Stepping into the frigid lands of 2011’s The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim felt like a brisk blast of fresh air to the casual RPG player. The game-world was one of the more beautiful ever put to screen and the title seethed with quests, characters and coin to scoop up and enjoy. Rather than build another Skyrim for the follow-up, however, Bethesda assembled a new studio, Zenimax Online, to build on the monumental goodwill stoked in Tamriel’s northern snows and drop an MMORPG. A bold move, shifting the ostensibly solitary life and idle fantasies of an Elder Scrolls fan into the world of pay-to-play online turbulence. Over the short course a recent press beta, Gameplanet was able to pull together a couple of characters and experience a slice of what Bethesda hopes will hook players into playing and paying for years to come.

Creating a character in The Elder scrolls Online is a fairly standard Elder Scrolls affair - after picking a race and fiddling with the size of the player’s ears for a while, an allegiance to one of three alliances is picked and out the gate they go. An introductory tutorial mission is run through, something anybody familiar with Skyrim or Oblivion will be able to handle with ease. Once this mission to escape a hellish prision is completed, things start to open up a little, although the early-game progression feels a little narrow.

The Elder Scrolls Online hands-on

Having a limited number of quests to get one's eye in is a boon, as players unfamiliar with MMO style gameplay will take a while to adjust. Characters at this low level feel powerless and pathetic, something that can be overcome easily by partnering up with other fresh adventurers. This subtle push toward groupwork can leave lone-wolf players feeling frustrated, as bad guys even a single level higher than the player’s current rank will pulverise them into a fine paste.

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

Pulling together with friends can be an issue in these early frames of the game, as different races and allegiances appear to spawn at disparate ends of Tamriel. This causes players to either play far enough through the storyline to meet up and battle onward from there, or re-roll to end up playing through together from the start. It’s not a major issue for seasoned MMO players, especially as the combined world of Tamriel essentially acts as a single mega-realm, but beginners might have a hard time figuring out where their friends are - or end up losing interest by being kept apart from their racially segregated friends. Bleak.

As the game progresses (at least, from the perspective of a Dark Elf Dragon Knight), quests begin to pop up all over the landscape, providing the same kind of energetic exploration fans of The Elder Scrolls crave. Unfortunately, until characters hit double digit levels, many of the given quests are drone courier missions, traipsing from A-Z delivering a scroll, finding a head or scaring away a nasty overgrown cricket. After one or two of these encounters even the most unsure player is likely to have come to terms with the game's core systems, and as a result the basic repetitive tasks feel unnecessary. The meatier action is out there, but it requires an investment in time more action orientated fans of Skyrim might find a chore.

Graphically, The Elder scrolls Online is strong for an MMO. At best looking something like Skyrim with a couple of graphical mods thrown in, the game scales surprisingly well between last and current gen machines. Characters animate smoothly and the draw distance and architecture on display is impressive on the right kind of machine. Spells and other animations seem to lack the myriad clipping issues displayed in other, more mature MMO titles which helps bed in players of the highly polished Elder Scrolls singleplayer titles. At times when network latency rears its ugly head, the screen will freeze and unlock seconds later, a little alarming in a battle scenario but thankfully infrequent during the time spent playtesting. HUD elements such as the compass, health, magicka and stamina bars are all lifted directly from Skyrim, which again helps to settle visitors in to the MMO fracas, which can traditionally be tough to get to grips with.

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

Combat in the game, whether ranged or melee feels responsive and alive, something that is hard to get right in an MMO. One-on-one versus an AI assailant can find players ducking, rolling and diving out of (and into) harms way, which helps keep the repetitive killing from going stale. Initially (for the first five or so levels), characters are so weak as to feel ineffectual, which serves to heighten the sense of improvement when better weapons and spells begin to unlock. Loot drops in the press beta seemed to be gimped, which happily drew us into experiencing the crafting system. While initially aping crafting system found in Skyrim, it promises far greater depth of complexity. Crafting in The Elder scrolls Online isn’t for the faint of heart and will take serious time and dedication to master, something which will surely appeal to fans of the Elder Scrolls franchise. As a trade-off for the at-times inexplicable vagaries of creating your own tools, the game dishes out valuable and distinctive items even from a low level of trade skill.

At the end of our relatively short time with the The Elder scrolls Online beta, spirits are higher than expected. With an attractive mix of distinctive Elder Scrolls mythos, quests that verge on turly interesting, and a robust game engine to boot, the game certainly shows signs of its prolonged development. With aspects such as PvP and end-game not within the scope of this preview, there is more to look forward to around launch and beyond. Anyone who found themselves bragging to co-workers about their exploits in Skyrim should feel no hesitation in trying out Bethesda’s premium online title, if only for a while.

The Elder Scrolls Online is coming to PC and Mac on April 24, and new-gen consoles in June.