The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood sets an interesting tone for the remainder of the Gates of Oblivion storyline. It’s a definite return to form after last year's Greymoor chapter, with a stable release that, while still had some issues, felt as though ZeniMax had recovered from the rough three weeks last year’s chapter launched with. Blackwood’s setting is clearly targeting nostalgia, especially for those who have invested time in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and while that can be a powerful force, especially thanks to the longevity of the franchise, for me it felt like a double-edged sword. With longevity came predictability, to the detriment of the Chapter’s climactic moments.
However, don’t mistake me: Blackwood is a good chapter and worthy of your time. The story itself, centered around a cult loyal to the God of Destruction Mehrunes Dagon, is an enjoyable, if not predictable romp, through Blackwood’s major regions and cities, as well as the occasional jaunt into Oblivion itself. Visually, the team at ZeniMax has always done a stellar job at recreating iconic areas from the series’ past but giving their own visual and stylistic flair to them. The Deadlands and Leyawiin, the tent-pole settlement in the Blackwood region, feel very much like I remember them from my days rolling through ESIV in years past, with the occasional change to the name of an establishment and such. The ruined fort of Gideon, last seen in The Elder Scrolls II: Arena is my favorite place in this Chapter, however, as you truly see what the Blackwood region has to offer: a melting pot of Imperial and Argonian cultures built upon the ruins and legacy of those that came even before them.
The region of Blackwood itself is a striking mix of lowland grasslands giving way to the bogs and marshes of the Argonian homelands. Willow trees hang over waterways, mud mixes with grass at every turn. Visually it feels more unique than anything I’ve seen in ESO since the Morrowind expansion, and keep in mind that was a recreation of Vvardenfell from another Scrolls title. I enjoyed running around the landscape, happening upon an Alyeid ruin one moment and a crumbling Imperial building the next. The closer you get to Black Marsh, the more the Argonian influence takes over, such as the towering Ziggurat-esque temple of Ojel-Bak. It makes for one of the few zones I’ve wanted to explore fully - something that really isn’t my normal playstyle in any MMO for that matter.
However, I can’t help but shake this feeling that The Elder Scrolls Online has fallen into a comfort-fueled rut when it comes to its formula. Every Chapter expansion has effectively had you “saving the world” from some calamity juxtaposed around all the other calamities the MMO throws at you when you reach a new region. The quest structure itself follows a similar storytelling pattern as well, with you meeting new compatriots, going to some of the major settlements, and then in the end having some final set piece battle pitched to save Tamriel from the big bad themselves. With recent Chapters too there isn’t the feeling of finality you might have with other MMO expansions, mainly because the story doesn’t end here, but rather with an upcoming story DLC later this year.
This made romping through the main questline a bit too predictable for my liking. Pretty much every twist or turn I was able to correctly guess well in advance, which pulled me a little bit outside of the spectacle. One event I was so sure it was going to happen I even found myself scrolling Twitter instead of watching it unfold on screen.
This isn’t to say, either, that the story isn’t well done or even that predictability makes it bad. Compared to Greymoor’s main storyline, and even Elswyer before it, Blackwood’s story is phenomenal. I just wish it would surprise me.
Questing With A Companion
The major draw of this expansion other than the story and nostalgia-fueled region is the inclusion of Companions. Companions act as an NPC you can kind of mold to fit the playstyle you want to complement yours. Want a tank to soak up damage for you? You got it. DPS? Go for it. The companions themselves can learn skill lines much like players - through using the equipment associated with it skill line.
What makes Companions interesting (on paper) is down to the Rapport system. Through your questing and your actions in Tamriel, your Companions will react to things you do in-game and either build or take away rapport. Actions such as picking up a torchbug for alchemy will turn Mirri, the Dark Elf Scholar, away whilst Bastian will build rapport if you run around grabbing Runestones for crafting. At first it can be tough to figure out the temperament of each of your Companion options, but once you figure it out you can tailor your gameplay to fit the rapport system of your traveling Companion.
That itself is a little weird, as Alchemist players for example are immediately at a disadvantage traveling with Mirri simply for engaging in the game as they always have done. If you’re an established member of the Thieves Guild, make sure Bastian isn’t around either, or you might find it hard to get him to come to your side in the future. It feels, in a sense, that the Companion system punishes you for your playstyle, though not overtly so. But it can be frustrating.
