A New Era Dawns
Adventurers have been travelling to the land of Tamriel for freeform, open-world questing ever since 1994, and the launch of The Elder Scrolls: Arena. In recent years, we've been to the dark and mysterious land of Morrowind, the forested Imperial Province of Cyrodiil and most recently, Skyrim, snowy home of the hardy Nords. The Elder Scrolls Online though is the first chance since the start of the series to take on the whole world at once - and bring friends.
The Elder Scrolls Online takes place before any of the other games, at a time of all-out war between three factions - the Daggerfall Covenant, Ebonheart Pact and Aldmeri Dominion. Each gets a dedicated slice of the world to adventure in, with a shared province in the middle devoted to all-out war. As if that wasn't enough conflict, the world also has to deal with Daedric Prince Molag Bal, plotting to pull the whole thing into his decrepit domain of Coldharbour with subtle scheming and outright giant chains from the sky.
All The World's A Stage
This isn't Skyrim, and you shouldn't expect the same level of freedom - to drop any plans to save the world and go become the head of the Mages Guild for instance. Areas, while promised to be big, are meant for characters of certain levels, and there's no level-scaling to help you play tourist without first earning your stripes against basic cultists and similar enemies.
You do get more freedom than in most MMORPGs though, with a quest system built around letting you just walk up to something interesting, rather than having to wait for a character to send you there. You also get at least some control over your personal story, with recurring characters and moral choices to make, such as whether to save a pirate queen from poison or simply walk away.
Character creation is also extremely open. You do have to pick a class, but this doesn't define you like it does in most MMORPGs. A Dragonknight will be better at combat early on, a Sorcerer will have more in the way of magic to throw around and so on. In both cases though, that only covers three skills lines out of many - others are earned from everything from helping the Fighter's Guild beat back Molag Bal's forces, to unlocking the secrets of the exciting word "Vampire".
While initially restricted to your faction's third of the map, hitting Level 50 unlocks the rest of it in special, harder-difficulty forms. This means any character will be able to see famous areas like Skyrim and Vvardenfell - based, of course, on previous games' maps - even if they're not from around there. They're just part of the world though, with many of the zones based on areas we've not seen in an Elder Scrolls game in almost two decades - never mind realised with modern 3D technology. Future updates will continue to flesh out the world, and potentially go beyond Tamriel to planes of Oblivion such as the Shivering Isles and Quagmire, home of nightmares and eternally shifting horror.
The Battle For Tamriel
Exploring your own faction's area, you'll never see an enemy player. Head to the middle of the map though, the Imperial Province of Cyrodiil, and you'll find a fight waiting any time of day or night. Here, the three factions fight over castles and other key resources, with scope for both small-scale skirmishes and epic assaults featuring hundreds of players at once.
If you've played Guild Wars 2's sprawling multiserver Player Vs Player modes, you'll have a good idea of how this plays out - siege warfare with added magic firepower. There are some twists though, including capturing and holding Elder Scrolls, and success gives benefits to everyone in your home faction. The highest ranked player of the currently winning side is also declared Emperor and handed some special skills... until they're dethroned, of course. While this is likely to be a reward only for the hardest of the hardcore to aspire to, everyone can at least take part and feel useful thanks to a free boost to maximum level while in PvP.
The Elder Scrolls is shaping up to be a very strong MMORPG contender, with the main questions at the moment being what the payment model will be, and whether the necessary restrictions in an MMO compared to a regular RPG will feel limiting to players who are used to having an entire world all to themselves. Tamriel is easily big enough to host more than than one flavour of RPG though, and the ongoing nature of an MMO allows for many more stories and adventures over the next few years than any single player game can ever hope to offer.