When I first saw The Elder Scrolls Online at E3 last year, to say I was dubious would be extremely charitable. The presentation was short – a bit of handwaving, some appropriately soaring music, and then “Hey, how about that Dishonored?” – but the little I saw looked like Ye Olde MMO(e) that had been given a quick lick of Elder Scrolls paint. I left that presentation with my eyebrow quirked at exactly the right angle to impart how little I was impressed, and it was with that eyebrow still firmly arched I sat down to play the game last week. Four hours had been slotted in the schedule for the play session, which I estimated to be about three and a half too many.

The story of The Elder Scrolls Online, explained to us by Game Director Matt Firor and Creative Director Paul Sage, sounded Scrollsy enough. Daedric Prince Molag Bal has killed you and stolen your soul, and your mission throughout the game is to try and get it back. Well, and to figure out why he took it in the first place, though really, he’s Molag Bal, he just does that sort of thing. Our play session would start in one of the game’s three starting areas: The Daggerfall Covenant, on the sandy beaches of Stros M’Kai. You wake up to discover that Captain Kaleen saved your sorry life by fishing you out of the ocean after Molag Bal shoved you through the nearest portal. In return, perhaps you could help her with a little problem she’s having. She’s got this great heist planned but finds herself short on manpower, and if you could just recruit an extra helping hand or three, she’d cut you in on a share of the loot.

And just like that, I forgot I was playing an MMO.

Sure, there were people with names like Franknfurter and Mr. Chippy Nibbles running around the town with me (seriously, game journalists come up with the worst character names. I went with Finwell Trepsic, by the way.), but once I was actually able to walk around and interact with the world, the notion I was in an MMO completely vanished. Nobody asked me to kill ten rats or run a package over to the nearest shop. I knew people wanted to talk to me not because they had a whopping great exclamation point over their head, but because they called out to me – every NPC in the game is fully and distinctly voiced. It wasn’t as graphically lush as Skyrim or Oblivion, perhaps, but it felt right.

Captain Kaleen needed me to track down any or all of a trio of crooks who could help with the heist: Crafty Lerisa, Neramo, or Jakarn. Recruiting them wasn’t as easy as just tracking them down and asking, naturally – Jakarn had to be broken out of jail, Neramo wanted help exploring Dwemer ruins and Lerisa needed to rescue her crewmates. Recruiting any one of them would move you on to the next stage of the quest, but each one saved a step in the heist itself; my failure to track down Lerisa meant I had to come up with my own disguise for sneaking into the building where the booty was locked away.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to find Lerisa, mind you, I just kept getting distracted. I found a bottle with a note in it on the beach. And then there was an orc who wanted to be a blacksmith but whose mom expected him to be a mighty warrior. Then there was this guy who wanted me to help his friend who’d gotten so drunk that he thought he was a goblin. I found a locked treasure chest and learned how to pick it (breaking three lockpicks in the process).Then there were the mud crabs, which clearly needed killing. And the assassin beetles. And the wolves. Later, there were zombies and giant wasps, but those were after the heist so I guess I can’t really use them as an excuse but oh, hey, there’s a cooking pot and I’ve found a whole bunch of ingredients and I wonder if I can make anything with them … oh look I can!

My point is that there’s a lot of distractions in Elder Scrolls Online, but at no point do you feel like you’re being forced in any one direction. The main quest is there, patiently waiting for you to give a damn about it, but you’ll find plenty to do just by walking around. There’s also a good reason for doing it; exploring will not only help you find quests (which provide experience and loot) but can also help you locate resources for crafting, which is an important aspect of the game. There are five unique craft professions: Provisioner, Weaponsmith, Armorsmith, Alchemist, and Enchanting. They all pretty much work the same way, with you combining a primary and secondary ingredient to make something. You can stop there, or you can add up to three “addititves” which can dramatically change the quality of whatever it is you’re making. Though you’ll always get something just by putting together appropriate primary and secondary components, progress has more to do with experimentation than with grinding by making the same tea a hundred times. You can choose to master one of the crafting styles, or get pretty good in all of them. According to the team, some of the best items in the game come from crafting, so it’s worth at least a little dabbling. There will be a trading system, but the details are still a secret for now. The game’s shardless megasever technology is making it a bit tricky to implement a trading system that doesn’t completely blow the economy.

