Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood is a lot to take in. The upcoming chapter isn't just an MMO version of The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, nor is it simply another massive ESO expansion. It's both of those things, but it's also a marvelous remake of Leyawiin, Gideon, and the Deadlands, and finally, a more single-player-friendly experience thanks to the new companion system.
I spent a week playing an early build of Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood, and in that time I plowed through two new dungeons and three delves, took on a bunch of beefy side quests, started several new characters, leveled up two NPC companions, and went to the Deadlands and back trying to stop Mehrunes Dagon's latest scheme. And even so, I feel like there's a lot more to experience.
There's a new 12-player raid-style dungeon (a "trial" in ESO lingo) called Rockgrove, for example. Even at max level and with a companion by my side, there was no way in hell I was getting through that. Admittedly, the new world events kicked my ass too; I barely survived the first of many hellish floors inside the one Oblivion gate I dared enter.
"I think players are going to really enjoy [the Oblivion gates] because they're going to learn some interesting things about Mehrunes Dagon, but they're also going to be challenged by some very interesting encounters. And there's new loot in here. There are some new cosmetic things and maybe a secret or two in there that players will have to discover. But it's a really cool new way to kind of do a world event," creative director Rich Lambert explains.
As for Rockgrove, Lambert says the developers were able to pull something off in the dungeon that he "didn't think was possible in [ESO's] engine."
"I was really impressed when they showed us. Originally I was like, 'there's no way we can do that'. And they found a way to do it. So that's pretty cool," he teases.
Regardless, Oblivion gates and the Rockgrove trial are clearly designed to be tackled with a group, so I'll just have to wait for Blackwood's full release to really appreciate their potential.
For everything else, the new companion NPCs are nice to have around. You'll need to complete a 20-30 minute quest for both Bastian and Mirri, but both characters have fun backstories that I didn't mind breaking from the main quest to see through. In dungeons, they helped me clear through some of the larger waves of enemies that would've slowed, and maybe halted, my progress, and you can fine-tune them to be tanks, healers, or DPS. I could see groups of two really appreciating the companions, because if both players are accompanied by a companion, they could be the ticket to taking on four-player dungeons together.
Having them tag along for side quests and story beats adds some variety, as your choices will affect your relationship with them. For example, Mirri doesn't like traveling by boat, but the place I need to go was like a million miles away and there wasn't a wayshrine nearby, so I told her to suck it up and get in the boat. She did not like that, and our rapport took a hit because of it.
There's a rapport meter you can check in the companions' dedicated menu, but you can also get a general idea of how they feel about you just by striking up a conversation. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like there's a lot of variety here.
My preview build allowed me to quickly increase and decrease companion rapport to test out the system, and it seems like there were only a few different tiers to determine what sort-of dialogue you get. If rapport is at its lowest point, the NPCs will express their hatred for you in just a couple of different responses; same if they love you. In between, it seems like there's a sort-of lukewarm stage where they're generally apathetic to your existence, and then there's a friendly point where they think you're pretty cool. Though that could be updated before launch, that pretty much sums up companion behavior right now.
Something curious I noticed is that Mirri teases a romantic interest if you max your rapport with her, while Bastian's friendliest responses are strictly platonic (don't worry, I tested both companions in same-sex relationships, and the responses are the same). Lambert told Game Informer earlier this year that romance options would eventually come to the companion system, but for now, it seems Mirri is the only one remotely interested in me.
Visually, Blackwood might be the best-looking chapter to date. It still looks like ESO, but there's a lot of diversity between the swampy, partially flooded portions of the northern region and the healthier valleys nestling sunken ruins and ancient Ayleid structures to the south. Leyawiin hasn't been seen since 2006's TES4, and Gideon not since 1994's Elder Scrolls: Arena, so their ESO counterparts look stunning in comparison.
Most impressive of all are the Deadlands. Mehrunes Dagon's domain in the Oblivion realm has been expanded for Blackwood, and every square inch of what I saw felt alive, dangerous, and morbidly beautiful. It's not all fire and brimstone, either. Some sections are made up of dark, imposing corridors with magnificent gothic architecture, and others are violent outdoor scenes overlooked by the kind of bluish-pink, alien-like sunsets you only see in extreme weather. Lambert says we'll see more of Dagon's realm in later expansions, but the Blackwood sections are wonderful to look at.
The 10-or-so hours I played of Blackwood's new story content did a good enough job hooking me that I want to know what happens next, but the recipe feels pretty similar to earlier expansions. You wake up in a dungeon, then you find out there are some dead people and you can probably imagine who's involved, and a conspiracy slowly unravels through NPC interactions in-between dungeons and boss fights, and soon enough you're face-to-face with all sorts of evil, giant things. As is usually the case with ESO, I enjoyed learning more about the Argonians and Imperialists through side quests as much as I liked playing through the main story.
Like I said, there's a lot going on in Elder Scrolls Online's upcoming Blackwood chapter, and I can't wait to dig in further. Despite the constraints of working from home, which Lambert tells me the team has largely adapted to, ZeniMax seems to have another massive expansion in the pipes with a distinct new zone to explore, heaps of lore to consume, and a number of cool additions to dig into.
Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood launches on June 1 for PC and Stadia, and on June 8 for Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PS4, and PS5.
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