There's still a couple of months before Bethesda's much-anticipated massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) set in the world of Oblivion and Skyrim is due for release, but Pocket-lint was invited to give the Elder Scrolls Online beta a run-out before a more stable build is made available. And contrary to many comments from those legging about in the same test phase, we think its strong ties to the previous games in the franchise is to its benefit rather than burden.
The game itself is effectively Skyrim but naturally geared towards multiplayer. Plenty of players can occupy Tamriel at the same time, and many quests reflect this, but unlike other MMORPGs we've played in the past, we get a feeling that you could happily play your way through Elder Scrolls Online without being forced to interact with anybody else if you don't want to.
At first we thought this might be because there was hardly anybody else around - after all, this was a private press server and therefore not representative of how busy the real deal will get. But it soon became apparent that the whole set-up was a bit different to other games in the genre. For a start, the storyline comes across as more rigid and purposeful than we've come to expect in many online rivals. You get a distinct sense that your actions will genuinely help achieve goals in the game world. And not once did we think that the aim of the game was to power up as much as possible and then make newbies' lives hell.
In fact, we didn't overtly notice the powering-up part of the game at all - it happened organically.
One of the changes with the game engine, bar the fact it's tweaked to suit a persistently online mechanic - is the fact that as you use skills or spells, you become more adept with them without having to assign skill points or levelling up abilities. You still get to do that in the old fashioned way, but there's the extra bonus powering up that happens the more you use a specific spell or talent. For example, we were particularly fond of using a pierce ability with our one-handed sword. The more we used it, the more effective and damaging it became.
This made the role-playing aspect less obstructive. There's still a need to pull up maps, the inventory or a character sheet occasionally, but less so than on former Elder Scrolls games and fantasy RPGs in general. After all, when you enter a menu screen, the game carries on behind you so you don't want to draw yourself away from the action too often.
We don't want to give too much away in terms of plot, especially as its presence is much of what makes all Elder Scrolls games so rich and involving, save to say that for the first few hours, quests and missions are very much within the lore, even if they feel familiar in technicality. There was enough variety in mission types for them to feel fresh, even after the first seven or so hours of play, and that was all as a single-player so that will surely be more pronounced when multiplayer dungeon crawls are thrown in for good measure too.
Graphically, bar some beta glitches, the world of Tamriel is utterly beautiful, even more so than in former titles. We're particularly fond of water effects in the game. And NPCs are well thought out with good voice acting - one of the first you encounter, Cadwell, is even acted by the ever-excellent John Cleese (Die Another Day notwithstanding). Other characters throughout the areas we explored felt real too, not just slapped in as scenery. We encountered an organised mudcrab fight, in the mould of a cockfight, with several AI villagers betting on the outcome. It's not an essential thing to interact with, but helped us feel like we were part of a living, breathing world.
Another familiar aspect of Elder Scrolls that we're fond of is the first-person view and we're happy it's made it into Elder Scrolls Online. Some MMORPG stalwarts might prefer the third-person mode, which is fine because it's an option too, but it is the FPS (S standing for slasher) style play that always drew us more into the franchise in the past, and so here too.
If we were a little critical of the beta, we found it a little heavy on fighting quests and light on anything more puzzle oriented, but that could well be addressed for the final game. And from what we've seen and played so far, it's shaping up to be something well worth waiting for. Even for those who favour a single-player experience, perhaps.
Elder Scrolls Online will be released on 4 April for PC and Mac. Xbox One and PS4 versions will follow.