Heading down a Dwemer lift into Blackreach for the first time was a sight to behold. The grey, stormy sky of Skyrim gave way to the dimly-lit black of Blackreach, mushrooms and flora glowing to give the region an ethereal light. I was met with an overlook on Castle Greymoor – a towering structure set in the northern regions of Blackreach and an important point of interest for the whole of The Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor.
However, stepping into Blackreach itself became something out of a nightmare, as lag and high ping wrecked players during the first few days of ESO’s launch. It wasn’t just Blackreach that was affected, Greymoor as a whole launched with a plethora of connection and instability issues, prompting downtime almost daily for the first few days of launch.
What felt like a promising chapter at the outset was marred immediately by technical issues that detracted from the whole experience, making The Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor feel as though it was stumbling out of the gates. However, the lackluster main story, grindy new Antiquities mini-game, and the improved Vampire skill line didn’t really make up for those hours of frustration.
Welcome to Skyrim, Milk-Drinker
I will say, spawning on the docks near Solitude, looking out over the stone arch that spans over the Karth River, I was instantly transported back to 2011’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. This is one of the things ESO has always done best: bringing you back to locations from the single player games and hitting that nostalgia factor that makes you want to explore further.
The Elder Scrolls Online team really nailed the feel and visuals of Western Skyrim. Skyrim itself has always been in ESO since day one with the Reach and Eastmarch, but this is the first major expansion to focus solely on the land of the Nords – and with it comes the nostalgia of players enjoying their adventures on everything from Xbox 360 to Amazon Alexa. I found myself enjoying the romp through Dragon Bridge, the eponymous bridge giving a clear view of Solitude’s arch in the distance on a clear day. The swamps near Morthal brought me back to exploring the Hjaalmarch from years before.
However, it’s not just the surface of Western Skyrim that Greymoor brings to the fore. Underneath the Skyrim province is Blackreach, the mythological caverns that extend underneath all of Skyrim itself. The cavern is massive, and people in zone chat were comparing this area to the Mines of Moria from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. And the comparison is apt - both are imposing caverns inhabited by their respective fiction’s dwarves - and I’ll admit to being awed the first time I went down a Dwemer lift and saw the caverns open up in front of me. It did remind me a bit of entering Moria in The Lord of the Rings Online those years ago.
I’ve always thought that The Elder Scrolls is at its most fascinating when it leans into the weird. Blackreach, with its luminescent geodes and mushrooms as tall as trees definitely leans hard into the weird. It’s a nice palette cleanser if you get tired of the grey of Western Skyrim, and more often than not I found myself going down there just to check out the other-worldly views.
The winding passages of Blackreach make traversing it frustrating at first. I found myself constantly annoyed that quest markers I was looking for where sometimes obscured by the different levels of the cavern - and the map doesn’t really give you a good idea of what level you’re on. One quest saw me spend at least five minutes wandering around a craggy stalagmite, only to finally realize the werewolf pack I was trying to help was in a lower level cavern underneath where I was standing.
Once you get the hang of Blackreach it’s a little better, but there are those moments where traversing the caverns does feel a bit convoluted. Blackreach, though, is massive, and you really get a sense of scale when you’re in the underground caves. However, this set piece feels a little off narratively when you consider just how populated Blackreach is in Greymoor.
Every character on the surface I encountered that heard whispers of Blackreach knew it only as a rumor or a myth, something that they weren’t aware was really there. However, full settlements of Tamriel citizens can be found in the caverns of Blackreach, as well as enclaves of explorers and more. You meet iconic characters in the area, so it made me think on more than one occasion that with so much activity down there, someone must have said something. Nit-picky, sure, but it’s a dissonance that stuck out whenever a character would utter amazement in hushed tones that it wasn’t just a myth. I feel like word would have made it back up to Solitude or Morthal - somewhere - that proved it wasn’t a myth.
The dungeons in Greymoor were mostly good, such as a Dwemer ruin found in Blackreach with a bit of a problem with the space-time continium. Iconic places such as Labyrinthian make their return, and it was pretty cool to explore it as well. Seeing the Kilkreath Temple instead of the ruins found in Skyrim set 800 years in the future was definitely a nice nostalgic touch as well.
Surviving The Harrowstorms
The main story of The Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor centers around a vampire cult bent on dominating all of Tamriel, starting with Western Skyrim. Using agents from Werewolves and the Icereach Coven, the story of Greymoor starts out investigating a plot to possibly assassinate High King Svagrim. Slowly you learn that the threat doesn’t just stop there, but it’s much more widespread, thanks to Harrowstorms that are popping up all around the region.
These Harrowstorms are essentially Greymoor’s version of the Dark Anchors that have been in the MMORPG since day one, following the pattern of other Chapters before them turning the mechanic into a story device. The spectacle is rather cool, with a tell-tale red mist forming all around you as you near an active storm. You’ll need to take out Witch Pikes which power the storm itself, all the while dealing with the enemies pumping out to greet you. It’s a great way to earn experience early on, though it’s one of the major areas where I noticed the sharpest performance drops while encountering them, especially in Blackreach.
