Being ushered into a small room for a half-hour preview is seldom the best way to gain a comprehensive understanding of any MMO, let alone one purporting to pack the kind of complex lore likely to befuddle even ardent fans.
The Elder Scrolls would, at first glance, appear a natural fit for the increasingly busy fantasy RPG genre, although Zenimax Online's Matt Firor is quick to point out that the intent of the developer is to pitch it as "the most socially connected MMO ever". It's an intriguing statement, however the studio's general manager left those in attendance with no firm details as to precisely what this will entail.
This E3 session, therefore, was predominantly artwork and exploration, with a smattering of combat and a satisfactory portion of heartfelt enthusiasm from Zenimax.
Environments shown were picked from the length and breadth of Tamriel, from snowy Skyrim mountains to jungle and desert themed areas, as well as almost pan-Asiatic sections complete with pagodas and cherry trees. The story, set a thousand years before the events of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, features the molevolent Daedric Prince Molag Bal who, with the assistance of the necromancer Mannimarco, has stolen the hero's soul, along with ever other players'. The main arc therefore involves the retrieval of said soul, and is heavily influenced by an undead theme.
The combat system is action orientated, and based on the traditional three attributes of strength, magicka, and stamina. UI Toolbars are minimal, with only the compass occupying the lower right corner of the screen as a permanent reminder of the virtual world. There's a strong emphasis on hotkeys as opposed to toolbars, although during combat additional toolbars will pop into view, and disappear with sufficient haste once combat ends.
Combat itself is a fairly predictable affair at this early stage; the warrior hero was shown using a magical blocking ability that consumed stamina and repelled blows as well as projectiles. His primary attack utilised a monstrously outsized sword, wielded with deft agility to suitably bone-crunching results. Special attacks were charged up and released, easily smiting enemies such as rogues and necromancers, the latter unsuccessfully pitting raised skeletons of fallen foes at our hero.
Curiously enough, Zenimax has omitted quest hubs, preferring the player to stumble upon quests in the wild, or wait for a kindly passing NPC to point them out. Travelling through the countryside prompted a new quest location to appear on the compass, although it's very much up to the player as to whether or not to interact with it.
It's not just changes like this that Zenimax hope to win subscribers over with; time and causality feature strongly in this world, as some instanced quests are set in the past and require successful completion to alter events and character-driven monologue in the present day.
In addition, the game is designed to run on computers up to five years old. With both PC and Mac support, Zenimax is certainly aiming for the broadest possible market.
To round out the demonstration, Firor queued up a PvP skirmish, as dozens of players leapt into battle. The small field quickly filled with swinging swords and magic effects as various heroes took to combat, but sadly this was strictly an external camera perspective and actual gameplay wasn't featured. It was hinted however that the PvP aspect would feature "hundreds of players", and will also allow gamers to besiege castles and break down their walls.
Overall however, The Elder Scrolls Online doesn't appear to be out to capture the audience of any existing MMO. There's no evidence that any individual attribute will convince those otherwise invested elsewhere to jump ship, nor does Zenimax appear to be actively pursuing them. Rather, The Elder Scrolls Online appears to be in development for one purpose only: to provide fans with the opportunity to visit lands and lore from their favourite franchise in a highly social, co-operative and reverent manner.
We're expecting a protracted beta period prior to the launch in 2013, and will keep a close eye on this one.