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Elder Scrolls Online: Impressions & Zombie Werewolf Generals.

The world of MMOs is tricky a market. With each release unavoidably being compared to the juggernaut that is World of War Craft, it’s tough to stand out.

Time and time again we see large name subscription-based games turning into free to play formats in a struggle to build their community and grow. With all of this to consider, I accepted a press invitation to check out the upcoming Elder Scrolls Online. I figured if anyone had a shot at launching a successful new MMO in this day and age, the team of Bethesda Zenimax Online would be one of the best gambles a gamer could make.

Inside the private screening theater, we were walked through a pre-staged series of locations, events, battles and quests. Overall, the game environments look a lot like a the recently released Skyrim. Almost identical in fact, which is impressive.  The characters however resembled a more caricatured version of what you’ve come to know in the Elder Scrolls series. It’s not quite as cartoony as World of War Craft, or even Star Wars: The Old Republic, but they are definitely not in vein with the more realistic looking complex models found in Skyrim.

The UI for the game is very minimal. The only time you see items, health bars, or indicators, is when you need them, or when you hover over their usual location to manually check them.  We were told this was done to help emphasize the highly detailed environments and make the game more immersive visually.

One of the key traits they were touting was real time combat (attacks, blocking, stealth.). The idea is that if you enjoy Elder Scrolls titles like Oblivion and Skyrim, the play style is very similar.  You must aim your attacks, blocks and projectiles. They will not auto lock and execute like those found in World of Warcraft. You even have the use of power attacks and finishers.

Of course, this isn’t the first time these features have been promised, and they certainly aren’t the only game in development claiming to have “real time combat.” For example, we went hands-on with upcoming TERA Online at PAX last year, and while not perfect, it was much more engaging than your usual MMO. League of Legends, which is already released and one of the most popular MMO’s, also utilizes a more real time combat system. So this isn’t exactly a game-changing feature.. Since everything we were shown was pre-scripted, we’ll have to wait for something more hands on.

The combat engine also incorporates a “finesse” system, where executing certain combat maneuvers perfectly will build and multiple your finesse score. The higher this score, the better loot drops you will encounter when you finally slay your enemy.

Speaking of enemies, I’m not sure if I was impressed, or confused with their character design. During the demonstration, we were shown a quest where you needed to save a town from an army of Werewolves, lead by a Zombie Werewolf General. Yup, you heard that right. A Zombie. Werewolf. General. Now this sounds pretty badass, but I was a little disappointed with the final model. It just looked like a Werewolf. I didn’t notice any indication of him being a zombie, or a general. I just had to take their word for it. Maybe the models aren’t done and this was simply a placeholder, but I expected something like this:

While the model may have been lack luster, they did demonstrate how boss battles would be more unique than the usual hack and slash found in MMO’s. For example, this particular boss required the player to lure them into fire before being able to efficiently harm them. Once in the fire, the werewolf would revert to his human form momentarily allowing you to inflict maximum damage.

If battling NPC’s isn’t your cup of tea, the game will have PVP as well, with the catch being huge battles with up to 150 people at a time in some cases. While this looked very impressive visually I a pre-recorded demo, there is some skepticism about how this will actually play out online. Other games have promised large PVP battles before, and it’s no secret that they often end up clunky, cluttered, confusing and frustrating.

Launching in 2012 on PC and Mac, the game will be extremely laptop friendly. While you may not get the best graphics, they claimed any laptop in the past five years that has any level of 3D acceleration should be good enough to at least get in the game.