World of Warcraft has been sitting comfortably atop the MMO throne for what feels like an eternity now, fending off competition from Age of Conan to Star Wars: The Old Republic seemingly without effort. However, the fight is far from over, even as Blizzard quietly chips away at its next online revelation. Bethesda announced earlier this year the company is finally taking the ridiculously popular Elder Scrolls role-playing series online with... The Elder Scrolls Online.
While fans have long clamoured for a multiplayer version of their favourite fantasy universe, the initial reaction to Elder Scrolls Online was surprisingly lukewarm. It seems the backlash was due to the MMO audience's lack of interest in another perceived WoW clone, as even the original has begun to feel stale after almost a decade in service. With that in mind, ESO's long five-year development cycle, and its use of a version of The Old Republic's engine, caused ZeniMax Online to go into a bit of damage control to distance itself from the genre's tropes. Needless to say: the MMO market is incredibly difficult to crack right now. ESO has a lot to prove.
Before getting into the game's points of separation, let's set up this edition of the Elder Scrolls universe. Set approximately 1,000 years before the events of Skyrim, Elder Scrolls Online will encompass the entire continent of Tamriel. Although, the game's ambitious scope means it won't realistically be able to recreate the detail of its singleplayer counterparts. We were shown mostly panning glances of ESO's comprehensive version of Tamriel, and it looked impressive, visually. The environments were detailed and varied, ranging from the snowy tundra of Skyrim to the damp marshes of Morrowind, and everything in between. Coming from what appears to be an absolutely massive world, ESO's visual presentation certainly delivered, but keep in mind, our impressions are based on a relatively quick world montage.
Beyond that, the team at Zenimax Online went to great lengths to attempt to distance ESO's combat mechanics from the tired cool-downs and button-clicks which have become synonymous with the MMO genre. They were all still accounted for, but certain elements fans of previous Elder Scrolls games will recognize have also been included. Health, stamina and magicka meters slowly drain as your character engages in combat, and light blocking / parrying maneuvers can be used to give encounters more of an action-oriented sensibility. However, these additions felt relatively minor in the grand scheme of things - ESO still looked like a WoW-inspired MMO.
Placing a larger emphasis on social interactions and cooperation, if that's possible, is another pillar of ESO. Zenimax Online mentioned public dungeons, branching quest lines based on choice and coop rewards as examples of how ESO is working to evolve the genre. The concept is to never punish somebody for going out on a limb to help another player or experiment in general. To that end, public dungeons will allow players to spontaneously group together if they happen to meet up at similar points of a dungeon. Bonus loot, for example, would be a way to encourage these natural fellowships - a system which also applies to combat mastery. They're all interesting ideas, but it's unclear how profoundly they will change the game's moment-to-moment gameplay.
Look out for more on Bethesda's entry into the online realm in the coming months. The Elder Scrolls Online is tentatively set for a 2013 release on PC and Mac.