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'The Elder Scrolls Online' invites gamers to test the new Tamriel

Let it be known: The heavy wooden doors to the fictional ancient continent of Tamriel — not to mention to the latest game to take place in this fantasy-and-magic-filled land — are about to swing open.

Tamriel has been the home and backdrop to the critically acclaimed and best-selling Elder Scrolls role-playing games for some 18 years now. And on Tuesday, the developers at ZeniMax Online Studios announced that they are inviting players sign up to beta test the highly anticipated “Elder Scrolls Online” game — the latest (not to mention most controversial) entry in the series.

“This is a big moment for us,” Matt Firor, director for "The Elder Scrolls Online," told me in a recent interview.  “The beta announcement means that we’re confident that external people can get into the game and start playing it and have fun, and also give us feedback about how the game is, how sticky it is, how much fun it is, how reliable it is."

"The Elder Scrolls Online” (aka "TESO") is due to launch for PCs and Macs later this year. And while interest in the game is extremely high, skepticism has been pretty high too. That's because "TESO" marks the first time the beloved Elder Scrolls role-playing franchise (which includes best-selling entries such as "Skyrim," "Oblivion" and "Morrowind") has strayed from its single-player, sandbox-style roots to go online and massively multiplayer.

As with previous Elder Scrolls games, “The Elder Scrolls Online” will take place on the continent of Tamriel, though it will be set a thousand years before the time period seen in the hit 2011 game “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.” When you jump into this online world, you will join one of three factions — The Daggerfall Covenant, the Ebonheart Pact, and the Aldmeri Dominion — which are in the midst of a war to take control of the capital province of Cyrodiil and the throne of Tamriel.

As part of the Tuesday announcement, ZeniMax released a brand new cinematic trailer for "TESO" — one created by the renowned Blur Studio. (Check out InGame editor Todd Kenreck's report to see more of their work.) The action-packed CGI trailer (above) brings the three-way conflict to sword-swinging, spell-casting, monster-fighting life. (How about that flying, double-dagger-throw move!)

And if you want an even deeper look at the three "TESO" factions and why they're at each other’s throats, check out the new developer video from Elder Scrolls “Loremaster” Lawrence Schick below.

Of course, the question is:  Why make a massively popular single-player game series into a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game? 

"The Elder Scrolls games have been around since 1994 and so this was the chance to actually deliver the whole world of Tamriel and let players explore the whole thing and do it with friends," Firor told me, adding that he hopes it'll also convince players who haven't tried MMO games to give them a chance. "This is a tremendous opportunity for us to get a whole new group of players that haven’t experienced MMOs before to jump in and play an online game."

Of course, "World of Warcraft” is the long-reigning king of the massively multiplayer online games. And when “The Elder Scrolls Online” was first announced last May many of the franchise’s long-time fans not only complained (at times loudly and angrily) that their beloved series was  straying down the wrong path, they worried that "TESO" was looking too much like a “WoW” knockoff.

But Firor said that, since the spring of last year, his team has been tweaking and changing the game to make sure “The Elder Scrolls Online” feels first and foremost like, well, an Elder Scrolls game.

“[The changes] were all 100 percent driven by, 'hey, we need to make sure that the minute anyone sits down to play the game, they know it’s an Elder Scrolls game,'" he told me.  “We went to the mouse-driven combat system that anyone who played ‘Oblivion,’ ‘Morrowind’ or ‘Skyrim’ on a PC will easily be familiar with… We made the character proportions a little more realistic and a little grittier. We did a whole bunch of things with the content to just kind of give the feeling that it’s the Elder Scrolls world.”

And he insists that "The Elder Scrolls Online" will stand apart from the MMO crowd. There is not only the more strategic Elder Scrolls-style combat system, as well as lots of great exploration to do in the world (a hallmark of the series) but ZeniMax has also implemented a little something called "Megaserver" technology. This server tech gives the game a built-in social network and, essentially, lets all players play in the same game rather than break them out into different shards. 

"When I walk into the game, I have my friends list from the whole game there," Firor explained. "And I can chat with them right from the menu screen.  I can just jump in and play with them if I want. When I click play, it puts me into whatever part of the world I was in when I logged out, and it puts me in a game segment with my friends, with my guild-mates and so forth.

"So, really, after I play the game for a number of weeks and make friends and I join a guild, eventually everywhere I go in the game, I’m going to see people that I know because the game’s pretty smart about putting you around your friends when you log in," he said. "It’s a pretty revolutionary thing, because no one’s ever really done anything like this in an MMO." (For more game details, check out the developer video below).

Of course, the beta test will be ZeniMax's first chance to really give the public a hands-on look at how "The Elder Scrolls Online" not only stays true to its root but sets itself apart from “WoW” and other online games. ZeniMax has opened signups to the beta test through the official "Elder Scrolls Online" website. Though exactly when these early play tests begin will not be announced until “a later date.”

"We’re super, super excited about getting people in it and seeing it," Firor said. "We’ve been working on this game a long time.  It will be tremendous for us to see other people in the game and having fun."

Winda Benedetti writes about video games for NBC News. You can follow her tweets about games and other things on Twitter here @WindaBenedetti and you can follow her on Google+. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the IN-GAME FACEBOOK PAGE to discuss the day's gaming news and reviews.