Despite its hefty name recognition, The Elder Scrolls Online has a tough row to hoe. It's a brand new massively multiplayer RPG trying to join a market dominated by titans like World of Warcraft. And, unlike competitors such as Star Wars: The Old Republic or the upcoming The Secret World, it can't use a unique setting as a primary distinction to set it apart from WoW.
Just like WoW, Elder Scrolls Online has everything from orcs to dwarves and pastoral beauty to snow-covered wastes. So let's talk about a couple of actual differences, namely ESO's combat, reward systems and cooperative "synergy" skills.
Zenimax Online Studios general manager Matt Firor describes ESO's combat as real-time, which is essentially true. It's not quite like Skyrim, in that there's a discernible pause between every attack, but there also aren't any of the lengthy cooldowns you'd find in other MMOs. There is a familiar MMO hotbar at the bottom of the screen, although it only houses a handful of skills.
Instead of managing the dizzying array of skills and abilities one might find in other MMOs, ESO has players equipping a small set of skills depending on the situation (not unlike Guild Wars). The first two skills are based on a character's weapon. As in other Elder Scrolls titles, any weapon can be used by any character, and his or her skill with that weapon will increase with use. The next three skills are based on a character's class and can be swapped in and out to create a "loadout" depending on a player's style or role. The final skill is the Ultimate, a powerful skill that is built up over time before it can be unleashed to devastating effect.
As lead gameplay designer Nick Konkle told me, it's entirely possible to create a hybrid class. His example was outfitting a mage with an axe and teleportation magic, allowing him to warp directly into combat, wreck some shop and warp back out again. "You pick this small set of things, and you don't just execute a rotation of moves for maximum damage," says Konkle, "you look and try and build a character and have a tactical style that you want to play with, and you respond to what everyone is doing."
The second standout feature is ESO's reward system. As Konkle puts it, "there's only rewards for working with friends, no penalties." While the game does have a traditional party system, it also allows players to lend a hand in any given battle and receive the full reward for doing so. For example, should you see someone struggling to kill a monster, you can intervene to help and both players will receive full experience for the kill, regardless of whether or not the players are in the same party.
Another aspect of the reward system involves "synergy" moves. These allow two players to combine their skills to create a third, more powerful skill. The example shown during my demonstration had a mage lay down an area-of-effect fire storm. A warrior can then run into the storm and execute a spinning strike that will disperse the spell into a spread of high-damage fireballs. Again, players can do these maneuvers in any situation, regardless of party status.
These synergy moves add an interesting dynamic to the game, says Konkle, especially PVP combat. Players will go out of their way to use synergy moves, he says, simply because they are fun to perform. The upshot is that this causes players to work together not merely because it's required, but because it's entertaining.
As the demonstration was entirely hands-off, we'll have to take him at his word for now. Hopefully we'll be able to try it out ourselves before The Elder Scrolls Online launches next year.