experience and attempts to meld it with an online multiplayer game. It's an idea that makes sense, at least on paper, as the previous Elder Scrolls games have been described as being single-player versions of an MMO, thanks to their wide-open worlds, freedom of movement and exploration, and thousands of characters to interact with.

The game launches in April 2014, but I've been playing an early beta version for the past week. I've played at least a little of every major game in the MMO category, but I'm far from a regular, so I was especially interested in seeing how the game felt compared with the well-reviewed single-player Elder Scrolls games. To capture that sense of direction and purpose of a single-player experience, and combine it with the freedom and social interaction of an online game is a formula that has proven hard for MMOs to crack.

Screenshot by Dan Ackerman/CNET

Note that the beta version of the game is far from complete, from frequent bugs to missing art assets.

True to form, the opening of the game felt like a combination of the other MMO games I've played, as well as the classic Elder Scrolls games. There's an in-depth character creation system, choosing a race, class, and allegiance to one of three sociopolitical factions. The character races, from the reptile-like Argonians to three different kinds of elf, are taken directly from the single-player games, and should feel familiar if you've played Skyrim or The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Designing a character is mini-game unto itself, and you have all the typical sliders, for everything from chin width to eyebrow height -- similar to the very deep character creation in the single-player Elder Scrolls games.

Any MMO needs to integrate new players carefully, as there are new rules, controls, and menu screens to learn. Most of the introductory periods -- often set in a dungeon or distant island -- are painfully dull, with mountains of exposition and hours of busywork fighting rats or collecting plants.

At least ESO starts with a bit of a bang, in a daring prison break set in another dimension (which you are inconveniently trapped in on account of having been murdered). From there, there's exploration, fighting, and a minor quest, all aimed at teaching you the game's controls.

Combat is not as finessed as it is in Skyrim, which instituted an excellent left-hand/right-hand system for combining weapons, spells, and accessories. Instead, this feels much more like other MMO games, with spells and abilities mapped to the number keys on your keyboard and gear equipped via an inventory screen, using a diagram of your character straight out of every classic RPG ever.

Screenshot by Dan Ackerman/CNET

Fighting someone or something usually comes down to a short left mouse click for a light attack, and a long click for a heavy attack. Right-clicking blocks, and clicking both mouse buttons is a type of parry. While fighting, I found myself putting together combos of number-key spells, plus melee attacks. Compared with the depth and strategy of fighting in the single-player Elder Scrolls games, it felt a bit button-mashy.

Escaping the realm of the dead (which looks about the same as every other RPG underground lair), you end up on an island in the Elder Scrolls continent of Tamriel, where the game starts to look and feel a lot more like the single-player games in the series.

The key to an MMO's success is being able to attract players who may not have the latest PC gaming hardware (ESO is also coming to Xbox One and PS4, but this beta was PC-only). A big part of the appeal of World of Warcraft is that it can run on nearly any PC.

I found the game to be very flexible when playing on different hardware. The most powerful rig I used was an Origin PC Eon 17-SLX, with dual Nvidia GeForce 780M GPUs. There, with graphics settings on ultra-high and at a 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution, the game looked good, but not as detailed as the most forward-looking PC games. On a laptop with a very mainstream GeForce 750M GPU, the game played well at 1,600x900 and medium settings, but lacked any real visual punch. The most pleasant surprise was that the game ran smoothly on a stock HP Spectre laptop with a Haswell-generation Intel Core i5 CPU and integrated Intel graphics, at 1,366x768 and with low graphics settings.

Screenshot by Dan Ackerman/CNET

The "massive" part of the ESO experience was missing from the beta test I took part in, as it was only only open to a small number of beta testers. That makes it impossible to get a feel for what the expansive world will be like when teeming with players who forge their own groups and alliances, or fight each other, or just chat and trade equipment with each other. For that full-on experience, we'll have to wait until the game's official April 4, 2014, release on PC and Mac (with current-gen consoles following in June). The game will cost $60 to start, along with a $15 monthly subscription.