It’s that time of year again, fans of The Elder Scrolls Online! The new yearlong story is about to kick off with the first quarter dungeon update. This year, the plot centers around the dwelling place of the daedric princes: Oblivion. The first DLC, titled Flames of Ambition, includes two new dungeons and launches alongside update 29, which is headlined by the first major progression rework since the inception of champion points in 2015.Black Drake Villa and The Cauldron will contain hints of the larger tale to come. In fact, lead dungeon designer Mike Finnigan believes that story and discovery are two of the distinguishing characteristics of these particular dungeons.
“In Black Drake Villa, we hit new highs with discovery so players will need to really dig deep to find what’s hidden,” he told me during my press preview of the DLC. “As for the Cauldron, the focus on the story I think takes center stage. Drathas is not a bystander who waits helplessly for you to beat the enemies, and Lyranth… well, one of the boss encounters is freeing her using her own magic as a catalyst. Being able to incorporate the NPCs into the dungeon so fully makes for a great story experience.”
Indeed, the incorporation of NPCs from the coming chapter is something that ZeniMax did with success last year and the tradition continues. Two popular characters (Eveli Sharp-Arrow and Lyranth the dremora) return to accompany and assist players through the new content. On my tour of The Cauldron, Lyranth was in, out, and even in need of rescue at one point. I found this rescue encounter to be the most interesting part of the dungeon, as the mechanics used to free Lyranth from her snow globe of discontent (that’s what I’m calling it!) are brand-new to The Elder Scrolls Online. I’ll refrain from any spoilers, but suffice it to say, it could take a few tries to figure out the secret to freeing our dremora friend.
Being that this chapter involves big bad Mehrunes Dagon, The Cauldron features a lot of fiery, lava-filled underground caves, an aesthetic that ZOS has always done very well. My favorite early-level zones from the base game are the Ebonheart Pact areas due to the fantastic lava rivers in Stonefalls. The new dungeon takes these visuals to the next level as ZOS tries to continually one-up itself in world-building and ambiance. The inhabitants of this lair are likewise bathed in flame and are led by the big boss that Finnigan describes as “metal AF,” Baron Zaudrus. I mention Zaudrus only because he is a striking boss with the most wicked-looking helmet in the game. He’s the closest thing ESO has to an ’80s metal stadium rocker. Irritate him enough and his tattoos will glow with rage!
Longtime readers of the column might recall that I wrote an entry a few years back speculating on the replacement of champion points as a progression system in ESO. As it turns out, ZeniMax has decided to replace champion points with (drum roll) champion points! In fairness, I did predict that reworking the existing CP system seemed the most likely outcome considering how interwoven they are into the game. Plus, there are a lot of positives about the system, and I’m sure the devs didn’t want to toss those babies out with the bathwater.
In some ways, the CP system has been simplified. The current system amasses passive buffs within nine different constellations, divided between three major categories: the Warrior, the Thief, and the Mage. The new system has pared down the number of constellations to three, Warfare, Fitness, and Craft. Not only is this a more manageable number to keep track of, but the names are much more intuitive. If I want to look for an offensive skill, it’s in warfare. Defensive buffs and resistances are found in fitness. Crafting and other miscellaneous perks are found in the craft constellation.
Upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that while the number of constellations is more manageable, additional tweaks have introduced a bit of complexity necessary for an endgame progression system. Some stars in the constellation glow more brightly than others – or with a different hue. In some cases, the star can be clicked on to expand a nested constellation beneath. In others, the star can be slotted as an active ability. And each of the three major constellations wields four active ability slots. Be careful, though: Active ability stars must be slotted to be active, meaning that you can choose only four active stars per constellation. Also, it is possible to spend points in an active ability star and forget to slot it, meaning that those champion points are wasted on an inactive ability.
As for my own impressions, Flames of Ambition seems to be another solid ESO DLC. The world-building team seems to one-up its own visuals with every installment. The inclusion of NPC helpers in dungeons pairs well with the announcement that landscape companions will be included with the Blackwood chapter later in the year. The new boss mechanics aren’t earth-shattering, but they’re different enough to give players pause, at least for a few minutes. I continue to enjoy how ZeniMax has been able to tie even dungeon updates into the overall storyline.
At the end of the day, though, the long-lasting impact of this patch cycle will be felt through the CP changes that are part of Update 29. The inclusion of active CP skills is a welcome addition and gives players a sense of choice during end-game progression. For the first time in two years, ESO is raising the cap on champion points (to a whopping 3600, up from 810) so longtime players will again be rewarded with progression. I’m still trying to wrap my head around how the new CP system solves the power creep problem, but at the very least a complete rework of CP skills and point distribution may delay it until a very high amount of CP is accumulated. I’m looking forward to giving it a try.
Flames of Ambition releases on March 8th for PC and Mac and March 16th for Xbox, PlayStation, and Stadia.