There is something unique to The Elder Scrolls Online I don’t feel in many other MMOs - a sense of real nostalgia. This is what I first experienced when dropped into the road leading up to the Skyrim city of Solitude during my preview session of Zenimax’s upcoming chapter, Greymoor. Walking into Solitude for the first time brought back waves of memories from that first time in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - in fact I felt a little sad when I didn’t see the angry mob condemning a poor soul on the stage immediately to the right.
It’s that constant feeling that makes ESO feel both new and rooted in gaming’s past - something that the team at ZeniMax Online Studios is keenly aware of and takes pride in creating.
“Yeah, it’s awesome,” Rich Lambert, Creative Director of The Elder Scrolls Online told me via an interview last Friday. “One of the things we tried to do with Solitude was make it feel like home and be as respectful as possible to what [Bethesda Game Studios] created in TES: V. And to hear people go in and play and go, ‘Oh my gosh, this was such a walk down nostalgia lane,’ - I love this. It’s awesome.”
I’ve actually felt this a few times in ESO - specifically in points where I spent a ton of time in previous Elder Scrolls titles. Cities like Anvil, Riften or, most specifically, Vivec City from Morrowind gave me a blast from the past. However, like so many Elder Scrolls fans, the tundra and rugged landscapes of Skyrim are close to our hearts - if not for any other reason than it was the most recent mainline game to release. So when the team announced earlier this year we were going to back to Western Skyrim, I was pretty thrilled.
I spent a lot of time in Dragon Bridge, Solitude and more during my travels around Skyrim in my old TES: V days, so romping around in them again in The Elder Scrolls Online feels both new and familiar.
And indeed, much of what you see in The Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor will tread along the path of familiarity. This isn't the first time we’ve seen Skyrim in ESO - portions of Eastern Skyrim have been in the MMO since day one. And it feels like the Skyrim that Todd Howard seemingly pushed onto every platform that can run the game. Seriously, I’m fully expecting the new player experience to have you bound in the back of a cart when players start Greymoor.
The familiar Viking themes are present - I loved seeing the longboats sitting the docks of Solitude, awaiting cargo and passengers. Heading to Morthal I was greeted with some incredible Norse-inspired buildings. So it’s interesting to me that the main stars of Greymoor aren’t exactly the Nords themselves, but rather a cult of Vampires that seeks to enslave all of Tamriel. You'll encounter popular character such as the Half-Giant, Half-Nord Lyris Titanborn, but the main story seems centered around this cult of Vampires and their Vampire Lord leader. The Gothic-esque buildings of these Vampires stands in complete contrast to the Nords themselves, something I found completely interesting as I explored on the Greymoor preview server that ZOS gave us access to.
Bring On The Vampires
Skyrim’s feel and look are so well established that it was going to be hard for the ZeniMax team to create something that felt unique to their game - something that is important to ensure that while players might be familiar with the landscape and setting, there would still be something wholly unique to ESO. Enter: Vampires - an entity not foreign to TES: V, but something the team behind ESO could expand upon and make their own in Greymoor.
“The main influence behind the vampires and the dark Gothic feel is that in TES: V there was a vampire influence,” Rich told me in our interview. “So we definitely wanted to leverage that. But when going in and trying to forge our own path and tell our own stories, when we’re looking at Skyrim and how well established it is, there’s not a lot of creative freedom to kind of change the world. The Nords have been hunkered down in Skyrim for a very long time. They are one of the ancient races so not a lot has changed in Western Skyrim over the years.
“So even though we’re 1000 years in the past, we figured that the general overland area is going to look the same, and a lot of the major structures are going to look the same. So how or what could we do, or where could we go to do something a little bit new and different? And that was when we decided to go down into Blackreach. And then as we started going into Blackreach and exploring what could be down there, and how those stories could be told. We were like, Vampires [are] a really cool way to do this. And then that just kind of snowballed from there. What does the architecture look like? What could be down there? What does Greymoor Keep mean and how does all that kind of work together? And that’s where we really started to nail the dark, Gothic feel and the tones of the overall chapter.”
Greymoor Keep inside of Blackreach is impressive - in fact, traveling inside Blackreach made me feel like I was in an entirely new world. And it’s not the first time I’d been in the caverns below the land of the Nords - Blackreach was in The Elder Scrolls V - but the extent it will play a role in Greymoor surpasses all previous iterations. Blackreach will make up forty percent of the total play area of the chapter.
Venturing into Blackreach during my play session, I found running around the underground caverns fun. And while we really only had a condensed version of Blackreach to hang about and quest within during our preview, seeing the Dwemer architecture all over the place, as well as the looming Greymoor Keep the instant you make it down there have me excited to check it out in full when Greymoor launches.
