I Watched Five Bears Maul Each Other In The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind’s Battlegrounds [PAX East Preview]

We’ve written about ZeniMax Online Studios’ upcoming Morrowind expansion for The Elder Scrolls Online at length already, but to this point had not had the chance to actually go hands-on. That changed at PAX East this year, where I was able to spend some time with the game’s upcoming Battlegrounds, a three-way competition between teams of four. I also had a chance to play the Warden, the new nature, ice, and pet-centric class being added to the game.

The crux of Battlegrounds is its contained, speedy nature, described by Bethesda as “short, bloody affairs between three teams of four players.” My session was Team Deathmatch, and as such the primary goal was to simply defeat opposing players and rack up points for doing so. Other modes include Capture the Flag (self-explanatory) and Domination (more of a “capture-and-hold” style), and there are three maps that will be available at launch. Foyada Quarry was the flavor of the day at PAX, its fiery aura making a nice backdrop for the nearly half dozen Warden-bears trying to utterly destroy each other.

I played with an Xbox controller for a change of pace, and was surprised to find the experience quite comfortable. Selectable characters were pre-configured, so I settled on a female Warden brandishing a staff and leapt into action. If there’s a word that appears to succinctly describe Battlegrounds, “action” is definitely it. Skirmishes tend to break out in one for two isolated places on the map, at least from what I saw, and despite being fairly contained, Foyada’s play-space actually felt fairly vast as a result. This could easily just be a result of the PAX-goer crew I happened to be paired with – I wouldn’t read too much into it regarding how teams will strategize in the final game.

What stood out to me most was the pure chaos that unfolded onscreen after even just minutes of play. Spells flew every which way, effect areas glowed and flickered, and participants leapt deftly around the outskirts, dodging and melee attacking as necessary. It may sound pretty standard for arena PVP, and in some sense it was, but the effect of having three separate teams should not go understated for enhancing general turmoil and intensity of the experience. It adds a free-for-all element to team PVP that I think is often lacking in other games, and as a nice side effect, helps retain the unpredictability and sense of danger offered by the existing Cyrodiil open-world approach.

That’s not to say the modes are at all similar otherwise, though, and the contained nature of Battlegrounds made for an assortment of funny and memorable moments. The Warden proved popular amongst my teammates and opponents due to its newness, and as such there was a point where upwards of six or so summoned pet bears where all onscreen at once, brutally mauling and charging at will, sometimes at each other.

Generating your pet is handled by a simple held button combination, and once activated, your ursa-friend essentially attacks what you attack until it can do so no more. ESO director Matt Firor pointed out while I played that Warden’s Best Friend isn’t as great a tank in PVP as it tends to be while adventuring, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable to try.

After my play session I had the chance to briefly speak with Matt some more, and while I’d exhausted most topics in our last interview, I did bring up the game’s presence at PAX and the response of players. “People just want to try the new story” he joked, though from what I gathered discussing further, it does sound as though the response has been largely positive. I still suspect that completely unpredictable strategies from clever players will emerge over time, especially considering Battlegrounds three-way nature. For now, we’ll just have to wait and see.

The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind is scheduled to releases on June 6th, and will become the primary retail version of the game. It can also be purchased by existing players as an expansion, of whom there are plenty chomping at the bit to return to Vvardenfell.