As longtime Elder Scrolls Online players well know, ZeniMax is launching the first chunk of content for the Dark Heart of Skyrim today for PC and Mac (March 10th for consoles). This DLC, called Harrowstorm, kicks off the yearly content cycle and features two new dungeons: Icereach and Unhallowed Grave.ZeniMax creative director Rich Lambert, dungeon lead designer Mike Finnigan and lead gameplay designer Rob Garrett. They saw fit to escort me around Unhallowed Grave on a quest to help familiarize me with some of the things we can look forward to in Harrowstorm. Let’s dig in to the walkthrough and some burning questions we had for the team!
Before I get into the dungeon, it’s important to note some of the performance improvements that are planned for this release. As announced in the performance improvement plan last year, this update will require that all players completely re-download the entire game. While this should not require any extra action on the part of the player, it’s important to understand that a redownload could take several hours to complete, so plan your playtime accordingly. This redownload should result in up to 16GB of hard drive space recovered for PC/Mac users, and up to 30GB for consoles. Additional improvements are faster load screens and increased stability of frame rates.
Scoping out Unhallowed Grave
At some point in Tamrielic history, something was buried and locked away in the Unhallowed Grave. Out of an abundance of caution, members of the Pyre Watch were left at the location to make sure nothing came in or out of the cavern. As time went on, whatever was sealed within the cavern was forgotten about, yet the Pyre Watch carried on in their duties. Unfortunately, a band of Nord mercenaries (the Draugrkin) was able to breach the cavern, leaving the player and his/her group of adventurers to track down these invaders. What we do know is that the cavern contains the remains of an army called the Gray Host, which could potentially be of great use to the necromancer invaders because, you know, undead army and all.
This dungeon makes use of the grappling crossbow (introduced in the Dragonhold DLC from last year) for both traversal and boss fight mechanics. Traversal, secrets, and exploration were all things the team says it wanted to encourage with these dungeons. Rich Lambert noted that in Harrowstorm, ZOS has attempted to better connect the dungeon DLC and chapter/story releases through the use of recurring characters as well as story elements. As an example of this, the reliquaries present throughout the new Skyrim region (they look like huge urns) originate from the Unhallowed Grave cavern. According to Lambert, they play a “pretty major role” in the year-long Skyrim story.
The first boss we encounter is Hakgrym the Howler, flanked by two flesh abominations who appear to be bound by a magical chain and under his control. As Hakgrym is engaged by the group, he throws out banners that attack players from range, and throughout the course of the fight he will activate each flesh abomination in turn. If not destroyed fast enough, the flesh abominations will begin a large AOE attack for players to contend with as they are attempting to take down Hakgrym. When the boss fight is nearly completed, Hakgrym the Howler morphs into his massive werewolf form and gains half his health back. He will continue his banner attacks, and his melee becomes more powerful. Tank and spank your way through.
A new mechanic for this dungeon as a whole comes in the form of floor runes. These runes appear as glowing symbols on the floor of the dungeon that must be matched and activated elsewhere in the room, typically on a high ledge and accessible only via the grappling bow. Advancing through the dungeon requires activating the correct corresponding floor rune.
The second boss is the Keeper of the Kiln. This fight makes use of both the grapple bow and the floor rune mechanics. The room itself consists of multiple floor vents that spew fire over the course of the battle. This boss requires good communication between the tank and other members of the group because as the runes appear, one group member must grapple up to one of four points above the kiln and activate a symbol from above. Once that symbol is activated, the tank must pull the boss over to the corresponding floor rune in order to more easily burn through the Keeper’s damage shield. Besides the floor runes, the Keeler of the Kiln is a fairly straightforward boss with some adds the occasional vent fire.
Next come a few trash mobs and my favorite viewing vista in the entire dungeon (a canyon with a river and a beautiful sunset/rise behind the mountains). Take a deep breath and a screenshot.
