One of the strongest appeals of a massively multiplayer video game is the chance to explore a dynamic digital world that feels rich with history and nuance.
In the case of "Elder Scrolls Online," that world will feel familiar to many players: The fictional continent of Tamriel has hosted all previous "Elder Scrolls" games. But no one game allowed players to explore the entire continent — until "Elder Scrolls Online."
Set thousands of years before the previous games, "Elder Scrolls Online" puts players in the middle of a land divided among three factions: the Daggerfall Covenant, the Ebonhart Pact and the Aldmeri Dominion, who are all competing for control of Tamriel's imperial throne.
The first thing you'll do in "Elder Scrolls Online" is choose a faction for your character to join. Each faction is composed of three "races," or fictional peoples who populate Tamriel. Aside from some aesthetic differences (Orcs have fangs, Bretons have pale skin, Aldmeri have pointy ears), each race has different starting statistics, as well as a unique special power.
We chose to play as a Redguard, a member of the Daggerfall Covenant, whose special powers include increased strength, bonuses with shields, and faster stamina regeneration. (Characters use up stamina when sprinting and carrying out special physical attacks).
Next you'll choose your character's class, or profession. You can pick from: Sorcerer, a magic-wielder; Dragonknight, a heavily armored attacker; Nightblade, a stealth-based unit; and Templar, a balanced unit that can heal adjacent allies. We chose to play as a Dragonknight.
Next, you can customize your character's physical appearance, including height, hairstyle, age and voice. The sliders at the side of the screen also let you tweak nearly everything about your characters, from the width of their hips to how high their cheekbones are.
Finally, name your character, click "Create" and you're ready to play. Note, however, that your character's name is different from your Elder Scrolls Online username. While your username is unique and refers to your account, character names do not have to be unique. This means you can give your character a normal name free of numbers or weird characters.
'Elder Scrolls Online' Gameplay and Story
"Elder Scrolls Online" keeps the series' tradition of opening with the player character in prison. However, while the player escaped before being executed in previous games, in this game the player is already dead.
First, the ghostly image of an older man in a robe appears in your cell. His name is the Prophet, but don't be surprised if he reminds you of another wizened wizardly type. The Prophet's voice actor is Michael Gambon, who played Albus Dumbledore in most of the "Harry Potter" movies.
The Prophet opens your cell and tells you to find a warrior named Lyris Titanborn, who will help you escape. Lyris will seem familiar to gamers, as well — her voice actor is Jennifer Hale, who provides the female voice for Commander Shepard of the "Mass Effect" series.
Lyris informs you that you were sacrificed to a dark god (or Daedra, in the game's lore) named Molag Bal. Now a soulless "Shriven," you are trapped in an underworld called Coldharbor. Lyris, who is not dead, has come to Coldharbor to save the Prophet and return you to your body, and to Tamriel in the process. Her arrival triggered a prison riot that the two of you can use to make your escape.
Now your objective is to find the Prophet's cell in Coldharbor and help Lyris release the wizardly character. Lyris accompanies you down the halls, through an armory where you'll choose a weapon (we chose a sword and shield) and outside to a riverbed. Here we first encountered other real-life players, gamers who had also just begun a new playthrough of "Elder Scrolls Online" and were on the same quest as we were.
The riverbed introduces two new enemies: Flame Atronachs, floating fire creatures with explosive attacks, and the zombielike Feral Shriven. Here we regretted making our avatar so small of stature, as it felt like our sword attacks sometimes sailed right under the floating enemies. In this and other battle scenes, new players will find Lyris' assistance helpful as they accustom themselves to the controls.
After this section, players will travel through a very short, cave-like area, with a few traps and plenty of chests to open, before finally reaching the Prophet's cell. There, Lyris reveals that in order to free the Prophet, she must take his place in the prison. You'll need to activate the switches to make the exchange, and then you'll find yourself with the Prophet as your companion instead of Lyris.
You've got just one more enemy to fight, a snakelike creature who guards Coldharbor's exit, and then the Prophet will transport the both of you back to Tamriel, with one final warning that the two of you will be separated during the process and will have to find each other again.
