Editor’s Note: Due to the sheer size of Elder Scrolls Online, we’re publishing our hands-on impressions of the game in three chunks. Part one is here. What follows is part two.
Queen Ayrenn is a modern monarch. She’s definitely trying to do the right thing, but I can hear the weariness in her tone when she tells me about the endless rituals she must complete in order to be accepted by her subjects.
I’m not sure what happened to her during her 17-year absence, nor why she returned to the kingdom at age 28 to inherit the throne of Alinor. Honestly, I don’t much care. What I do care about is that she is tired. She knows these rituals and adventures are necessary, but she finds them tedious, if dangerous.
She’s always glad to see me. I always want to help her. I’ve bonded with Queen Ayrenn, and she’s not even real.
That’s one of the real triumphs of impressive new MMO Elder Scrolls Online: It’s a virtual world, but the individuals you meet there somehow can, at times, seem more realistic than the people you might spend your day next to on the subway.
When I travel to a new place in the real world, one of the pure joys of the experience has always been the people I meet there.
That’s probably why I like MMOs so much — they’re full of people.
There are non-player characters, or NPCs, who tend to fall into one of two categories: the folks who wander around the world to keep it from looking deserted, and the folks you talk to to get your next story quest. There are more than 10,000 of these digital folks running around in Elder Scrolls Online.
And then there are player characters, like you, who generally dash about doing what they need to be doing — finding quest items, fighting zombies, ghosts or enemy soldiers, or hanging around the cooking fire, making food that will raise their stats for a certain amount of time.
Both groups are pretty fascinating in Elder Scrolls Online.
The NPCs that you see around town usually have a line or two of fully voiced dialogue to share with you. I haven’t found the famous Nord with the arrow to the knee, but I have heard the voice actor playing other parts.
Many of the non-quest NPCs are reading or talking amongst themselves. Travel around any city, exploring side paths and the corners of patios and porches, and you’ll find folks just existing — looking at books or chatting with their friends. All of this goes a long way toward making this place seem real.
The quest-giving NPCs are also fully voiced, which can work for or against the experience of the game. Some voice actors, like Harry Potter’s Michael Gambon or funnyman John Cleese, really bring their talents to bear on their voiceovers. It’s a pleasure to listen to them, even when they’re spouting ridiculous, fantasy-themed exposition that lore-nerds will love. Queen Ayrenn is voiced by no less than Kate Beckinsale, which shows you the quality of the voice acting.
There are a few clunkers, of course, like when any tortuous exposition is fully spoken aloud. That’s something you can skip over in a text-based game like World of Warcraft, but it leads to some disconnecting moments as you click through the voiceovers in Elder Scrolls Online, just wanting to get on with your quest.
The game also boasts plenty of computer-controlled enemies. When you enter an area required by your quest or mission, the cannon fodder will attack you and try to make things difficult. A nice contrast to other MMOs, however, is the general lack of aggressive beasts in the world. This means you can spend more time looking at the scenery and getting lost in the visuals as a welcome respite from all the fighting.
Finally, there are the other players on the server. In many MMO games, you need to choose a server to play on, usually one that’s located close to you on the globe, and you’ll only play with other gamers on that server.
Elder Scrolls Online, though, has one big “megaserver” in the United States and one in Europe. This lets everyone play along together, with some fancy backend voodoo to make sure the load never gets too high. A consequence of this is that you’ll be playing along with a huge number of folks. You’d think that the rate of “griefers” — players who intentionally try to hurt or steal from characters in-game — would be high, but I haven’t noticed much of that.
In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that the folks playing in Elder Scrolls Online tend to be a very helpful lot. I’m often helped along in my battles by passing strangers who lend a hand to the combative proceedings, only to continue along their way after the opponents are lying dead on the grass.
One factor that lends itself to this type of behavior is the game’s looting system. When you kill a foe, you’ll usually see that enemy outlined in a yellowish glow. That means they have stuff for you to take, typically a gold piece or two, but sometimes you’ll find items that will go into a nice recipe or potion, and even (rarely) high-value weapons or armor. If anyone makes a hit or two on any enemy, they’ll have a chance to loot the body. That lets everyone share in the loot, whether they’re in a cooperative party of adventurers or not.
We’re all in this together, the game seems to say, so you might as well help each other along the way.
And what a diverse lot we are, here, with three factions to choose from when creating a character. Each faction contains three different races, with Breton, Redguard and Orsimer (orcs) in the Daggerfall Covenant faction; Nord, Dunmer (dark elves) and Argonian (lizard folk) in the Ebonheart Pact; and Altmer (high elves), Bosmer (wood elves) and Kajiit (cat people) in the Aldmeri Dominion.
These factions play a relatively minor role in the first several hours of Elder Scrolls Online; the only impact they have is only allowing you to group with the two other races in your faction. Wars and all sorts of fun stuff are promised as the game progresses.
There are plenty of heroes in this world, an artifact of the story-based quest system. You’ll listen to your quest-giver, gambol off to find the spot they spoke of and end up either killing enemies, destroying mysterious crystals, pulling levers or all of the above. If you’ve played other MMOs, you’ll be comfortable with the four or five or 10 other player characters standing around near the quest-givers; it’s just the nature of the game type. We all know that we’re the hero that matters. Or doesn’t matter, as the case may be.
So take some time, if you decide to jump into this teeming MMO world, to get to know the folks around you. Chances are, they have something you need.
Personally, I’m looking forward to the higher-level activities, like four- and 12-person action events that you can participate in, fighting incredibly tough monsters and environmental hazards.
If nothing else, maybe I’ll get in good with the Queen. I hear she needs a hero.
Read the conclusion to our look at Elder Scrolls Online tomorrow.