Hands-on preview: The Elder Scrolls Online could be great, but we’ll have to wait and see

At Bethesda's recent pre-E3 event in Santa Monica, I had the opportunity to get some hands-on time with The Elder Scrolls Online. Now, it's no secret that I've questioned the purpose of an MMO based on this famed open world RPG franchise. Hell, I wrote a piece about why an Elder Scrolls MMO isn't all that necessary. Still, I decided to see for myself what the game had to offer, and I have to admit I had fun during the time I spent running around one of the many towns in Elder Scrolls Online. Even then, however, while I certainly see the potential, I was still left with some questions.

The funny thing about the Elder Scrolls series is that you can go into one of the games and expect to play for a few minutes but easily spend hours engrossed in the world. While I certainly didn't spend hours playing Elder Scrolls Online, I played for more than 30 minutes, which is double the 15 minutes I had originally planned on.

I could've easily explored a bit deeper and ventured into dungeons, but I decided I'd come to the aid of the townsfolk within one of the smaller areas in Elder Scrolls Online. Tasks started out simple enough, and it wasn't long before I was sent on some fetch quests. I wasn't exactly hunting for items, though. Instead, I was investigating the death of a local town dweller and friend to many. I needed to run around the town and get leads from different characters who knew this fellow, and I ultimately came across my first major threat: a werewolf.

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Sadly, this is where some of my concern reared its ugly head (stupid concern!) and caused me to be a bit skeptical about at least one of the gameplay features in Elder Scrolls Online. While the combat was undoubtedly functional, it was also a bit too simplistic for its own good. Granted, Skyrim's combat wasn't all that deep either, but it was hard for me to get too into fighting the werewolf when all I was really doing was clicking on the mouse to attack and block.

Obviously, I was playing through an earlier part of the game, and there's certain to be a vast variety of vile villains in Elder Scrolls Online, requiring a more refined touch. Add to that the numerous melee and magic attacks players will discover the more they play, and you've got the makings of a combat system that could range between just okay and good. (Seriously, let's be real here, combat is not the reason Skyrim was good — that wonderful, beautiful, bold, expansive world was.)

This brings me to another concern: controls. I've read numerous reports surrounding the matter, and it seems that Elder Scrolls Online will not launch with native controller support, which is actually kind of a bummer. I can't imagine having to play Skyrim with a mouse and keyboard, and something about playing Elder Scrolls Online this way just felt off. And before I'm given the whole “MMOs are better with a mouse and keyboard” spiel, let's not forget that Bethesda and Zenimax Online are toting Elder Scrolls Online as a non-traditional entry in the genre that's meant to be similar to recent titles in the series.

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Of course, my outlook on Elder Scrolls Online isn't completely negative or skeptical. I love the idea of being able to explore a brand new Elder Scrolls game. Oddly enough, even the most menial tasks can sometimes be entertaining in this series. One such objective required me to hunt down a local farmer's lost pig. Surprisingly (or not surprisingly, if you're familiar with the series), I had fun seeking out the possible thief, talking to NPCs to gather information, and eventually delivering the little piggy to his owner.

The missions I described here are just two of the tasks I completed. To say I scratched the surface of what this game has to offer would probably be an overstatement. Elder Scrolls Online will have a lot — and I mean a lot — to do. You have to wonder what the rest of the game's world will be like, as well as the types of dangers and treasures lurking within the many dungeons spread across the land. That right there, more than anything else, is what I'm most excited about. The combat left me a bit underwhelmed, but it's that signature Elder Scrolls open world design that really piques my interest.

What I took away from my time with Elder Scrolls Online is that it's likely to deliver that patented sense of awe and wonder that the series is known for. Bethesda was able to turn the simple act of going out and exploring in a video game into one of the single most incredible experiences this past console generation. Unfortunately, the not-so-stellar combat and the lack of controller support are total downers. Like any game, we'll have to wait and see how Elder Scrolls Online turns out. At this point, it really is a toss-up — a toss-up with a potentially rad open world. We'll know for sure later this year.

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