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Preview: ESO High Isle: While I'm Excited, I Definitely Have Some Concerns

Joseph Bradford Posted:
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Traveling around High Isle on horseback feels like stepping into an old idyllic countryside, something that evokes the feeling of an old Arthurian legend. Knights prowl the land atop horseback, traveling between the large settlement of Gonfalon Bay and the various manors and castles that dot the main isle, while traveling anywhere you might be met with Druidic groves or fields of sunflowers. It's a different feel for the Elder Scrolls Online, which recently took us to the plains of Oblivion or down to the subterranean caverns of Blackreach, and for me personally, it's a welcome change.

As someone who plays mostly Bretons in ESO, it's nice to explore the culture and the world of the Bretons in a way that even the initial Elder Scrolls Online zones around Glenumbra couldn't. While we've explored the Wyrd and Breton society in a way, High Isle promises a more idealized version of Breton culture, one where chivalry and politicking rule the isle. It may act as a vacation spot for Tamriel's wealthy, but there is a darker side to the Isle, which I'm eager to explore.

One aspect that always interested me was the fact that Bretons are very adept magicka users, yet I never played a pure magicka build. While I would sling spells as a Templar or Necromancer, I also found myself taking much pleasure in just swinging a Greatsword around my enemies. This is something that I've already experienced in my time with High Isle ahead of its launch: characters who begrudge the Breton's penchant for the knightly arts, eschewing their affinity for magicka thanks to their Elvish roots. It's inspired me to go a more magic-based route this time around, building a character that leans into those old Breton advantages versus it just being window dressing for how my character looks. 

The team is trying to move away from the large, world-ending events that have dominated the rather predictable storylines of ESO chapters in recent years, instead opting to tell a more intimate tale in High Isle. Getting back to the political struggles that defined the early installments of the MMO certainly makes High Isle feel more down to Nirn, but will it be enough to keep the player's interest?

The Three Banners War dominates the central storyline of The Elder Scrolls Online. From the very first this story of the three alliances fighting over the Ruby Throne helped not only establish the framework around the story of ESO, but also mechanically how the MMO played initially. Segregating players based on race and faction was a real thing, meaning that you had to hit the cap before you could really explore the rest of the world - or roll an Alt. This worked well in PvP, though, giving players clearly defined goals and teammates without the need to find a group all the time.

However, it felt stifling, and really went against the freedom afforded by the Elder Scrolls series, so the One Tamriel update changed everything. But as a result, it also felt the Three Banners War was less important overall now.

This has bled into the storylines of the individual chapters that have launched in the wake of One Tamriel. Morrowind, SummersetElsweyr, and more all might have the alliance war as the backdrop, but it was never integral to the plot of those chapters. The story has moved on from that central pillar of ESO, so with High Isle moving back in that direction and putting the war center stage, it's both a welcome sight, but also a bit jarring. 

While one of the hallmarks of an ESO chapter is that you needn't have played any of the previous chapters - or even the MMO itself - before diving in, because the central story surrounds peace talks gone awry for a war that players have been "waging" for years, there might be more whiplash for new players than, say, being dropped off on Seyda Neen in Morrowind and tasked with saving Vvardenfell from Baar Dau (the giant meteor in the sky).

While chapters have kept the Three Banners War as part of the storyline (such as helping to open Summerset to the Aldmeri Dominion races more during that Chapter), High Isle feels like its story is being built with the War as the central pillar again. But is it truly the central backdrop, or a means to an end? Are we going to get some resolution on the war, or will it just be a device to push a more grounded plot forward?

Don't get me wrong - I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing. I'm glad that the stories being told by ZeniMax feel more connected to the people of Tamriel and not simply what Vampiric or Daedric Lord this week wants to ruin things for the people of Nirn. I'm excited to explore the Knightly Orders themselves, which the dev team tells us we will be able to interact with more than just a cosmetic way. I want to explore the Systres with Isobel, one of the new companions that embodies the knightly virtues that dominate the island, seeing Breton society through her eyes a bit.

But I do wonder just how much the backdrop of peace talks gone wrong for a war new players are being thrust into will matter. Maybe the Ascendant Order itself will prove to be such a compelling antagonistic faction that the backdrop feels just like more window dressing? Uncovering the motivations - and the political forces on High Isle supporting them - of the Ascendant Magus and Lord might, hopefully, prove strong enough that knowing next to nothing about the Three Banners War will be fine.

One of the fears I also have is whether the events and the way ESO builds its chapters have become a little too "formulaic." This isn't necessarily a bad thing, perse, but seeing similar mechanics "reimagined" for the Isle, such as the "Dark Anchor-esque" Volcanic eruptions make me wonder if it's less innovating upon the structure ZOS has built for itself, or simply more of the same. The same can extend into the story too. While the goal is to bring ESO back to its (nirn)roots, will we see similar story beats from other expansions? Will they feel new and exciting, or samey like the Anchors/Dragons/Abyssal Geysers/Harrowstorms of chapters past?

For me, personally, I'm excited to jump into Elder Scrolls Online's High Isle chapter next week. I want to explore more of the island, especially the sister island of Amenos, whose vast and dense jungle provides the perfect place to imprison political (and other) prisoners for the rest of their days. I'm eager to explore the Ascendant Order and find out more about what is facing both the Alliance heads, as well as High Isle society itself.

More than that, I'm eager to put my card game skills to the test in Tales of Tribute, the new tavern game built for High Isle

Whether or not the setting and backdrop will fit and play nicely with new players as it has in past chapters remains to be seen. Either way, players can jump into the Systres next week starting on June 6th on PC, Mac, and Stadia.


Joseph Bradford

Joseph has been writing or podcasting about games in some form since about 2012. Having written for multiple major outlets such as IGN, Playboy, and more, Joseph started writing for MMORPG in 2015. When he's not writing or talking about games, you can typically find him hanging out with his 10-year old or playing Magic: The Gathering with his family. Also, don't get him started on why Balrogs *don't* have wings. You can find him on Twitter @LotrLore