If this is just another name for a grand soul gem, take me please.
When first I heard of The Elder Scrolls Online, I wanted to place my pinkies straight into my ears. The last thing I wanted to hear about was the idea of an extraordinary single-player experience confined to the trappings of the ordinary MMO box. A reminder of Star Wars: The Old Republic had created a shield that would not allow that into my brain. But with time and several readings of Anthony's preview from PAX East, I was ready to brace myself for optimism.
My two-hour session with The Elder Scrolls Online began with character creation from among three out of the four available classes: Dragonknight, Sorcerer, and Templar. The helpful Bethesda rep asked whether I wanted to head straight into the game, but no, I wanted to delve into the customization. I explored all of the usual sliders for facial adjustments along with a general scale for body build and structure. ("Posterior dimensions," anyone?)
From there, I chose from among the nine races available that are divided into three factions battling for the throne of the Emperor of Tamriel, approximately a half-century before Tiber Septim's reign begins. The Altmer, Bosmer, and Kahjit form the Aldmeri Dominion led by Queen Ayreen; King Emeric leads the Orcs, Bretons, and Redguards in the Daggerfall Covenant; and the Nords, Dunmer, and Argonians led by Jorunn the Skald-King comprise the Ebonheart Pact. Members of the three factions mingle with the Fighters Guild and Mages Guild (with the Thieves and Dark Brotherhood guilds coming after launch), but though they compete against each other, they also have a mutual enemy in the form of the Daedric prince, Molag Bal, who seeks dominion over all Tamriel by pulling it into his realm of Coldharbour.
There was no way I would be able to experience every possible class in my short session, so I randomly chose a redguard Dragonknight, who immediately found himself near the entrance of Daggerfall and already at Level 6 for the purpose of the demo. If I had started at the very beginning, my character would have had his soul taken, much like in Demon's Souls, forming the underlying plot thread of his call to action not only to find it, but kill the one responsible. From my position, I could have headed into the forest for the sake of unadulterated field-frolicking, but I decided to enter the city for exploration.
To my surprise, I could speak with all NPCs in the game, from the lowliest beggar to the drunkest soldier, and hear their completely voice-acted lines of dialogue. Given how expansive The Elder Scrolls Online intends to be—much larger than Skyrim was (and that's saying a lot)—the amount of content is incredible. In fact, I already have plans to speak with every last NPC in Cyrodiil, as imprudent as that might seem, and read every last shimmering book and scroll. (Don't judge me!)
And yet that's only scratching the surface of what players can do. In a few short hours, I purchased equipment and items from several vendors, found four pieces of rare treasure, located a missing pig, and followed a questline that went from a dog leading me to the corpse of his master to saving the king from an assassination plot. Every completed quest and discovered area earns healthy amounts of experience, much more than merely grinding in monster areas. That said, there are plenty of giant bugs, shifty assassins, and corrupted wildlife to vanquish.
Conquering foes, either in first-person or third-person perspective, is simple enough with the light attack, heavy attack, and blocks, though understanding the cues of the blocking system makes life much easier. Whenever an enemy begins charging an attack, the player can either parry or block to leave the enemy stunned or interrupted. Combined with the general knowledge of the aggro system, stealth mechanics, and awareness of mana and stamina reserves, one-on-one combat is never too arduous a task.
Every level up grants players points to distribute into various attributes and skills that can be hotkeyed onto the handy bar. My redguard had several effective skills, like Stonefist, that could trap or knock down enemies for free, unguarded hits. As the character's level rises, additional skill trees based on race, class, and guild open up, widening the customization and variety of possible builds.
The real challenge comes with instance dungeons where players will want to party up if they wish to survive the whole way through; besides, every player gets their own instance loot from enemy kills. The developers are not ready to discuss the party system or the trading system yet, as the balance and functionality are still in progress. The connected experience I had with the other fifteen or so journalists merely had us wading in and out of cooperative play.
Any collected loot can be sold off at vendors or act as ingredients for crafting, adding various effects on top of the necessary base materials, similar to the Alchemy system in Skyrim. The player's proficiency with these crafting skills, as well as with specific skill trees, can be increased independently.
Not much was said on PvP apart from Synergy abilities, which require two or more players to combine their talents. For instance, a sorcerer can cast fire so that a dragonknight can start unleashing fireballs, or a minor buff can be turned into a much deadlier AoE blast. This creates much needed strategy in what would ordinarily be a boring charging scenario on the PvP battlefield; instead, players drop Synergy opportunities across the entire battlefield for both offensive and defensive tactics.
On production alone, The Elder Scrolls Online has Daedric-level appeal, and that's just based on its current closed beta. It already has the power to draw every Elder Scrolls fan into its ridiculously expansive world, and now it has the potential to challenge the mightiest MMOs on the market. I've been meaning to build a new PC from scratch anyway, with an amount of money my financial advisor says is "irresponsible." Okay, I lied. I don't have a financial advisor. Oh well. *smirk*