One of the linchpins of any good chapter, though, are the myriad stories told throughout the world - not just the main plot. And while the main story and the threat of these storms permeates throughout Western Skyrim and Blackreach, the stories told in the different holds or by an NPC you stumble across when traveling down a road are still as good as they have been. In fact, it’s here where I found the most enjoyment in ESO: Greymoor.
While the main story is not bad - I’ve always loved how the ZeniMax team isn’t afraid to tell dark stories, and Greymoor certainly has its moments - it’s entirely predictable, leaving it feeling a bit lackluster. Being able to predict the major plot points a few chapters ahead of time didn’t feel very satisfying when they came to fruition. However, it was fantastic to quest alongside Lyris Titanborn again - and Jennifer Hale does a masterful job with her performance. So masterful that it really showed the flaws in the other voice actors around her, especially Jorunn the Skald-King, who honestly sounded surprised at the end of every sentence he said.
As I said, though, the stories told throughout the world are fantastic as ever, such as uncovering the mystery surrounding deaths near Morthal, or uncovering what the Harrowstorms have done to the Priests of Meridia near Kilkreath Temple north of Solitude. These smaller stories are one of the great things about ESO in past chapters, and I’m glad the quality of the storytelling is still up there. It’s just a shame the main storyline was so predictable by comparison.
Indiana Jones Meets Tamriel
One of the major additions to this chapter is the new Antiquities activity. This is meant to be a way to give those who love to explore Tamriel and learn more about the lore another way to meaningfully interact with the world around them. By uncovering Antiquity sites, you’ll dig up artifacts that can be sold for gold, or in many cases used as useful items around the world, including things like a new siege weapon for Cyrodiil’s PvP.
Antiquities requires that you use a tool called the Antiquarian’s Eye, unlocking a puzzle game where you need to attune spots called “Foci.” The more of these you’re able to unlock in this mini-game, the fewer dig sites you’ll have to search when you excavate. The puzzles are simple enough to start, feeling like a game of connect-the-dots mixed with Bejeweled, but as you start working on the higher rarity scrying leads these puzzles become harder and harder.
Once you’re in the area, you can use the tool to point you in the right direction, allowing you to then enter the excavating mini game. You’ll have a few separate tools to help you, and the higher your excavation level is, the more tools you can unlock to speed things along while you dig. You can pulse an area with your Antiquarian’s Eye to help pinpoint the treasure - red for too far away while green results give you the location you need to dig - and once you have the main treasure uncovered you can sift around for bonus items before your time meter runs out.
Each treasure gives you a quick lore item the first few times you discover them, and you can find new leads as item drops from monsters, quest rewards and more. Leads also have different rarities, which increase the difficulty of the puzzles and the value of the rewards involved.
It’s not a bad way to make money if you’re a new player - within just a few hours I was able to sell some items for a few thousand gold offsetting some repair costs I incurred a bit earlier. And if you already don’t mind a grind and are interested in getting out there and exploring Tamriel, get ready as Antiquities presents a whole new grind to get lost within. With the system you unlock two separate skill trees - Scrying and Excavating - both of which you’ll level as you complete Antiquities. But for some, the grind might be too much for too little reward. These will require skill points to invest into fully, and for myself personally I don’t like investing hard-earned skill points into something that doesn’t offer me a tangible benefit.
I do like, though, that this isn’t restricted to just Western Skyrim, though. This gives new players a reason to venture away from Solitude and explore the whole of Tamriel - reminding me a bit of the Psijiic Order grind from the Summerset chapter which saw you adventuring around Tamriel to unlock the full skill tree. However, in the end, I would prefer that grind as it offered me something tangible with those skills - skills I still use on my Imperial Templar to this day.
All in all, for me Antiquities was quite boring. It’s not a system I would see myself willingly grind in its current state - but I totally understand that different playstyles would likely enjoy this type of gameplay very much. But I can’t get over the grind involved for little tangible return other than some random items you find in your adventures.
The other major change to The Elder Scrolls Online comes in the form of a massive overhaul of the Vampire skill tree - and by and large I really enjoy the changes. Greymoor delightfully leans into the Bram Stoker influences, especially when you get near Castle Greymoor, a vampire haven in Blackreach, and you’re met with some imposing gothic architecture.
The whole idea of being a vampire has attracted me since I played in the ESO alpha leading up to launch, and one of the first things I did when I was high enough level back during the early launch days was become a Vampire.
The changes brought to the skill line are pretty fantastic - with a few caveats. I love the aggressive nature of the new skills - they feel as though they are meant to hit hard and fast and then get out of the way. I can see Nightblades who already deal in sealth having a major advantage picking up Vampirism, and even on my Necromancer it made combat interesting.
Skills such as Eviscerate deal damage to enemies with a pretty spammable skill - and when you can morph it you can make it more potent by forcing it to drain your own health for the boon of it becoming stronger with each hit. However, my new favorite skill is Mist Form. Being able to pop into that form when I’m in trouble and reposition for my next move feels great and morphing it into Blood Mist actually deals damage while you’re channeling the skill.
