The Elder Scrolls Online: Summerset review: Don't leave this elf on the shelf

I’m stepping through a portal on the heels of a young elf woman who looks roughly my own age, or at least as close as you get when you’re dealing with a race that thinks of our pitiful lifespan like we think of dog years. And it’s your normal, everyday magical portal—no big deal, right? But on the other side of the portal I face a woman racked with the lines and worries of a wasted life. I hear her despair at seeing my relatively young face. And yes, it’s her: The trip through the portal felt like seconds for me, but she’s been over here on the other side, trapped and wandering in the lovely ruin we’d come to study for more decades than I’ve even been alive.

Elder Scrolls Online’s Summerset expansion ($40 on Humble) is at its finest in quests like these; these little moments that feel more like “weird tales” from the pens of pulp greats like Robert E. Howard or H.P. Lovecraft than the pages of contemporary doorstop fantasies. The compact scripts allow glimpses into the daily life of imaginary worlds that you just don’t get in the greater dramas about wrestling with gods and saving the world.

Unlike say, Final Fantasy XIV, ESO keeps its cutscenes limited to flashy introductory sequences for new expansions, so most of the deep emotion in these quests gets catered out within the confines of the rigid animations of an MMO, but even so the tales manage to chill me through the mere contemplation of them.

The Elder Scrolls Online: SummersetLeif Johnson/IDG

Squandering your birthright to…to act! The scandal of it all!

Stories are ESO’s thing, but it’s still remarkable how skillfully they’re woven into all the other activities we’ve we’ve come to expect from ZeniMax Online’s MMORPG. There’s gamepad-friendly fighting, yes. There are solo dungeons, randomly spawning “abyssal geysers” that bring bosses and loot, along with a focus on exploration involving treasure chests, skill-point shards, and hidden quests. There’s even a new crafting skill in the form of jewelry making, which is cool and adds another convenient means of completing multi-piece set bonuses. There are wonders and magic and elves aplenty, particularly as this latest chapter (read: “expansion”) whisks us off to the Summerset Isles, the ancestral homeland of the Elder Scrolls elves. Think The Lord of the Rings’ Lothlorien, but with elves with a grander sense of racial superiority and you’re on the right track.

And in some ways, the inevitable Riverdell jokes are a potential problem: The comparisons to other properties come too easily. Last year’s fantastic Morrowind expansion rode in on a roaring dragon of nostalgia for 2002’s The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, but that nostalgia grew out of love for that fantasyscape and its breathtaking originality. Morrowind had predictable bits like elves and mages, but it kneaded all that in with a near-psychedelic sensitivity that peppered the landscape with mushroom forests and metroid-looking “cattle” that floated lazily on the shoulders of an angry volcano.

And Summerset? It’s got elves, green forests, flowers, white-marbled ruins, and names like “Alinor” that are best said with longing sighs. It can’t draw on nostalgia like Morrowind. It certainly doesn’t have the weirdness. At first glance, it looks too predictable. Even in my preview, I worried that wouldn’t be enough.

The Elder Scrolls Online: SummersetLeif Johnson/IDG

All the same, ZeniMax delivers some stunning settings within that elven framework. 

As it turns out, Summerset acknowledges these potential traps and remedies it by sprinkling a variety of wildly different settings apart from Summerset throughout the main storyline. You’ll spend a lot of time in elf land, of course, but you’ll also flit away to the trippy, otherworldly island hangout of the Psijic Order, the monkish mages best known from the The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s Winterhold College quest line. (They also introduce a new combat skill line, which requires tromping all over Tamriel and closing rifts in order to unlock cool perks that let you rewind time or stop it. They’re more than worth it; in fact, I wonder if they’re a little imbalanced.)

But beyond that, you’ll venture into the realms of the series’ other Daedric princes, including a purple-tinged hellscape carpeted with giant spiders, and a zone awash in a perpetual twilight that’s populated with chatty ravens and casually dressed women who attack you with broadswords. It’s all a sign that ZeniMax knows that tow-headed elves and manicured gardens don’t have the appeal of the grittier stuff, and so it counterbalanced that prettiness with the visions of extra-dimensional hells and short vacations into others folks’ minds. And most of the time, particularly in the main quests with its many twists and occasionally surprising turns, it works.

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