State of the Scrolls: Has Summerset made it worth jumping into Elder Scrolls Online?

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The MMORPG is a notoriously hard nut to crack. The epic merging of world design, multiplayer tactics, customisation and deep wells of lore – at a grand scale – a gargantuan task. On the other hand, the ubiquity of a game like Skyrim as both a defining role-playing experience and dankish meme are a testament to the quality of Bethesda’s worlds, stories and personal quirks. The Elder Scrolls Online has, despite this, never quite captured the sense of wonder that the mainline titles exuded to so many. Developer ZeniMax has made strides in the series formula, however: including multiplayer and innovating on the franchises’ staple quest design. It has all the makings of a household titan and overtime become a content rich experience (with a price tag to boot). Its latest expansion, Summerset, took it one step closer to that Elder Scrolls with Mates ideal, but the undergoing is still impaired by the extreme lack of polish that permeates this series and a general sense of tedium. But with new content on the rise and an ocean to absorb in the meanwhile, it’s worth looking into the current state of The Elder Scrolls Online experience and what its last expansion brought to the table.

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The most glaring new addition is the setting itself. Summerset, not seen since The Elder Scrolls: Arena, plays home to the High Elves – a snarky, secretive people who see it fit to open their home to the world for the first time; presumably just for the chance to project their general disdain for the lower races who will surely be walking mud through the streets and sucking up air. Visually, it is directly reminiscent of Oblivion’s world and comes across as something of a ‘greatest hits’ from that game. Elven architecture and generic forests abound. These stretches of land are vast and lush notwithstanding their cookie-cutter nature. While there are notes of genuine magic here and there, nothing quite lives up to the outlandish and fantastically alien fungal planes in Morrowind, for instance, though the colour palette is considerably more profuse.

Where it does bring more significant change to its world is in its range of verticality. Much of Summerset, including cities, is mountainous region and provides some of ESO’s most impressive draw distance. These stretches inspire at first, but their restrictions are soon apparent. The game lacks in detail and bland graphics bog down the more desolate areas considerably. And so it fails to replicate or improve on its predecessors’ sense of scale despite its now colossal size. Nor can it really manage the minutiae of a superior open world game. The campaign does a good job of touring the player through its best new spots; though to say this ride is short-lived would be an understatement.

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After multiple playthroughs, it is safe to say that the body of Summerset’s story content can be completed in around two to three hours. Its introduction wastes little time thrusting the player into combat and out into the world. It’s a far less long-winded and laborious approach than the typical Elder Scrolls introductory dungeon crawl and a welcomed kick start in a genre that lives to be replayed and restarted repeatedly. In addition, ESO’s quest writing has steadily grown more compelling from the base game through to this expansion and its tale of Elven intrigue is largely worth telling.

Unfortunately, it’s inconsistent. Its most pronounced failure its inability to capatalise on what makes ESO an intriguing experience: the online element. The cognitive dissonance is too much to ignore when an MMO’s writing makes no sense if played with friends because it focuses solely on the individual instead of a group. The end result is an RPG that forces its own story onto you rather than granting the ability to naturally form your own.

Issues with writing don’t stop there, though the rest of its quirks would be instantly recognisable to any familiar with Bethesda’s original work. Quests are dialogue heavy in order to avoid tired MMO fetch tropes and the writing is laden with exposition – designed to shovel Elder Scrolls lore onto the player’s lap at every chance. Individual voice actors are way overused as well. The saving grace is that Summerset includes some of the most personable characters in an Elder Scrolls game and its world is alive with conversing NPCs and player characters, but it’s not enough to rescue itself from the doldrums.

On the bright side, there is a small wealth of new content on display besides the main campaign. Thirty or so new side quests, with a stronger focus on character and drama than ever, help to bulk out the overall package nicely and are less dull than previous ESO content. An excellent new 12-player Trial, Cloud Rest, is an obvious highlight. It won’t take long to best with a strong group, but drops worthwhile gear and offers a strong challenge at its Veteran difficulty – running Veteran Trials being a substantial component of the end-game here and creating a good reason to participate in Guilds. The new dungeons are particularly stellar in their design and are some of the title’s most engaging content. The higher range of difficulty and inventive strategies required to take down bosses make them more exciting than the vast majority of available quests, while new world activities and some of its best and most varied quest hubs supplement them nicely.

 

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Intelligently, Summerset is crafted to accommodate both players new and old. Quests and enemies now scale – allowing veterans to enjoy the new content, while beginners start here from scratch. Both parties will also be able to participate in ESO’s new Jewel Crafting and Psijic Order activities. The former, strangely missing from the game at launch, gives players the option to craft powerful stat boosters and respec items to take on entirely new traits via transmuting. Levelling the craft, however, is a matter of excessive, needless grinding that feels geared towards encouraging microtransactions.

