Whoa there. Where do you think you’re going, buster? Get back here. There will be no ducking out of this just because your MMO Warning Meter is buzzing like crazy. Terrified of all things massive and multiplayer? We don’t blame you. Aside from a scarce few exceptions, it’s a genre that’s historically always been much more at home on PC than on console. Relax: The Elder Scrolls Online really isn’t that intimidating for us simple, MMO-shy PS4 folk. Promise. Let us guide you through our first few hours in Tamriel ahead of the game’s launch on 9 June.
Predictably enough, first impressions of TESO’s Beta are that it feels like being stuck in a car with Destiny and Skyrim; the two squabbling over the wheel while deciding which off-ramp to take you down. There’s still a lot of lonely exploration while wandering Tamriel’s varied topography, sure. Yet there’s also a social side very much akin to buggering about with other Guardians in the Tower, or taking down Patrol missions with pals at your side.
Half an hour or so in and our hero Vestige – as Michael Gambon’s rambling Prophet calls you – shuffles into the port town of Davon’s Watch, though the opening city varies depending on which of three factions you choose to join at the character creation screen. It also wouldn’t be an Elder Scrolls game without a dab of amnesia, so of course our discombobulated warrior’s memory is banjaxed. Next stop: Exposition City! Well, at least we have some company while all those NPC quest-givers stand there and explain our ears off.
Our first steps around this King’s Landing-esque burg are sure intimidating. For one thing, there are other players everywhere. Some are big ol’ cat people, others beardy Nords, while the odd Argonian lizard dude is never far away. Certain players bomb around on horsey mounts, while a couple of lucky toerags are accompanied by their very own black panther sidekicks. We want a black panther sidekick!
Once we get into the meat and potatoes adventuring, it’s all very Skyrim. That same strait-laced, quest-seeking lifeblood of the Dragonborn’s journey is splattered all over TESO. It’s just that this time, we often find other players randomly by our side as we tick off the same objectives. Ooh, you’re helping a cowardly lizard banish some ghosts over at the crypts of the Necropolis, are you? Mind if we join? Thanks to a console-friendly interface, private chatting, trading and joining other players’ groups really is a winningly unfussy experience.
Now, someone come help us burn these trebuchets down on the beach. Not that we’re forced to be Sammy Sociable all the time. There’s still a lot of wandering barren plains punctuated by the odd house-sized mushroom or ashen mountain bustling with giant crab beasties with not another person in sight. It’s at moments like these we could easily be playing an offline continuation of Skyrim.
One thing ZeniMax has managed that Bethesda could never master is making the third-person viewpoint a viable option. While many may still prefer to play in first-person, pulling the camera behind your hero is no longer the mangled mess of limbs it was in Fallout 3. Animations are markedly less awkward in TESO and viewing the game’s chunky sword-and-shield combat in third-person no longer elicits sniggers. Hell, there’s even a semi-graceful combat roll (pulled off by pressing p and q) that has a touch of Uncharted about it. Yes, the engine is a tad plain if we’re honest, but the mechanics have evolved over Bethesda’s older RPGs.
As with any MMO worth its sodium chloride, TESO’s fate will lie with the legs of its endgame. Destiny continues to pull punters in through its weekly reset; the dangled promise of plucking Exotic guns from the Weekly Nightfall or new gear from a Raid proving to be a repetitive yet super-tasty carrot. Here, that longevity comes from clearing four-player dungeons (a challenge best left until you hit around level 20), spinning through public Dolmens (a wave mode) and banding together to beat bosses.
In truth, we’ve not played enough of the above to confidently predict how long-lasting TESO’s appeal will be. The level cap is at least set to a beefy 50, while ditching a subscription model gives the game a chance to build a fanbase on PS4. Mechanically, we like TESO, but it’s destined to live and die by how long ZeniMax can keep its community engaged.