At first glance upon its initial announcementThe Elder Scrolls Online seemed to be “doing it wrong,” not embracing the style, combat and general gameplay that fans of The Elder Scrolls series of single-player games loved so much. To their credit, developer ZeniMax Online Studios turned it around, beginning with a proper (re)introduction using gameplay.

They later followed it up with one of the coolest cinematic trailers we’ve seen in a while – and although such a video is entirely misleading in regard to promoting the gameplay experience – it was timed well with beta sign-ups to encourage players to at least try out the game. And try out the game, people have begun.

The marketing campaign is about to begin for The Elder Scrolls Online and several press outlets have already gotten hands on with the title. Here are the key details and highlights pulled from all of the published previews:

  • First thing players do is pick a faction: Daggerfall Covenant, Aldmeri Dominion, and the Ebonheart Pact
  • The game’s intro/tutorial sees the player killed by the primary antagonist, Molag Bal, and then awakened in Coldharbour (in Oblivion) and then escaping with the help of the Prophet and emerging via portal on the shores of Stros M’Kai (Hammerfell), where the player is then found by a smuggler. That starting zone depends on which faction is chosen, but the basic story for each player involves reclaiming their soul. Every player is “the hero” and the game can be played solo, or grouped up with other heroes.
  • Molag Bal is stuck in Oblivion so his attacks come via Dark Anchors which pull parts of Tamriel into his realm. It’s up to players and members of the Fighters Guild to break the anchors.
  • Each faction has a region of Tamriel and their quests take place strictly there until they finish and hit level 50. There is cross-region PvP however (takes place in Cyrodiil) and when a player hit the cap and completes all the main quests in their starting region, they’ll be able to visit the other regions with that same character and play again (like end game content) and the difficulty and loot will scale up accordingly. Once two regions are conquered, the player can play the third one, at an even harder difficulty. There are reportedly 120-150 worth of quest content in each region for launch, and as players take their characters to foreign lands, they can still only group with their faction allies.
  • There are four classes: Dragonknight, Templar, Sorcerer and Nightblade, but the goal is to have players craft their own character. Classes do not restrict armor and players can customize their character (and name and age) as expected in an Elder Scrolls game.
  • There are multiple skill trees for Guild (i.e. joining the Fighters Guild or Mages Guild) and Race, even things like Vampire which is still being kept under wraps. The familiar Fighters and Mages Guilds will be included in The Elder Scrolls Online when the game launches later this year, but other notable guilds (i.e. Thieves and The Dark Brotherhood assassins) won’t be added until sometime later.
  • Upon leveling up, players can choose to boost the three staple bars of The Elder Scrolls series: Stamina, Magicka or Health. Players can put their limited amount of points into familiar skills like two-handed weapons, destruction or bow and by doing so, unlock active/passive skills. Active skills also level up based on use, and according to PC Gamer, at level 5, players can upgrade/morph those skills along one of two paths. The example they gave let them turn a summoning skill into ” an exploding scamp or a hulking clannfear.”
  • The Elder Scrolls Online also includes a crafting system that falls in line with the series, including weapon weaponsmith, armorsmith, alchemy, enchanting, and provisionist. Players can do all of them but can only select on major skill to master.
  • General gameplay mixes traditional MMO with modern TES, meaning left-click is for attacks and right-click if for defensive blocking/posturing. Destructoid labeled it boring at first, explaining that it got better when projectiles and other abilities were unlocked through progression.
  • The big announcement is that TESO will be playable in first-person (thanks to fan feedback – all animations will be ready for launch) in addition to tradtional MMO  third-person.
  • Double-tapping in any direction offers a quick evade move, but for spells/abilities, these are not equipped like in previous games, and instead are accessed via the hotbar.
  • Like most MMOs, there’s a hotbar for quick access to abilities but it’s not based on cooldown timers or turns. There are six slots on the bar with an additional one for an “ultimate” skill. Using them depends on your Magicka/Stamina/Health bars as with any TES game.
  • HUD features are minimal across the board, keeping screenspace clean and focused on the world. There’s the usual TES crosshair, bars for Magicka/Stamina/Health, and a minimap.
  • There’s a stealth mechanic, but it’s not as comprehensive as Skyrim. Players can enter the traditional sneak mode (and will get the traditional eye icon over the crosshair, and attempt to avoid being seen. Players can also wear disguises to bypass NPCs.
  • Players can fast-travel by paying in-game currency to use Wayshrines (think: Guild Wars 2)
  • NPCs (all voiced) with quests glow to indicate they have something to talk to the player about. Although the quest system is familiar, players are not stuck traveling from one quest area to the next and can take their own path.
  • Press didn’t get hands-on with PvP, but ZeniMax Online Studios did showcase an attack on a Keep where siege weapons (Catapults and Ballistas) were involved. Players were able to take out parts of the wall to allow other players access, while a battering ram attempted to knock in the front doors. The game will support these battles with “hundreds” of players.
  • Once captured, players can then use Keeps as a method of fast-travel.
  • There are decision points in a lot of quests, and the examples that arose during the previews involved letting someone poisoned, where the player could choose to let them live or die, recruiting between NPC characters, etc. and they weren’t simple good vs. evil type choices. Each had an impact on how the player was received after.

Some features (or missing features) that hardcore fans should be aware of:

  • Cannot attack any neutral/friendly NPCs (understandably, since its a shared world)
  • Previous zones don’t scale to player level so aren’t replayable
  • Players cannot sit down in chairs/benches
  • NPCs do not drop the items they were wearing/using like previous TES games
  • Players cannot physically move and drop objects
  • Players cannot weapon swap until leveled up to unlock that skill
  • Players are restricted on where they can travel based on quests and such.
  • Schools of magic reduced to Destruction and Restoration
  • Thieves & Dark Brotherhood guilds will not be ready for launch
  • Roads, doors and other objects are disproportionately larger to fit multiple players

From all of the previews, there’s a sense of optimism that The Elder Scrolls Online is shaping up to be a fun MMO, but one that’s more of an MMO trying to replicate elements of the series as opposed the series expanding to allow multiplayer. ZeniMax is making it very clear that they want a game that appeals to both MMO players and TES fans, so inherently, die hard Arena, Daggerfall, Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim fans won’t be getting that same detailed world, visual prowess, etc., but they’re getting something that’s familiar.

If you’re going to attend PAX East, ZeniMax will be hosting a little shindig on Saturday, March 23rd at the Castle Meeting Space in downtown Boston (347th Tamriel Beer Garden). At PAX itself, The Elder Scrolls Online will be playable for the very first time for the public.

[Click to see full-size invitation]

The Elder Scrolls Online party PAX East

Maybe The Elder Scrolls 6 will feature some sort of multiplayer option down the road. What are your thoughts on the franchise and MMO aspirations?

ZeniMax has been noticeably silent and dodgy on the monetization part and there’s still no word on what sort of subscription/freemium service it’ll live by. Perhaps at PAX East next week where TESO will be playable for the first time to the public.

 The Elder Scrolls Online is confirmed for a 2013 release for PC and Mac.

Follow me on Twitter @rob_keyes.

Sources: AGB, BethesdaDestructoid, IGNMassively, PC Gamer, Shack News