Beta living with Clint Howard and Combat Cat.

I’ve never been a big MMO player. The amount of time I’ve played World of Warcraft is probably less than the amount I’ll spend watching Duncan Jones’ movie adaptation. I dipped my toes into Star Trek Online, but only as a tourist, stopping by the Wolf 359 memorial, Deep Space Nine and a couple other notable spots. I prefer single-player games because I like a curated, carefully designed experience, which you don’t get in the community-influenced worlds that MMOs offer. That’s not a criticism - I totally get why people dig that sort of thing - it’s just not for me.

But if there’s any MMO that could change my mind, it’s The Elder Scrolls Online. The transition of the 800 pound gorilla RPG series to online offers a unique opportunity to do an apples-to-apples comparison of the two modes of gameplay. I doubt I will be subscribing, as I have about as much money in real life as I amassed in the game’s prologue, but the public demo beta gave me enough of a look to write up some thoughts.

You can basically tell how much I’ll dig a role-playing game by how bizarre its character creator lets you make your avatar. I created three characters, in order to get a taste of all the starting islands. I won’t post my nonhuman characters Princess Deathtooth and Combat Cat, as it’s hard to tell what exactly constitutes a weird-looking Orc or Khajit, but here’s my Nord, the overweight and put-upon Herbert Bigglesticks.


As you can see, my all-sliders-to-maximum philosophy managed to create a reasonably odd-looking guy. He’s like a moustachioed Clint Howard or Clarence Boddicker who's lived a hard life of battle and bullying. He’s no Hamburger Hawke*, but I’m happy with him.

First things first: this is definitely an Elder Scrolls game. Each of its sprawling playable regions is lush, fully explorable and full of delightfully designed creatures and fully-voiced NPCs (with a cast whose list of stars dwarfs previous games in the series). You can play it in first- or third-person, with realtime combat and free-range environment traversal. You can hoard and craft items and potions, including something called “rotmeth”. You level up naturally in the skills you use the most. You start the game in, if anything, an even more prison-y prison than before. The gorgeous, colourful graphics, sweeping music and organic sound design fit right in with existing titles like Skyrim and Oblivion, right down to the objective markers. Even Ma’ik the Liar makes an appearance.

As for the “online” component: if you wanted a co-operative Elder Scrolls game, you've got it. You can join up with friends and play quests together, or even help out strangers up against difficult foes. It can also function simply as an enormous single-player game, if you’re okay with seeing a bunch of other idiots going on adventures as well. I’m not making fun of MMO players especially - it’s just that people look ridiculous when they play video games, running and leaping about like maniacs, and it’s only when you play with others that you realise it. But once you get past that, and the strangeness of half a dozen others doing your quest simultaneously, the multiplayer works.

Bethesda have bled other MMO elements into the “purer” Elder Scrolls gameplay, mostly with success. Enemies have discrete and at times hilariously tiny aggro zones, presumably to avoid all-out chaos on servers. Unlike the solo games, those enemies don’t level with you - some areas that will surely destroy you if your stats are insufficiently high. That emphasis on statistics - both in gameplay and as an objective - is a hallmark of MMOs. There’s not the sense that you need to grind relentlessly in order to advance here - the quests largely eliminate that - but the numbers side of the game still lingers in the back of your mind. It’s different to, say, the solo games, where the story and experience is what pushes you on.

Playing on an external server also means that, like all MMOs I’ve tried, gameplay is just that much clunkier than a local game. Movement is less precise; there’s a barely-perceptible lag in combat and interaction. You can't pause. You also can’t use console commands to soft-cheat your way out of broken quests, a practice many Elder Scrolls players are likely familiar with, and which would have been useful here. In addition to a couple of minor graphical glitches, I encountered a major bug that prevented my Khajit archer Combat Cat from getting off his starting island. Poor Combat Cat.

The quests themselves are similar to those in the numbered series entries: a blend of large-scale fantasy stories, amusing little character pieces, and fetch quests. Everyone has the same main resurrection story with spirit guide Michael Gambon, but the three different factions have unique quests tied to their starting areas.

Those starting areas' quests are wildly uneven. Tropical Khenarthi’s Roost - the starting area for the Aldmeri Dominion - features excellent adventures, driven by interesting, even funny stories that take you to a variety of locales, even within the same island. Bleakrock Isle, the icy home to fledgling Ebonheart Pact players, is more of a bogus journey, full of fetch quests that have you locate three missing people, or clear out three identical spider caves. Poor Herbert Bigglesticks got bored. Without having played much on the main continent (including its alleged "massive PvP battles"), it’s hard to say which way the majority of the quests will swing, but it’ll likely be a mixture of the two. So, pretty much like Skyrim.

The public demo beta of The Elder Scrolls Online illustrates a number of things. It has all the baggage of an MMO, but most of that baggage has been lightened by making the game play like traditional Elder Scrolls. So much so, in fact, that you might as well consider this Elder Scrolls VI: The Whole Damn Tamriel. Hey, if Square Enix could do it, so can Bethesda.

Did you play the beta? Are you likely to subscribe on its April 4th release? Seasoned MMO players: what do you think of this game? I imagine your impressions are different to mine.

* My character from Dragon Age II, the least-cool mage in the realm, whose face-to-voice incongruity holds a special place in my heart: