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Enter an enormous medieval fantasy world rife with political conflict and threatened by ancient evil. No, it's not "Game of Thrones." It's "Elder Scrolls Online," a new massively multiplayer online (MMO) game set in the fictional continent of Tamriel, thousands of years before the previous version of the game series.
The "Elder Scrolls" series is known for its huge, elaborate fantasy world, and players have long been clamoring for the ability to explore more of Tamriel, from Cyrodiil and Skyrim and beyond. But what everyone wants to know is, does "Elder Scrolls Online" feel like an "Elder Scrolls" game?
Creating Your Character
We started off by designing a character to serve as our avatar. "Elder Scrolls Online" lets you choose from 9 of the 10 groups that occupy the fictional continent of Tamriel: Bretons, Nords, Redguards, Khajit, Argonians, Orcs, Dark Elves (Dunmer), High Elves (Altmer) and Wood Elves (Bosmer).
Each group has unique abilities and different starting stats. Your character also determines which of three political factions you join, but for some players, the choice will come down to how you want your character to look. For example, Bretons look like humans, with pale skin and blond, brown, red or black hair. Argonians are humanoid lizards covered in scales. High Elves have narrow faces, yellow-gold skin and pointed ears.
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Elder Scrolls Online also has you choose among four classes: Dragonknight, Templar, Sorcerer or Nightblade. These also come with skills and stat bonuses that favor certain play styles. Dragonknights tend to wear heavy armor and charge sword-first into the thick of battle, whereas Nightblades do better with light armor, stealth and archery.
We played as a Breton Templar, a class halfway between Dragonknight and Sorcerer that combines close combat with offensive and healing magic.
Skills and Items
On the surface, gameplay looks a lot like what you see in "Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim." Your characters have three kinds of vitals: health, "magicka" and stamina.
Each character also comes with a number of skills categorized into Class; (Templars have Aedric Spear, Dawn's Wrath and Restoring Light); Weapon (based on what you use in combat); Armor (based on light, medium or heavy armor); Racial Skills (Bretons, for example, are more resistant to magic-based attacks); and Craft Skills. Each skill has abilities that can be unlocked. (Yes, you can dual-wield weapons.)
You start at Level 1, where you have only a simple, low-level weapon and some threadbare clothes. Defeating enemies and completing in-game events (called quests) earns you experience points, which let you level up. Each time you reach a new level, you can increase your total health, magicka or stamina. You'll also get a skill point, which can be used to unlock a new ability. These abilities also level up separately from your character's level when you use them, which increases the ability’s strength.
For example, when we reached Level 2, we used our skill point to unlock the first ability in the "Aedric Spear" skill, called "Puncturing Strikes," a magical attack available only to Templars. Each time you use Puncturing Strikes, it increases in rank, making it more powerful.
Armor is a little harder to come by. Unlike previous "Elder Scrolls" games, you can't just strip the clothes off the first dead body you encounter. Instead, you'll have to buy armor, forge your own by collecting the proper materials, complete various quests that give armor and clothing as a reward, or hope you defeat an enemy that randomly drops a useful item.
We spent the first several hours of "Elder Scrolls Online" without finding any armor, which made it much more difficult to defeat some of the stronger enemies. Fortunately, death isn't the end: If your health meter runs out, you'll have to wait a few moments before simply reappearing where you stood. However, you will lose some durability, and you'll have to pay for repairs at the next blacksmith's shop.
Combat and Quests
Most nonplayer characters (characters not controlled by another player) will have some kind of mission (called "player vs. environment" in MMO speak, or just PVE) for you to complete, which will reward you with gold, experience points and sometimes a useful item.
Some of these quests are difficult to complete alone, particularly at the beginning of the game. A few hours in, our Breton Templar character embarked on a local quest to stop an assassination attempt against King Casimir, but due to our low level and lack of armor (stuff's expensive), the head assassin, Varrick, effortlessly killed us again and again. We had to go back into the city square to find a player who would help us (and, hopefully, not be a jerk about it). Fortunately, finding such help was not difficult, and we also noticed we weren't the only players having trouble with the local quests.
Players who are passionate about the game's story will want to focus on PVE (player vs. environment), at least at first. More social or competitive gamers will want to join a guild, or an organized group of players who team up to tackle larger PVE quests or, more commonly, compete in player vs. player mode, or PVP (known in the game's story as the Alliance War).
Playing PVP earns you Alliance Points, related to whichever faction your character belongs to. These let you buy and upgrade siege machines.
It's important to remember that "Elder Scrolls Online" is also supposed to be way bigger than previous "Elder Scrolls" games, which were already large. There's a massive amount of content here, so as long as you keep paying the $15 per month, you can expect to find your money's worth.
A good online community is essential to any MMO's success. We were pleasantly surprised with the helpfulness and friendliness of just about everyone we've encountered since "Elder Scrolls Online" launched. Many guilds were openly recruiting in the game's local chat feature, offering membership to anyone who was interested. We joined two guilds that focused on a mix of PVP and PVE and were clearly passionate about "Elder Scrolls" fantasy.
A warning to modders: Because "Elder Scrolls Online" runs on a single "megaserver" with no offline single-player mode, it's impossible to "mod," or make player-created items, tweaks or quests.
Previous "Elder Scrolls" games have begun with the player in some type of prison, awaiting execution. "Elder Scrolls Online," which takes place hundreds of years before the other games, is a little different. This time, your execution happens in the opening cutscene (so there's nothing you can do about it), and your prison is a kind of hell called Coldharbor.
