The ESO Impressions

After five years in development, Zenimax Online Studios is finally showing off The Elder Scrolls Online. This massively multiplayer take on Bethesda’s fantasy franchise has a different sort of look than what series fans may be used to, with more stylized, exaggerated visuals than the single-player games. To be clear, though Bethesda Game Studios is consulting to a degree, Elder Scrolls Online is an entirely separate thing: a different team, different combat systems and many different ways to play.

That being said, some staple Elder Scrolls elements are included. You’ll be able to explore locations in every one of Tamriel’s provinces, in a time period set 1000 years before the events of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and play as one of nine Elder Scrolls races. The Nord, Dunmer and Argonians form the Ebonheart Pact in the north east, the Bretons, Redguard and Orcs, based in the north west, make up the Daggerfall Covenant, and the Aldmeri Dominion made up of the Altmer, Bosmer and Khajiit are based in Tamriel’s south western areas. In the middle of all this is Cyrodiil and the Imperial City, which all three factions fight over as part of an open world player versus player battle system.

For combat, you’ll get familiar health, magicka and stamina bars, and a limited number of slots to assign active skills. Zenimax Online isn’t talking much about specific skills or classes, but it seems like there’ll be a few mechanics that all classes will use fairly often. The first is a block, which does not take up one of your limited skill slots, consumes stamina and lets you deflect incoming attacks and interrupt spell casts. Based on brief segments of footage shown off, it seems like this ability should be used fairly often, as a well-timed block will mitigate damage and stagger an enemy, giving you an opportunity to land a few extra hits without fear of retaliation. You’ll also be able to charge up attacks for more powerful versions, and periodically activate an ultimate ability, giving you another way to fight beyond what’s assigned to your skill bar.

There’s an incentive to fight intelligently too, as skilled play rewards you with extra treasure following a fight. Actual targeting seems to be genre-standard – this is not a Tera-like action combat system. In terms of what the classes can actually do, there aren’t many specifics available, but Zenimax Online is building all classes so they can fill multiple roles. The idea is regardless of which class you choose, you can still be useful in a group regardless of class composition.

Classes can combine attacks too. In a Guild Wars 2-like twist, if a mage-like class sets down a fire field and a warrior-like class does a spinning attack within it, fireballs are then tossed all around. Other cross-class combos are possible as well, and it should be interesting to find out more about how these function leading up to The Elder Scrolls Online’s launch.

Zenimax Online seems to want to deemphasize the need to group up to plow through challenging content, and so has built multiple public dungeons into the world of Tamriel for you to explore with others. This way, if you come across somebody trying to beat up a menacing creature, you can walk in and, without needing to form a group or complete a number of prerequisite tasks, jump in, help out, and be rewarded. Standard grouped five-man dungeons will also be in the game, with normal and heroic versions.There’ll be plenty of solo questing opportunities as well, including exploration features that encourage you to wander. Points of interest will pop up on your map as you roam environments, and can sometimes lead to new quests that tie into your main tasks. For example, on the way to confront a werewolf outbreak in the city of Camlorn, there’s a field of hostile spirits you can choose to ignore or investigate. Naturally, investigation leads to battle, and you uncover an ability to time travel and discover weaknesses of the lead werewolf in Camlorn that would have otherwise remained hidden if you’d simply followed the most direct route to the main quest goal.

You’ll also find plenty of recognizable environment and enemy types as you explore, from Dwemer Centurions and dinosaur-like Clannfear to the swamps and marshes of Morrowind and snowy slopes of Skyrim. Armor designs don’t seem as intricately detailed as the versions found in single-player Elder Scrolls games, but do give off flashy reflections from metallic elements.

Much of the game remains a mystery at this point, but from what’s been shown so far it seems like Zenimax Online isn’t taking any big risks with The Elder Scrolls Online’s gameplay. Hopefully sometime soon we’ll hear more about the types of classes included and their specific skills, as it’s tough to get a real sense of an MMO until you’ve played for hours and gotten acquainted with the intricacies of the battle system and flow of character progression. For now, The Elder Scrolls Online is scheduled to ship in 2013 for PC and Mac.

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