How does one even begin to approach the task of converting the deeply-cherished and defiantly singleplayer world of The Elder Scrolls into an MMO without being paralysed by the size of the task and the overwhelmingly high expectations of fans? After all, The Elder Scrolls Online comes with the dual challenge of needing to satisfy both Elder Scrolls fans while also offering something new for increasingly jaded MMO veterans. If you are ZeniMax Online Studios creative director Paul Sage, you start with the common ground between the two, of which there is a surprising amount.

“The way we started out was we kinda made lists – what we like about MMOs and what we like about Elder Scrolls games, and we started looking at where those things paired up,” he says. “We actually found there were a lot of places that they met.” Combat was high on that list. Although the presence of a six skill hotbar will be familiar to any MMO player, Skyrim was an equal influence. Players attack or charge a heavy attack using the left mouse button, block using the right, and can interrupt enemy attacks with a bash. Block an enemy’s heavy attack, and they will be momentarily stunned and take additional damage from the subsequent counter. Projectiles (including spell projectiles) may also be blocked, and a dodge is executed with double tap on any movement key. The mouse is used for targeting, although there is soft lock tab targeting too, so players can pick their foes out in a crowd.

The Elder Scrolls Online hands-on

The Skyrim-style combat was because MMO combat "can kind of get stale,” says Sage. Although health and magicka regenerate during combat, fights will be determined by who best manages those two resources and their stamina. Sneaking also works the same way it does in Skyrim, eye overlay included, however, there is no penalty for high encumbrance. Combat certainly has more of an action-oriented feel than many MMOs, although the heft found outside that genre is typically lacking. The inclusion of the game's first-person view may go some way to remedying that situation, as will a finalised death mechanic. The current one simply forces the player to wait a few seconds before they spring to their feet with a slight stats penalty, and regenerate from there. “Death systems get redone all the time,” says Sage. “We’re going to change that.”

Synergies were a combat feature we heard about but didn’t see, and these involve both players and enemy NPCs combining abilities for an effect that is greater than the sum of its parts. The examples given involved one enemy throwing oil to slow players while the other lit it, and one player casting a spell called Nova while a passerby beefs it up to SuperNova at the expense of some magicka. The timing for this to work is in the realm of 6-8 seconds, says Sage. “We wanna make sure players are engaged in working with each other because that’s kinda what’s fun.”

The Elder Scrolls Online hands-on
The Elder Scrolls Online hands-on
The Elder Scrolls Online hands-on
The Elder Scrolls Online hands-on

As in Skyrim, combat experience flows to a player’s level, equipped weapon, and armour, but also their hotbar abilities as well. Levelling up earns the player points to invest in their health, stamina, or magicka, and a single skill point to spend on an active or passive ability in a number of skill lines. “Even though class abilities are really important, they’re only three of the skill lines you’ll eventually get,” says Sage. There will also be weapons and armour skill lines, Mage's Guild, Fighter’s Guild, and Other World (vampire or werecreature) skill lines, among others. Naturally, each skill line grants different perks and stat boosts. For example: the light armour progression line includes bonuses to spells, magicka regeneration, and the like, whereas heavy armor skill lines give bonuses to received healing, bracing, and so forth.

Character customisation is on par with if not more extensive than that in Skyrim. The game’s nine races are divided into The Daggerfall Covenant (Breton, Redguard and Orc), The Aldmeri Dominion (High Elf, Wood Elf and Khajit), and The Ebonheart Pact (Nord, Argonian and Dark Elf), and this affects PvP bonuses as well as starting position. We entered the game as a level five female Orc Sorcerer, and, our skill points funnelled into Storm Conjuring and Familiar spells, we headed into Daggerfall.

It's a familiar grind, but well executed: we put out fires, investigate a murder, rescue villagers, quell an imp uprising, and find a pig, among other things. Away from the area's main questline, things are more interesting, as we clear out a cave, find a skill-boosting Sky Shard, and battle some familiar Skyrim foes. For an MMO the game looks sharp; all lush forests and fastidiously detailed buildings. The player’s view is very uncluttered, the minimal interface efficient, and controls simple. That’s thanks to version of the Hero Engine that is so heavily modified. It’s “kind of a homegrown engine at this point,” says Sage.

The Elder Scrolls Online hands-on

One of Zenimax's design goals was ensuring that players could "just go off and have a good time" and stumble upon enticing content, says Sage. “That has been one of the more difficult parts from design, is how to get that to work because you still need enough population for players to be able to play together and feel challenged, but you also need enough exploratory content to where [players] can still go around the world and still feel engaged. It’s probably one of the things [we did] that I’m most happiest about.” We certainly managed that, enticed by the gift of experience simply for discovering new areas and points of interest, and interacting with the game's fully voice-acted questgivers and NPCs, who remember the player’s actions thanks to the game’s phasing system, which alters how each player perceives the world as they make decisions. It's not new tech, and must be carefully deployed so as to not split up players, but it can give the player that singleplayer feeling within an MMO, says Sage.

The most obvious use of phasing in The Elder Scrolls Online is when an object’s visibility is conditional on a prior decision. The example Sage gives is if a player helps an Orc NPC decide whether to be a fighter or a blacksmith: if they choose the former they will find him later dead, the latter and he appears in stores. The aforementioned NPC reactions are another thing that is unique for each player. “It’s all a perception thing,” says Sage. “If we tell you you’re the hero that just saved the world… you’re the hero that just saved the world!” As such, the main story of TESO is actually progressed through solo.

The Elder Scrolls Online hands-on

Controller support for the game might be coming, adds Sage, although he won’t be drawn into speculation regarding console ports or Oceania servers, only saying that Megaserver technology will intelligently pair friends and guildmates together on the same server "channel". He does say that he has seen the game running on a five-year-old Mac laptop and a Microsoft Surface Pro “with decent settings actually.” Naturally, he is hoping for a broad audience, but what would success look like? “Without throwing out numbers, hearing that it actually plays like an Elder Scrolls game,” is Sage’s first comment. “Do players engage with this? Is it an Elder Scrolls title and an MMO?”

A large part of the game’s success will probably rest on the business model it adopts, something publisher Bethesda has not yet disclosed. But it’s already clear despite the game’s early beta state that it has adopted a pleasing number of Skyrim's mechanics, albeit rejigged for the realm of massively-multiplayer. The tweaks to get most excited about are those to standard MMO combat, which are long past its use-by date, but for many, the opportunity to experience this beautifully-realised version of Tamriel and its accompanying lore alongside a friend or two is already reason enough to dive in.