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The Elder Scrolls Online: Millions of Arrows, Millions of Knees

I suppose it's inevitable once it becomes apparent that you have created a popular universe in video gaming: a massively multiplayer online role playing game will eventually show up. The latest property to be scooped up by this phenomenon is Bethesda Softworks' critically and commercially adored Elder Scrolls franchise. I enjoy MMOs, but have an extremely difficult time staying invested in them. But surely an IP with this level of prestige should lend itself well to such a gameplay structure, right? I've spent some time with the beta, and while it's certainly an enjoyable fantasy romp, the jury will remain out until the game actually launches.

I can say this with no hesitation, however: the game is immaculately presented. Between the interface, the art design, and even the technical prowess, The Elder Scrolls Online is a looker. I'm not yet prepared to say whether it looks as great as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, but to be fair, MMOs attempt to secure as wide an audience as possible -- less stringent system requirements will invariably result in more players. Rounding out the excellent presentation is a voice cast of bonafide A-list talent, something that Bethesda seems to have no trouble procuring.

Indeed, from the very beginning, you are contacted by a very familiar voice in the form of a mysterious being known as The Prophet (Michael Gambon, Dumbledore himself). Regardless of which race/faction your character belongs to, he/she starts off not only dead, but stripped of your soul (Soul Shriven) and in a particularly unpleasant plane of the realm known as Oblivion. It turns out, The Prophet is imprisoned in this forsaken place, and he needs you to help free him. In return, he will return your soul to its body and send you back to Tamriel. After a series of combat encounters, you do just that, and are sent to one of a number of beginner areas, much like in other MMOs.

From there, you start to get a taste of what The Elder Scrolls Online will encompass. For gamers who have experience with both MMORPGs and Elder Scrolls, the areas of overlap, difference, and compromise are plain to the eye. The most obvious of differences for Elder Scrolls fans is the fact that there are other human beings inhabiting the game space. First person perspective aside, the biggest difference to MMO players would seem to be the game's emphasis on choice-driven outcomes. While the element of choice figures into a great deal of MMOs, most of the consequences simply have to do with what kind of gear you get after a quest. While I can't really tell what kind of impact the choices will have in The Elder Scrolls Online, the signs point to them having a major impact on each character's personal story. And that could prove appealing for players both new and old.

Where The Elder Scrolls Online immediately stands out from other MMORPGs is part of what makes The Elder Scrolls different from many other role playing games in general; it's designed to play using a first person perspective. This may be a bit jarring if you have never played one of these games, even more so if you've been playing games like World of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and the like. This lends a bit of overall clumsiness to the combat, as it does in Oblivion and Skyrim, but to its credit, it's much more involving than simply clicking once to start dealing out damage per second.

As you level up, you earn skill points, which can be slotted into one of a number of potential abilities for your character to use. And, like in other Elder Scrolls games, using those skills increases your proficiency with them. Eventually, you'll hit a milestone, which will allow you to morph your skills. The upgrade tree seems very promising, though not all the details are common knowledge at this point. Given Bethesda's pedigree, it's safe to say that the entire spread of customization options should not only be very impressive, but it should make a fine contribution to a genre that prides individuality over all else.

Much like other massively multiplayer online role playing games, The Elder Scrolls Online will live or die by the strength of its community. Perhaps the timing is perfect for this title; with Skyrim now a two year-old game, the fanbase is bigger than it has ever been. Whether this fanbase is willing to tack on a monthly subscription fee to their gaming budgets is another matter entirely, one that we won't have an answer to until well into the game's life cycle.

What can be said at this point is that The Elder Scrolls Online is attractive and ambitious, and if the beta is any indication, the game itself appears to be in a higher state of polish than most MMOs are at launch. All there is to do now is watch and wait.

The Elder Scrolls Online launches for Windows and OSX on April 4, with next gen console versions slated for a tentative summer release.

-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos
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