The latter, the Psijic Order, contributes further to the grind. A secretive society of mages, they essentially offer the ability to warp time through a handful of new active, passive and ultimate abilities. The powers gained here are easily some of the most flashy available in the game, but the mind-numbing grind and fiercely monotonous quest line associated with earning them are a major turn off. Furthermore, jumping back and forth between positions (time) in an MMO – depending entirely on latency – is dicey to say the least. Connection issues seep into every aspect of active play and quickly cripple combat and thusly PvE and PvP as well. This unfortunate blight has been a defining factor of my experience and gels with the excessive amount of bugs in aggressively unpleasant ways – often blocking off essential quest actions entirely and forcing multiple restarts.

But when it works, the combat in general is a mixed affair – remaining virtually the same since launch with little notable improvement despite whatever may be under the hood. For those not in the know, it utilizes the same middle-of-the-road fighting systems as its relatives, with the added ability to roll and dodge attacks adding a little needed dynamism. However, the moment-to-moment feel of combat is somehow more janky than that of those that came before it: attacks feel totally weightless regardless of weapon choice and the soulless animations lend little help. Admittedly, the amount of direct control given to the player over engagements is still more than that of an average MMO and the hotkey setup works well on consoles.

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Speaking of control, ESO stills offers a fantastic breadth of options with which to tinker and mull over. Its character customisation is typically excellent as well. Menus are relatively inoffensive but a chore to navigate on consoles. They nevertheless allow for much consideration over the different avenues one could travel and how best to play to your character’s strengths – accommodating for numerous playstyles and special abilities over the various classes. It is disappointing then that no individual piece of Summerset’s content feels quite as noteworthy as something like Morrowind’s Warden Class, who provided arguably the most unique and option-plenty way to play the game from there on out. New PvE events rapidly grow tiresome and, though PvP is a major draw for endgame players, local latency issues work in conjunction with the excessive size of a Battleground map to ensure the struggle to the occasional skirmish that goes without a hitch feel like a mountain to climb.

On a positive note, balancing has been steadily tweaked since launch to ensure no class feels at too distinct an advantage over another. Fishing has further been expanded in terms of usefulness with far more interesting loot to gain and the new Geysers offer fun PvE battles where a group of players face bosses out in the open for loot. ESO mainly lives up to previous entries in the series through the sheer amount of discoveries to be made.

And, as an aside, Summerset features the best musical score in ESO.

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Finally, the Crown Store remains an option; as does ESO Plus. Real-money purchases via the Crown Store are relatively balanced – containing little the player could not access in game with time – and it exists to punt cosmetic items, mounts, XP boosts and DLC. The most potentially grating decision for long-time players will likely be the decision to keep special Apex Mounts locked within RNG lootboxes. Having dropped the subscription fee since launch, Bethesda is plugging any potential holes. ‘ESO Plus’ is a monthly subscription service for which players receive XP, gold, Inspiration, Trait Research speed boosts etc. Paying players also gain the advantage of a separate inventory for one’s crafting materials (which take up a large space in a standard inventory over time). It furthermore, and most enticingly, grants the player access to all DLC. A string of expansions and DLCs has culminated to make ESO a pricey package to gain all content whether you purchase them outright or rent them through subscription, which only really seems offensive because of how little content expansions actually provide in comparison to say World of Warcraft.

In the end, The Elder Scrolls: Online is tough to recommend to any but the most ardent MMORPG fan. Its combat is too weak to appeal on the merits of an Action RPG, its writing too inconsistent to compel and its very nature in contradiction of its shared world goals. It nails neither the RPG nor MMO target, but is an undeniably ambitious attempt regardless and certainly an accessible one. Series fans will undoubtedly find much to celebrate here in the lore and the plentiful new things ESO and Summerset try, but this title still has strides to make in terms of user-friendliness, entertainment and quality control.

ESO remains a hodge-podge of great and terrible things about The Elder Scrolls as a franchise. Its Summerset expansion brings a relatively interesting new locale and suite of abilities, quests and group activities but improves little on the technical side. Its world can envelop for brief periods, but there is usually some hiccup lurking just around the corner to ruin your time. Only the most passionate Elder Scrolls die-hards and MMO seekers need apply.

Last Updated: August 28, 2018

Alec Brynard

Known to ramble about movies, videogames, music & art. Primarily filthy console scum, but occasionally dabbles in the odd MMO or RTS on PC. Vigorously pitching video games as the ultimate art form, aggressively recommending films you've never heard of or cynically questioning the intentions of everyone and everything. Desperately praying for that next great Survival Horror game

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