It's nice to be back behind bars. The Elder Scrolls Online brings familiar notes the fore immediately, clasping you in irons and having you awaken in a prison. But it is not the brig of a ship as in Morrowind, nor the Imperial jail in which you find yourself at the start of Oblivion. No, you start your journey in ZeniMax Online's Tamriel-set MMO as one of the many soulless denizens of the ethereal Wailing Prison, being chatted to by a ghost played by an actor with an instantly recognisable voice.
Aside from what has been a deep foray into the wonders of WildStar, I'd still hardly call myself an MMO aficionado, but The Elder Scrolls Online made me feel right at home from the very start.
I adored Morrowind and its expansive DLC, Oblivion took close to 100 hours out of me, and Skyrim was a mainstay in my disc tray for the best part of a year. The point is that I've been a huge fan of The Elder Scrolls series for some time, and I won't be the only one coming into this game from that perspective rather than those of genre fans. But, as I said, ZeniMax have done much to make TESO seem like a familiar adventure from the start, and that begins with a UI that's cribbed almost entirely from the PC version of Skyrim.
The level of customisation just at the start is almost absurd. The detail you can go into when it comes to the appearance of your character is almost insane. If you want to make a stick-thin Khajiit assassin with an arse the size of a houseboat, you can. I spent the best part of an hour concocting weird and wonderful characters with almost impossible physical proportions -- like the pot-bellied Argonian Dragonknight whose neck was almost the length of his forearm and whose eyes were practically in his mouth. No afros, though, ZeniMax? FOR SHAME!
Before you even get to the face and body factory, though, you'll need to pick your race and faction, and that holds some serious significance not only for where you start off, but also how characters will treat you throughout the game. That's always been the case with The Elder Scrolls, and it adds to the feeling of Tamriel come alive. There are four classes from which to choose -- Dragonknight, Nightblade, Sorcerer, or Templar -- but this opens up rather quickly, and you'll swiftly realise that progression works the same way it does in previous Elder Scrolls games: get better by doing.
The game's opening jaunt through the prison highlighted another key change from traditional MMO staples: the sheer amount of loot on offer. There are some subtle differences, such as colour-coding for determining rarity, but loot gathering is much as it was in previous titles. Where you'd have professions for gathering up resources in other MMOs, TESO seems perfectly willing to just test your exploratory patience. A number of times during my first couple of hours, I had that little voice that always creeps into my mind whenever I'm playing an RPG that says, "I know there are about thirty urns in this room, but we're not going anywhere until you've checked them all!" Just in case, you understand.
The combat is very Skyrim-esque, which means it's a wee bit clunky and now has the added bonus of giant red cones on the floor to telegraph special attacks. The left mouse button attacks, hold to do a stronger attack, and the right button brings up your block. I have to say, it does feel smoother than Skyrim to some extent, and I've not had any problems with lag...yet. Moreover, I feel that the first-perspective helps to push the telegraphs to the periphery rather more easily than the third-person camera in WildStar allowed. It helps too that enemies physically telegraph attacks as well, meaning you don't find yourself constantly staring at the floor rather than enjoying the scenery. And, you know, that axe-wielding skeleton that's trying to lop your head off.
The prison looks fantastic, especially when you crank up the graphical settings as high as they can go, but the level of detail seems to dip a little once you cross back over into the land of the living. Console gamers will be impressed, but anyone who ran Skyrim on Ultra settings might find themselves a little underwhelmed. It's still a rather pretty looking game, though some of the character animations are inadvertently hilarious. These games -- most of Bethesda's games, in fact -- have long been gems in terms of design, but amusingly shoddy in terms of the technical side of things. It's holding together for me currently, mind.
Back in the land of the living, the nature of TESO s an MMO starts becoming a little more noticeable. There's nothing more immersion breaking than a swarm of would-be heroes around an NPC quest giver. It immediately takes you out of the world that ZeniMax have done a fine job of building, and reminds you that this is an experience farm for millions, not just you. But that's a singular gripe, and not a very big one at that.
You see, in these early stages I feel like I'm being given the freedom to do what I'd normally do in Elder Scrolls games, which is to go off at my own pace, explore every nook and cranny, learn about the world and the lore and the characters as much as I possibly can and truly lose myself in the setting. And TESO appears to cater towards that to begin with. There are others rushing about, eager to level up as quickly as possible and get to that endgame content as swiftly as they can, but there are also others clearly taking their time like me and enjoying a world steeped in a depth in lore that other MMOs can only dream of.
For every slightly grating reminder that this is an MMO, there's a wonderful moment where someone rescues you from death at the last minute, or you're able to team up, often wordlessly, to take down a particularly pesky enemy. There were a number of spammers initially in the chat window, but then someone who actually needed help turned up and barrages of advice came in from everywhere and I inadvertently saved a pair of Nords and then we teamed up for a bit and just went exploring. And then one of them fell down a cliff and I left.
My first few hours in TESO have been incredibly enjoyable, pleasantly familiar, always with that Elder Scrolls overture somewhere close by, and felt more like a massive expansion than a dedicated MMO at times. I know that as I level up, things will progress, enemies will get harder, banding up with become more of a necessity, and I'll start to see more and more traditional MMO features, but TESO has surprised me. That the skill progression stays true to the series rather than this game's genre is a huge boon in my book. Your choice of starter area makes a huge difference as well. I found Daggerfall to be pretty weak, and Ebonheart has its moments, but the first few hours in the Aldmeri Dominion are absolutely brilliant, and it's a great starting point for crafters given the nature of the quests and the resources you'll amass early on.
A strong start, then, full of promise and potential, and we'll be back with more instalments in this ongoing review series over the coming week or two, before delivering a grand verdict very soon. It's early days, and I've not played nearly enough of TESO yet, but I have a good feeling about it. I just pray that's not undone after the first few hours.