Hands-on Preview: The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood

For a good while now, The Elder Scrolls Online has been my go-to MMO. It does (almost) everything I’ve wanted an MMO to do for a long time. It ignores post-WoW MMO’s instance obsession for a focus on world content. Questing is treated as a core part of the game, not just as leveling fodder. Effort is put into making the world interesting and integral to the experience. Then there’s the freeform character customization that beats out every other big MMO hands down. Finally, it’s consistent with a quality release schedule like clockwork. The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood is the next big release for the game, and it looks like it’s another home run.

I’ll admit, at first I was a bit suspicious of The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood. It didn’t look like it was bringing nearly enough to the table compared to previous Chapters. Nor did I have any nostalgia for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, so it didn’t even have that going for it. The new zone and theme looked nice, but it seemed like it could do more. Then I attended an event last week where ESO Creative Director Rich Lambert properly laid out what’s coming both in Blackwood and Update 30. After a comprehensive look at what’s on display, I can say I’m now properly excited for both Blackwood and ESO‘s continued place as my favorite MMO. At least until New World gets here for some proper new blood.

Three main subjects were talked about and that’s how I’ll break it up here. There was the new zone and activities, the traditional meat of any new content. Then there was the new player system, Companions. Finally, there was Update 30 and the next-gen upgrades. All in all, there was a lot of exciting stuff talked about. Personally though, I’m VERY excited about some of the stuff coming in Update 30. There’s some legitimate game changers here, that will make the playerbase incredibly happy.

The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood Zone

Blackwood sure is a cheerful place…

The new zone is called (you guessed it) Blackwood. Comparable in size to previous Chapter’s single zone landmasses (Greymoor launched with two smaller then traditional zones), so it’s sure to be sizable. It’s described as a melting pot of Argonian and Imperial cultures, and is located right in between the Imperial City and Black Marsh. It mixes swamps, forests, and bogs (which are apparently different than swamps). The city of Legawin is the hub for the region, but there’s plenty of other cities spread throughout. It’s of both Argonian and Imperial design, so there’s sure to be some variety for sure. Keeping in mind this is set eight hundred years before TES IV, so while some of these locations will be familiar, they aren’t the places you remember.

The new activities are what you’d expect, but sound like they’ll be fun for sure. The new world event especially sounds interesting. They’re called Oblivion Portals and are not exactly Oblivion Gates. They were described as a prototype of that tech, a sort of test run. Basically, they spawn on the overworld as a portal to a public dungeon sized region of the Deadlands. The goal is to head in as a group, fight your way to a boss, and then beat it for loot and to escape back to Tamriel. Locations will be randomized and there’s apparently a large variety of Portals to explore. They sound a lot to me like WoW: Legion’s Invasion Points, which were incredibly fun and cool.

In addition to Oblivion Portals there’s the usual collection of content. A new set of Public Dungeons, Delves, Instanced Dungeons, and a new 12-Player Trial. At this point, Zenimax Online has hit a consistent quality level with their dungeon and dungeon adjacent style content. So I’m sure they’ll be fun, with some creative encounter design spread throughout everything. But the best part about ESO is that it doesn’t matter. Unlike other MMO’s (WoW…) the whole expansion doesn’t hinge on this content. So even if it’s average at best, there will still be plenty of other things to do. Variety: other MMO’s need to relearn what that word means.

Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood Companions

Two at first, but more sure to come.

The new player system is Companions. Up until the event, I thought they looked like the weakest part of the Chapter. When I think of new player systems, I think of new skill lines, classes, or comprehensive reworks that change the game. Sure there was just the new Champion system, which is great. But that doesn’t really provide any new toys to play with. And due to the sandboxy nature of this game, theorycrafting is a legitimate part of gameplay. I just didn’t see how Companions would fill this usual niche in any expansions content line-up. Cool, we get someone running around with us, how does that expand gameplay?

