Tamriel Infinium: Companions are the star of Elder Scrolls Online’s Blackwood

    
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The Elder Scrolls Online continues to pump out content at an alarming rate, but the update that most players look forward to the most every year is the annual zone/story release. This year, ZeniMax has taken us on a nostalgia tour of Oblivion with the Blackwood chapter. I don’t know whether it’s because my expectations were tempered coming off the Skyrim-ish content from last year, but I was pleasantly surprised by what ESO had to offer with this update. From the stories within the zone itself to the incomparable companion system, this chapter feels incredibly tight and enjoyable.

First of all, I should clarify that my expectations were not lowered because Greymoor was a bad release. On the contrary, I enjoyed that chapter quite a bit. Rather, I assumed that Skyrim would be a very difficult zone to follow, and that whatever ZeniMax came up with would pale in comparison to the familiar towns and countryside we were introduced to in 2020. However, to my relief, the follow-up surpasses even the snowy regions of the Nords.

I’ll start with the most tedious and most contentious statement of this entire piece: As a guide for the chapter story, Eveli Sharp-Arrow is better than Lyris. Lyris is big and bad and awesome and holds an iconic status within the lore, sure. But Eveli is more whimsical and likable. She’s mischievous and a bit naïve but very competent. I loved every quest we shared together.

Possibly the most highly anticipated and best-implemented feature of the Blackwood chapter is the companion system. The single-player Elder Scrolls games have a long history of bringing the world to life through the stories of quest-givers and tag-along NPCs, so companions in ESO were long overdue. However, in previous franchise titles, the player had little control over the combat and abilities of their companions.

ESO changes all of that. With this system, companions level along with the player character and gain abilities that can be slotted into a bar. The companion bar works slightly differently in that abilities will automatically fire starting with the first slot, then the next while the first is on a cooldown, and so on until a higher-priority skill comes off cooldown, at which point the higher-priority skill will once again execute. Companions have some character-specific skills but can also unlock them for weapon and guild lines. Gear and weapons specific to companions now drops throughout the world and can be slotted in the companion character screen.

Companions are gained via specific quest lines included with the Blackwood chapter. There are currently two available, Mirri and some other guy. (Just kidding, Bastian! I know your name. Perhaps someday I’ll let you out of my collections bag.) The companions are account-bound, so they do not have to be unlocked for every character.

If none of the combat and customization for companions excites you, there is also a rapport system designed to create the feeling of forging a friendship, or even a contentious relationship, with the companion. Each companion has a “personality” that includes likes and dislikes of player actions. Certain actions will cause rapport to increase; others will cause it to decrease. As rapport increases, bonus quests can be unlocked that will reveal additional companion backstory. The trick is, the player does not know what actions will increase or decrease rapport and will have to play close attention to verbal clues from Mirri or Bastian if they desire to move the bar one way or the other.

I feel that I can’t move on from companions without comparing them to last year’s new system, antiquities. I was initially excited about the antiquities system. I thought the concept of hunting down lost items of lore would be a great distraction from the rest of the combat-heavy game. After a year of reflection, however, I find that the deficiencies in the execution of the system have become evident. The minigames for scrying/digging are still confusing at best (and annoying at worst) to me. I feel like I’m playing a mobile game that I didn’t even want to download.

The companion system, in contrast, fits very neatly into the current ESO gameplay that we’re already familiar with. It is vastly intuitive and interesting to outfit my companion with gear and skills. In fact, it integrates so well with the rest of the game that if you told me it was part of the vanilla launch, I’d believe you. The verbal quips offered by companions (my favorite so far is Mirri sarcastically proclaiming “I guess we’re in a fight now” when we attack a mob) remind me of the best parts of the old Marvel Heroes team-up system. Years down the road, I think we’ll still see players enjoying the companion system but largely ignoring antiquities.

Beyond the companionship, the story itself unfolds in such a way that I hardly gave in to the temptation to veer off into side quests. The breadcrumbs ensured I couldn’t wait to get to the next part of the storyline to find out who or what is lurking around the next corner.

We begin our journey to Leyawiin to warn former members of the Imperial Elder Council about a threat to their lives. As these members begin to fall, clues as to the reason and those responsible are slowly revealed. We’re introduced to the concept of the four Ambitions, weapons of great power that are being sought by those targeting the Elder Council, and a onetime deal with daedric prince Mehrunes Dagon that may be coming home to roost.

Each new chapter has brought a new twist on dynamic world events over the years. But whether that twist is dark anchors or geysers or even dragons, dynamic events in ESO have always felt quite similar. Enter Oblivion portals. These new types of dynamic events carry a similar flavor to the dark anchors of old, but with enough of a twist to make them feel fresh. No longer are the locations of the events marked on the world map; instead, their spawn throughout the landscape has a more random feel. Instead of being transported directly to a wave of incoming deadra, the player must fight her way through several different visually striking pieces of the Deadlands to reach the final challenge, at which point the event begins to feel familiar. It’s still an ESO dynamic event, but with a new coat of paint that spruces up the experience.

As with past chapters, previous characters make appearances, and Easter eggs abound. One such encounter leads to several interactions with a familiar face from Oblivion that left me with a grin with each conversation. ZeniMax knows its playerbase and once again excels in balancing the serious lore creation and world-building with a bit of fan service. After all, it’s a video game. It should be fun.

