Review – The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is the only Elder Scrolls game I’ve never played. I’ve always meant to, though. It’s been downloaded on my Xbox One forever, and even been transferred over to my Series X! I’ve just never gotten around to it. So I had no nostalgia going into The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood, the Chapter entry for this year’s Gates of Oblivion storyline. This is my first time exploring Blackwood and my first time entering the Deadlands. Oblivion Portals held little meaning for me, and Mehrunes Dagon was known but not intimately. Unlike last year’s Greymoor however, it’s not an issue. Nostalgia was a major (and successful) selling point for Greymoor, but Blackwood stands tall on its own merits.

To begin, understand that The Elder Scrolls Online is my favorite current MMO. This would have been unlikely to change, regardless of Blackwood’s quality. The foundation that’s been built, the sheer amount of content, and the incredible character customization is just what I want. It’s hard to believe how the game launched when you see what it’s become. It’s not perfect for sure, but it does much better than other MMO’s that are also very much not perfect. The balance of a ton of viable world content, well designed dedicated small to large group content, and stuff that bridges the gap is without peer. And Blackwood improves and adds on to all of this, while not really showing its weaknesses.

Blackwood

Clearly nothing suspicious going on here.

There’s three main parts to The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood. First there’s the Chapter proper with the new area, quests, and all associated content. Then there’s the player side stuff, in this case the Companions system, the new tutorial, and technically the Champion Point overhaul. Finally, there’s the free update launching alongside all of this. Headlining this time was the Next-Gen update and the Endeavors system. It’s a lot of stuff and honestly, all I have to say is good things about all of it. I just can’t stress enough how fantastic Blackwood is, and what it does for the game. Hard to believe I was initially skeptical of it too. 

Core content fist. One thing to make clear is that while Oblivion is in the name, and Mehrunes Dagon the primary antagonist, this takes place on Tamriel. Specifically in the Blackwood region of Cyrodil. You do get a peek at the Deadlands throughout the Chapter, but we won’t get to properly explore it until this fall’s DLC. Which is a shame, but honestly far less of a drag than I thought. Blackwood is simply a very interesting area to explore. Located at the border between Cyrodil and Black Marsh, it’s a great example of cultures clashing. There’s Argonian ruins, Imperial ruins, and towns showing off the architecture (and natives) of both. Most intriguingly are the places where these two cultures collided, places with a touch of both in them. As a history nerd, I just loved this approach to designing the area.

It’s very classical fantasy, but it’s a classic for a reason.

How about the gameplay and story though? Without getting too much into spoilers, it’s basically a conspiracy story. While Greymoor was all vampires and werewolves, and Elsweyr had its dragons, Blackwood is all about daedra, cults, and secrets. The Longhouse Emperors made a secret pact with the lord of the Deadlands himself. Mehrunes Dagon, the best guy to  make a secret pacts with. And as you can expect, it wasn’t ultimately in Tamriel’s best interest. Your quest through Blackwood revolves around learning the truth behind all this while attempting to thwart Dagon’s plans. It’s a fun story and I can’t wait to see where it goes. Honestly, probably my favorite Chapter since Morrowind. Which will never be beaten because Morrowind.

As is standard for Chapters, Blackwood comes with a brand new World Event. Again probably the best one ever too, and so fantastically themed. They’re called Oblivion Portals, and are as described by the developers direct precursors to Oblivion Gates. Essentially, like previous World Events, they will periodically pop up all over the map. Once one appears, you can then pass through it into the Deadlands itself. Functionally, it’s a large public dungeon made up of islands, with each Portal taking you to a random one. And while the area itself is static, your trip across it is not. You’ll trek through area after area at random, until you arrive at the boss. Overall they were a tad lengthier than previous world events, but the experience was much richer. Killing dragons was cool. Invading Oblivion itself is just so much more thematically awesome.

Blackwood Deadlands

The Deadlands are just such a cool location, too bad we have to wait for DLC to properly explore it.

Now about the player stuff. While the new tutorial and Champion Point overhaul were hardly headline worthy, they’re still exciting. Both have also been a long time coming in my opinion. The new tutorial is especially welcome, as it truly allows you to play the character you want where you want. You can use it to take your character directly to any of story starting points available. No more being locked to the current Chapter. The Champion Point overhaul isn’t as big as that, given it’s an endgame mechanic. But it’s still important, and did a lot for improving endgame builds as well as simply being less of a drag to engage with. But the big thing here is the Companions system. And oh boy is it fantastic.

What’s an RPG without the trusty companions who journey with you? Normally everything, especially in an Elder Scrolls game. Not usually in MMO’s though, with other players filling that slot. Not any more in Elder Scrolls Online however, as Blackwood adds a proper Companions system. They’re not just emotionless NPCs either, but fully realized characters with a variety of mechanics to engage with. There’s two at launch, Bastion the Imperial Male, and Mirri the Dark Elf female. Each one comes with Character questlines, a place in the story, and a unique like/dislike system called Rapport. As you do things your Companion likes, Rapport increases. The reverse is also true however, so it’s important to learn about your Companion. They level up, learn new skills, and are equipped just like proper players so they have a lot of flexibility in their own builds. Which increases your build customization too.

Blackwood Companions

Companions are the biggest new edition since One Tamriel launched, no contest.

Closing things out is the free update. Headlining here was the Next-Gen update, which is obviously big for those who managed to get next gen consoles. I am one, and am definitely impressed with how ESO looks and performs on the new consoles. For everyone else though, its Endeavors that steal the show. For a long while now ESO has had a loot box system called Crown Crates. It’s kind of annoying, but mostly avoidable. Now though, you can acquire Crown Crate items with in-game currency. No randomness, no more premium only cosmetics/houses/etc, it’s an honest to god consumer friendly only feature addition. While I’m sure it won’t exactly placate Crown Crate haters (I am one, and am not totally placated), but it’s one helluva big move on Zenimax’s part. More moves like this please.

If you haven’t noticed, I’m a huge fan of The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood. It’s just altogether a perfect example of why I love this game. The world, the lore, the new mechanics, Oblivion Portals, it’s just all so well done. And this is built on top of everything Elder Scrolls Online has already done, and molded around One Tamriel. I admit I was initially unhappy with the lack of a new class, or skill line, or even a rework of existing ones. But the Companions system is so much more than something so simple, it’s a brand new feature to engage with. And it’s going to be expanded too, with new Companions from different parts of the world coming. Hopefully, it’s at the same quality as Blackwood, which just sets the bar going forward.

Graphics: 9.0

The new areas are absolutely spectacular and I love the glimpses we get of the infamous Deadlands.

Gameplay: 9.0

Mechanically, Blackwood is a slam dunk. Love the Oblivion Portals, Companions are everything you hoped for, and Blackwood itself is so fun to explore.

Sound: 9.0

ESO’s sound team continues to impress, as the soundtrack is again phenomenal while the voice work top of the line.

Fun Factor: 9.0

Elder Scrolls Online remains my favorite MMO, and Blackwood exemplifies why. Great story, fun characters, and what a fantastic area to explore.

Final Verdict: 9.0

The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood is available now on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X, and Stadia.

Reviewed on PC.

A copy of The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood was provided by the publisher.