Turns out, it can quite a bit. Zenimax didn’t just provide a combat pet; Companions are a fully realized legitimate system. Only two will launch with The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood: an Imperial Male named Bastion and a Dark Elf Female named Mirri. Each one functions as a proper partner and can be used ANYWHERE in the game. The overworld, dungeons, even trials. They fill the position of a player, so now two players can run a dungeon using two Companions to complete the party. I love co-op content, so the idea of two-player dungeons is a huge plus for me. They’re also fully customizable cosmetic wise, and can use your outfits and mounts. So that cool outfit that’s not quite as cool as your preferred one now has a home!

Customization doesn’t just end at cosmetics though. They’re a proper system and have a full range of player level customization as well. Intended to be player adjacent, you build them to support you. You a tank that needs just a extra smidge of DPS? Spec your companion that way. Need a healer? Same thing. They level up from 1-20, and learn skill lines the same way as players. So equip them with a two-handed weapon, and they’ll learn those skills. They each have their own classes which are made up of a mix of player class skills combined. However, as they level up they’ll gain opportunities to learn new abilities further increasing their versatility.

That would have been enough for me, but Zenimax didn’t stop there. They aren’t just walking stat sticks, they have their own personalities. Think Bioware companions. They have likes, dislikes, and a friendship meter which tracks their opinion of you. They also have Companions specific quests which will unlock new skills, abilities, and allow you to learn more about them. Speaking of Companion specific content, they have their own gear totally separate from player stuff. This includes brand new affixes which alters core Companion traits, allowing you to further spec your Companion to suit your playstyle. All in all, if this system function half as well as they said, it will be the foundation of something great.

The hanging skeletons really complete the look of the place.

Finally there’s the usual free update which accompanies the paid content. Called Update 30 (I can’t believe we’re already at 30, I’ve been here since the beta…), it’s coming with lots of great things. The big one here is obviously the next-gen update. It brings it up to par with the higher settings of the PC version, with a significant boost to FPS, resolution, and most importantly loading times. Split between Performance mode and Fidelity mode on each console, the XSX and PS5 versions are on par. And while the XSS version is at a lower resolution, it retains the FPS and loading time gains. Which if you ask me, are the real important ones here.

There’s two other big ones here, which for me as a PC player, are what matter most. First of all is the new tutorial system. Finally, after all this time, the dream of One Tamriel will be realized. Instead of a rotating tutorial that changes for every single Chapter release, there will be one unified one. Plus at the end, it allows you to decide which story you’ll start. You can choose any one of the original starting zones from the base game, or from any Chapter released after. Before this, you had to fight to arrive in the starting zone of your choice and really broke immersion. Now, you can start wherever you want. A long time coming, and it’s a huge boon for the new player experience.

Finally, the big one. Alongside Update 30 will be the launch of a new quest system called Endeavors. They’re an account wide Daily/Weekly quest system, with a variety of possible objectives. The reward for completing them is a brand new currency called Seals of Endeavor. What’s this currency for you ask? BUYING THINGS DIRECTLY FROM CROWN CRATES. No more randomness. No more premium only content. Anything in a crown crate can now be directly and specifically bought using a acquired through gameplay only currency. While prices are still being decided on, and I doubt they’ll be the most player friendly, this is a huge step for the game. As it is now, Crown Crates are the biggest issue I have with the game. This is quite a the elegant solution to deal with them.

Everything in the Gates of Oblivion story begins and ends with Mehrunes Dagon.

I’m very very excited for what The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood and Update 30 are bringing to the game. The new content is looking fun and great, the new player system sounds like a literal game changer, and a solution to the crown crates problem is a long time coming. Whether or not everything ends up being as described is of course the question. Still, at this point I believe that Zenimax Online has earned a little bit of goodwill. Ever since the game’s original dismal launch, it’s only been getting better. There have been setbacks, sure, but all in all they’re proven they want what’s best for the game. Plus given the less then stellar state of the MMO genre, I’m willing to put my faith in their vision. 

The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood will be available June 1st for PC/Stadia and June 8th for both current and next-gen Xbox and PlayStation consoles.