Elder Scrolls Online is the new Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) from Skyrim creator Bethesda. What’s special about the game is the fluid, action-packed real-time combat in the open fantasy world and the multi-platform versions for PC, Playstation 4 and Xbox One. I tested the Beta version this summer at Gamescom 2013.
Elder Scrolls Online starts off like most role-playing games: you create your character, starting with body type and continuing with gender, class and race. Then, you can start accepting quests to carry out. Just as in Skyrim, the player is guided to the quest’s next key location by a waypoint system within the open, freely accessible world.
The journey is the reward
During the initial phase of the game, I noticed that the journey itself can be the hardest part of a quest. You can see your goal in front of you, but you can’t reach it because a sheer rockface looming above looks like an insurmountable obstacle. Only a detour reveals the rather obscure approach to the higher-lying areas.
During your travels you can lock horns with the first minor opponents, such as skeletons or bears. Combat works the same way as in Skyrim: you adjust the camera position with the mouse and launch an attack with the mouse button. Pressing the button for longer initiates a slow, but particularly forceful attack. Special abilities can be assigned to the number keys to unleash magic attacks, for example. These attacks use up magicka, which is restored over time. You can also drink magicka potions as an alternative. The same idea applies to injuries sustained: your health regenerates over time.
The combat system is as easy to learn as it is in Skyrim. In contrast to Final Fantasy XIV – A Realm Reborn, you don’t have to mark any opponents: just start whacking. If other players come to help, you can take on stronger enemies as a group. In the tested Beta version, the opponents’ attention quickly switches from one attacking human player to the next. It might not always appear to be the smartest move, but it gives the players tactical advantages.
Upgrading weapons and armor
Defeated opponents can drop coins, weapons or pieces of armor. The player can dive into his hero’s pack via the inventory panel and equip himself with better items. As in Skyrim, you can improve weapons and armor through use: the more you brandish your sword, the better you’ll get at exacting this type of weapon. The same applies to armor, which you train with by taking blows.
In addition to the main storyline, you can accept side quests at any time by talking to NPCs. There aren’t only forests and hilly landscapes to explore in this open world, but caves and dungeons as well. My first foray to such a place proved to be quite brief: two enemies guarding treasure were quickly dispensed of, with some help from other players.
After testing the Elder Scrolls Online Beta version, the graphics made a strong impression. The environment is very detailed, although the game’s characters appear somewhat flat: faces show barely any detail or depth.
The game world and characters seem to conform to western conventions. The graphics are somewhat washed out, and the figures look dingy, angular and a lot less dressed up than in typical Japanese RPGs. The animations also aren’t as polished as in Final Fantasy XIV – A Realm Reborn, for instance.
Conclusion: Action-packed, but the combat system is too simple
Personally, I find the real-time combat in Elder Scrolls Online very appealing. The game feels very dynamic, full of action – basically like Skyrim with friends, which was the developers’ intent. While testing the game, I didn’t get the impression that a team is actually necessary. That aspect shouldn’t be overrated. The same applies to the introductory phase of most MMOs – the part in which you familiarize yourself with weapons, armor, environment and fighting.
The real-time combat system is a bit risky because it’s a little too easy, with always the same blows using the left mouse button, followed by a few special attacks leading to a quick victory. In contrast to Skyrim, the commands have been simplified so much that boredom could set in over time.
This could have been avoided by a wider variety of locations and exciting dungeons, but the latter is not exactly a Skyrim strength – a lot of the dungeons have very similar designs. Whether or not Elder Scrolls Online will have more to offer in this regard can’t be decided after such a short test.
All in all, I liked what I saw in spite of some still unanswered questions. Variety and the level of excitement in group combat are still open for debate and are definitely key issues that can only be answered when the game is released.
Elder Scrolls Online for PC, Playstation 4 and Xbox One is scheduled for release in 2014. The game will require a monthly subscription fee.