The Elder Scrolls Online: Summerset (Review)

Hot on the tail of last year’s release of the Chapter-based content, Morrowind, which saw the return of the Dark Elves’ homeland (last seen in Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind), Zenimax has released a new Chapter dedicated to the High Elves’ homeland: Summerset. Nerd Reactor was invited to the Early Access and Pre-Launch of Summerset to see what has been happening to a fairly xenophobic and elitist population.

Let’s Clear Some Things First…

Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) is a massive multiplayer online (MMO) game based in the far distant past of the current Elder Scrolls single-player experience. While a handful of MMO games maintain a subscription fee, Elder Scrolls Online’s base game is Free-to-Play. There are definitely perks to paying a monthly subscription to Elder Scrolls Online, but they are more quality-of-life improvements for the base game. One major perk is having all your crafting ingredients shifted over into a different inventory tab, away from your main inventory bag. But you also have free access to the downloadable content (DLC) packs, which are smaller in size compared to full chapters. However, if you want to maintain a free gameplay style, you can purchase the DLC and chapter packs individually, never having to pay for them ever again.

Monetization systems aside, the Summerset chapter is a sequel to the storylines alluded to in the base campaign, further developed in DLCs (Orsinium & Clockwork City) and the previous Morrowind chapter. However, you are in no way required to know any of the previous storylines. Even though I personally played in the early days of ESO, I never managed to finish the key Aldmeri Dominion storyline. So I was happy to know that I could easily make a new character and start within Summerset Isle itself. The introduction scenario of Summerset differs from the main storyline of ESO, so you are quickly accelerated to the strange happenstances of both the High Elven politics and the involvement of the ancient Psijic Order.

Summerset has sometimes been classified as an expansion, but in comparison to other MMOs, it is closer to the expansions released by Funcom’s Secret World Legends (formerly The Secret World). To clarify, ESO‘s content is split into major territory zones all across the continent of Tamriel. Morrowind was the only region added to last year’s chapter, while Summerset only has Summerset Isle and to some small degree, the hidden island of Artaeum. Typically, expansions for MMOs have multiple regions, expansions to professions and crafting, new races or classes. However, ESO establishes itself as falling in line with Secret World Legends due largely in part to their focus and passion for narrative. Most MMOs ride the line of okay or poor narrative content of their games, often times dismissing their quests and tasks towards “Complete X, Y, Z” or “Gather X, Y, Z”. And while this chapter packs that with a new game feature or mechanic here and there, the lack of robust features is not their unique value proposition.

What the Summerset chapter lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. The lifeline of this content under the umbrella as an MMO is questionable. However, if you want to experience quality dialog, story, and voice-acting, ESO is the champion of this mark. Even comparing this to its qualitative narrative-sibling, Secret World, ESO is sharper in character design, landscape architecture, and game performance. Each quest, whether it is a main story or a side quest, is rich in character development and human dilemmas. Characters are unique and iconic, moments in stories range from humorous to horrifying, altogether a testament to a talented creative team for something as big as an MMO.

There is a great complaint among the reviewers and the community concerning the Psijic Order skill line, due to its nature of progression through grinding across a variety of zones. The time-magic from the skillset is powerful, but it is made obvious that it is made for a long-term investment versus rapid consumption. Summerset also welcomes the new Jewelcrafting system, providing a means of crafting for a gear slot that relied on loot drops, even though everything else was craftable.

Beyond these elements, I noticed that there was also a new version of the Daedric Incursions that would happen in various spots. Similar to the ones sent by Molag Bal in the base game, but these ones had a different flavor. One incursion had a water oriented theme, thus starting to feel like the elemental rifts from the MMO – Rift by Trion Games. Although these have their fun moments, especially since players rally together to farm these incursions, they don’t really steal the show as much as provide an active environmental point.

One thing I advise to anyone that is a veteran of MMOs or want to try out an MMO is to take screenshots of your experiences and adventures. These games will come and go, but memories are the only thing that won’t cost money (just hard drive space). As a career MMO player, I’ve had folders from here up to my time at the initial launch of World of Warcraft. ESO, in particular, is one of those MMOs you should definitely take screenshots of. The amount of dedication and detail the developers at Zenimax put into this game is nothing short of breathtaking. No matter the pros and cons of each individual experience, there are moments and angles that are worth capturing.

What It’s Not…

  • Expansion. Weighing things on a qualitative level on the MMO market, this is more of a content pack. Although I can see it being an equivalent of a few DLCs within Zenimax’s pricing system. But typically MMO players look for quantity more so than quality. This is not so much a detractor to the product, as much as pointing out possible disappointments if players are expecting something beyond just Summerset Isle and Artaeum.
  • World of Warcraft. Many MMOs borrowed from the system and mechanics of WoW (and EverQuest before it), but the gameplay and experience of Elder Scrolls Online are very different. It’s somewhere between Guild Wars 2 and TERA/Blade&Soul, but ESO wins from the standpoint of narrative and exploration that each region possesses. It’s content dense!
  • A catch-up game. The developers really thought about what these chapters could mean for new and old players. The onboarding experience for new stories is fresh, easy, and welcoming! And if you want to jump into the base game from Summerset, you can totally do that.  The fact that developers put some thought, effort, voices, and graphic assets, for new players through Summerset, shows that they embrace how you experience the game.

What It Does Well…

  • Narrative. Nothing short of flirting with the developers themselves, the writing of Summerset‘s individual stories continues a tradition of great writing from the base game. Whether it’s in the scattered books in the world, the quest dialog, or the intense moments between, these aren’t your fetch quests of other MMOs— it’s an interactive story that just so happens to be inside an MMO. Zenimax and Bethesda have captured the importance of the narrative experience for the Elder Scrolls franchise.
  • Picturesque. There are times this game does feel ‘Meh’ from a gameplay perspective, and it’s not something I would say Zenimax has been the best at. But that aside, they craft some of the lushest environments in any game. Some MMOs try to follow the principle of creating one iconic location and use that as a regional center point, but leave the rest of the region fairly lackluster. However, Summerset is no exception to how beautiful these environments are. The composition of debris, the location of a delve’s entrance, there are more unique points of interest than there are bland ones.
  • Awareness. Progress Awareness is something that most products do not show. What I mean by this, is that in the context of MMOs, they don’t indicate that you have achieved certain things aside from some record or prompt available to you alone. What I love about ESO as a whole is that characters around you will change dialog depending on your previous experience in the game. For instance, if I previously met a character in Summerset Isle because of something in the base game, they will regard me as a friend instead of some stranger. Other instances are where guardsmen will mention a rumor of a situation that was resolved by my hand elsewhere. And to be clear, some quest situations across ESO have more than one resolution, and those choices are reflected in those character affirmations.

As an MMO, this chapter pack barely hits 4 out of 5 for me. The overall main storyline was okay, but the journey to the finish line was fun. Gameplay was still the same, the new features were not a major part of the core content. But as a long-term content pack? It slips down to 3.5 if it wasn’t for the quality of work given to it.

Rating: 4/5 Atoms

The Elder Scrolls Online: Summerset is developed by ZeniMax Online Studios. Check out this link for more information:

Game access was provided by the publisher for review purposes.

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