I've always felt that the Elder Scrolls games are sort of like single player MMOs. I realize that's a bit of a contradiction, but the worlds Bethesda has created that have always felt so open-ended and huge that there's essentially more content than anyone could ever see in a single play through. So when the studio announced it was making a for-real MMO, bringing thousands of players to your previously personal Elder Scrolls experience, I wasn't terribly surprised.
Developed by a special online team Bethesda created back in 2007, The Elder Scrolls Online undoubtedly looks like an Elder Scrolls game, complete with frost giants, Dweomer dungeons, and Daedric princes. I think I even saw a mudcrab. There are mages' guilds, undead armies, and pretty much everything else you'd expect from an Elder Scrolls MMO. Just no dragons.
The game is set in Tamriel's Second Era, 1000 years before Skyrim and well before the rise of Tiber Septim. There's not much left of the city of Cyrodil, which lies in the center of the land. The city had foolishly made a pact with a Daedric prince to raise an undead army and, as you can expect, things soon went horribly wrong for the city. The Prince and his army have all but destroyed the city and, as an added bonus, he's stolen your soul and won't give it back.
You'll play as a member of one of three large political alliances among the races of Tamriel. The Ebonheart Pact in the northeast brings the Nords, Argonians and Dark Elves together in a tense alliance of convenience. Over in the northwest, the Daggerfall Pact is founded on the mercantile interests of the Bretons, Redguard and the Orcs. Down in the south, the Aldmeri Dominion unites the Khajiit and the Wood Elves. All three factions are vying for control of the ruined city of Cyrodil and the Imperial Throne. Your political faction and PVP options in this game will be limited by the race you choose, so you'll want to make sure you consider carefully which side you want to be on.
With up to hundreds of players in a given PVP battle, the fight for Cyrodil could be quite massive. You'll fight to take control of towns you may be familiar with from Oblivion, using all manner of siege weapons and magic to batter down walls and other defenses. If you manage to take the Imperial City, your faction can crown a new emperor and begin plans to hold out against the other two alliances, who are sure to set their differences aside now that you're in control.
Strangely, the new game will feature a class-oriented system. Given how open-ended the character advancement system is in the single player Elder Scrolls games, this seems an odd choice, but probably necessary for balancing purposes. The team isn't quite ready to talk about the specifics, but they have assured us that you will be able to have a character build that's unique to you.
The combat system in Elder Scrolls Online is a mix of real time and round-based actions. Characters have a stamina pool that they can use to power up blocks, dodges or attacks. You'll be blocking in real time in a reaction-based system and will even be rewarded for being good at the rhythms of combat thanks to a new Finesse system.
Despite the MMO nature of the game, your own personal story missions will be entirely instanced. You can share the rest of the game with other players, but when it comes time to advance the story of reclaiming your soul from the Daedric prince who stole it, you're all on your own. This should allow Bethesda to tell a much more personally relevant story. The rest of the time, you'll be involved in group instances, public quests, and raids. To combat kill stealing and spawn camping, everyone who participates in a given encounter is rewarded for it, so even if you're late to the party, so to speak, you can still get credit for killing mobs and looting quest items.
The quest we saw was particularly involved. Geared for slightly more experienced characters, this mission focused on liberating the town of Camlorn from the werewolf Faolchu and his rampaging army. The problem is no one knows how to kill this particular werewolf. As the player travels the Glenumbra Moors, he or she comes across the site of an ancient battle. After looting the field for magic weapons, the characters recruit an alchemist to open a rift in time and allow them to travel back to the original battle where they discover Faolchu himself in his pre-wolf form. I won't spoil the outcome of the story here, but the players learn something about Faolchu in this sequence that will help them in their eventual showdown with the werewolf version.
Bethesda's proven it has the ability to deliver loads and loads of engaging content and RPG mechanics, so we're hopeful that this first foray into Elder Scrolls Online delivers what players expect, both from an MMO, and from the series in particular.