Bethesda made a surprise appearance at Sony’s E3 2013 press conference where it was unveiled that ZeniMax Online Studios’ ambitious attempt to bring The Elder Scrolls franchise into the MMO market would not be PC-exclusive, but would be coming to next-gen consoles as well.

The Elder Scrolls Online will be coming to PS4 and Xbox One and we just played it for the first time and as game director Matt Firor told us, it’s a testament to how powerful consoles, describing them as “beefy PCs at heart.” So how does TESO compare to Skyrim and the series as we know it? Read on for our preview.

Unlike last year’s E3 where we were witness to a gameplay video sizzle reel for The Elder Scrolls Online, this year with the game already in closed beta, Bethesda and ZeniMax were ready to focus on letting players play. No big fancy presentation. Because an MMO of this size cannot be properly explored in one-hour session, we were shown a short video highlighting some of the higher level content, from big bosses and unique environments, to the epic magic abilities. We also briefly saw the late-added first-person gameplay which we were told is working in the dev version but not quite ready for the public to try.

The Elder Scrolls Online Screenshot Altmer Lute

The big question veteran games have on their mind is whether or not TESO lives up to The Elder Scrolls name and MMO players are wondering if it’s just another – albeit bigger budgeted – traditional MMO that doesn’t offer much newness in terms of gameplay. At this point, nearly a year before the game will be ready for release, it’s hard to tell.

We began in the character customization screen which MMO fans and The Elder Scrolls gamers will appreciate. It’s very comprehensive, letting you customize every aspect of the physical design of the character. In this build we could only choose the Daggerfall Covenant, meaning we were limited to Breton, Redguard and Orcs.

There are four classes to choose from, which mostly serve as pre-defined templates that you can still edit around.

  • Dragonknight
  • Sorceror
  • Templar
  • Nightblade (not playable here)

The Elder Scrolls Online Screenshot Preview Town

There are sliders to customize each specific physical attribute, divided into sections  – what you’d expect from TES game:

  • Upper Body – torso, chest, gut, waist, arm, hand
  • Lower Body – hip, posterior dimensions, leg, foot, neck, skin color
  • There’s also a triangular slider where players can simply lean towards thin, large, muscular and it adjusts all of the affected attributes.
  • For the character face, there’s a similar option for choosing a heroic, soft, or angular face, heroic being the big-jawed.
  • Only 8 hairstyles on the Breton male
  • 5 ages to choose from
  • Face – forehead slope, cheekbone size/height,jaw, chin size/height
  • 20 eye colors
  • Eyes – size, angle, separation,height,squint
  • Brow – eyebrows, height, skew, depth
  • Nose – shape,height, width, length
  • Mouth – height, curve, width
  • Ears – size, rotation, height, tip flare
  • You can randomize as well. We did and got a pirate-looking Mickey Rourke.

We began the gameplay session at level 5 and therefore had a few skills points to assign. We unlocked 5 skills, including a group healing ability, a ranged attack and a melee attack, which must be dragged and dropped onto the hotbar. They’re then used in-game by hitting the number keys like any other MMO. As for primary weapon-based combat, left click swings, holding it down does a power attack and right-click blocks. Holding both buttons down lets you stun enemies attempting to cast spells against you – if you’re close enough.

The Elder Scrolls Online Screenshot Preview Dungeon

The controls are simple but mastering them is more about learning the right combinations (and order) of power attacks and melee strikes, depending on the enemy type. The early build we played had a few issues in this regard, with incoming ranged attacks passing through environmental objects, and damage dealt and blocks not always representative of what’s actually occurring visually between the combatants on screen. This is where the issues of MMOs take over. It doesn’t feel like the combat in Skyrim, at least not yet.

We started equipped with heavy armor but the game brings back, light and medium as well. Any character class can wear any armor and the same goes for the weapons. All of it factors into the stamina bar, which is brought back along with the standard TES health and magicka bars as well. The map, journal, character and inventory screens will feel very familiar for Elder Scrolls fans as well and it’s evident that in most aspects of the game’s design, ZeniMax is attempting to replicate what those fans are looking for.

We begin our journey in a forest and looking at the minimap in the top right we can see points of interest (POIs) which are unexplored ruins, structures, caves, etc. Going up to these locations earns XP so players can literally  level up from being explorers, and earn more than just loot for being adventurous. New quests and quest objectives also show up on the map so players always have somewhere to go, it’s just up to them to decide what to do.

The Elder Scrolls Online Screenshot Nord Female

We checked out an old stone tower and found an entrance to an underground structure. There were two higher level guards too difficult to beat at level 5, despite our stubborn repeated efforts, so we left and met a stressed out fellow hanging out with two guards on the road. Talking to him led to quest to seek out a ghost haunting that man’s property, so we accepted and went on our way. The objective was to search three piles of rubble for evidence of the ghost and by doing so we found a journal and jewelry which told the story of a cowardly rich man who gave a necklace to the family’s hired help whom he claimed to love. The man’s mother found out and condemned the girl to prison and the man said nothing to stop him. Sharing that info to the man lead to another quest to find a book to draw out the ghost and speak with her, but that led to another quest and another, a thread in interesting story bits, all voice acted, that involved a moral dilemma. In our one hour we couldn’t take on other quests to see if most of them are that in-depth, but we were happy that fetch-and-retrieve nature of question was more dynamic.

Part of that mission did take us into the downtown of Daggerfall which had the look and feel of an Elder Scrolls town and in it we spoke to one NPC who sold scrolls and there were a ton to buy. We unfortunately didn’t see how much there is to buy or how the crafting works, but we did see one example of lockpicking.

At this point, with the game still a long ways off, The Elder Scrolls Online has a lot of potential but our limited play session led us to believe that it’s not much different than other MMOs in terms of the hour-to-hour gameplay. There is of course a large story in the background we’ve not witnessed and the element of there being three different factions across the massive continent of Tamriel. The combat needs improvement and we’re excited to see it refined in first-person mode. The other selling point is of course the social and online play. We saw other players wandering by and occasionally helped battle some flying imps with them, but there are group quests and perhaps even more excitingly, 200-player wars where every character on screen is another player.

The Elder Scrolls Online releases for PC, Mac, PS4 and Xbox One in spring 2014.

Let me know on Twitter @rob_keyes if you’re going to try out TESO!