Game Bants: The Elder Scrolls Online: Summerset (PC, 2018): The adventure continues

Game Bants is something new we’re trying here on The Iris, a pair of perspectives on the same topic, a conversation and a less formal review style. Our first crack at this style is a chat between games writer Leah Williams and games editor David Smith about the ancticipated MMO expansion, The Elder Scrolls Online: Summerset.

The Elder Scrolls Online was first established in 2014, developed by ZeniMax and published by the team at Bethesda. Since then, it’s become a strong and vibrant online community, with nearly endless content to devour and discover. This content has been bolstered by two major DLC chapters – Morrowind in 2017 (which we covered here) and this year’s Summerset. Much like Morrowind, the newest chapter in ESO delves deep into Elder Scrolls history, uncovering another piece of Tamriel’s sacred map.

The Isle of Summerset is the home of the Altmer, High Elves with a deep distrust of the outside world. In the latest Elder Scrolls Online chapter, Summerset has been opened to outsiders for the first time, but like any idyllic, closeted town, not everything is as it seems. In amongst all the beauty and wonder of Summerset, there’s a hidden plot taking place in the town. The Psijic Order has returned from their exile to warn you of danger, and whispers of a daedric cult float on the air.

With all of this lovely murder and ritual sacrifice in mind, David and I wandered off into the wilds of Summerset to begin our foolhardy adventure.

Leah Williams: To begin my journey into Summerset, I began by re-establishing a long serving character of mine – a stealthy dark elf named Kil’ya. She enjoys daggering people, complaining about the futility of life, and petting animals. This is Kil’ya:

Now, this isn’t the first time that I’ve ventured into the Elder Scrolls Online. Earlier in the year, I had the pleasure of covering the release of Morrowind, where I was unceremoniously dumped in a boat and forced to fight my way through the mysterious and foreboding land of Morrowind. This time, I had a much more pleasant experience. Instead of waking in a dark, dank boat, you wake up in a dark, dank cave. But I was genuinely surprised when I exited the cave only to be greeted with this magnificent sight.

Leah: Summerset contains some of the prettiest landscapes I’ve come across in The Elder Scrolls Online thus far, and the opening genuinely surprised me.

David: *deep breath* (Alright. Brace yourselves kids cuz here comes Old Man David to moan about the MMO’s ag’in.)

David: That opening set piece is certainly very pretty, but it leads to one of my first problems with Summerset — once you get out of this area and into the Summerset Isles proper, it’s all a bit drab isn’t it? The starting area in particular felt like a fairly generic High Fantasy Setting™ with the kind of rolling pastures, boxy castles and toiling worker class you’d expect in such a kit. Even the tombs you briefly adventure through in this area didn’t feel very memorable and for the most part, I’d forget why I’d ventured in there at all the moment I was allowed to leave.

David: Questing hasn’t ever been the best of part of any MMO, any long time WOW fan can attest to that, but Summerset thinks it’s got a lid on it. Every quest, no matter how mundane, begins with four to seven paragraphs of meticulously written dialogue, even though all the quest giver really wants is for you to go into a graveyard and collect 15 wolf butts. I appreciate good writing in my games but good writing won’t help you if your quest design doesn’t measure up. And for me, it doesn’t. Thoughts?

Leah: I would disagree. I found the writing really engaging, particularly because I knew very little about the world of Summerset. Occasionally, dialogue can come off a bit stilted so I understand where you’re coming from, but overall I found the quest lines pretty intriguing. I agree that sometimes they would turn into fetch quests, more along the lines of ‘go here, find that, bring it to me, kill some people’, but often these quests would lead to great adventures and branching side quests which kept me engaged. My favourite parts of The Elder Scrolls Online involve exploring, so I didn’t have a problem with the way the quests were designed. In fact, I feel the reason that quests are often structured around fetch quests in MMOs is because they’re perfect for MMO-style games. Fetch quests allow players to explore the open world more, and interact with a variety of people that they wouldn’t otherwise engage with. It’s simple yes, but I believe it’s very effective.

David: My problem with general questing dovetails into the larger problem I have with TESO’s approach to MMO design — it wants you to feel like you’re playing an Elder Scrolls game first and an MMO second. From the way it positions its camera in first- and third-person, to its UI elements, to the real-time combat and aforementioned deep quest giver dialogue, TESO is doing its damndest to have its sweet roll and eat it too. But this approach doesn’t hang together well for me at all, to the point where I feel like it needs to pick a lane — either lean into being an actual multiplayer-based Elder Scrolls game, building the kind of quests and game loops that reflect that, or lean more fully into being an MMO and trim all the fat way back.

David: From a technical standpoint, there were really only two things that irked me because I am not done complaining, dammit. First, the game’s total install for the PC edition is just over 80GB. That’s absolutely bonkers. RIP to anyone running a 120GB SSD. If you’re downloading it on a broadband connection, the compressed install package brings it to around 55GB, which is still a good two or three days of solid downloading for most.

David: The other issue is connectivity. The Elder Scrolls Online released on PC back in 2014 and, at the time of writing in 2018, there are still no Australian servers. Every Australian player connected to the US servers has to deal with a minimum ping of 350ms. Don’t even bother connecting to Europe because your lag will be converted from milliseconds into actual seconds. Playing exclusively with fellow Australians mitigates this problem somewhat — does lag exist if everyone’s ping is shit? — but if you can’t find an Aussie to group up with then you’re kind of forced to play on your own. The lag makes you a huge liability for any overseas groups wanting to run Trials or combat-focused content. This, in my opinion, negates the point of the game being an MMO in the first place, and look I’m back to my earlier point about the game needing to pick a lane. (To be clear, this is a problem reserved just for us poor little Australians, forgotten at the bottom of the world. Those playing within the US or EU will be just fine.)

