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My column earlier this week talked about this ugly, horrible, destructive cycle that’s been devouring MMO budgets and giving us a lot of sad World of Warcraft knockoffs. Publishers have been throwing good teams at bad ideas, mindlessly copying World of Warcraft without actually understanding what made WoW a success. It happened to The Old Republic, and I was sure that was the fate of Elder Scrolls Online.

That column was written before I played the beta. Since then I’ve sunk a few days into the game and leveled several different characters through the various starting areas. Now that I’ve had a chance to try it for myself, I’m actually surprised. No really. I was all set to hate this thing, but it’s not at all what I was expecting.

This is not a WoW-clone.

Okay, you kill monsters and level up, but this is not a game where you stand still and babysit cooldowns. There’s a set of core mechanics built around blocking, charging attacks, interrupting attacks, and dodging. These mechanics all feel like they have more in common with a single-player game than an MMO. On top of this base is a selection of abilities that grow and get stronger as you level up.

The screen is clean and not filled with stupid hotbars, and there isn’t a bunch of useless downtime between fights. Kill a thing, loot the thing, move on. It’s not Skyrim, but it’s closer to Skyrim than it is to World of Warcraft. This game is not a mindless copy of what we’ve already played. It’s very much its own thing.

There’s actually some role-playing in it.

Not a lot, but there are spots where you get to make some choices. At one point I ran into a quest where someone needed to sacrifice themselves to keep an ancient evil contained in a magic prison. There was a wise old wizard, and his student. Who should go? The guy who is very powerful and valuable to the city but was also near the end of his life, or the young woman who had her whole life in front of her, but wasn’t nearly as important to the well-being of the city? Both characters gave an interesting argument about why I should choose them, and their relationship with each other made things that much more interesting.

It was a well-done quest, with a fun villain and good setup. It first made me care about the characters and then asked me to make decisions about how things would turn out for them. It wasn’t classic BioWare or anything, but this is a level of engagement we don’t usually see in an MMO.

Even better is that they didn’t wreck the pacing like too many online games do. Think of the classic World of Warcraft quest: You get the quest, then spend ten minutes walking to the quest area, then another twenty minutes slogging through clusters of mobs to reach your goal, then slog your way back out for the payoff. By the time you get there you’ve probably forgotten the story and all the tension is gone. (This was one of the many problems with The Old Republic.)

But in ESO the quest had lots of stops to move the story forward, and it kept the pacing brisk. By the time I got to the end I was still thinking about what was going on and still invested in the story.

You don’t need a lot of story in an MMO, but if you’re going to do it then this is the right way to go about it.

The Elder Scrolls Online screen

It’s in pretty good shape.

Technically, Elder Scrolls Online is from ZeniMax Online Studios and not the team that created Skyrim, but the Elder Scrolls name has become inexorably linked to ridiculous glitches, game-breaking bugs, wonky mechanics, and heartbreaking crashes. But ESO is probably less buggy in beta than Skyrim was at release. It’s got some small issues and they’re likely to tinker with the balance before release, but in general it all works, runs smoothly, and doesn’t crash.

It’s got Elder Scrolls style leveling

You have all the freedoms and quirks that normally come with an Elder Scrolls game. Your skills level up independently of your character level, so the more you use a bow the better you get with a bow.

You’re also free of the arbitrary restrictions that MMO titles typically use. You can swing a sword if you’re a mage, wear light armor as a fighter, or shoot fireballs with a staff as a stealth character. You can gain ranks in skill not related to your class and generally do as you please with regard to equipment. There might be reasons why it’s not optimal to do this, but like Skyrim the game isn’t going to tell you “NO YOU CAN’T PUT THOSE PANTS ON BECAUSE OF REASONS.”

It’s got classic Elder Scrolls AI.

Elder scrolls games are somewhat legendary for their ambitious yet hilariously dysfunctional AI. In Skyrim, shopkeepers run out to fight dragons bare-handed. Your horse tries to fight along with you. Your AI companions get lost, stuck, confused, and blunder into traps like they’re in a slapstick vaudeville act.

So it was sort of charming when they teamed me up with an AI companion in the tutorial and had us navigate a series of spike traps. I’m proud to say that (without any coaching for me!) my AI companion got spiked by every single one of them – even ones you could easily just walk around. It really felt like I was running tombs in Skyrim with a brain-dead companion, listening to her yelp in pain as she staggered from one obvious trap to the next. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to find that section funny, but I did.

It’s not the sort of thing that was on my wishlist, but I am surprised they put it in the game.

In conclusion:

This point is: This is not the cynical WoW-reskin I (cynically) assumed it would be. Good or bad, Zenimax has tried to do something new and they’ve taken care to preserve a lot of the quirks of the single-player experience.

Are these things enough to make Elder Scrolls Online a smash hit? I don’t know. I’m very worried about the price tag. It’s got a steep barrier to entry ($60 retail) and a steep toll to keep going ($15 monthly) and since a lot of the competition is “free,” that’s a really hard sell. Even if this game was perfect, it’d be a hard sell.

Still, I showed up expecting a boring mess of unoriginal ideas and left impressed and hoping it works out for them.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, Stolen Pixels, Shamus Plays, and Spoiler Warning.

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