MMOs are daunting, particularly well-established, long running ones absolutely bursting with content, like Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls Online.
It can be a little overwhelming for new players when they’re looking at a base game and several massive expansions to catch up on all while new content is still being marched out. Fortunately, if you’ve been on the fence about getting in to one of the biggest names in massively multiplayer online RPGs, the newest expansion, Blackwood, might be the clincher that draws you in, because it’s got something for old and new players alike.
The Elder Scrolls Online‘s latest expansion (or chapter) takes place in, you guessed it, Blackwood, a region that sits between the Argonian homeland, Black Marsh, and the Imperials’ Cyrodil, which might already have you guessing something. Yes, that’s right, Bethesda is going all the way back to the fourth installment in the Elder Scrolls series, Oblivion, with a capital city to match. Since we’re going back to Layawiin, everyone, and you’d better brace yourselves… there’s a lot to cover here.
It’s sure to garner some heavy nostalgia, and that seems to be the point. In a preview event, The Elder Scrolls Online Creative Director Rich Lambert (who worked as a tech producer on Oblivion) explained that he wants players, old and new, to feel comfortable, to feel at home in familiar territory. This is enhanced by the fact that players don’t need to have experienced every other story in The Elder Scrolls Online to enjoy Blackwood. They can start their journeys there without feeling lost, and go at it however they choose.
Said main story is set 800 years before the end of Oblivion, pitting you against the forces of the terrible Daedric Prince, Mehrunes Dagon, uncovering a dark plot threatening to plunge all of Tamerial into chaos. New players can look forward to discovering the lore of Oblivion with fresh eyes, and Lambert said in an interview that older fans will appreciate how this new chapter expands on what they’ve seen before, particularly how the story builds on Mehrunes Dagon himself. And, naturally, alongside the main story will be plenty of side-quests for adventurers to enjoy.
Let’s go looting
There’s a lot more added with this chapter on the more… MMO-y side of things. Firstly, there’s a little town called Rockgrove that Mehrunes Dagons’ band of misfits (worshipers) have taken over. They’re trying to open up a big ol’ portal to Oblivion, which any TES veteran will tell you is bad news. You and 11 friends have to put a stop to them, by completing a raid/dungeon/trial chock full of baddies, bosses, and booty to bag. Lambert says he was really impressed with how his team managed to get this up and running in ‘s engine, which isn’t as young as it used to be. So it’s definitely worth a go if only to applaud the team behind it.
There’s also a new kind of world event in the form of little Oblivion gates. Not quite like the ones in Oblivion but a sort of preview of them. These gates take players to pockets of a region of Oblivion, the Deadlands. They’re dungeon-esque, and will have adventurers plodding on towards a boss at the end of the zone, thwarting smaller enemies on the way, for some shiny new loot.
There’s a lot more added in this chapter that isn’t just Oblivion related, in terms of quality of life and performance updates. For example, improved combat performance, some chat updates, and an “Action Duration” prompt, which helps players keep their abilities up without them having to constantly look out it themselves.
There’s also neat upgrade to the gear system. In The Elder Scrolls Online, you get bonuses for wearing multiple pieces of gear from a single “set”. Sets can be found in either Perfected or Non-perfected versions, Perfected being the superior version in terms of stats. Currently, if you choose to mix and match Perfected and Non-perfected pieces of gear from the same set, you lose the set bonuses you would gain by having 5 pieces from one of the sets equipped, which can be a little hamstringing in terms of builds. The Blackwood update changes this so that Perfected and Non-perfected sets work together now. A nice change for players wanting to really hone their builds.
Console players can also look forward to a free upgrade to the console-enhanced version of The Elder Scrolls Online for the newest Xbox and PlayStation consoles if they bought it on the previous consoles. The console-enhanced update brings the game’s visuals into the next-gen with a bunch of graphical updates, and also lets players play the game in Performance mode (1440p at 60fps) or Fidelity mode (4k at 30fps). The update also significantly lowers load times.
Companionship is key
This is a big one. Companions are coming to The Elder Scrolls Online, something fans have been dreaming about since the game’s release. Again, this both takes old players back to adventuring around with the likes of Lydia in Skyrim, and creates a more single-player friendly experience for newcomers. Blackwood introduces two companions, Bastion and Mirri. Both have their own personalities, preferences, likes and dislikes, and you’ll need to pay attention to those things if you want to make use of the Rapport meter.
The Rapport meter effectively shows you how much your companions like you. You raise it by doing things they like, and lower it by doing things thy don’t like, which influences the way they talk to you. “If they don’t like you, they’re going to let you know,” said Lambert as he explained the system. If you level up your Rapport enough you can unlock companion specific quests too.
Mechanics-wise, Companions have a few things going on. They get their own gear (though not their own inventory, so you have to lug their stuff around for them) and skills. You can’t activate their skills from a hotbar of your own. Companion skills work on a priority and cool-down system that you’ll need to tinker with to your liking to make them useful to you. Lambert makes it clear that they’re not a cure-all replacement for real players, more like stand-ins. Meaning they’re not going to be as useful in dungeons as real, thinking humans.
That said, they’re great for players who don’t want to go it alone on their first playthrough, and also make it so that a team of two humans can tackle a four-player challenge as long as they’re accompanied by their companions. It’s great addition to the game, and putting them in was no easy task. Lambert explained to me that it was a “huge effort” and a huge “design challenge”, getting the companions and all their new UI, AI, and mechanical systems to fit in to the game. Hats off to Rich and his team for pulling it off.
The Elder Scrolls Online isn’t done yet
There’s a wealth of content in this update, made even more impressive by the challenges Rich and his team faced doing all the work while the pandemic raged on outside.
“It’s definitely been hard,” Lambert told me in an interview. While he thinks his team has definitely adjusted to the changes in their work lives, it’s been harder for them to come create without face to face interaction, without “ad-hoc dev kind of water cooler discussions that are so vital to creating content and solving problems. I don’t think we really realised how important those were until we couldn’t do them as effectively. I couldn’t, for instance, walk down the hallway, walk past somebody’s desk, see something and then go and ask them a question about it right there and there.” But the team has “definitely found better ways to work around that and [they’re] trucking along.”
Lambert doesn’t see his team running out of steam anytime soon either. The Elder Scrolls is brimming with stories still to be told, and with the new updates focusing on the ever-changing realm of Oblivion, the possibilities are almost limitless. Blackwood is a massive update, full of draws for both returning and new players, and there’s plenty more on the way too.
- The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood arrives June 8 for Xbox and Playstation consoles, and June 1 for PC and Stadia.