I didn’t feel The Elder Scrolls Online‘s differentness until it came time to level up and choose my skills. The skill allocation is, as you might expect, slightly different than in offline Elder Scrolls games. You gain a skill point with each level, which you can then put towards abilities in any of several different categories – such as light armor, Storm Calling, Daedric Summoning, or even Destruction Staff . The skills you can unlock depend on your character’s level, and skills can be active, passive, or ultimate. I didn’t advance far enough to unlock all that much, but the first skill on the Destruction Staff basically turned it into a baseball bat that would knock the holy bejeezus out of anything and send it flying about thirty feet backward. I’m sure it was called something appropriate like “Staff of Might” or something, but I just called it Joe DiMaggio. Oh, hey, spider, what’s up? BOOM! FOR THE FENCES! Mages’ Fury (a lighting spell) and Encase (which holds enemies in place) were certainly useful, but giving bad guys a big mouthful of smackity never got old.

We didn’t have enough time with the game (a mere four hours) to really get the feel for group combat, but in the full game, parties will be able to take advantage of synergy, which allows them to use skills in concert to achieve a much greater effect. The Templar, for example, has an ability called Nova, which spellcasters can turn into Supernova. Enemies will have their own synergies, however, such as the footsoldier who throws down oil for the fire mage to ignite. There will even be something called “Factional Synergy” – the example we saw involved several members of a necromancy cult. One performed a rite, sacrificing himself so that a Soul Shriven could rise in his place.

Even when they’re not performing specific synergy attacks, we were told you should expect a bit more from the enemy AI in Elder Scrolls Online. Working as a pack, enemies will see your group as a whole and go after whoever is the biggest threat, which may change over the course of the altercation. The larger the pack gets, the more its members will sense each other and try to set up synergy moves, which should lead to some very fluid fighting on both sides.

I can’t say anything much for certain about Elder Scrolls Online yet – it’s just too damn big for me to give any kind of informed option after just a few hours of play . But I will say that those three hours felt like five minutes because I was interested and engaged at all times. I barely made it out of the starting area, but enjoyed exploring my surroundings (which felt just the right amount of familiar) and talking to NPCs (yes, I enjoyed talking to the NPCs … let that one soak in for a bit). It’s still very much a work in progress, but I’m encouraged by how easily I dropped into the game and how much I enjoyed what I got to see.

Also, if you wind up being able to pet the cats on Captain Kaleen’s ship, you know who to thank. (Seriously, you start me in an area with something like four or five cats and you don’t let me pet them or feed them or anything? What is that about?)

There’s tons to know about The Elder Scrolls Online, so let’s move on to the lightning round:

  • There are three starting areas, one for each alliance: the Daggerfall Covenant (which we saw), the Ebonheart Pact, and the Aldmeri Dominion.
  • You can learn new abilities at any point. You could pick up a new weapon and start a new skill line whenever you liked.
  • The level cap is 50, but once you hit it, you’ll be given the option to go to one of the other two alliances and do all their content. Once you’ve hit 50 in that one, you can finish up the third. The loot drops are tied to your character and your level, so the Ebonheart content will be far more difficult on your third playthrough than on your first, but you don’t have to start a brand new character to experience the other alliances’ stories. You can, of course, if you’d rather, but you don’t have to. Overall, you’ll get a “couple hundred hours’ worth of extra content” by going through the other alliances.
  • There will be Fighters and Mages Guilds at launch, but “most likely” no Thieves or Assassins. Hang on, hang on, don’t start shouting just yet. Just because they won’t make launch doesn’t mean they won’t eventually be making an appearance.
  • First person mode will be available at launch. We saw a brief video of it that looked like it was ripped right from a single-player Elder Scrolls game. Gameplay Lead Nick Konkle swore to me – many, many times – it was just a straight-up recording from his personal play session the previous weekend. They’d wanted to do it all along, but had to work out the kinks of the animation first.
  • There will be about 16 four-man dungeons at launch, one in every zone, with one public dungeon per zone.
  • It will be available for Mac OS at launch, which means you have a far greater chance of playing with yours truly.
  • You’ll make friends with NPCs – the trio you track down for Captain Keeler, for example, will follow you to your next destination and even fight with you – but you won’t have a Lydia-esque companion as you did in Skyrim. Which is just as well, because there won’t be any personal housing at launch, so there wouldn’t be anywhere for her to watch you sleep. Bethesda isn’t saying anything one way or the other about mounts, so keep that horse armor joke in your pocket for now.
  • A guild system for social events is currently in the works, but is far from finalized.
  • There will be PVP. We watched a live PVP demo in which one alliance was laying siege to another alliance’s keep with trebuchets. It was a very brief glimpse and it was difficult to really get a sense of what was going on but hey … trebuchets. Those are fun.
  • In response to whether or not there were plans to release any kind of modding for The Elder Scrolls Online, Pete Hines quipped “We kinda did. It’s called Skyrim It works great, use that.” (Note, this wasn’t addressing UI modding.)

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