With the next chapter of its grand online adventure, The Elder Scrolls Online is trying something a little different. The massively multiplayer online (MMO) title's first major expansion was steeped in the idea of nostalgia. After sweeping changes to the structure of the game itself with One Tamriel, Zenimax Online wanted a way to bring lapsed players back and let new players into the tent. That led to the first Chapter, Morrowind.
Morrowind was as blatant a nostalgia play as Zenimax Online could make. It brought players back to the region of Morrowind and the island of Vvardenfell that was the focus of the RPG classic The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Long time Elder Scrolls players got to see places and characters from that game updated with modern technology, bringing it as close to a sequel as the original title is likely to get. It was a winner of an expansion: the writing was improved, the game's presentation felt like Elder Scrolls, and the game got its first new class with the Warden.
If Morrowind was pure nostalgia, Summerset feels like the other side of the coin. The chapter moves the adventure to the Summerset Isles, a place that previous Elder Scrolls titles have only hinted at. The region has been previously-mentioned, but other than a spot on a few maps and an appearance in first The Elder Scrolls game Arena, it's never gotten the full 3D treatment. Given that Arena was released all the way back in 1994, this is essentially Zenimax Online getting to define an entire region on its own.
The story here kicks off when the world is finally allowed into the secretive home of the High Elves. Queen Ayreen, the reigning monarch, has decided that the region's borders should be open to all and the Altmer should mix with other races. Of course, you don't just open borders and expect everything to work out, which is where you come in.
Summerset isn't just a contrast to Morrowind in terms of nostalgia, it's also a drastic visual change. Vvardenfell is the land of the Dunmer (Dark Elves), and the entire region was one of decay and impending doom. The cities themselves were old, not unlike ancient ruins that people just happened to live in. Swamps and marshes broke up civilization. Alien growth, including giant mushrooms, covered most of the region. And at the center of it all was Dagoth Ur, the Red Mountain, spewing lava and ash onto the world below.
Summerset is bright and shining. The countryside is idyllic meadows and forests, with clear running streams and beautiful beaches. The first city you come across is Shimmerene, a clean city bathed in light, with spires that reach towards the sky. Instead of an angry volcano looming in the distance, there's the Crystal Tower, a mortal-built spire that watches over the supposedly peaceful countryside. In Morrowind, you began in a prison, but here in Summerset, you begin as a tourist. Drastic change.
While Morrowind wore its corruption on its sleeve, Summerset is a different beast. The Queen might be open to new races, but her people are used to treating non-Altmer as children and near-slaves. As soon as you step onto the shores of Summerset, it's quickly clear that not everything is wonderful under the surface. Those coming to visit and seek their fortune in the newly-opened region are being imprisoned, disappearing altogether. There are local regents who plot a different direction for Summerset against their Queen and under everything lurks the looming, ever-present threat of the Draedric Princes and their minions.
What's interesting is how little Summerset really changes the play of The Elder Scrolls Online. That work was mostly done in One Tamriel and Morrowind. If you played that last Chapter, you should have a pretty solid idea of what to expect here. Combat hasn't changed, quests play out in largely the same manner, and there's not even a new class. If Morrowind didn't work for you from a play perspective, this won't be changing your mind.
There are some new aspects though. Players who love crafting get an entirely new style with Jewelry Crafting, allowing you to make rings and necklaces. There's also a new Skill Line involving a returning faction, the secretive Psijic Order. Most of the Elder Scrolls Online in-world guilds are horribly straightforward: the Fighter's Guild, the Mage's Guild, and the Thieves Guild are just rough collections of like-minded folks doing much of nothing.
The Psijic Order is somewhat different, a group of magic-users that have removed themselves from Tamriel as a whole. They exist on the island of Artaeum, which seemingly lives outside of normal reality. The Psijic Order has only come back to the world of Nirn to investigate rumblings and portents that could mean the end of everything. They're essentially the Time Lords from Doctor Who.
You meet two of their order fairly early on, which put you on the path to ultimately joining their number. From there, you can pick up new abilities like Time Stop (See? Doctor Who!) and Undo. Ultimately, I just like that idea of this purposeful, driven order of ancient mages, as opposed to the actual Mage's Guild, which is more concerned with finding books. Like the Dark Brotherhood, guilds in Elder Scrolls really should be about something other than giving the player a new Skill Line.
In terms of the quests I can talk about, Zenimax Online's writers still have their spark. Your steward on most of the early journey is Razum-dar, the tricky Khajiit rogue who previously appeared in the Dark Brotherhood downloadable content (DLC). Raz is one the Eyes of the Queen, her quiet voice winding its way through the populace. He's there to give you the lay of the land, talk in riddles, and put you in harm's way.
One highlight is a quest that puts you in the middle of murder mystery, solving the murder of a local High Elf lech by a Robin Hood-esque serial killer called the Ghost of the Green. A little bit of love, betrayal, and racism combine to make a pretty memorable early quest. Plus, it puts you on track to meet my man Babblebrook, the elf who speaks only in rhyme. I could honestly listen to him talk all day.
This is good, because as I said, the play hasn't changed. You're playing Summerset to really engage with this new environment and all the quests and characters that come along with it. What I've seen so far shows me that Zenimax Online doesn't need to rely so hard on nostalgia; they can push a Skyrim expansion down the line a bit and spend more time fleshing out the less-explored regions of Tamriel. Elsweyr, the home of the Khajiit, could use some love in a similar manner as the Summerset Isles are here.
As it stands, these early hours show me that the Elder Scrolls Online team finally has a handle on its overall direction and what the team is good at. The game has found its firm footing after years of work. With that understanding and the entirety of Tamriel to play with, the team could do some very interesting things and I hope they keep treading new ground rather than redefining the old.