I’ve spent the past few days in a sadly cider-free Summerset, the High Elven setting of The Elder Scrolls Online‘s latest expansion pack. Like the Morrowind DLC before it, Summerset functions as both a big, fat barrel of new things to do/kill/collect for established players and a clean entry-point for newcomers.
I’m somewhere in the middle of that, as someone who stopped by for a nostalgic return to Morrowind – The Elder Scrolls III being one of the best RPGs ever, to my mind- last year, but otherwise feels that his days with traditional MMOs are behind him. Another way of putting that is “someone who fancies some more Elder Scrolls while waiting for whenever and whatever the next mainline Elder Scrolls is.” An oddball mix of tranquil solo adventures and extreme MMO noise, Summerset is surprisingly good at scratching that itch, despite also replicating the sins of a hundred other games.
For a game all about fluttering flower fields, gleaming spires and aloof nobility, Summerset sure is busy. Playing with a brand new character (partly so I could begin directly in Summerset, partly because I couldn’t remember much about how to play) only granted me a few precious minutes of feeling that this was a brave, new and unspoilt world. Once the short’n’stabby tutorial quest – set in some spectral other-world – was over, I emerged into the green and pleasant land of Summerset proper. Everywhere I looked, I could see people wearing silver filigree armour or robes made from obsidian thorns, sprinting about the place atop flaming panthers and giant spiders. The cumulative effect of various pre-order bonuses, paid unlocks and cross-character trophies was that almost everyone here looked like a dark god from minute one.
Myself included. A quick rummage through my ‘Collection’ yielded all manner of ridiculous finery, mounts and followers accrued from other experiences in ESO, and from Summerset review code that counted as a pre-order. I’d barely taken my first breath in this place and already I looked as though I was impatiently queuing up for a level 80 raid in WOW. On the one hand, it’s great that ESO is happy to dole out these cosmetic ‘skins’ you can overlay over any armour, so that you’re not stuck wearing a raccoon’s butt for your first 50 hours of play.
On the other hand, everyone immediately looking like a villain from Dr Strange undermines the tranquil trees’n’shorelines atmosphere the environmental artists have clearly worked hard on, not to mention that there’s no hope of achieving the suspension of disbelief required to feel like you’re The One True Hero. (Which isn’t really what ESO’s going for, in fairness, but you do get a lot harlequin-costumed weirdos queing up to talk to the same NPC who’s tasked you with solving a murder or uncovering a secret invasion by chubby lizard-men, for instance).
This everything-at-once approach extends to the game itself, too. I’m in awe of how much is in here, how staunch is the attempt to inject a full-fat singleplayer sandbox RPG into the veins of a very traditional MMO, even if not all the execution works. This is not proceeding linearly from zone-to-zone, ticking off quests until it’s time to proceed to the next theme park of ephemeral murder, but very much an ‘alright, the world is yours, do what you wanna do, wherever you wanna do it’ deal.
Like an offline Elder Scrolls, there are fighter and mage and thief and assassin guilds, and various other orders to align yourself, as well as a raft of craft, main story quests and endless side missions. Some of these offer hour after hour of optional distraction, others are the transitory fetch’n’slaughter tasks of MMOs yore. I haven’t ever felt at a loss for something to do, or even like I’m grinding. If anything, I feel almost overwhelmed by how much I could do.
Surprisingly, the MMO side of the game is buried fairly deeply under this mountain of solo and co-op questing. Full-fat massively-multiplayer shenanigans are very much in here, but are a lot less telegraphed than I remember them being in ESO core or Morrowind. I appreciate that: I incline towards solo and only casual PVE groups in MMOs these days, but I always feel guilty that I’m playing the game wrong when I do that. Summerset is entirely without judgement, and if anything works overtime to be a substantial singleplayer game that just so happens to exist within an online one.
The best integration of this is simply that you’ll often end up with a stranger or two joining in with a tough fight, none of you beholden to the others in any way, and building the sense that this is a land of adventurers rather than a whole world in which you are somehow the only ronin. Similarly, it’s shocking and thrilling to see Leonard_Murderking2017xxx casually gut a random friendly NPC or sprint frantically through town, pursued by guards are having been caught swiping a purse – like a snippet of the living, do-anything world we once dreamed MMOs would become. It’s even more thrilling to do that stuff myself.
