Respect your Elders.
I understand the skepticism. I imagine that I'm just one of many Dragonborns who revel in snowy single-player worlds and tend to keep traditional MMOs at arm's length, what with their fixed class archetypes, emphasis on looting and grinding, nigh-mandatory guild/group politics at high levels, and a heavy investment of time. Most MMOs follow a strict formula that can stifle creativity and exploration, so convincing the core Elder Scrolls fanbase to pay $15/month for an online MMO version is a tall order.
Also, this is our fourth preview for The Elder Scrolls Online (and the upteenth article about the game since its announcement in May 2012), so by now you likely already know most of what The Elder Scrolls Online offers. If you had the chance to experience the early beta, you may have the same concerns as mine: the game's longevity, the depth of the single-player component, and the confusing crafting systems. But thankfully it only took a few hours into the newly updated beta for Bethesda to quell my fears and instill more faith.
To keep this preview as spoiler-free as possible, the central story-arc for The Elder Scrolls Online revolves around your character being sacrificed by a cult. You awaken in the dank dungeons of Coldharbour, the plane of Oblivion under the dominion of the Daedric Prince Molag Bal, who wants nothing more than to conquer all of Tamriel for himself. To prevent the apocalypse from happening, you need to follow the sage advice of The Prophet, voiced by Michael Gambon (yes, Dumbledore himself), and free the world of Molag Bal's influence and his deadly ambitions.
Doing this will take many allies and hopefully many friends, but perhaps the most surprising aspect of The Elder Scrolls Online is that it's perfectly satisfying to play as a lone wolf. I find the Khajiit race the most interesting and elusive—their homeland of Elsweyr, their Spanish-Italian-something accent, their cultivation of the addictive moon sugar, and their alliance with the Aldmeri Dominion (yes, where those prissy Thalmor come from). My Khajiit, a jet-black Templar named Armor-King who has jade eyes, a mohawk, and an eyepatch (because he's just that badass), wields a two-handed sword and has enough magical knowhow to heal himself and his allies. This presents only a tip of the iceberg when it comes to the character creation and customization.
Exploring the tropical island of Khenarthi's Roost, the starting area for players who side with the Alderi Dominion as their faction, and the second area of the Isle of Summerset is incredible. Maps cover an extraordinary amount of distance, and the two islands alone when combined are the same size as about a one-fifth of Skyrim. Yes, I haven't even reached the main continent of Tamriel yet, which includes all of Skyrim, by the way, so you can expect The Elder Scrolls Online to last players for an extremely long time. And it's not some city or texture that's copied and pasted over and over again for the purpose of needless padding; every area feels hand-crafted and every asset, when it's re-used, is done in a natural, effortless way. On top of that, most points of interest on a map will have a full quest associated with it.
The map compass from Skyrim makes it easy to pinpoint new areas and accept new quests, with only a spare few of them asking you go to a certain area to gather a certain number of whatever. Simple fetch quests and escort missions aren't the norm; I've explored ancient ruins, uncovered a plot against a monarchy, tangled with Sheogorath, and rescued a town from a fire. The story and lore behind each quest is original, which keeps the adventure fresh, and some quests will even ask you to make a decision between two outcomes that will slightly affect the story mission later on.
Along the way, you can locate chests and lockpick them as done from Oblivion, kill mudcrabs and bears for rawhide scraps, pick flowers for alchemy, grab aspect runes for enchanting, go fishing in water holes, or just choose a direction and see where it takes you. Then you can take everything you've found and sell it, craft it at their appropriate stations in town, store it at the bank to share amongst your stable of characters, or deposit at the guild bank to share amongst your fellow guild members. The crafting systems have been made much clearer as well, whether it's refining, extracting, or creation. My character dabbles in armorsmithing, alchemy, and provisioning, able to shape rawhide into medium armor, concoct healing potions, and cook items that increase maximum health and magicka recovery.
Anything that aids in combat is critical, as it's not a walk in the park. Marching up to a Sea Viper mercenary and clicking the left mouse button to attack without much strategy might work on a single enemy, but it usually won't against groups of two and especially three. Staying alive means knowing when to hold the button down for a strong attack, block with the right mouse button, interrupt any charge attacks with a block-smash, and dodge incoming attacks at the price of some stamina. It's important to create distance when you need to, sneaking and attacking from behind, and getting the first strike with a spell if you can. Dying doesn't cost much, just lost durability on armor and being forced to resurrect at the nearest wayshrine (or near your corpse at the cost of a soul gem), but it will still pressure you enough to make smart combat decisions.
The current shortcut bar only has room for five attacks, which hopefully will be expanded later, so placing skill points in the right skill trees matters significantly. Whether they're based on class, weapons, crafting, world magic, or guild, skills determine your archetype and choosing the right ones in the right situations can get you out of trouble, especially those with knockdown and stun capabilities. Most skills can also be transformed further into a more powerful version that adds more damage, effects, and power. With any luck, the developers will have a respec function due to the number of skills available, though they might need to balance it with console versions.
As mentioned earlier, I've only explored two islands of Tamriel (and half of the Isle of Summerset remains untapped), and at Level 12 I've already sunk close to twenty hours into it. The PvP remains unlocked at the moment and I haven't had much experience with grouping yet, but since Daniel now has a code, expect the next preview coming in about a week to shed some light on the multiplayer offering and mid-game content. The Elder Scrolls Online is expected to release on April 4, 2014 for PC and June 2014 on PS4 and Xbox One.