In March 2014 I attempted to assassinate my MacBook by installing 60-odd gigabytes of The Elder Scrolls Online’s beta test. While that laptop never quite forgave me for attempting to run a high-end MMO on hardware that was already struggling to keep up, I was absolutely enthralled with the game’s concept and execution. That enthusiasm would be relatively short-lived after the game’s abysmal launch to PC on a subscription model just a month later. It took a long time for ESO to make up for that rough start, though it currently exists in something of a freemium space which is rife with its own issues.
I attempted to return to The Elder Scrolls Online with the Tamriel Unlimited relaunch, and found it underwhelming. Only a year later and my expectations for MMORPGs had left ESO in the dust. The Morrowind expansion of 2017 nearly got me back, as I’ve always seen The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind as the series’ best entry by far, despite its obvious flaws and abysmal combat. The lacklustre empty landscape of an undeveloped Vvardenfell left me, once again, disappointed.
I’ve continued to cover the game despite my personal feelings, though I’ve often kept to first impressions pieces. As ESO’s player count continued to rise it became clear that players were finding something in this game that I just could not see. Even expansions into Summerset, Elsweyr, and Blackwood couldn’t get me to spend more than a handful of hours gathering an opinion of new content before quietly backing out of the game again.
My quick delve into High Isle for the press preview just a few months ago had me questioning whether I had ever given ESO a fair shake after its 2014 launch crisis. Truthfully I hadn’t. Friends had dragged me kicking and screaming into Final Fantasy XIV with the Heavensward expansion, and I’ve been subbed ever since. Which left me unable to separate ESO from what I was used to, and of course The Elder Scrolls Online wouldn’t quite measure up as I already had the title of one MMO stamped into my digital life.
So with the intention of keeping my own personal history with the game and my love of a rival MMO from clouding my impressions of The Elder Scrolls: High Isle, I decided to tackle the task of reviewing ESO as it stands now. Much to my chagrin, I had an enjoyable 25 hours traversing the High Isle and Amenos.
The combination of action combat and more traditional MMO skills can make for a tricky balance to learn, as most class skills are on a short cooldown, which leaves your magicka stats as the major hurdle to work around. It leaves the player with a tendency to want to spam their major skills, but then you’re not blocking and dodging quite as well as you really need to be in order to handle the more high-end content. I got the hang of that balance eventually, but getting thrown into the deep end of High Isle right away can make that learning curve feel steep.
As my own history of playing this game is scattered across a number of platforms and character saves, I decided to start fresh for High Isle. Coming out of the new tutorial, I jumped right into the chaos of shipwrecks, missing Alliance leaders, and the fight against the Ascendant Order which was a pretty quick jump from the tutorial right into the action, but it works out well as an introduction to the game as it avoids a ton of unnecessary backstory, and the NPC dialogue will get you caught up to speed on the political situation in Tamriel at the time of the expansion whether you’ve played the base campaign or skipped right into the new content.
Because ESO lets you jump right in to each new expansion, it has this weird stats game that it needs to play in order for new players to get through the content alongside end-game players who have long hit the level-cap. It also means there aren’t any level restrictions on most content, outside of Dungeon Finder private instances, so you can absolutely try and solo the 12-person Dreadsail Reef trial at a measly level 20. And get instantly railroaded, as you should.
However, it also means you can run into one of the new Public Dungeons and find yourself solo-ing the content with only a bit of difficulty to contend with or absolutely wasting the bosses with a group. This makes almost all the content accessible to new and returning players, though it can lead to a bigger challenge than a brand-new player may understand. Though, from personal experience, it is certainly doable for a solo underleveled player to complete the majority of the expansion, and that’s pretty novel in the MMO space.
That said, the group event boss of Spire of the Crimson Coin and the world bosses of Amenos and High Isle are still tricky even for veteran players and do require at least a bit of coordination. Dreadsail Reef is relatively punishing in its brutality, which makes it ideal content for veteran players to tackle. So there is plenty to work toward for those who have just started.
While The Elder Scrolls Online is an MMO that is best played with a group, not every MMO player is particularly social. If you, like me, find yourself running a lot of content alone, The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle introduces two new NPC companions you can summon for aid, bringing the total companion number to four. Bringing a companion with you who can provide support as a tank or damage dealer is a big help, but companions also have a loyalty system that causes them to approve or disapprove of you based on your actions.