I’ve enjoyed the drop-in public events for similar reasons: some big, huge fight kicking off on a quiet shoreline or pretty glade, with anyone who happens to be passing in joining in. It’s not a new idea in MMOs, but it integrates well here as one more option among dozens, part of the general sense that this is place with far more to do than wait for mobs to respawn. By contrast, I haven’t gotten much out of the factional warfare, a discrete world of mass PVP you can drop into whenever you like (once reaching level 10), which is a frenzy of spell effects and spindly people swarming around gates.
Summerset doesn’t add much to that particular mix that wasn’t already in ESO core, but it’s there as an option if you burn out on PVE, as is traditional MMO group dungeon-running. There is a broader sense of two entirely different games co-existing slightly uncomfortably – two worlds that pretend not to see or affect each, like The City & The City but with more spiked epaulets. You can play either way, barely coming into contact with The Other Side if you prefer not, and I appreciate that enormously. It’s part of the reason that Summerset genuinely feels like an open-to-anyone entry point, rather than the next chunk of #content for a hungry and jargon-choked hardcore.
Outside of the constant, visually distracting presence of other players dressed like walking nightmares, there’s nothing to make you play this as an MMO if you don’t want to. It’s not all good news, though. There’s all this jank on top – and not just the expected (and very much present) Elder Scrolls interface, animation and acting jank, but jank borrowed from other online games. Loot crates and currencies and public events and purchasable clothing dyes and unlockable masks and titles. Busy, busy, busy. I find ESO: Summerset faintly exhausting, because there are so many things vying for my attention, so many different menus occupying the spaces that would usually only be occupied by inventory and character sheet.
It feels faintly desperate in this regard, like every MMO I’ve ever played rolled into one, throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. The elfy Summerset setting really doesn’t help there. Where ESO: Morrowind made a virtue of spindly architecture and persistent gloom, this pursues something a lot more fantasy-stereotypical. Trees and spires and finery and angry crabs: not too much to call its own.
Summerset’s questlines are ambitious for an MMO, but invariably depend upon shuffling you from place to place, talking to an endless procession of interchangeable and sometimes appallingly-performed NPCs who don’t leave their posts. This creates an often robotic and anonymous atmosphere, despite the extensive writing’s attempt to conjure murder-mysteries and deep political intrigue. It’s working hard to be compelling, even epic, but it simply doesn’t have the presentation chops to pull it off, and worsens the sense of drabness with an unreasonable degree of sending you back and forth between disparate locations to pad things out.
The impressive sprawl ESO has to cope with keeps it from making theoretically important characters feel particularly present or convincing, while even its most setpiece-heavy quests can wind up feeling like being passed endlessly between different departments when you phone your ISP to fix a billing fault.
Coupled with its plain-jane graphics tech and the sort of stark lighting you’d find in a supermarket at 2am, I’m left with a strange sense of deja vu, as though I’m replaying some barely-remembered RPG from 2005. Not unhappily so, not at all, but certainly haunted by the dread question ‘why am I here?’
The foremost answer to that, for me at least, is that I cannot resist an enormous world in which I can pick almost any (NPC) pocket. In-game thievery is my happy place, and, even after doing similar in the ESO Morrowind expansion, I’m bowled over by how well-integrated this is into an MMO structure. You? You’ll almost certainly find something else to similarly engage you: crafting or wizardry or PVP or even the dour but substantial main questlines.
I don’t know that Summerset itself is a particularly compelling setting, after decades of aesthetically-similar high fantasy games, and sometimes the presentation side of things can almost scan like a parody of Elder Scrolls’ worst excesses, but the spread and robustness of choice here is remarkable. It functions both as a broadly traditional but significantly less rigid MMO and as a ‘lost’ Elder Scrolls. There’s much I wish it did better, but I can’t fail to be drawn in by the sheer substance of it.
Elder Scrolls Online: Summerset is out now for Windows and MacOSX as a £20/$30/€40 upgrade, or a £30/$40/€40 purchase with the base game, via Steam or direct from Bethesda. You’ll still get the pre-purchase offers if you buy now, even though you’ll get instant access to the game.