"Yes. It's an altar. Men would come and sacrifice the wretched in my name. The weak would be punished by the strong."
--Molag Bal (from TESV: Skyrim)
So says the baleful Daedric Prince of domination and enslavement, TESO's primary villain. In the first cutscene, Molag Bal steals the player character's soul and he then spends the prologue (which was not playable at the event) escaping the Prince's realm of Coldharbour, a wretched piece of Oblivion. The player exits through a portal and ends up in the starting area for his alliance with the loose goal of reclaiming his soul. There may be more than one soul at stake, however, and you can be sure that the fate of Tamriel and Nirn itself will be decided.
TESO tells many tales, all without disturbing the established lore many hold dear. I spoke with Creative Director Paul Sage about the narrative, or perhaps narratives
is more appropriate. He sees the story as a set of nesting dolls. Within the main narrative rest three stories tied to each of the three alliances. Within each of those reside regional stories, and, within those, zone stories. Of course, there are also completely independent quests with self-contained miniature narratives. As anyone who has played a core Elder Scrolls title knows, sometimes those are the best.
To ensure fidelity to Elder Scrolls history, the devs hold regular communications with Todd Howard's team. Paul says they inquire about anything from the overall feel of a certain area to the specifics of a Daedric Prince's motivations and actions. Some might be concerned that the events in TESO will contradict history read about in a book found in a Morrowind inn and bar. Fortunately, TESO occurs in the time known as the Interegnum, a period of relative obscurity due to lost historical records. Paul seemed quite excited by the fact that they literally wrote Tamriel history, and soon enough you can be a part of it.
Zenimax Online Studios modeled TESO's combat after that of Skyrim on PC because they found that sytem active, enjoyable, and rewarding. The philosophy behind this decision comes from the refusal to implement a cooldown dependent system that requires the player to simply click on abilities in a set order. Creative Director Paul Sage says Whack-a-Mole isn't very fun, and I absolutely agree; MMORPGs need active, not passive combat, and TESO delivers.
There's not even a cursor on screen, and that means less clicking than the average hack'n'slash MMORPG. Instead, players use a reticule to actively target an enemy and then use a light, heavy, or special attack with the click of a mouse or key. Blocks are also available, even when not using a shield, just like Skyrim. Visual cues alert the player when it would be wise to block. Successful blocking can lead to counterattacks, which in turn lead to stunned enemies and increased damage. If you master the system and make the right moves, you obtain finesse, which awards players with extra experience or gold.
Most fights were quite easy, but the difficulty balance is completely and admittedly unfinished at this stage. I died a few times, however, and was then given the option of resurrection on the spot for a penalty (the details of this were unclear, but my experience seemed to be depleted) or at a shrine for no penalty except being teleported away from my current position. The relatively easy difficulty does imply that the game is completely solo-able, however, so more single-player-centric gamers like me can rejoice. Of course, when in a group, enemy encounters scale to the number of players present, providing a more appropriate challenge. Most of the early enemies (skeleton warriors, nix hounds, humans, and even a hargraven) employ little strategy, but high-level enemies promise to offer tactical set-ups. We were shown how certain enemies provide synergies for one another. For example, dwarven constructs give each other potent magic power if given the chance. Players can also benefit one another, however, and we saw how a sorcerer can grant another player an AoE attack.
Character progression occurs along three different paths: attributes, abilities, and weapon skills. The first two are class specific, while the third is universal. Attributes are purchased with skill points earned at each new level. These are tied to Health, Stamina, and Magicka, the classic Elder Scrolls trio of depletable bars. Abilities develop alongside regular experience levels. Weapon skills increase with the use of each respective weapon, just like typical Elder Scrolls abilities.
My argonian Templar had attributes that increased healing capabilities and reduced resurrection costs, while my abilities typically dealt damage as well as bestowed some benevolence on myself or other characters. I used a two-handed weapon and obtained both passive and active abilities for it. The Dragonknight had a few magical skills, and his signature move was a Scorpion-inspired grab ability.
TESO seems to abolish typical MMORPG character roles, and I couldn't be happier. There are certainly classes more adept at healing than tanking, for example, but freedom of equipment choice and more balanced ability sets make each character capable of multiple roles. I loved the damage my healer could deal, and he never felt like a passive combatant. TESO feels less mechanical than the typical MMORPG, and this is a very good thing. Of course, if you think Skyrim's combat is clunky and inelegant, TESO will not likely persuade you otherwise.
Each of the three alliances have at least one thing in common: Cyrodiil, the site of massive-scale PvP warfare. At this time in Tamriel history, Cyrodiil is disputed territory, without an emperor, and that means war. PvP wasn't available in the hands-on preview, but the devs showed a brief video of in-game footage to showcase the central concepts. A hundred or so warriors charged a keep, guarded by an equally large number of players. As catapult missiles struck the walls, they fell, and the offenders broke through the fastness and claimed it as their own.
This struggle is at the heart of the PvP arena that is Cyrodiil. Each alliance must join forces to call the territory their own. Keeps provide the major sites of battle, although individual PvP can still occur anywhere throughout Cyrodiil. One-on-one battles are possible as well as organized fights between guilds at appointed locations. Both captured keeps and enemy kills earn players alliance points. Earn enough points and you can be crowned emperor of Cyrodiil. Don't expect to own this coveted title for long, however. The fight for Cyrodiil will never end.
The PvP action doesn't go beyond Cyrodiil, however. This ensures that PvP gamers can murder one another to their hearts' content while those who prefer PvE can enjoy that content without the anxiety of lurking assassins.
Cyrodiil also contains PvE content, and plenty of it. We were told that Cyrodiil is almost as large as it was in Oblivion, and players might even recognize some of the same locations, albeit second age versions of them. Cyrodiil has towns, quests, dungeons, and everything you would expect the standard PvE regions. You just might have to defend your honor while adventuring.