It’s just after the new-fangled tutorial for The Elder Scrolls Online’s Summerset expansion that it dawns on me quite how far this game has come.
From its frankly shambolic origins, The Elder Scrolls Online has become something of a success story. It’s an MMORPG game the developers are never afraid to change to better it. While not every new idea sticks, the Elder Scrolls Online is a far nicer place to be these days.
Summerset’s tutorial, when compared to the one in the base game when it launched on console a few years ago, is so delightfully simple and clear. It’s a world away from the trudging drawn out bore of the original, and that I felt this way having played more than enough of The Elder Scrolls Online to not really need a tutorial section says it all.
Following last year’s Morrowind expansion, The Elder Scrolls Online is heading further back into the franchise’s past. Namely the very start. Summerset heads back to Summerset Isle, setting of The Elder Scrolls Daggerfall all the way back in 1996. The Elder Scrolls series has come a long, long way since then, so it’s a very welcome setting to return to with so much more power to create that world all over again.
The beauty of this large gap in time and technology is the freedom it affords the team at Zenimax. They can recreate the original high fantasy setting almost how it wants with little blowback. Well, there’s a tiny bit of a snag. After playing this preview build, we spoke with the game’s director, Matt Firor. He remarked that the hardest part of revisiting the land of the High Elves was trying to decide which version of the lore previously told was the one to go with (there are three differing tales of the history of the Summerset Isles). Everything else about this expansion appears to be a joy to work on.
For those not familiar with Summerset’s location and history, it’s probably best described as a land of pure high fantasy design inspired by a race who seek perfection and consistency in everything they create. Current residents the Aldermeri are High Elves, an elitist bunch who aren’t keen on visitors to their fair isle. Unfortunate really, as they’ve just been ordered to open their borders to outsiders (otherwise there’d be little in the way of action for you).
Their queen is a progressive one who wishes to change the secluded utopia into a place of learning and tolerance. That naturally causes issues, but the threat of a new danger is a far bigger problem for Summerset Isle. Good thing you showed up really.
This kingdom is an impressive one, very vibrant and rich in sophisticated architecture. Even the little wilderness to be found on the isles is manufactured specifically by the Aldmeri. Its capital, Alinor acts as a primary hub area of sorts. Yet your first introduction to Summerset is via Shimmerene, the City of Lights.
It’s a spectacularly sanitised place, a world away from the swamps and magma of Morrowind, or even Skyrim’s Nordic Winterscape. Don’t let that fool you though, it’s a thoroughly unwelcoming city to outsiders such as yourself. It provides a fine early glimpse at this strange, secluded, and frankly egotistical society’s ways.
Summerset appears to revel in showing you the beauty of the High Elves’ utopia alongside the stubborn arrogant disdain that helped to build it. Firor promises that the surface beauty is not all the island has to offer. The long and storied history of this small chunk of land means you can literally go deeper to find evidence of times before the current Aldmeri dominion’s existence.
The Isles bring new threats for you to vanquish. Colourful giant Salamanders, teleporting deer-like creatures, and you’ll even encounter Gryphons at some point. It’s a refreshing set of foes after being fed a fair few familiar nasties over the years in both ESO and Skyrim. It certainly helps Summerset Isle feel like a new chapter in a way Morrowind didn’t quite manage.
Perhaps the most interesting place to visit is one that has been mentioned plenty in Elder Scrolls lore. Yet it’s never been included as a setting in the games. The Isle of Artaeum. At this point in the timeline, 350 years ago, this island headquarters of the Psijic Order vanished from Tamriel. Now you get to visit it. That and you can begin to unravel the secrets of both the Psijic Order and the history of the Mages Guild.
If Summerset Isle is beautiful then Artaeum in spellbinding. There’s a dreamlike shimmer to the high fantasy here. It was gorgeous enough for me to stop and take a good look around. I was happy to hear from Matt Firor that it’s a place we’d be exploring more in the final build. It will also have its own side quests to go along with the main quest line missions that bring you here.
It’s here that you get a bit more detail on the Psijic Order. It’s available not only as a story thread, but also as a new skill line. This skill line features some time-bending abilities (which I sadly did not have time to discover for myself). These will include freezing enemies in a time bubble, and being able to jump back a few seconds and recover your original position, health, mana et al.
In the hour or so I played, I uncovered the first threads of the overarching story. Personally speaking, it’s already a more appealing one than Morrowind’s. It helps that you get the likes of Khajit spy Razum-Dar returning from the base game narrative. He plays a big part in the opening hour, bringing his charm and humour with him. Even with voice work not ready, the writing for the character is already proving a triumph. The Elder Scrolls Online needs to have more characters like Razum-Dar, and as the development team gain more confidence with each passing update, Razum-Dar is becoming less of an exception.
The most important thing Summerset brings to The Elder Scrolls Online is a sense of something genuinely new. Sure the action is still very much the same, but the rest is key. The setting feels highly refreshing, the story so far is strong from the outset, and the new enemies more than anything, bring fresh variety. You’ll be able to create your own jewellery for the first time too. And a brand new 12 person Trial will also be introduced.
I’m not sure Summerset will shake up how The Elder Scrolls Online plays. Those changes mainly come in-between the bigger updates after all, but it will seemingly add another significant chunk of new places to explore, new stories to dive into, and new enemies to slay.
The Elder Scrolls Online: Summerset is due to launch June 5 on PS4, PC and Xbox One.