The Elder Scrolls Online: Elswyer Hands-On Preview

It’s been a minute since I last tapped WASD in an MMO. In the years I’ve been away from them many appear to be largely the same, continuing down a now well- trodden path, but for The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) and its developer ZeniMax Online Studios, they’ve gone a different way. They’ve forged a new path and are doing their upmost to evolve what’s now an elder statesmen amongst gaming genres.

Set a thousand years before the events of Bethesda’s Skyrim, ESO (pronounced Ess-o) was originally released back in 2014 for Mac & PC (yes I said Mac). A year later it would be re-released as “The Elder Scrolls Online: Tamriel Unlimited” and was launched on both PS4 & Xbox One consoles. The Unlimited edition also did away with the traditional monthly subscription model associated with MMO’s, allowing players to enjoy the world at their leisure with no costs aside from the initial purchase.

ESO challenges the traditional MMO mould in other ways too. It allows players of any level to access any area they wish. There are no level gates or locked instances based on your personal progression and as the world expands through purchasable DLC or larger chapters (such as the hugely successful Summerset expansion last year) you’re free to explore them however and whenever you like. You can also do it with friends regardless of anyone’s level, removing the need for anyone to “level up” to enjoy playing together. The ESO world scales accordingly based on the group playing and imposes no restriction on you enjoying the world with anyone at any time.

ESO’s unique approach continues with the game’s soon to be released chapter *Elswyer (pronounced elsewhere). The new chapter represents the largest component of ESO’s year-long Season of the Dragon storyline, which kicked off recently courtesy of a new DLC pack, Wrathstone. Unlike those before, the Elsweyr chapter concentrates on a single story arc that’s centred around the unwitting release of dragons over the ancient and siege-laden Kajiit homeland of Elsweyr.

“Dragons are a big, big part of this year’s story,” ZeniMax creative director Rich Lambert tells me, “We’ve worked extremely closely with Bethesda on the lore and how we could have them in ESO. They’re big, they’re powerful and they’re not to be tackled one on one.”

Unlike Skyrim’s dragons, as you play through Elsweyr it’s quickly apparent you aren’t the GOAT (greatest of all time). One single person doesn’t have the toolkit or means to defeat a dragon solo, which ties in perfectly to the new spawning mechanic developed for the flying creatures.
“Dragons are dynamic, they don’t spawn in the same location, they can’t be farmed.” Says Lambert. “They pop up and fly around, you’ll see an icon on your map like a public event so everyone is involved.”

It won’t take long before you have to deal with one either. Almost immediately you’re presented with an encounter with a dragon after completing the chapter’s heavily overhauled and significantly improved introduction tutorial. From there on, they’re everywhere, not just in the chapter’s storyline but also in the new full Trial PvP area “Sunspire” as well as being strewn about the beautifully designed Kajiit homeland of Elsweyr in ESO’s open world.

The Kajiit are one of the two original races born to Tamriel. Cat-like in their appearance, they’ve called Elsweyr home long before even the arrival of the Elves. Their home is an ancient one with grand relics that have been heavily influenced by Indonesian, Thai and Indian cultures. Beautifully rendered, Elsweyr’s vast world contains distinct savanna, desert and jungle areas to explore at your own pace or whence touched upon by the chapter’s two-fold storyline.

Obviously there are dragons to defeat and a larger mystery behind their appearance, but the Kajiit have another problem to face after being invaded by another race known as the Imperials. Desperate to regain lost territory, you and a thousand of your closest friends have been called upon to help them fight what has largely been a losing battle.

Cleverly, this invitation is something sent to veteran players who have been heavily invested in ESO prior, but also doubles as an opportunity for someone new to the game to take up. Elsweyr, as with Summerset, has been very specifically created to appeal to everyone whether you’ve played ESO before or not, and for someone who hasn’t touched the game in years, I was pleasantly surprised by how welcoming it felt.

A large part of the Kajiit’s problem in recapturing their land is courtesy of a powerful necromancer reanimating bodies to lead an undead army against them. Two can play at that game though, with the Necromancer finally being introduced as a playable class in what has been a long requested feature since the game’s conception.
Deeply ingrained within The Elder Scrolls lore, the new Necromancer class is quite unique and far from the “mage with undead pets” as some expected. For instance, performing overt necromancy acts in plain sight will result in the guards being called on you. It introduces a whole new element into simply navigating a world that, until now, largely had little consequence to others.

Like other classes, the Necromancer has three different skill-trees, each based around different styles of play. The Reaper has your typical tank qualities, whilst Living Death is a healer and allows the reanimation of corpses. A third Bone Tyrant variant straddles the fence and has both damage and defence capabilities.
Unlike the Sorcerer class and their pets, Necromancers will summon skeletons that are more “fire & forget” having a temporal existence during which they perform a task and then vanish. For added complexity, and the reason behind their autonomy, a skeleton’s power will vary based on how far away you are from corpses that lay strewn around the landscape as a result of the ongoing war.

The Elsweyr chapter also brings with it a number of advancements to ESO’s core. To better facilitate the discovery of guilds, a new tool has been developed that allows you to search in-game. You can further refine your search via a series of filters, including one that I’d never thought of but seems so obvious: timezone.
In addition to the guild finder, a new “Artefact” system has been introduced into PvP. During a PvP trial, a special artefact weapon spawns and imbues its wielder with powerful abilities, such as strength to break through keep walls. There’s a catch though, the weapon constantly needs to be fed by killing other players and if it should run dry, will execute you.

The Elder Scrolls Online provides an unique experience when it comes to MMOs. With over 12 million active accounts, the franchise has only been growing, which in itself is a testament to ZeniMax and their commitment to pushing the genre further and beyond its stereotype. The Elsweyr expansion is set to do that doubly so and whilst not reliant on its narrative, is something that I find myself attracted to. Story is what makes ESO stand apart for me, and it’s a rich one at that. Combined with the vocal talents of the likes of Alfred Mollina & John Cleese, are have the sum of reasons why after spending so long out of the MMO pool I’m about to dive back in.