Boss is the Eternal Aegis. This boss uses the same skin as other aegises that appear in the game – that is, like a terrifying armored spectre with multiple sets of arms, each holding a massive sword, a la the ghost of General Grievous. The Eternal Aegis will spawn adds in the form of Lesser Aegises that are summoned directly in front of each member of the group. The Lesser Aegises attack by using ghostly spinning swords in a 360-degree circle around them, but close inspection reveals a small attack zone next to the aegis inside the circle where the player must stand and resist the urge to kite away. Any ranged attack from outside the ring of blades will not damage the mob. Players continue to take damage while within the circle of blades, so healers, stay on your toes!
It might be worth mentioning that as you proceed through the trash mob areas of the dungeons, the resurrected skeletons are not human but werewolf skeletons. I’ve been assured that this is an important story element. We know that the Greymoor chapter this spring will center around vampires, but the heavy emphasis on werewolves in this dungeon makes me curious about how they will fit into the overall theme for the year.
The most interesting and possibly most technically challenging boss fight in the dungeon is brought to us courtesy of Ondagore the Mad. This fight takes place in a large, cavernous space with an island of ruin in the middle of the room and various grapple points located around the entire perimeter. Grappling to and from the island in the middle is required throughout the course of the fight, and it is possible to fall off the island into the void below.
Ondagore is a lich who pulls a deadly poison from the far reaches of the room into the center island as the fight ensues. Players cannot fight through the poison. Instead, they must grapple to the outside safe zone and kill any adds that have been summoned out there. Once the ghost adds are destroyed, the inner island once again becomes safe and the outside of the room fills with poison. So once again, group communication is key. If a group member stays too long in one of the poisoned areas, a rez will be required.
In addition to the creeping poison mechanic, Ondagore will use an explosion attack (Mike Finnigan called it “going spectral”) that requires players to take refuge behind ruined columns scattered throughout the island. Be aware that it is possible to die from not being completely hidden behind one of the columns. The player glows gold when he/she is properly hidden. Wraith adds must be destroyed in order for the explosion attacks to subside. This is the only boss fight that even the dev team had problems with on the PTS. We fought through multiple casualties.
Just past Ondagore Island lies a mysterious door that appears to be guarded by a magical ward. The door leads to Voria’s Sanctum and requires an achievement to unlock. I do not know what lies behind the mysterious door, nor would the dev team tell me. As the unlocking achievement does not specify how the achievement is actually earned, players must figure out how to unlock the achievement on their own. Again, this dungeon was designed with more than speed runs in mind. Exploration is encouraged!
The final boss of the dungeon is Kjalnar Tombskald. Between the player and Kjalnar lie two necromantic circles. Over the course of the fight, Tombskald raises skeletons that attempt to make their way into the necromantic circles to power up their abilities. The players would do well to make sure the skeletons don’t reach their destination. When Kjalnar reaches half health, he summons the largest bone colossus-type beast we’ve seen in the game. In fact, he’s so large that we only see him from the torso to the head as he perches himself on the ledge behind the battle and breathes his deathly breath down upon the group. It’s an extremely impressive visual to wrap up the Unhallowed Grave experience.
After the tour, I had a few miscellaneous questions for the dev team. One of my pet projects is trying to figure out what’s going to happen with the Champion Point system now that the cap has been paused. And while I didn’t get a specific answer to that question, I was excited to learn that ZOS plans to approach the combat updates (including the fate of CP’s) similarly to the way the team communicated the performance improvement plan. Rich Lambert had this to say:
“The ultimate goal is much the same as what we did with the performance improvement roadmap. Once we’re all on the same page and know exactly what we want to do and how it’s going to affect the game, then we’ll do a combat roadmap-type thing so that everybody knows what’s going on and what to expect.”
Rob Garrett added,
“The CP is not the only thing we’re looking at with combat. We’re evaluating a bunch of different things right now and there are dependencies with everything. Everything touches everything else. You can’t just change CP because it suddenly affects some other things. We’ve been working on a longer-term roadmap for combat changes. We’re getting closer to being able to share that but we want to be sure that we’ve carefully thought out everything and planned it and figured out how it fits into the schedule. So, we’re hoping to share that soon.”
In other words, stay tuned! We may be hearing more about the overall combat roadmap sooner than anticipated.