If we’re being perfectly honest, I had no hope when I sat down for a theatre demo of The Elder Scrolls Online. MMOs don’t typically grab me, and I have zero interest in traditional tab-target gameplay. Skyrim is, tragically, sitting on my stack of shame with only a couple of hours completed. I am a bad Elder Scrolls fan, but I am one nonetheless. Still, I didn’t care about Zenimax Online’s TESO despite its five years in development. I do now.

I commented during the 38 Studios debacle that the “trailer” for Project Copernicus (the Amalur MMO) was an act of desperation. The quick fly-throughs of different regions with no character models, combat or any sense of game systems was clear that nothing was in place. I thought we were in the for the same kind of thin presentation when different regions of Tamriel were shown at the outset. They were gorgeous, of course, but I didn’t really become engaged until we started hearing (and seeing) the combat. After doing so, it’s hard to wonder if Project Copernicus would have even had a comfortable place in the market.

The game takes place 1,000 years before Skyrim in the era just before Tiber Septim unifies Tamriel. There are three different factions: the Evenhart Pact (Dark Elves, Nords, Argonians), the Daggerfall Convenant (Breton, Redguard, Orcs) and the Aldmeri Dominion (Altmer, Bosmer, Khajiit). Cyrodiil has been crushed, run over by the combat and the king has made a dark pact with Molag Bal, raising an army of the undead. The story is that Molag Bal has stolen your character’s soul and you are on a quest to get it back. That’s going to mean a lot of soulless people running around.

One of the things that will likely rub on the souls of Elder Scrolls fans like sandpaper is that the game is meant to be played in third-person. Trust me, it’s ok. The combat is pure action-based with a minimalist HUD that only shows what you need to see. You can bring up your health, stamina and magicka at any time and your skill bar can be shown, too, but they aren’t there when they don’t need to be.

The combat is pure action, with a priority on blocking and dodging. The game looks very much like you expect The Elder Scrolls universe to appear, but the third-person view allows for a different aesthetic for the attacks. When blocking, a projection of a shield appears in the direction you are protected. Successfully stopping an attack will often leave your enemy open to a strong finishing attack. You can charge your basic attacks by holding the button, accompanied by a typical glowing effect. It’s different than what you’re used to, but it works.

Zenimax Online didn’t want to change the core principles of the universe and its progression. Every character can sneak and play multiple roles in battle, leaving things open to broader party options. You can take on things solo, but there are a variety of different ways to engage in the game’s more interesting content. Given that this is an Elder Scrolls game, you can follow the critical path straight through, or drift off toward a Point of Interest that appears on your compass. Along the way you’ll find other travelers, and if they are in trouble and you assist, you’ll be richly rewarded with full XP and loot. There is a strong current of community running through the design.

Dungeons will come in a variety of flavors. There will be instances for party play, others will be “heroic lairs” for those looking for a true challenge and a robust slate of endgame content for huge raids. There are also public dungeons, which are non-instanced and a perfect time to help out those in need. All of the NPCs are fully voiced, and there are player consequences within quest lines.

The example we were shown was the player character sent back in time to discover the means to kill an ancient foe. Near the end, there was an optional objective to save a prisoner. Should you do so, that person’s descendant will be waiting for you when you return back to your own era. While this seems fairly minor, it does open up some possibilities for grander rewards.

There is also a PvP component planned. We were shown a huge battle of 150 (ed note. WUT! CG.) player characters from all three factions fighting over a resource on the larger map. Territory control will be dynamic, allowing the factions to invade other territories and defend their holdings. It looks quite enjoyable.

Before being dismissed back out to the show floor, we were told that the title is being developed with very forgiving minimum specifications. If you have a computer made in the past five years, you will likely be able to participate. The game arrives next year (2013) for both PC and Mac.