Updated Sun, Feb 09, 2014 by gunky
After escaping Coldharbor, the Orc Dragonknight found himself on the island of Stros M'kai, off the coast of Hammerfell in western Tamriel. It's unlike anything I have seen in previous Elder Scrolls games, but it has a kind of strangely-familiar feel to it. It's actually a fairly apt metaphor for the rest of the game - the architecture is kind of a hybrid of Arabic and European, grey stone castles with "onion" domes. The art is gorgeous, but it is clearly wrapped around very simple frames.
Characters are kind of the same way. They have richly-detailed textures like Skyrim, but they use simpler, low-polygon-count models like a MMO. Imagine Skyrim textures wrapped around Morrowind models. That's a bit of an exaggeration, of course - the character models in the Elder Scrolls Online are much more detailed than Morrowind's - but it gives you an idea.
Combat animations are interesting, dynamic and relatively fluid, but running animations seem stiff and unnatural. This is not something I'm particularly concerned about, being a beta, but I don't imagine the live game will be that much different, if there's any difference at all. Players expecting a step up from Skyrim graphics - and there are apparently a lot of them - are going to be disappointed. Players coming in from oversaturated MMO worlds will find the Elder Scrolls Online's graphics to be gorgeous. It really is a very pretty MMO, but likely not as breathtaking as The Elder Scrolls VI would be.
Stros M'kai had a very Elder Scrolls kind of feeling to it. Once you've excaped from Coldharbor, you're pretty much free to do whatever the hell you want, apparently. My Orc Dragonknight woke up on a ship, and I didn't try to leave right away - I got the quest from the captain first - but I feel like I probably could have, and that would have been perfectly fine. I decided to focus on questing rather than exploring - I wanted to get some levels in my brief play time, and that's usually the quickest way to do it.
Exploring the island a little bit, I came across a group of dudes betting on a mudcrab fight. This may not be the super-complex AI from Oblivion and Skyrim, where NPCs followed daily patterns of sleeping, working, procuring food, eating and socializing, but it certainly makes the game world feel alive and dynamic.
The Orc Dragonknight graduated from his paired axes to a few different weapons as he ran around the island. This is where the Elder Scrolls Online's hybrid model gets a bit confusing: players get a limited selection of essentially inflexible classes, like any other MMO, but have unrestricted access to any weapons and armor they want to use, like an Elder Scrolls game. There's nothing stopping a player from dressing his big strong melee character in wizard robes and running around shooting bad guys with a bow, or from having his Sorcerer clank around in full plate armor bashing things with a giant mace. Chances are, that kind of setup won't work particularly well in later-game content or in group dungeons and the like, but it's an early option.
Right now, it's tough to say what kind of broad appeal the Elder Scrolls Online is going to have because of this hybrid style. Elder Scrolls fans are going to bristle at the MMO mechanics, and the MMO people who are currently using the impending release of ESO as a reason to point out perceived faults in their current games might not find the mythical ultimate, perfect gaming experience they are apparently expecting.
On the other hand, I personally found the game to be very engaging right from the start. I consider myself to be fairly picky when it comes to MMOs, and when I start a new one I usually end up comparing it unfavorably to the ones I've been playing a long time and really love (e.g. "it doesn't have this feature from LotRO, or this feature from SWTOR, and this other game does this part way better," etc.). But my first three hours of the Elder Scrolls Online left me wanting much, much more.
So I was super-happy when they decided to extend the event. First impressions are good and all, but I'm also interested in things like longevity, immersion and mid-level grind. Luckily, I got the rest of the week to learn about those... stay tuned!