The Elder Scrolls Online: Elsweyr – Hands-on with Bethesda’s Next MMO Adventure

We got the chance to play The Elder Scrolls Online: Elsweyr and we have some thoughts on the next chapter of Bethesda's hit MMO.

Dragons have improbably invaded Elder Scrolls Online this year in Season of the Dragon, a year-long, four-update story event that includes the Elsweyr chapter, out on June 4th for PC, Xbox One, and PS4. The “improbable” bit comes from the fact that ESO takes place during Tamriel’s second era, which until now was believed to be a dragon-less time period according to the universe’s lore.

Over the course of 2019, the mystery behind the dragons’ unexpected presence in the Khajiit’s desert homeland will be revealed, though canonical exposition will likely be the farthest thing from players’ minds when they come face to face with the massive, scaled beasts. Elsweyr’s dragons are the greatest threat you’ll encounter in the game, and you definitely don’t want to take them on alone—this ain’t Skyrim.

“You’re not the Dovahkiin,” ESO creative director Rich Lambert says of the primary difference between Skyrim and Elsweyr’s dragon battles. “In Skyrim, you had this toolset where you could absorb dragons’ souls, learn shouts…you could one-on-one a dragon. In our version, you don’t have that toolkit, so you have to rely on friends—either NPCs or other players—to help you deal with the dragons. A lot of the dragon encounters that we’re doing, we’re tuning to eight players. Now, I’m sure people will try to solo it, and that’s fine. But it’s going to be difficult.”

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I got a chance to play about an hour of Elsweyr during GDC, and I did, in fact, encounter a dragon, though the experience wasn’t exactly what I envisioned. After a short mission that tasked me with blowing a horn at the top of a tower to down a dragon circling the skies above a Khajiit temple, I and a handful of allies swarmed the beast, swinging swords and casting spells in a flurry.

Unfortunately, if ESO’s dragons are meant to be epic, terror-inducing enemies, that certainly wasn’t what this initial encounter conveyed to me. The dragon appeared to be a little dinky, with herky-jerky animations that sort of sucked all of the spectacle out of the experience. It didn’t necessarily look BAD presentation-wise, but it’s hard not to compare the encounter to my epic memories of fighting dragons in Skyrim.

That being said, this battle was a scripted portion of the tutorial and likely isn’t indicative of what most of the game’s dragon encounters will feel like (it’s also worth noting that the version of the game I played was clearly unfinished, plagued with wonky textures, lighting, and sound, and the final game’s presentation will likely be greatly improved). In the larger game, there will be dragon world events that occur randomly across the game map, in which groups of players can team up to slay these beasts and collect rare loot. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to experience these epic overland battles during my time with Elsweyr. Again, dragons are meant to be the most formidable enemies to be found, so we’ll see whether they live up to that hype in the final game.

Aside from dragons, the other major feature in Elsweyr is the addition of the Necromancer class, which allows players to conjure undead minions and reanimate dead humanoid enemies to aid in battle. Playing as a Necromancer was a lot of fun, as there was a sort of sadistic glee to having my little brigade of undead guys and gals do my bidding before I disposed of them once they served their purpose.

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“It feels like you’re the master of the undead,” Lambert says of the new character class. “You summon minions, and then you’re done with them. You don’t have this happy interaction with a permanent pet. You don’t love them and feed them. It’s very different than the other classes.”

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Another defining characteristic of the Necromancer class is that, in exchange for being able to summon armies of the dead, mobility is significantly slower than with other classes, though the trade-off feels more than fair. After I got the hang of the Necromancer’s abilities, which include conjuring undead archers and suicide bombers and converting corpses into gruesome land mines, I was able to manipulate the battlefield in creative ways, which was an absolute blast. My favorite ability created an electric tether between me and one of my undead grunts, which damaged any enemy that came into contact with it.

The ultimate ability I chose to employ summoned a hulking ice monster to smash my enemies to pieces, which was devilishly delightful. Another cool aspect of playing as a Necromancer is that, in the story, they’re scorned by the public, which means that if you use your dark magic in public spaces, guards will chase you down and attempt to kill you. Unlike my underwhelming dragon face off, this new class has me quite excited to jump into the new expansion.

And anyone is welcome to jump into Elsweyr, regardless of experience. The expansion comes with the base game, and new players won’t have to worry about being underpowered or ill-equipped next to their higher-leveled friends.

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“Our game doesn’t have arbitrary level gates,” Lambert explains. “You can feel free to explore our content in any way you want to. [A new player and a veteran player] can play together and still get meaningful progression…Essentially, the game is always at max level. New players get a buff that approximates the power of a max level player. They’re not going to be as powerful as a max level player because max level players have abilities and gear and passes and all of these other things. But the game will get [new players] close enough so that they can participate in events.”

The new game map is mostly comprised of arid expanses, though there is a forested section I wasn’t able to explore during my demo. The Khajiit are one of the most ancient races in Tamriel (they predate the Elves), so there’s a lot of Southeast Asian-inspired architecture scattered about the desert landscapes, which gives the new region a unique feel and aesthetic.

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From what I gathered during my time with Elsweyr, the new expansion looks to be a good jumping-on point for new players while offering an exciting new character class for die-hards to play around with. And, of course, there are dragons, though I’ll reserve judgment until I have more time to see how they affect gameplay in a larger context. Stay tuned for more Elsweyr coverage as the June release date approaches.

Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.