Having companions who like you is certainly to your benefit, and it helps drive engagement in the game and story to have characters that stick with you throughout the content and offer commentary. ESO’s two new companions, Isabelle Valois and Ember, are both some of the most compelling NPCs you’ll come across in the new content. And having them tag along with you provides a gameplay experience that feels very Dragon Age. It’s a nice version of the NPC companion systems other MMOs have implemented for the ease of solo play.
Alternatively, you can go hunting for groups to handle specific content in the Activity Finder window, or just by typing into the chat box. The servers are far from dead, so you have plenty of options for how to tackle content. While that can be a little dicey because ESO classes have a lot of customization options, there is a skills advisor for builds which can help with party balancing issues.
“The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle is ESO at its absolute best.”
While the gameplay has its issues, the overall experience is mostly enjoyable. The visuals are a bit more constrained, after all, the graphics of ESO are limited by the game’s base coding and overall design. The Elder Scrolls Online has an unfortunate habit of being a bit too brown and grey to be really eye-catching, although the landscape of the Systres Archipelago does have its own charms. The lush jungle of Amenos and the stark volcanic landscape of High Isle make for a compelling contrast.
The Elder Scrolls Online has always been poised as the more grounded MMO of its generation, keeping well away from the cartoonish designs of World of Warcraft and the GPU melting intensity of FFXIV’s crystal strewn landscape, though the lack of colour saturation occasionally makes the game seem flat, particularly in some early starting zones of the Three Banner’s War. High Isle, being the latest entry into the series, has a much better handle on how to make a place interesting, though traditional European Medieval architecture is always going to be a bit too reliant on stone and wood to make for any kind of visual feast.
Though the biggest issue I have with the visuals is not something that can be easily fixed. The Elder Scrolls series as a whole tends to avoid any kind of pre-rendered cinematic cutscenes in favour of presenting events in-engine with the player still in control. While this works well to keep you in control of your character without any outside influence, it does mean that some events lose their immediacy and impact. Big narrative moments aren’t given the spotlight, so they can seem almost undercut by the game itself.
Despite being a more grounded political plot, Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle still has some good fun medieval high fantasy elements thanks to the local druids, volcanic events, and even a grand tournament to keep things from being too dour. It helps that much of the sidequest content dovetails neatly into the main storyline, so you can pick up multiple quests and combine objectives for a more nuanced experience than just gunning through the primary story as quickly as possible. Since the two public dungeons and trial are sidequest content, there’s no real rush to finish though the main storyline takes about 10 hours to complete on its own.
Not that everything is neatly wrapped up at the end. While the expansion finishes off with a pretty epic fight and finale, there are still open threads and lingering questions that will be further developed over the course of the “Legacy of the Bretons” season. This also helps with any potential plot holes you may run into with recurring NPCs when you encounter them in other parts of the game.
Quite a few characters return from other content, including the three Alliance Leaders: High King Emeric, Queen Ayrenn, and Prince Irnskar. Jakarn, Captain Kaleen, Captain Tsuzo, and Za’Ji return to work alongside the player and Lady Arabelle Devaux as they track down the Ascendant Order. The major new characters you encounter in High Isle are Lady Arabelle, Lord Bacaro, the Ascendant Magus, and Ascendant Lord.
Much of your time is spent working with Lady Arabelle, leaving less development for Lord Bacaro even though he is ostensibly the one who has hired Lady Arabelle, and therefore the player themself. The Ascendant Magus takes up most of the focus as the primary antagonist, though the identity of the Magus and Lord is one of the questions of the expansion.
Outside the new quests, dungeons, and trials, Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle also brought in a new mini-game. Tales of Tribute is more of a resource building game than a traditional card game, so it feels more grounded than stuffing in a Magic: the Gathering clone or even just copying The Elder Scrolls: Legends. This makes it a fun break from the daily grind of the MMO, and because it functions as both a PvNPC and PvP game, picking up a game or two doesn’t have to be too stressful.
Tales of Tribute took over during the preview period, with early access players organizing tournaments to get together and play card games. That same draw was present in the full launch with multiple guilds and player groups organizing tournaments and free play sessions. The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle is ESO at its absolute best. It’s got charming characters, an intriguing plot, interesting new dungeons, and plenty of high-end challenges. While many of my issues with the setup of the game are unavoidable, there is plenty to love about this expansion to make up for its shortcomings.