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The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle preview — Politics, mystery, and a round of cards

Elder Scrolls Online High Isle Coral Beach
Elder Scrolls Online High Isle Coral Beach (Image credit: Bethesda Softworks)

The Elder Scrolls Online is closing in on 21 million players, and while the developers at ZeniMax Online Studios appear to be taking things slower with this year's adventures, it's promising to be some of the team's best work yet.

Compared to the numerous past crises that have threatened huge regions, if not all of Tamriel, High Isle feels decidedly calmer. There's no ancient or powerful Daeadra returning, no sudden return of Dragons, no widespread vampiric invasions. Instead, the threats posed in this expansion are seem to be far more subtle and insidious. As part of the 2022 year-long adventure, Legacy of the Bretons, the upcoming High Isle expansion is offering what appears to be the most different story in the Elder Scrolls Online so far.

The dangers and beauty of High Isle

Source: Bethesda Softworks (Image credit: Source: Bethesda Softworks)

On the surface, everything is fine on the Systres Archipelago, with the two islands of High Isle and Armenos serving as a vacation spot and a massive prison, respectively. High Isle serves as a second home for Breton nobility, who come to enjoy food, wine, tournaments, and the pleasant climate. Meanwhile, Armenos is a massive open-air prison, something The Elder Scrolls Online creative director Rich Lambert compares to a medieval version of Escape from New York.

As the story begins, the Society of the Steadfast, led and funded by Bacaro Volorus, is seeking an end to the Three Banners War that consumes Tamriel. As peace talks commence, the threat of sabotage emerges after the mysterious Ascendant Order strikes out across High Isle. These bannerless knights, led by the Ascendant Magus and the Ascendant Lord, claim to speak for the everyday people, but not everything may be as it appears.

The Three Banners War is a conflict that hasn't really been addressed over Elder Scrolls Online's history, so why return to it? According to Lambert, it's because the team wanted a more "grounded, political" storyline while avoiding the "cosmic threats" of past years.

"Those are great and those are fun and those are fine, but if you keep doing them over and over and over, there's a little bit of burnout, for not only your players but for the team," explains Lambert. "The Three Banners War is something that we haven't touched on since launch, so it's been eight years since we've even thought about that, so it just made sense. And then as we started figuring out 'The Bretons are a part of this, they're a Feudal society, politics plays a huge part in them.' It all just kind of came together."

A mystery unfolds

Source: Bethesda Softworks (Image credit: Source: Bethesda Softworks)

After spending a few hours hands-on with some of the new content, I can happily say there's a lot to like in this beautiful yet dangerous expansion. Players will hop into the action almost straight away, and it quickly becomes apparent that the Ascendant Order are more than just some ragtag group of bandits. The mainline quests will have you doing a variety of tasks, from restoring a lighthouse, investigating kidnappings, infiltrating a tournament, and more all in the early hours of this new story.

As you begin looking into the mystery of who the Ascendant Order truly are, you'll become familiar with the various noble houses and their petty feuds, including those who would benefit from seeing the war continue. The focus on politicial intrigue here isn't just set dressing, it's the substance and it truly delivers a great change of pace compared to usual Elder Scrolls heroics.

Building on the Companions system introduced in 2021's Blackwood expansion, High Isle offers two more Companions for players to meet and use: a Khajit mage named Ember getting up to trouble with her experiments and a Breton named Isobel who is toiling away to become a knight while trying to save her friend from an arranged engagement. Despite more Companions and Lambert's prior affirmation that the studio is looking into romance as a feature, there's nothing new on that front for now.

I found myself invested in figuring out the machinations of who was really behind the various attacks, compiling a list of suspects and trying to leave no tournament ground unturned. This early portion of the plot kept me on my toes and with a total of 30+ hours of content in High Isle, I'm sure there are plenty of secrets left to discover.

Always accessible

Source: Bethesda Softworks (Image credit: Source: Bethesda Softworks)

I also appreciated how accessible the story was. Playing on a preview server with a new character, all it took was completing the tutorial before jumping into High Isle. It's a breath of fresh air compared to the grind and structure of many other MMORPGs, and it's something that ZeniMax Online Studios is well aware of. The developers are working with this ease of accessibility moving forward, even as it means segmenting the different stories so they can be played in any order.

