Returning to the marshes and swamps surrounding the idyllic city of Leyawiin feels like a portal to a completely different time period of The Elder Scrolls lore. The last time we saw this part of Tamriel was back in 2006, where it occupied the southeastern corner of Cyrodiil in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. For reference, that was several years before we even knew there was going to be a Fallout 3, so it’s safe to say that it’s been a little while. The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood knows exactly which heartstrings it’s pulling here, as its roughly 20 hours of content – minus the endgame raid stuff – is littered with gags and unmissable references to Oblivion that generally end up feeling more endearing rather than stale.
The setting may be unique, but Blackwood is still very much the same ESO that fans have grown used to. This expansion barely breaks away – at all, in fact – from the formulaic zone design that it’s established over the last several years since its Morrowind chapter in 2017. We get the same exact number of quests, locations, skyshards, world bosses, and a new trial – which is the bog-standard configuration of new things that we get in every single new expansion each year. The developer, Zenimax Online, is nothing if not consistent! But at least it’s safe to say that the writing is filled with more zingers relative to last year’s comparatively dry Greymoor expansion, the geography of Blackwood itself is more varied and interesting, and the addition of companions that level up alongside you and follow you on your journey make its inherent repetition ever so slightly more interesting.
To be precise: there are seven main quests, six delves, nine points of interest with quests attached to them, two public dungeons, six world bosses, 18 skyshards to find, and a brand-new trial called Rockgrove – basically ESO’s equivalent of a raid. That said, good luck getting through it without a full group of 12 players. If you’re not in a guild, it’s still tough to find anyone to group up and play through that one with – even a week after launch on PC – and you’ll definitely need backup.
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The world boss encounters are way more sophisticated and unique this time around. For example, the Sul-Xan Ritual Site faces you up against a group of Argonian priests who each share the same broader health bar. Meanwhile, The Shattered Xanmeer features one of the most fun and intense open world boss battles I’ve come across in ESO – where Oblivion portals open and close around you at all sides while a flurry of Daedra swarm over the battlefield. It’s great fun if your PC can keep up with the action.
But, as always, group content isn’t Blackwood’s main focus by a long shot, and the single-player main quest story actually carries some pretty great writing this year. The tale touches on some fascinating parts of Elder Scrolls lore while explaining how the Daedric Prince Mehrunes Dagon ultimately rose to power in Oblivion. You get to go back to the fiery Deadlands and rub elbows with its inhabitants, the terminally non-playable Dremora – and you even get to learn more about the mysterious powers associated with that realm, both mystical and political.
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Blackwood still ends up being pretty cheesy in its delivery. Voice acting is lacklustre – characters still sound muffled and heavily compressed, which may be to conserve storage space, given how massive ESO has become. Either way, the performances are inconsistent, sometimes played dryly and other times with too much enthusiasm. And character animations still evoke the Uncanny Valley to its highest extreme; one main character who we’re meant to sympathize with constantly looks like he’s just had a fresh Botox injection. That’s not new, of course – that’s just how Nord characters look in ESO, but this rehashing of low-quality animations and character models in every new expansion contributes greatly to the feeling that ESO isn’t keeping up with the times as much as other MMOs have.
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The side quests are hit or miss. Several stand out for interesting tidbits of lore they cast over parts of Tamriel’s constantly unraveling saga, but most of them are played for humor this year. That actually works in ESO’s favor given that, again, the acting is usually bad, and it’s an online game so you frequently have other players running around and getting in the way of your story. One standout quest has you directing several clones across an Argonian temple – called a xanmeer – in order to solve puzzles. Another great quest has you rescuing a profligious noble from the clutches of a Daedric cult, only to find out that he has other plans.
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The big gameplay feature added this year is your new Companions system. These two recruitable characters can be summoned at any time when you are playing alone, and you can take them anywhere you go. They even share levels between your different characters, as long as you go and do the quests to recruit them on your alternates. Both companions have their own unique skills and playstyles: Bastian Hallix is a Sorcerer by trade, but you can make him into a healer or a tank if you prefer. Meanwhile, Mirri Elendis is an assassin who can move through the shadows and suck the life force out of enemies like a Nightblade.
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As you do things in the world, they have their own commentary and can even lose or gain rapport based on your actions – when you lose too much, they might even become unavailable to you for a time. This is interesting in theory, but the limitations are pretty arbitrary – for example, picking up bugs always seems to upset Mirri but she has absolutely no problem with you stomping frogs. I’d have loved to see this system taken even further, and it’s a shame that they basically stop at the surface level of “characters react to you doing things sometimes” instead of going all-out, a la Dragon Age.
While characters look old and clunky, the world itself is a treat. Blackwood and its surrounding areas are gorgeous and pleasantly diverse, and Leyawiin may very well be the most visually interesting city that we’ve seen added to ESO since Summerset launched in 2018, boasting the garnished Chapel of Zenithar in the city centre and Castle Leyawiin to the east. The fiery red Deadlands contrast against the verdant green swamplands which surround the northwestern portion of the map, and both of those contrast against the sunken, blood-soaked marshes and half-built towers that cover its eastern half. There’s a lot to see here, and the deliberate detail that went into hand-crafting each part of the new zone is noticeable. Sunken ruins of various castles and Ayleid structures line the horizon in every direction. And there are plenty of Easter eggs too, such as the Adoring Admirer and the dancing dog at the White Stallion Inn.
Gideon is also a treat to visit. Despite the fact that it’s an old fortress town built atop a festering bog, it’s super cozy and filled with life. Different sections of the town feature bards and live entertainment, and the city itself is a melting pot; Khajiit, Argonians, and Imperials dot the streets and share their respective cultures, making Gideon feel even more unique and culturally important than Leyawiin to the west.