Because we were part of the Daggerfall Covenant, we ended up on a privateer's ship off the coast of the Redguard province of Hammerfell, where the alliance between the Redguards and Bretons is proving easier in theory than it is in practice.
The captain of the vessel that rescued you will offer you your first optional quest, but at this point Tamriel is your oyster; you can pursue story-driven quests, play with or against friends, or simply explore the world.
'Elder Scrolls Online' Graphics and System Requirements
The "Elder Scrolls Online" trailers we've seen thus far have dazzled us with realistic, high-definition graphics and epic battle scenes. As with just about every video game, however, the game itself is not on the same level as its trailers.
That's not to say the graphics are poor — far from it. The game comes with five different graphics quality levels: Minimum, Low, Medium, High and Ultra-High, as well as a custom setting. The default is Low, but you can change it in the game's Settings tab by pressing the Esc key during play.
On Ultra-High, the game's graphics are on the same level as the PC version of "Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" from 2011. Every texture, from wood to rough stone, pops off the screen; light gleams off metal objects, and fire and water, two of the most difficult objects to render, move and flicker admirably well.
The minimum system requirements for PCs are: Windows XP 32-bit, a Dual Core 2.0GHz processor or equivalent, 2GB of system RAM, 60 GB of free hard disk space, and a DirectX 9.0 compliant video card (NVIDIA GeForce 8800 or ATI Radeon 2600 or better).
On Mac, the minimum requirements are: OS X 10.7.0 or better, an Intel Core 2 Duo processor, a video card equal or better than an Intel HD Graphics 400 or NVIDIA GeForce GT 330M or an ATI Radeon HD 6490M, 4GB of RAM and 60 GB of hard disk space.
We played the beta version of "Elder Scrolls Online" on a Lenovo Ideapad with an i5 Intel core processor and an NVIDIA Geforce GT 650m graphics card. On Low and Medium graphics settings, the system played the game with no problems, but on High and Ultra-High, we got a choppy frame rate. However, this is certainly more of a problem with our hardware than with the game itself.
Overall, we were happy and impressed with the graphics of "Elder Scrolls Online." Gamers with high-quality hardware will be treated to a visually stunning gameplay experience that blows most other MMOs out of the water. Players with less powerful graphics cards and processors, however, can still enjoy the game's detailed environment, and can play the game without any serious hang-ups.
However, note that when the game initially goes on sale, the high volume of players might cause some lag in performance — at least until the developers make the necessary adjustments.
'Elder Scrolls Online' Release Date
"Elder Scrolls Online" will be released for Windows and Mac OS X on April 4, 2014. The game will cost $60, plus $15 per month after the first 30 days. You can purchase the game on discs, or download the game's client directly from the "Elder Scrolls" online store after the release date.
Those who prefer to play the game on a console will have to wait a bit longer: "Elder Scrolls Online" will come to Xbox One and PlayStation 4 sometime in June. PlayStation owners can play the game without paying for a PlayStation Plus account, which is usually required to play multiplayer games on the console. However, Xbox One owners will need to pay for an Xbox Live Gold subscription on top of the game's monthly fee.
PC and Mac players will be able to play with each other on the same servers. However, PlayStation 4 players will only be able to play with other PlayStation owners, and Xbox One players only with other Xbox One owners.
If you preorder the game before its release date, you'll also get the "Explorer's Pack" add-on, which allows gamers to play as any of the nine races in any of the three alliances. That means even though the Redguards are supposed to be part of the Daggerfall covenant, with this add-on you can create a Redguard character who is part of the Ebonhart Pact or the Aldmeri Dominion.
Fans of the series might also be interested in the $79.99 "Digital Imperial Edition," which comes with digital in-game content. That includes the ability to play as an Imperial (another Tamriel race) in any of the three alliances, a white Imperial horse to ride through the game, a pet Mudcrab and the Rings of Mara, which allow your character to marry another player's character, giving you both extra experience points when you play together.
Finally, hardcore fans might want to splurge on the "Physical Imperial Edition," which for $99.99 includes all the previously mentioned digital content as well as a printed map of Tamriel, a 224-page illustrated guide and a 12-inch statue of Molag Bal, the game's demonic antagonist.