"We have this concept of 'time is a construct of the player and the player's journey through the world,'" Lambert said. "So, when we're telling stories, we're focused on the player's perspective of things and what the player knows at any one given time."

When I asked Lambert if the studio had a commitment to keeping this accessible structure to the game for future expansions, even years down the line, he answered with an enthusiastic "absolutely." He added that it's "part of the magic of ESO" and that the level of freedom offered by The Elder Scrolls Online "makes us unique."

Time for a round of cards

Source: Bethesda Softworks (Image credit: Source: Bethesda Softworks)

Another big addition coming with High Isle is a card game, Tales of Tribute. Found in taverns and pubs, it's a card game where players try to accumulate Prestige while earning the favor of four Patrons. While you'll collect decks of cards, it's not like other deck-building games where you choose your particular draw pile before play. Instead, two decks are shuffled together for both the player and their opponent to draw from, meaning there's a degree of uncertainty and luck.

"I think part of the magic is being able to take and build your own thing and make it unique and special."

On your turn, the player draws cards, earning gold to spend on more cards or to earn favor with one particular Patron. There are all sorts of various combos and special effects, but by and large, playing cards will build up Prestige, while any unused Gold is swept away and lost at the end of a player's turn, which requires players to think ahead of their current turn and try to build up combos with their hand of cards. Victory comes when you build up 40 Prestige or acquire the favor of all four Patrons.

As you might surmise, Tales of Tribute also comes with an extensive set of rules that may be a little confusing at first. Once I got the hang of it however, I found myself engaged, and it's something I'll be spending a lot more time with across PvP and PvE in the full release. This isn't just some side activity; it also offers a full quest line, complete with unique rewards.

Minigames inside of bigger titles, especially card games, aren't exactly unheard of — Gwent in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt immediately comes to mind — and it seems like the team has taken special care to make sure Tales of Tribute feels both fun and like it belongs in this world.

"Obviously you look to see for inspiration what other teams do, but I think part of the magic is being able to take and build your own thing and make it unique and special," Lambert explained.

"We weren't trying to just look at everything else and say 'OK, this other group did this thing, we can't do that.' It was more like 'what can we do that fits with ESO but that also blends well and fits into the world?' and that ended up as something unique as well," added Irenio Calmon-Huang, Tales of Tribute's lead designer.

Right now, the developers are squarely focused on making Tales of Tribute as good as it can possibly be at launch, but aren't opposed to adding new features in the future if it proves to be a hit.

A lot to look forward to, a lot to polish

Source: Bethesda Softworks (Image credit: Source: Bethesda Softworks)

All of that being said, there's definitely some wrinkles for the developers to iron out. I was told ahead of playing that this was an early preview build with known issues, and these issues were definitely present. Multiple textures out in the open world failed to load properly, and numerous assets — especially the cards and rewards in Tales of Tribute — were unfinished. After completing the tutorial for Tales of Tribute, everything crashed, requiring a reset.

Meanwhile, I was forced to leave one particularly interesting quest line unfinished. The enemies in a vast cavern system wouldn't appear, even when I tried reloading the game. Load times in general were also a fair bit longer than is usual for the game.

Even in this early state, High Isle holds intriguing promise, and I'm excited to continue wading through this political mystery that's been woven. If the rest of High Isle is as compelling as what I've played so far, this latest chapter ensures that The Elder Scrolls Online is continuing to earn its place as one of the best Xbox games available. Hopefully, the developers will be able to use this remaining time before launch to polish everything as much as possible.

The Elder Scrolls Online: High Isle comes to PC and Stadia on June 6, 2022. Console players across Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, Xbox One, PS5, and PS4 will gain access to High Isle on June 26.

Samuel Tolbert is a freelance writer covering gaming news, previews, reviews, interviews and different aspects of the gaming industry, specifically focusing on Xbox and PC gaming on Windows Central. You can find him on Twitter @SamuelTolbert.