If The Elder Scrolls Online’s previous expansion, Morrowind, could be summed up in a single word it’d be “nostalgia.” The island of Vvardenfell was realized in gorgeous HD for the first time, almost exactly 15 years after The Elder Scrolls III first launched.
Now with its latest expansion, Summerset, ESO is taking a decidedly different approach when it releases on May 21st for PC and June 5th for Xbox One and PS4 by letting players visit the beautiful region of the high elves, the Summerset Isles, for the first time – well, unless you count its brief appearance in 1994’s The Elder Scrolls: Arena. So if Morrowind was all about nostalgia, Summerset is all about breathing new life into the now four-year-old MMORPG.
I got the chance to see a nearly finished version of the new region on ESO’s Public Test Server over the last week and came away excited to explore and uncover the mysteries of Altmer society, but a little apprehensive about how much real value it brings to an already vast and robust game.
Summerset is an extremely large new landmass off the southwest coast of mainland Tamriel that’s actually larger in size than Vvardenfell. It features bright and colorful flora, exotic creatures, and some of the most picturesque environments I’ve ever seen in any Elder Scrolls game – ESO or otherwise. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it might be my favorite region thus far from a purely visual perspective.
Cities like Alinor, the capital city of Summerset, feature enormous towers that feel almost too tall to be real with bold lines and immense verticality. While taking screenshots I often found it difficult to fit the entirety of buildings into the frame without resorting to an awkward angle.
In addition to the massive new zone to explore, which is full of quests, new characters, and new stories to unravel, the expansion also introduces jewelry crafting (finally!), the new Psijic Order, a brand new 12-person trial, several new delves and public dungeons, world bosses, and a new Abyssal Geyser system. When you list everything out like that it seems like a lot, but keep in mind there are no new standard or veteran dungeons, no new classes, and no new races to play. Morrowind introduced the Warden class, so this feels like a major missed opportunity. Thankfully the Psijic Order gets its own skill line, similar to other factions in the base game like the Fighters Guild, so that makes up for it a bit.
The story continues on from where the Orsinium’s Daedric-focused plot left off, meaning you’re encouraged to have played the bulk of ESO’s story before venturing into Summerset, although it isn’t required. If you wanted to jump right into Summerset with a brand new character you could do that, which is what I plan on doing at launch, but carrying over your existing heroes works just fine as well.
I didn’t see everything Summerset had to offer during my time on the PTS, but my two favorite moments involved a sea elf (Maormer) focused quest and experiences with the new Abyssal Geysers. The quest had me breaking into the Seak Keep, a large stronghold near the coast under the control of the sea elves. I was accompanied by an Altmer warrior that needed me to help him rescue his beloved, who was of course a sea elf double agent. What unfolded was a classic case of Romeo and Juliet-esque forbidden love, but it underscored what ESO has always done better than any other MMO on the market: weaving smart, interesting, and involved stories into bite-sized chunks. It’s got some of, if not the, very best voice acting in any MMO I’ve ever played and Summerset continues to carry that torch.
The Abyssal Geysers are a new feature unique to Summerest, but in practice they’re really almost just like Dolmens from the mainland. You’ll see a geyser in the distance blasting a stream of energy towards the sky and when you come into contact with it you’ll be tasked with fending off waves of imposing enemies in an open-world event-style battle. The visual payoff makes it all worth it as the bright explosions and wonderful colors are a stark contrast to the depressing grays and blacks of the mainland Dolmens.
My final moments previewing Summerset brought me to the new house for sale in Alinor, which may be the most visually impressive player home we’ve seen thus far. Once the expansion releases I’m eager to dig into the Psijic Order, see how deep the jewelry crafting goes, and try my hand at the new Cloudrest raid-like trial.
Summerset doesn’t fundamentally change or overhaul ESO in any way, but it represents a welcomed new zone that should breathe new life into a game that was trodding dangerously close to pure nostalgia bait.
David Jagneaux is a contributor to IGN. Talk RPGs with him on Twitter at @David_Jagneaux.