In a way, I found myself less inclined to care about my Companions mainly because they seemingly took no interest in the quests or stories we were doing together. For me this was a huge immersion breaker. Traveling to the Deadlands through an Oblivion portal for the first time should be something that wows even the most hardened adventurer. Yet neither Mirri or Bastian seemed to take notice. During quests, especially main quests, the Companions could have been mistaken for any other background NPC - there on the periphery yet not actively engaged in the struggle they would be laboring over in a moments time with me.
One reason for the Companions not really reacting or having distinct dialogue for the quests and stories in Blackwood could be the mantra set by ZeniMax last year after the launch of Greymoor: the plan to do less in order or make sure what is there is as solid and polished as it can be. And, for the vast majority of Blackwood that has paid off immensely. The story, while predictable, was well written. The world around me feels unique and interesting. However, in this sense it seems like not having your companion more of an active participant in dialogue or even react accordingly during climatic moments other than their usual quips feels like a miss.
I get too what a monumental task that might have been, and I would totally understand if this didn’t extend to the rest of ESO. However, for such a flagship feature, at least having it implemented for the Chapter itself would go a long way towards immersing me even more.
I think too, for me at least, I just don’t like the two companions themselves. I’m a blood thirsty vampire Necromancer. I run into combat with my sword held high, ready to cleave and drain the blood of foes around me. Neither Companion’s personality feels like it’s aligned with my playstyle.
All of this isn’t to say Companions themselves don’t serve a purpose here. I really enjoy the extra help in fights. Soloing bosses is easier now that Mirri is an accomplished healer. Knocking out Delves is much easier as well with one at my side (as well as everyone else running with the extra body too).
And while I might not have been a fan of the two Companions Blackwood launched with, the team at ZeniMax gives you opportunities to get to know them even more with individual story quests based on your rapport. It’s a nice touch and adds a bit more backstory and context to the character itself, even if you’re not completely taken with their personality. As a whole, it’s a nice addition if you want that extra power or help as a solo player, but it may not be something you want out at all times, depending on your other activities. My hope as well is that this is just the beginning, that more companions with different temperaments and personalities are coming, as well as future storytelling opportunities for those companions as well.
One of the major themes of this entire year of The Elder Scrolls Online has been venturing back into the realm of Oblivion. The Deadlands are a treat to explore, even if it’s not nearly as vast as last year’s Blackreach in Greymoor. They feel more like pockets of Oblivion, whether it’s in a story quest or just one of the portals found throughout the game world.
In the place of Dark Anchors and Harrowstorms, we see Oblivion portals, which takes you to a slice of the Deadlands and acts as the second of the two public dungeons on the map. You’ll fight through Dremora and other Daedra, explore the iconic towers you see dot the landscape in the distance, culminating in a boss fight at the end. They are fun, though I might have hoped for a bit more variation. While it’s a nice change of pace from the typical Dark Anchor replacement, and the fact that the portals aren’t always in the same spot leads to exploring more of Blackwood itself, I wish they were a bit more random in their layout.
That said, I’m really hoping this is a design choice the ZeniMax team sticks with in future Chapters. I appreciate the difference between this and the standard Dark Anchor formula that we’ve seen now for close to a decade. The variation, especially the fact that it takes place in a iconic slice of the game world, helps to keep them from being boring, even if they eventually start to feel routine.
The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood is a return to form for the ZeniMax Online Studios team, even if the formula is starting to feel a little bit too predictable. The setting is one of the more interesting since the Morrowind chapter, and venturing into Oblivion proper for this expansion gives the nostalgia kick I expect from ESO now.
While the story itself is interesting and well told, I did find myself rolling my eyes at the predictability of the major story beats. It’s a definite upgrade over last year’s Greymoor, however, and the characters and setting go a long way in selling it. I can’t wait to continue the story later this year.
Companions are an addition that might feel hit or miss with some fans, however. While the companion system is a nice value-add for those who need the extra help whilst getting through the more than 25 hours worth of content on offer, the personalities and lack of any real NPC interaction make them feel less like traveling companions and more like pets. While the characters themselves can grow as you unlock more of their story, it is a shame that they themselves don’t play heavily into the story itself you’re experiencing with them.
In the end, Blackwood improves where Greymoor stumbled. The setting is tighter and more focused than last time, and the performance at launch harkens back to prior launches during the Before Times. The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood is a good addition to the MMO’s expansion roster, and one that’ll be a definite draw for those who remember walking the streets of Cyrodiil fondly once upon a time.