Leah: Despite my enjoyment of the game, I also had issues with connectivity. On my first few nights, I had to ping the server multiple times to even be allowed into the game, and on one particular night, the server bluntly refused to let me in. It even noted I’d been ‘booted out of the server’. Bit rude, if you ask me.

David: So, alright, now that I’ve got the grumbles out of my system, what did I like about Summerset? I like being able to explore the Isles in full and without walls or borders to stop me going where I want. I like that the character creation is so deep, allowing me to create a monstrous Khajit highwayman called Professor Snugglesworth. Snuggsie is met with constant disrespect from a hostile universe. He doesn’t deserve this, he has a degree. I also like that the game has been optimised to run on PC’s of almost any spec. You could throw TESO at a spud machine and still have it run quite well.

Leah: What I loved most about Summerset was the richness of exploration. While questlines will usually prod you in the right direction, being an open world game means you can go anywhere and see anything, at any time. Having played the Morrowind expansion, I knew vaguely what to expect from Summerset, but I was still blown away by the gorgeous world and the many locations around Shimmerene and Alinor. That’s something that I always felt Skyrim was missing – truly gorgeous, enchanting locations, but between Summerset and Morrowind, the world of Tamriel truly, finally, feels alive. That’s the other thing that I feel makes The Elder Scrolls Online such a rich environment to travel in. There’s always something happening, and always people around you.

Leah: Now, the last time I engaged heavily with an MMO was probably somewhere around 2005 with Runescape, Habbo Hotel and Adventure Quest. I’ve always been fascinated by MMOs and the social dynamics of online interaction, but never really had a reason to delve into any newer games. When I first tried out the original incarnation of The Elder Scrolls Online, I was immediately hooked because of the sense of community and worldbuilding behind the game. There exists an entire, lively, friendly community within the game, joined by their passion for the Elder Scrolls series. While I expected something along the lines of the ‘good old days’ of MMOs, with dodgy underage roleplays, rampant swearing and implicit cybersex, throughout my entire time with Summerset, I experienced only wholesome, fun bants with squads of friends and rivals. Bants included chatter about Prince, the influence of Bach on jazz music, and how neat goats are. Spoiler: they’re pretty neat.

Leah: Between some solid bants and wandering off into the woods to pet some nice animals, I somehow found time to work my way through a chunk of the main questline. Now, I will admit I wasn’t able to complete the full breadth of the new story quests, but that should stand as a testament to how much effort and care has been put into Summerset’s story (and definitely not because I got caught up with staring into pools of water and finding doggies to pet). There’s simply so much to do in Summerset, and the game lets you carve your own path. Want to spend your days trying to hook a monster fish for dinner? Summerset’s got you covered. Want to listen to some bangin’ tunes while solving murders? Go visit Orninlusea in Alinor – she’s got some jams. Want to murder some weird Daedric cultists? Go for it! I spent my hours in Summerset uncovering murders and getting vomited on by ancient monsters. It was great! What did you get up to on your journey through Summerset, David?

Pictured: The Vomiter in question.

David: I wish I’d been able to key into the game the way you were because it sounds like you had a great time! I pushed through a sizeable amount of the main campaign too but gave myself over to roleplaying my befuddled academic murder hobo quite quickly because the story just wasn’t getting its hooks in. “Where am I going? In the cave? How many you want dead? Just the one? Its fine, I don’t need to know why, see in you 15.”

You’re certainly not wrong about there being a wealth of activities to try in Summerset, I just didn’t find any of them especially engaging. It all felt like busy work to me, a lot of faffing around that had no real bearing on the story, the world or my role in it. It’s cool that I can go fishing or take in a bit of live music at the pub but it didn’t really feel like I was accomplishing anything when I did any of these things. It felt like wasted time to me, time I could be spending on trying to save the world or whatever it was they wanted from me, a poor but very book smart and resourceful Khajit. But that’s MMO’s I suppose. How did you find the difficulty curve? It felt like I was solo romping through every area without the game putting up much of a fight in return.

Leah: I think part of my enjoyment of the game came from a lack of expectations. It’s easy to be cynical about MMOs because sometimes they can feel generic and sameish, but I’ve never felt that applied to Elder Scrolls Online. It’s beautiful and wild, and it utilises the lore of Tamriel well. Sure, you can go in expecting another entry into the vast Elder Scrolls series, but that’s not what Elder Scrolls Online is, and I don’t think it pretends to be that either. I came in with minimal expectations, imagining a fun, mostly chill time hanging out with some pals, doing some monster killing and having good bants. I came away feeling mostly fulfilled because of that. Summerset was pretty, interesting and sometimes, it was dangerous to go alone. Despite this, I had great fun throughout my solo romp, and even made time to stop and smell the roses along the way.

David: Final thoughts?

Leah: I really enjoyed my time in Summerset. There was just enough story to keep me engaged, and plenty of great, fun moments to enjoy. I’m going with a round 8.

David: For real though I’m legit glad you liked it. I wish it hooked me the way it hooked you. I wish I liked it more. It’s a 6 from me.

Average Score: 7.0/10
Highlights: Plenty of space for activities; great bants with a killer community; incredibly pretty world to explore
Lowlights: No flippin Aus servers wtf m8 rude as; Large download requirements
Developer: Zenimax Online Studios
Publisher: Bethesda
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Available: June 5, 2018

Reviewed on Windows PC using early access review codes provided by the publisher.