While fans of the Elder Scrolls series patiently await any scrap of information pertaining to TES6, players of The Elder Scrolls Online continue to enjoy vast and persistent amounts of content on a highly predictable schedule. Fresh on the heels of the Flames of Ambition dungeon update, ZeniMax Online Studios has begun to release a load of information about the next major chapter, Blackwood.Rich Lambert. It is situated on the chunk of land between southern Cyrodiil and northern Shadowfen, so players can expect to see some interplay between the Imperial and Argonian races. The landmass itself consists of three different biomes: forest, bog, and swamp (plus pockets of the Deadlands of Oblivion), a contrast from the snowy regions of last year’s Dark Heart of Skyrim. This shift is highly intentional according to Lambert.
“We try to make each year feel very different than the last thing we did,” he says. While the map of Tamriel has filled in with playable zones in the last eight years, Lambert isn’t worried about running out of places to play: “The beauty of the Elder Scrolls universe is that there’s a nearly infinite number of Oblivion realms!”
Besides the new zone and Elder Scrolls-related story content, the biggest change included in the chapter is the companion system. Companions are unlocked via specific Blackwood questlines, so a chapter purchase is required. While they have long been a part of the Elder Scrolls single-player games, this is the first time we’ve seen them within ESO, and they function quite a bit differently.
For one, they do not “carry your burdens,” as they have no separate inventory. I’m sure this was largely a business decision since one of the major selling points of the ESO Plus subscription is the infinite inventory crafting bag. Still, it would have been nice to have a small number of slots in which to store companion-specific items. This is a small nitpick, though. I was able to spend some time unlocking one of the companions, Miri, on an early Blackwood build, and came away very impressed with the system.
Once unlocked, companions can be summoned like a collectable. They are usable in all areas of the game except PvP and arenas, even dungeons and trials. Be aware, though, that companions do count as a player as far as the activity finder is concerned, so it may not be worth giving up a true player in that hard-mode veteran dungeon you’ve been trying to clear.
Companion power is largely determined by their level. They level from 1-50 using XP earned by the player while the companion is summoned. As the companions level, they unlock skills that can be placed on a companion-specific skill bar in order of priority. These skills use cooldowns in lieu of resources, so while one skill is on cooldown, the companion will move on to the next one, and continue down the line until a higher-priority skill is ready to be used again.
Along with companion-specific skills, they also use special companion gear that can drop for players while they are summoned. While companion gear does not come in sets, there are nine new traits that each boost the companion in some way. For the fashion-inclined, companions can also use outfit slots, costumes, and individually unique mounts.
Much like the single-player companions, ESO companions have a rapport with the player. Favorable and unfavorable player actions are specific to each companion depending on personality. Increased rapport with a companion will unlock new quest lines that reveal additional information about the companion and offer special rewards.
My trial of the companion system was quite satisfying. I’ve always enjoyed the pet sorc in ESO, and the companion is like an additional pet, but with extreme customizability and enjoyable interactions. Unlike the antiquities system last year, which I was initially looking forward to, the companion system feels both new and familiar. The antiquities minigames, for all of the interesting lore they provided, felt a bit jarring and out-of-place, even after several unearthings. Companions, on the other hand, feel intuitive and right-at-home with existing content.
As you can probably tell, the companions system caught my eye, but the update does include quite a bit more. Blackwood includes a 12-person trial, Rockgrove, which drops new gear sets and the possibility to earn a unique mount for completing all of the trial challenges. The story for the chapter revolves around the occultish daedric prince Mehrunes Dagon in an arc Rich Lambert describes as a ”deal with the devil.” Oblivion portals are the new overland dynamic events. Unlike the dynamic events of old, like dark anchors or geysers, these portals do not appear on the map, contributing to a more compelling, unpredictable feel. When encountered, portals transport players to a section of the Deadlands for a dungeon-like adventure. In the interest of catching up with old friends, many characters from previous storylines return, including Eveli Sharp Arrow, Lyranth the dremora, Alchemy, and Lady Laurent and Stibbons.
In addition to the chapter content, the update will also include many base-game improvements. These are the features that everybody who owns ESO receives, regardless of whether you’ve purchased the Blackwood chapter. The oft-neglected console playerbase has reason to celebrate, as ZeniMax has previously announced the Console Enhanced versions of the game for next-gen consoles. These versions of the game include many graphical improvements as well as nearly a 50% decrease in load times and is free for any player who owns the game on a current-gen console. Console enhanced versions allow the player to select one of two modes: performance or enhanced. As you could guess, there is a graphical fidelity/performance trade-off depending on which mode is chosen.
For all players, a new daily/weekly challenge system is being implemented. Completing endeavors rewards a new account-wide currency seals of endeavor. These seals can be used to purchase crown crate items, so finally players who have been eyeballing a crown crate item but are not a fan of gambling with crate purchases can use in-game currency to obtain that uber mount of uberness. While I’m glad that ESO is providing a way around the gamble boxes, I’m generally not a fan of the login compulsion created by daily challenge systems. Both can feed into an addictive personality, and I’d prefer to log in to play the game, not to keep some kind of rewards streak alive.
Lastly, a couple of minor changes continue to improve the game for all players. ZeniMax is adding a duration timer to skills that last for a specific period of time so players know when it’s time to re-invoke that kind of duration skill. Also, after completing the game tutorial, players will be allowed to choose which starting area they wish to experience. Fans of previous versions of the title screen music will be happy to learn that the ability to choose which music they prefer is also on the way.
The Elder Scrolls Online Blackwood chapter releases on all platforms in June of this year.