Updated Sun, Feb 09, 2014 by gunky
As I hinted at in a recent angry rant, I got an invitation to the Elder Scrolls Online's press beta weekend, which ran from January 31 to February 4. Unfortunately, due to the enormous size of the game client and my chronically-weak internet connection, I didn't get a lot of hands-on time with the game. By the time the game client was downloaded and installed, the event was nearly over, and I only got about 3 hours' worth of time into the game. And, evidently, I wasn't the only one this happened to.
Three hours is not a lot of time - in general, we prefer to log a minimum of 20 or so hours into a new game before writing about it. You really can't get a lot done in three hours in terms of thoroughly reviewing a game's mechanics and systems, and you certainly can't get a feel for mid- and late-game content. But three hours is enough to build a solid first impression and blast through the introduction. So that's what I set out to do: build as thorough a first impression as 3 intensive hours can provide.
Your first taste of any game is the character generator, and this is where you can start to see the unique hybridization that is the Elder Scrolls Online. On the one hand, it is way more detailed than most MMOs, with a giant array of sliders for body and face proportions and a great assortment of details. You're not just presented with a palette of faces and hairdos so that everyone ends up looking more or less the same. It's more like an Elder Scrolls game, where you can make pretty much exactly the character you want.
The class selection aspect, on the other hand, is very MMO-like. Or, rather, more like the very first Elder Scrolls games from 20 years ago, but with even fewer options. As of the press beta, there were 4 classes to choose from: Dragonknight, Sorcerer, Nightblade and Templar. You pick one and play it. That's it - no tweaking ability scores or sets of specialty skills, no gradual introduction to your choices through gameplay.
That's the hybrid. It's an Elder Scrolls roleplaying game mated with a MMO. You get aspects of both things - some MMO aspects will be more pronounced in some areas, but others will retain the unique Elder Scrolls flavor.For my brief introduction, I rolled a heavily-tattooed and bearded Orc Dragonknight. He looked pretty badass.
Some good news here: the Elder Scrolls Online stays firmly rooted in tradition with its new-character introduction. The character starts out once again as a prisoner and must battle his way to freedom while learning the basic mechanics of the game. This time around, the prison is located in Coldharbor, the hellish Daedric realm of Molag Bal.
The hybrid nature of the game is quite solidly established here. Gameplay is simple and dynamic like an Elder Scrolls game - left-click to hit whatever is in front of you, hold it down for a power-attack, right-click to block, both buttons together for an interrupt.
After gaining a level, the character has access to special class powers, which are slotted in an action bar at the bottom and bound to the top-row number keys by default. This is more MMO-like, but reminiscent of newer games rather than older games with hundreds of skills filling row upon row of action bars.
Combat is dynamic and active, somewhere between the simple Elder Scrolls combat style and that of modern action-combat MMOs. Enemies telegraph powerful area attacks, and these can be interrupted or dodged. I didn't get a chance to mess around with a magic-user character, so I can't speak to how that works, but melee characters feel simple and powerful. My Orc Dragonknight started out with a pair of axes, and figured out some basic combat moves against Coldharbor enemies fairly quickly.
It seems like they burned through half of the big-name voice talent for the introduction. And the encounters with these characters feel all-too-brief. It is my hope that the player returns to Coldharbor at some point later in the story and reconnects with the characters left behind there. But, with only a 3-hour session in which to explore the game, I'll have to find out more about all that later on.