I never understood early on in ESO’s days why feeding as a vampire actually weakened your vampire abilities. That’s a major change with Greymoor’s new skill line - the more you feed the stronger your vampire powers become - at a cost. And while the cost makes sense on the surface, it can make for some frustrating times when traveling around Tamriel trying to do normal activities. Feeding now also has a new animation and works much like the Blade of Woe from the Dark Brotherhood, which I found myself liking over time. The new animations definitely make feeding feel more stylish and gave my blood-sucking a bit of flair each time.
Each stage of vampirism will increase the cost of using your skills but can also trigger passives, such as the popular and powerful Undeath passive at Stage 3, but you’ll be missing that sweet health recovery, you’ll see yourself being damaged more by flame attacks and your other abilities will start to cost more. Feeding increases your level, while waiting for a certain time or drinking a specific potion will decrease your stage.
It’s a fine balance between how far you’re willing to go, as when you hit Stage 4 vampirism even NPCs will stop interacting with you. Now while this isn’t a huge deal normally with random NPCs on the street, it becomes a problem when the city banker won’t let you access your items. I feel like, while this makes sense from a role-playing perspective, forcing players to wait out a timer or find an expensive and rare potion from a player or guild trader just to be able to access their bank if they take full advantage of the skill line just seems excessive and frustrating.
While your personal assistant you can get in the crown store will still talk to you, not everyone has one of those, and part of me can’t help but cynically feel this change is somewhat influenced by getting players to potentially invest in these expensive items. Not every player chooses to RP, and, at least in my mind, the game shouldn’t force this on them, especially concerning something as important as access to your bank, no matter how fantastic the rest of the changes might feel.
Squashing the Bugs
ESO: Greymoor has not had the prettiest of launches. I’ve mentioned a few times bugs and issues plaguing my experience thus far in my nostalgia-fueled journey. Latency issues mar the experience, and performance problems have followed me no matter how powerful the PC I play this Chapter on (i5-9600K @ 4.7GHz OC/RTX 2080 for starters). More often than not I found myself traveling Blackreach at sub-60fps, and when a Harrowstorm hit it fell even lower, sometimes even into the low 20s.
Skills in the early days didn’t feel precise, and sometimes simply didn’t activate, though many of those issues feel ironed out as of a week later. I’ve also had issues where textures didn’t load, full stop, creating a murky low-resolution landscape in front of me until I would reload the whole game.
One of the more frustrating issues I’d find myself tackling every so often was the fact that enemies sometimes just wouldn’t die. Even when they had zero health they’d keep attacking, even though I could not attack them back. This was especially frustrating in dungeons where you can usually leash enemies - however these would follow me around the whole dungeon or delve, attacking until I died leaving me with nothing I could do.
This happened as well four times in a row during the large setpiece fight in the main Greymoor storyline - the boss itself bugged, either simply not dying and standing frozen in place until it reset, or bugging in the middle of a fight, not triggering the next stage of its attack patterns. Having to continually repeat this battle until it finally worked on the fifth attempt definitely soured the spectacle, making me more frustrated than interested in what was happening at that point.
It’s because of this that I truly feel Greymoor could have stood to have incubated just a little while longer. Delaying a week didn’t stop the release from feeling unpolished and unfinished in spots. Releasing games isn’t easy - releasing with the studio completely working from home is even harder and commendable to say the least, but that doesn’t excuse away a shoddy launch people paid money for. At the end of the day, these issues marred the opening days of Greymoor, staining what could have been a triumphant return to the land of the Nords.
Matt Firor, the Game Director of The Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor touched on these issues and laid out exactly what was going on in a fairly comprehensive forum post yesterday. He acknowledged the rough shape launch was in, and indeed it has been rough, and also detailed many of the problems and the fixes his team has been implementing. It’s a nice gesture to the community who paid good money for the expansion itself, and might mean good things for the state of both console and the Google Stadia launches to come, but it doesn’t shake the feeling that Greymoor should have simply been delayed longer to potentially avert many of these issues.
The Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor isn’t a bad chapter by any stretch. It’s dark themes really shine through in the storytelling, and while the main questline felt lackluster thanks to its predictability and my issues with the buggy boss fights, the side quests told complex and entertaining stories - the kind I’ve come to love from the ZeniMax team. And while the Antiquities system just isn’t for me, I do by and large love the new Vampire changes, though I could do with a little less forced role-playing.
Greymoor’s greatest achievement is the world itself - Western Skyrim and Blackreach both look beautiful and are massive to explore in the 25 or so hours it took to complete most of the side quests, the main story and more. But it’s greatest enemy wasn’t the Vampire coven at the center of the year-long Dark Heart of Skyrim storyline, but rather the unpolished feeling Greymoor gave me as bugs and performance issues plagued the experience, even after the team deployed multiple fixes. In the end, it leaves me wondering whether or not Greymoor should have been delayed longer and given more time to stick its landing.