Fortunately, a ghostlike figure (voiced by Michael Gambon, who played Dumbledore in the later "Harry Potter" films) appears in your cell and tells you he's going to help you break out. In exchange, you'll have to free his body from its imprisonment elsewhere in Coldharbor.
Upon escaping, you'll appear in one of several locations scattered across the fictional continent of Tamriel. (As a Breton, we ended up in the city of Daggerfall, in the Breton province called High Rock). At that point, the world is your oyster. You'll find tons of smaller quests, from helping a swineherd track down his missing pig to stopping an assassination attempt on King Casimir.
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The more time you spend in "Elder Scrolls Online," the more you'll pick up on the political and racial tension brewing in Tamriel. The continent's provinces are divided into three factions: the Daggerfall Covenant (composed of Bretons, Orcs and Redguards); the Ebonhart Pact (composed of Nords, Dark Elves and Argonians); and the Aldmeri Dominion (composed of High Elves, Wood Elves and Khajit).
The three factions fight for control of the Imperial City, which is in chaos. In terms of gameplay, this means that the Imperial province of Cyrodiil is the PVP area: if you visit, you'd best get ready to defend yourself.
All By Myself
Even if you're playing PVE alone, you'll constantly be running into other human players. The crowds make the cities of "Elder Scrolls Online" far more vibrant than anything past games in the series have seen. However, when you're on a mission to save the king and every step of the way is full of other players clumsily hacking their way through the exact same quest, it's clear that you're far from the only "chosen one," no matter what the Prophet may tell you.
Part of the previous "Elder Scrolls" games' appeal was the feeling that your actions permanently affected the world around you. In an MMO where everyone wants to play the same quests, that's just not feasible.
The massively multiplayer nature of "Elder Scrolls Online" removes one of the best things about earlier games in the series: the loneliness. That might sound silly at first. Why would you want to play a lonely game? But there was something about wandering through empty stretches of tundra or plunging into dark, mazelike underground caves that made "Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" so beautiful.
By the same token, "Elder Scrolls Online" has something no other "Elder Scrolls" game has had: in-game community. Instead of pairing up with computer-controlled characters with a penchant for charging stupidly into battle, "Elder Scrolls Online" lets you team up with real people.
So, the question becomes: Are you a solitary or a social gamer? "Elder Scrolls Online" has a good balance of quests and team-based content for both types of players. It's possible to play the game like a single-player adventure for hours at a time, but some quests simply can't be completed alone.
Art and Graphics
From Highrock to Hammerfell, each area of “Elder Scrolls Online” has a unique look and feel. Previous games in the series have taken place in a single province of Tamriel, so fans will instantly recognize urban Cyrodiil and frigid Skyrim. Other places, like Valenwood and Elseweyr, have never been visitable locations. For serious "Elder Scrolls" fans, that alone might make "Elder Scrolls Online" worth the price of admission.
Currently, not all areas of Tamriel are playable, butBethesdasaid it has plans to expand the game.
You don't need a killer graphics card to play "Elder Scrolls Online"; the game has five graphics settings, ranging from Minimum to Ultra-High, so if your frame rate is stuttering, you can drop to a lower graphics setting and keep playing.
The minimum requirements for "Elder Scrolls Online" on a PC are Windows XP operating system or later, a Dual Core 2.0 GHz processor, 2GB of RAM, 60 GB of free hard-disk space and a DirectX 9.0-compliant video card with 512MB of RAM with an NVIDIA GeForce 8800 or an ATI Radeon 2600 or better.
On a Mac, the minimum specs are Mac OS X 10.7.0 or later, 4GB of RAM, 60GB of storage, an Intel Core 2 Duo processor or better, a video card equal to or better than an Intel HD Graphics 4000, NVIDIA GeForce GT 330M or an ATI Radeon HD 6490M.
In Ultra-High, every texture pops, and every surface glitters as you move. There’s certainly no ray-tracing, but the graphics look good and keep the environments feeling vibrant.
The game's skill and item interface menus consist of simple drop-downs. It's a far cry from the beautiful constellation design found in "Skyrim," but these get the job done.
Music and Sound
With big names like Michael Gambon, Jennifer Hale and Bill Nighy providing the voices of some major nonplayer characters, the voice acting in "Elder Scrolls Online" is the best of the series so far.
The game's music is tailored to each location, and helps set the mood and tension. However, it was largely forgettable, especially when compared to the striking score of "Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim."
So, should you buy this game? That depends on the type of player you are. If you like both the "Elder Scrolls" series and MMOs, "Elder Scrolls Online" is your jam. Buy it now.
If you like "Elder Scrolls" or other single-player games with rich and complex fantasy worlds, then there's a lot to like about "Elder Scrolls." But if you're not used to MMOs, then you will find the transition jarring.
If you're an enthusiastic modder, or if social online gaming isn't your thing, then you'll definitely want to skip "Elder Scrolls Online."
Some of the best things "Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" — modding, permanence, a you-versus-the-world attitude, to name a few — are missing from "Elder Scrolls Online," or simply can't be done in an MMO at all. However, being an MMO lets "Elder Scrolls" do some things better than it ever could have done as a single-player role-playing game. With thousands of other players logged in at any given time, Tamriel has never felt more like a real place. "Elder Scrolls Online" is a good game overall, but it's a better MMO than it is an "Elder Scrolls" game.
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Jill Scharr is a creative writer and narrative designer in the videogame industry. She's currently Project Lead Writer at the games studio Harebrained Schemes, and has also worked at Bungie. Prior to that she worked as a Staff Writer for Tom's Guide, covering video games, online security, 3D printing and tech innovation among many subjects.