Review by Kosta Andreadis and Adrian Haas
Last year The Elder Scrolls Online took a sojourn into the land of Morrowind; the land of Dark Elves, giant mushrooms, a huge volcano, and the setting of perhaps one of the most highly regarded entries in the The Elder Scrolls series - The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002). For lapsed players and newcomers alike Morrowind’s new Warden class, introductory sequence, and revamped progression presented a different ESO than what was found at launch. A richly detailed RPG in its own right, Morrowind felt like a true expansion thanks to it introducing a number of new things while providing refined versions of what had worked well up to that point.
Summerset, the latest and second major expansion for The Elder Scrolls Online, also introduces a vast new landscape to explore and story to uncover. But unlike Morrowind it doesn’t introduce a new class, or play into series’ nostalgia at quite the same level that comes from revisiting an iconic location. Presenting more of what makes ESO a fun, interesting, and rewarding experience - Summerset plays it safe by rarely stepping outside of the ESO comfort zone. Most of the enjoyment comes directly from the new and often stunning location, where the Elven focus has shifted from Dark to High - in a place we haven’t really gotten to see in an Elder Scrolls game before.
Welcome to the Isle of Summerset, the most Disney and fairy tale-like location in all of Tamriel. A land of rolling grassy meadows bedecked with riotous arrays of wildflowers awash in the bright sunshine reflecting off the gleaming white towers of distant castles. Where forest creatures gambol unmindful of the Dire Wolves nearby, and the sheer number of scenic waterfalls will leave you wondering where all the Tamriel tourists be at. Yep, things aren’t as bright and colourful as they seem in Summerset. Ancestral seat of the High Elves, it’s also the center of the racial intolerance, bigotry, esoteric art and theatre, and a certain brand of arrogance that is at the core of the aristocratic Altmer.
Not the sort of place where Orc Honeymoon Travel Packages would be sold for. As seen in ESO, Summerset is in the midst of an immigration crisis - where various races are being abducted and subjected to Daedric rituals. Which in turn means the return of the long-lost Psijic Order, who live on an island that exists in a dimension and time all its own. Without a new class, the Psijic Order represent a new faction along the lines of the Mages Guild or Dark Brotherhood, with its own skill line. Continuing on from the events of the Morrowind expansion, the scope and narrative ambition of Summerset is commendable. As is the detail found throughout the huge new island to explore and the various denizens you get to meet along the way.
Conspicuous characters abound in the myriad of quests this land has to offer. From haughty High Elves seeking to distinguish themselves from the lower races, to the mystical adherents of the Psijic Order and a memorably insane zookeeper. Some of the quests comprise of fetching items, while less prosaic missions will see you investigating murders, uncovering Daedric plots, and infiltrating acting troupes. And capturing runaway zoo animals. If you’re a fan of the storytelling in The Elder Scrolls Online then Summerset will definitely impress. It features some of the better written and paced stories in ESO, with branching and often surprising turns.
In typical ESO style though the dialogue accompanying the quests is prodigious, humorous and at times provocatively irreverent. The abundant detail and depth of information pertaining to the characters and the quest at hand, accompanied by superb and strongly delivered voice acting, can at times feel a tad overdone. Kind of like the past few sentences in this review. The sheer verbosity serves to immerse you more deeply into the characters and their lives in Summerset. But even so, we don’t really need to know the detailed lineage and relationship status of every Altmer we come across.
As solid as an expansion that Summerset is, there’s also the feeling that it wasn't designed to draw in new players. Not that it’s inaccessible, but with the activities and new quests and events, everything feels like a riff on things we’ve seen and done before. Albeit, done exceptionally well. Group dungeon design in particular is impressive, where one in particular draws on the island and nautical theme of the new location with it’s own microcosm of huge nasties, smugglers, and rogue mages in a satisfying self contained adventure.
The formula that was established with Wrothgar and continued through each of the major DLCs has found its way in one form or another into the land of Summerset. Upon arrival at the main town or city you’re once again presented with two more daily quests (a world boss and a delve), another two armor sets, a trial dungeon, and a new skill line to be levelled by completing daily tasks. A second skill line introduced in this expansion is the welcome and long requested Jewellery Crafting profession, where you can now upgrade purple rings and necklaces to gold, while crafting new jewellery with unique traits.
Side quests although scattered throughout the region, are fewer in number but larger in scope. Often tied to exploration and discovery, the breathtaking view that is a sunken town covered in overgrowth leads to a quest to venture deep underground and uncover the history of a long forgotten Altmer family. Sacrificial offerings, centuries old withered beings being kept alive in suspended animation, and creepy survival horror-like environments make up a portion of what is one of many well told stories found across Summerset. In fact, for all the good there is in Summerset, from the lengthy and quite engaging main quest-line to the wonderfully varied side quests, it all plays into some of the weaker aspects that come with an Elder Scrolls MMO.
A lot of the quest designs rarely if ever involve other players, your group, or acknowledge a wider, more populated world. This has been a problem with ESO and other MMOs since day one, where seeing others wander around possibly doing the same world-saving thing as you the sole saviour can be jarring. This also plays into Summerset, although representing some of the better ESO quests as a whole, just not bringing all that much new to the table. And playing it all a little too safe. The brilliant quests are just that, wonderful to experience. But all too familiar - and stuff that would work almost exactly the same in an offline single-players RPG.
Also in an offline single-player title the chances of getting decent item drops from fallen enemies would be far higher, as would the appearance of chests to loot. Like with any online specific RPG of this nature that has been out for a few years, the only viable way to get the best gear is to be proficient in crafting. And so the rewards rarely match the grand ambition of the writing and story. Possibly an unfair comparison to make, but it is especially true with Summerset. It would have been nice to find more in the world in terms of discovery and tangible items to wield or armor to wear, as opposed to slightly better or slightly worse versions of that thing you already have equipped. Something to match the grand vista of a large and almost impossible towering castle off in the distance, the waterfall to your left, or the vibrant colours of a nearby winery. The interesting creatures found almost everywhere, from magical goat things to giant lizard beasts. And of course our old pal Raz the Khajit.
The beauteous and whimsical countryside of Summerset is reflected in the outrageously elaborate and remarkably detailed costumes worn by the elegant Elves. These are some of the best looking racists in all of Tamriel, from the not so humble street artist to the Kinlady and Proxy Queen - even the members of the Divine Prosecution (read: police) are not immune to the pageantry of high Elvish fashion. And although their floating island of Artaeum looks to have seen better days, the more reserved and stoic Psijic Order have maintained their stately attire admirably. For even on an island that exists out of time, fashion is, after all, timeless.
Although Summerset closely reflects the style and formula of previous expansions, this timeless quality extends to ESO’s particular brand of online role-playing. Where the spectacular scenery and sumptuous fashion of Summerset combines with prolific and narrative heavy quests to create an outstanding adventure, and a worthy inclusion in anyone’s Tamriel wardrobe.