Vampires get a lot of love in this update as well, with a major overhaul of the skill tree for those who play as the undead in game. A new ultimate, Blood Scion, transforms your character into a hulking, almost Vampire Lord-esque being(though, Rich is quick to point out you’re not the Vampire Lord we all know and love, but rather a different strain of Vampire) for a short period of time, giving you some pretty incredible powers, such as healing you for a percentage of the damage you deal while transformed and more.
Additionally, other skills such as Mist Form (and the seemingly OP Blood Mist upgrade) carry over, along with the Undeath passive from the basic skill tree present in ESO right now. The new skill tree was cool, but it’ll take a bit more time playing around with it to know how much it changes playing a Vampire in ESO. Some things might change as Rich pointed out to us during a conference call earlier in the week that many of the numbers and ability stats were subject to change as his team was still balancing the experience.
"Indiana Jones Meets Tamriel"
Unlike Elsweyr, however, Greymoor won’t be introducing a new class to The Elder Scrolls Online. Instead, one of the major draws of this chapter will be the new Antiquities system. Essentially, this is another way to play ESO, giving those who simply like to explore the world more reason to do so. As Rich puts it, this is “Indiana Jones in Tamriel.”
Players will need to join the Antiquarian Circle in Solitude to gain access to the Scrying and Excavating skill lines in order to find Antiquities. These Antiquities can be anything, from a crafting motif to a new siege engine PVPers can use in Cyrodiil. However, finding the Antiquities themselves can be….interesting.
You’ll need to find leads, which can drop from anything such as a monster, a quest reward, a treasure chest and so on. When you have a lead, you’ll need to Scry the lead in your quest journal. This brings up the Antiquarian’s Eye - a mini game that feels a bit like a more complicated version of Bejeweled.
To be honest, the first and only lead I had was an Ultimate difficulty lead in Western Skyrim, and it was frustrating. Essentially you’ll need to match rows of similar shapes to unlock the different clues in the scrying game. You have a set amount of turns to do this in, however. I went to Bangkorai as well to try this as Rich mentioned we would find some leads there, and I was met with easier puzzles.
You have a few skills at your disposal as well, such as a large area bomb which changes the shapes to all the same ones to more easily unlock a large swath of the puzzle. Once you complete the puzzle, or run out of turns, depending on the amount of clues you unlocked will depend on the accuracy of your discovering the resting place of the Antiquity you’re looking for.
On your map it’ll show you a relative area to go to in order to excavate, which that minigame was a bit easier to understand at first glance. You can use the Eye to ping a location to see how “hot or cold” you are to your treasure, and your various tools allow you to dig large chunks of the excavation site, or simply move away a layer of dirt in order to dig out your prize. Some excavation puzzles will have bonus items hidden as well, sweetening your prize.
The idea for Antiquities is to give those fans who simply love exploring Tamriel another way to benefit from their exploration. And the team wanted to give those players who love exploring, love the lore of Tamriel another way to experience that.
“When we were initially coming up with the concepts,” Rich tells me about the Antiquities system, “[one of the] directives we were really focused on was how do we introduce a new way to play Elder Scrolls Online? How do we give you a different kind of activity that’s not just more of the same - not just questing and killing; we have a lot of that in the game. [And] it’s good and it’s great. But is there another system, another type of thing that we could put in the game that players could do that also ties into and feels very much like an Elder Scrolls thing?
“And so when we were coming up with ideas we started to really hone in on the exploration and lore side of things, because that is something that our players tell us all the time they love about the game. They love the lore, they love the exploration, they love the freedom of being able to go anywhere and do anything. And we iterated a bunch of ideas and then settled in on the mini game aspect of it. And kind of what that whole system came together when we started throwing out ideas like, ‘What would Indiana Jones in Tamriel be like?’ And that’s when we started really coming up with what we have now.”
After about an hour checking out the Antiquities system - which is still very much a work in progress admittedly - I’m not sure it’s the type of gameplay for me. I like exploring and I love the lore, but I’m having a hard time figuring out how this system would be a valuable use of my time in game. However, that’s me - I’m sure this will appeal to many, many players out there, especially those who seek out every nook and cranny of the game world, eager to soak in every aspect of Tamriel.
All in all, my time in The Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor was interesting. It was a nostalgia-fueled experience that made me instantly want to go dive right back into my TES: V save when I was finished with my play sessions. Seeing the great arch of Solitude span across the Karth River in ESO is something I’ve been looking forward to since the MMORPG launched a little under six years ago. I’m definitely looking forward to learning more about the Vampires and the struggle of the Nords in Greymoor when it launches this May.