I'll admit that I, too, thought The Elder Scrolls Online looked a hell of a lot like World of Warcraft and any other generic MMO when the first few promotional materials and screenshots were released. I was expecting the game to end up feeling a lot like WoW too.
So I was pleasantly surprised when I jumped into the starter zone (Stros M'Kai, pictured above) and the first thing I notice is... a lack of HUD. And that's a good thing!
If you've ever played pretty much any MMO you know that your screen is typically cluttered with skills and hotkeys and... it's information overload. But ESO opts for a cleaner interface, only popping up the necessary information as situations call for it -- like entering combat (where your 5 hotkeys will appear on the bottom of the screen).
If you walked into the walled off area at PAX where I was playing ESO, you might not even have guessed it was an MMO at all. And that's a good thing, too.
The best advantage to the bare minimum UI approach is that I'm more free to explore my surroundings. You might not think that a few simple buttons and indicators on a screen should inhibit that experience, but it totally does. Instead of paying attention to numbers and what have you, I'm noticing little campfires where a group of people are huddled around, looking like hell.
So I go over to them.
A man cries out as I approach and click on him. He's concerned about his mangled leg, but more so about his lady. She's been taken captive by a band of pirates. He asks if I'd consider rescuing her.
My primary goal in this two-hour playthrough of the game was to explore as many sidequests as possible. The main storyline starts you off rescued by a ship leader. She says she needs help with a heist, and wants you to gather some useful hands. So you basically set out on a Mass Effect-like mission to gather followers. When you meet a new companion, you'll need to help them out with a favour first, just like in Mass Effect.
Sounds fun enough, and it was. But we were promised that we'll have more than just the typical fetch missions to carry out, and my personal mission was to find out if that was true. After all this is a huge world I'm meant to explore, and I want to be sure that there are compelling reasons to explore it.
And, so far, there are. Most role-playing game sidequests that ask you to gather items and materials for generic reasons are aimed at making you feel like you're in some way helping the people who made the request. They wave their arms in puppet-like motion and off you go to do a good deed. There's some sob story about a sick son or a poor child or something. But really you're just hankering for some more experience points or that sweet-looking staff the NPC said they'd give you in return.
In ESO, sidequests you accept feel like stories you're jumping in the middle of. The disabled husband had just had his camp raided by those pirates that kidnapped his wife. And when I return with her, he plans on healing up before plotting his revenge. His story existed before I met him, and it will continue to carry out afterwards. NPCs have lives of their own. They have interests of their own and personalities of their own. They don't feel too much like generic NPCs (though some tropes are certainly still there). You're jumping in midway, helping them out with one task, and wave goodbye, knowing that it won't be the end of their story. Whether or not they'll reappear later in the game, having progressed about their journeys, is something I can't tell you for sure yet. I haven't played long enough. For all I know, these could just be cases of smarter storyline writing.
But the idea that I'm interacting with people who are actual people is something that excites me.
Combat also excites me. I come from a long and shameful background of World of Warcraft. And I come from a background of inhabiting avatars who are sorcerers and other magic-wielding classes. So I'm not quite used to feeling active in battle. As a mage I typically hang back at a safe distance, sending my summoned companion out to distract enemies while I cast spells at them. Spells that take time to cast, and take time before I am allowed to use them again. But in ESO I'm in the front of the line, dodging attacks and casting binding spells while running in evasive circles. This is by no means revolutionary. Other MMOs have played with this idea, like Guild Wars 2 for example. But it feels natural in this world. It feels like Skyrim. And of course, spells do take time to cast and they do have short cool down periods. But I'm more a part of the action in ESO than I am in a game like WoW.
Having a limited HUD helps you stay in the action, too. Instead of cycling between a dozen or so spells and buffs and attacks, the limited selection of five hotkeys keeps you focused on prioritising just a handful of abilities at a time. This one will boil down to personal choice, though, as the more spells I get the more excited I am to use them all together. Either way, ESO will force you to prioritise your set of skills before entering a battle.
You have a ton of flexibility with how you level your character and his/her abilities. Typically if you're a mage, you're stuck to levelling mage abilities. Flames and ice and healing are what you can advance. But even as a mage I could stick my skill points in my weapon or armour trees. I play magic characters cause I like magic, so I still levelled my spells, but if you feel like making a tougher mage-like character in your game, you'll be free to do so.
Speaking of character customisation, and because I'm a nut for the visual kind of customisation, I have to tell you how robust the character creator is. You can control chin size and cheek depth just like lots of other games let you do. But you can even control small details like gut size! Drink a lot of beer? Toss that cursor to the right. Have small feet? You know what to do.
When the game was announced, our resident MMO expert Mike Fahey listed out some things he wanted to see out of ESO. From what I played, Bethesda already got some of those requests in. But there's still plenty more to explore in the game. I didn't get a chance to play with public dungeons, for instance. In fact, my only interaction with another player was a short few tag-teamed battles. Then he tried to shoot at me and ran off when he realised we couldn't play PvP. (It was actually kind of upsetting, I wanted to journey with him!) I can't tell you anything about potential factions, either. I ended my demo still very early into the game.
I tend to stay away from MMOs because I know it's in my personality to explore every facet until I look up and realise it's been three years and I haven't paid my electrical bill and how has my laptop been running this long without juice. But ESO feels like something I want to get involved in. It's a Skyrim MMO in (as far as I can tell) every sense of the meaning. I just need a few more days with it to be sure.