The Elder Scrolls Online was our winner for Most Anticipated MMO of 2013, and for good reason. Over the past decade or so, the Elder Scrolls series of single-player games has set the gold standard for what RPGs can be and what they can do. And while complexity has given ground to accessibility over the past few titles, outstanding quality has always been paramount. It stands to reason, then, that the MMO iteration of this acclaimed series should be just as outstanding.
Here, then, are the five things we are most looking forward to experiencing when The Elder Scrolls Online launches later this year.
1. The Epic Personal Story
It should be safe to assume that all characters, regardless of race, class or faction, will start out as prisoners and gradually rise to soaring heights of power, fame and glory over the course of a long epic tale. That has been the case of every Elder Scrolls game since the beginning - start with a prison break (or release), scavenge like a rat in the city streets and the wilderness, fumble your way into deep conspiracies, scrabble your way to the top of your profession, ladder-climb through the ranks of the guilds, rub elbows with royalty, battle a Daedric god or three and eventually come to be recognized as a great champion of Tamriel. Thus far, that journey has never disappointed.
Zenimax Online hasn't released any real details about the personal story quests yet, but the whole "former convict makes good" story is central to the franchise. What we do know is that the player starts out as a victim of Daedric Prince Molag Bal, who stole the character's soul (which we can only assume is somehow illegal and lands the character in prison). And it has been revealed that players will be able to conquer the White Gold Tower in Cyrodiil through PvP, and become Emperor. So we know both ends of the story already. All that remains now is the awesome journey.
2. The Lore and Setting
Tamriel is like a second home for some of us, and with all the books and such lying around everywhere, it's possible that some of us know more about Tamriel than we know about our actual home towns.
The Elder Scrolls Online will be set mid-way through the Second Era, known as the Age of Heroes, during a time of conflict. The Imperials have fallen under the sway of the evil Daedric Prince Molag Bal, who is trying to drag all of planet Nirn into his private realm, called Coldharbour. The three competing alliances of the Aldmeri Dominion, the Ebonheart Pact and the Daggerfall Covenant all seek to claim control of the Empire for the sake of preservation, independence and peace (respectively). There's also a pandemic lizard-flu, mad wizards everywhere, demonic Daedra popping up more often than usual, and evil omens in the stars.
Much of this has been documented in in-game books. TESO gives players a chance to take part in the historic events they have read about in the other games, before the rise of Tiber Septim who united all the provinces of Tamriel, ruled for 81 years and ascended to godhood for being so awesome.
The explorable world should prove to be as gigantic as the lore behind it. The developers have promised us an enormous game world to explore, consisting of all the lands we saw in the previous three games (Morrowind, Cyrodiil and Skyrim) plus High Rock, Hammerfell, Summerset Isles, Valenwood, Elsweyr and the Black Marsh. Most of these regions haven't been featured as explorable areas in a game since Arena, the very first game in the series.
3. The PvP
Normally, this is not a selling point for me. I'm not terribly competitive by nature and don't play MMORPGs to "win." In most games I do play, the PvP aspect is a whole separate experience that can be avoided in favor of more collaborative, cooperative endeavors. I might jump into a match or two here and there for the sheer hell of it, but it's a rare occasion when I do. Most PvP feels kind of pointless and not-fun. But the PvP in Elder Scrolls Online sounds kind of awesome, and something that I may pay more than a passing thought to.
For starters, PvP takes place in the Imperial province of Cyrodiil, the setting of TES IV: Oblivion. The whole province - every nook and cranny of it, including caves and ruins featured in Oblivion - is being used as the PvP arena. The system is being designed to accommodate hundreds of players onscreen at once for epic open-world battles. The three factions will be vying for territory by taking fortresses and capturing resources like farms and lumber mills. It's not just wailing on the other guy in a timed match for points; there's a purpose to it.
When enough territory is controlled by one faction, that faction can attempt to seize control of the Ruby Throne in Imperial City. Whichever character contributed the most to this conquest will be made Emperor, and will receive combat and leadership bonuses, presumably which last until a new Emperor rises to take his place.
For me, this is the most interesting aspect of TESO's PvP - there is a tangible and awesome reward for participating. If you do a fantastic job, your name doesn't just flash up at the top of a leaderboard for a few seconds until the next match starts. You become the Emperor. I'm not a big fan of PvP, but the promise of being crowned Emperor might motivate me to take it seriously here.
4. Off-The-Rails Character Classes
One of the aspects that has appealed the most to me throughout the Elder Scrolls franchise has been the wide-open character class system. Or, rather, the persistent lack of one. The skill-based character allows for much more freedom and customization - you can totally tailor your character to how you want to play the game, rather than be forced along a progression track by a rigidly-defined class.
Most MMOs use very narrow classes with a tree of trainable skills that make that character really good at one job. With the Elder Scrolls games, your character was defined by his actions; if he chose to wear full plate armor while sneaking around stealing things and killing enemies with magic, he got better at all of those things. Picking a "class" at the start of the game was optional. You could invent your own class with the collection of skills and powers you wanted to use.
TESO will be somewhat more restrictive than previous Elder Scrolls games. It will use set classes that come with unique skill sets, like special attacks, magic and other powers, and will level up by gaining experience rather than by skill-usage. But these classes will not be gear-restricted. There's no reason your character can't swing a tiny dagger while wearing full plate armor, or pair a mighty two-hander battleaxe with fire spells. Whether you'd actually want to do these things is debatable, but that decision is yours to make. Your class is a jumping-off point rather than a career commitment.
5. Dynamic Combat
Dynamic combat is featured in a number of newer games - Guild Wars 2, for example. It relies on positioning and facing. You need to keep your enemy in front of you, within the arc of your attacks, and you must react to your enemy's attacks to block or dodge. Combat is fluid and natural-feeling, far more realistic than tab-selecting your target and hammering on the number keys to deal damage. There's nothing inherently wrong with that system - it's still being used in many major titles right now - but it can't compare to the visceral thrill of lining up that perfect headshot with your bow, or finding just the right angle to take out three enemies with one swing of your greatsword, or of getting that shield up just in time to catch the crossbow bolt streaking towards your throat.
This kind of fluid, reactive combat has its downside, of course. With this style of combat, twitch reflexes play a fairly significant role. You have tiny fractions of a second to get that shield up to block an incoming blow, or to leap out of the way of a fireball. If you lag, you take the full force of the blow. This gives players with very low latency an edge, and players (like me) with very high latency a distinct disadvantage. 200 milliseconds is an eternity in 1-on-1 PvP battles.
There are, of course, a lot more reasons to check out the Elder Scrolls Online when it goes live later this year - social networking integration, awesome voice-acted NPCs, and cool new phasing technology, just to name a few things - but these are our Big Five. What are you most looking forward to? Let us know in our comments!