Tamriel Infinium: Previewing The Elder Scrolls Online’s Blackwood and companion system

    
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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.

While the hype of the yearly theme centers around Oblivion, much of the chapter itself does take place in the Blackwood region (Topal Bay) of Tamriel, according to creative director 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.

Traverse the troubled land of Tamriel in the Elder Scrolls Online! Larry Everett and Ben Griggs will be your guides here in Tamriel Infinium on Wednesdays as we explore together the world created by ZeniMax and Bethesda in one of the biggest MMOs in the genre. Larry and Ben welcome questions and topic ideas!
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For new players that change to the tutorial will be a huge boon. The couple of times I’ve tried to introduce new players to the game it takes so much hand-holding to be sure they start the main base campaign first and not something else.

Overall I’m VERY excited for companions. Let’s face it, ES6 is still a LOOOOONG ways off, so this will help ESO fill that gap even better before ES6 finally FINALLY arrives.

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Castagere Shaikura

The game world is massive and can be overwhelming for some. I have all the chapters and still find places I never been to in the base game areas. I always have stuff to do in ESO. And I play it like a single-player TES game.

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maydrock .

I never did much with the single player games, so I assume these companions take on a trinity role? Tank, melee or ranged dps, healer. Anything like a bard or other utility class?

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Holden Nagata

so far its dragonknight human and nightblade dunmer, can be set up as any role with utility

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NeoWolf

” 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”.

I like this, it is simplistically brilliant and user-friendly.

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Karma_Mule

Me too! What a great way to add some strategy and additional skills but still be controller-friendly for all the console players.

Swifty
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Swifty

I’m playing ESO while I wait for New World beta. Then it’s bye-bye Tamriel.

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Dug From The Earth

I honestly dont think New World will have the story, lore, or content to really keep many players for long. The world is great looking, but the redundant gameplay of most of the quests and content may get old super fast.

ESO still has so much actual content I havent played through yet, even from the base game. Ill always have something to come back to after short lived newer games.

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Castagere Shaikura

The only thing good about New World is the graphics and that seems enough for some people.

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Dug From The Earth

I find myself playing ESO 90% solo. There is just so much quest and story content to do, and being able to play it semi like the single player ES games have been a fun experience.

Having an NPC to tag along, as long as they dont get in the way of me clicking things, is more than welcome.

Jokerchyld
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Jokerchyld

I agree, this is the MMO I come back to the most. Also great benefit of “not missing out” when I take long breaks. When I come back if some new area is out, I just go there.

Its a great online RPG that I play alone (when I want to do story) or group up with other people (when I’m in the mood for dungeons), all while I collect things to continually progress my character.

NPC sounds fun, might be able to solo some older WBs now.

But did anyone else catch that last paragraph? Looks like they will be adding in skill timers so I know when to replace my DoTs? That would be awesome.

This game has gotten better and better since I joined in Beta waaaay back in 2013.

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Castagere Shaikura

This is how I play too.

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MrSaxon

Same here.

I actually have problems playing the single player version of the ES games now because, apart from teaming up with friends to run the odd dungeon, I play these as single player games where the world feels alive. I love seeing the weird randomness happening in towns, or meeting another adventurer for a short time on the road or in a mine and then, after our objective is done, going on our separate ways.

Karma_Mule
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Karma_Mule

It’s common to hear people say they want to be able to effectively play an MMO solo, and then inevitably some people say “But why do you want to play an MMO? Just play a single player RPG!”.

Your answer is exactly how I respond to that sort of question. The world can feel much more alive, and while we say we like to play solo, we’ll still do the occasional team-up when we meet someone friendly. We just don’t want to HAVE to group up with people if/when we don’t feel like it.