If it’s not already evident, I’ve enjoyed my time in Blackwood. The story is tight, the characters are likable, and there’s just a feeling of completeness and totality in the delivery. The only gripe I can think of is that companions are available only by purchasing the chapter, but from a business standpoint, even that is understandable. A chapter must deliver some differentiating features to justify the price tag, and ZeniMax knows it’s got a jewel with this one. Beyond that minor nitpick, I can’t find much to complain about. Blackwood is a solid addition to the ever-expanding world of ESO, one that I am happy to have experienced.

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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Crafty_Youth5227

I RP play my character as the lone wanderer. Companions would kill that for me.

Thornhide
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Thornhide

I couldn’t bother buying this xpac knowing ZOS continues to ignore PvP & performance. Once again another pve fluff update that impacts performance while adding more bugs to fix on top of bugs never addressed.

Add that to the continued server downsizing,..this game needs new leadership.

Not my vid, but explains well enough. Ff 11:25 for the ESO stuff.

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SmiteDoctor

I find them annoying, here I am questing doing my story stuff and in comes a player with their companion, and reskinned quest NPC carpet bombing everything like immersion breaking BOTs; the closest I’ll bother with companions is gouging people for their gold for any companion gear that drops.

BodeanG
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BodeanG

I am so with you on this. I don’t use them. Can’t stand them.

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Michael Lehner

Hmm. I am fully aware of people who can rush into stuff and lay down insane damage, also in AoE flavour. But it’s the players character laying down the damage. No companion needed for that.

I mean, of course people have tried to also push their companions to the extreme. It’s in some peoples nature. But even in all purple gear, a companion can’t even deal a fraction of what a player can deliver, even if the player is not an a pure damage setup, but rather in a solo-setup with plenty of sustain along.

So, while i know the effect you describe, that damage mostly comes from the player. (The biggest contribution from a companion can be the damage buff from searing weapons. ) So, it’s really not the companions to be blamed.

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BalsBigBrother

I have played around with companions a lot and they are a good addition overall.

There are a few kinks to them such as the tendancy to always dodge roll backwards. This can be a problem if they have agro on a world boss for example. They will often dodge roll so far that they can reset the boss which is rather annoying.

Yes you can use the pet commands to offset this but on console this is somewhat awkward. You need to press both thumbsticks and left bumper 1 (L3 + R3 + LB1). Incidentally L3 + R3 fires off the companions ultimate so it’s possible to waste that when all you are trying to do is leash them.

Unfortunately it’s not possible to remap that to another combo on console so it all feels rather clunky and awkward at times especially in fights that are add heavy.

I hope this is not one and done as far as the companion system goes. It would benefit from more iteration to some fundamentals imo. Separate companion gear inventory, companion gear crafting and being able to set a leash distance or let me rebind the controls on console are a few things that come to mind.

I am sure we will being seeing more companion characters in the future via the cash shop. Personally I hope they are originals rather than folks we have met else where in the story.

As I said overall I do like the companion system and ESO is better off for having them in the game but it still needs some tweaks too.

As for the rest of Blackwood again overall it’s a pretty solid effort without being stunning or surprising. Fun and laughs can be had but it’s not going to blow your socks off.

I hope we get a fully realised Deadlands zone with the Q4 story dlc.

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PanagiotisLial1

Companions is indeed the star there and Eveli is quite funny. Would be nice if we had her as companion. I enjoyed both the previous and current expansions but like you say too I was already somewhat indifferent on antiquities

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BalsBigBrother

Personally I hope we get originals rather than already existing npcs if / when they release more companion options into the wild.

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PanagiotisLial1

Well if anything SWTOR has proved important NPCs can fit well as companions

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BalsBigBrother

I think it would make them feel less special when you encounter them in the story. At the moment when I interact with my faves in a story it often feels like meeting up with an old friend that I haven’t talked to for a while.

If I have them with me all the time or see them all the time in the world it would remove that. I have no doubt they would sell a bunch but for me personally it would mean ESO loses something too.

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PanagiotisLial1

I see, its the exact opposite for me, it makes them more special rather than do just one questline and forget them, I go on a true adventure with them fighting side by side

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treehuggerhannah

One minor point about the companions: although the unlocks are indeed accountwide, you do have to complete the associated starting quest with each character individually to be able to actually recruit them. It’s still going to be helpful to have them listed accountwide to keep track of them once there are more than two of them, though, I’m sure.

General thoughts: Having now completed the main Blackwood quest and most of the side quests, I’m enjoying this chapter. It’s a very ESO-style storyline and isn’t breaking any wildly new ground, but it’s a solid mystery/adventure that keeps up a good pace and has some fun twists.

It’s also kind of a nice change of pace in that it’s been a little more light-hearted.

I actually liked Greymoor a lot. I loved seeing Verandis again, meeting Fennorian, and hanging out with the rest of our Ravenwatch pals. (And I hope we see more of them in the future!) The zone was gorgeous. The plot was good.

But. It was so dark for a pandemic year storyline when the whole world seemed grim. Greymoor brightened up a little with a fairly happy ending at the very last possible second, but overall it just wasn’t the most inspiring tone for that particular year. (Not really Zenimax’s fault as they couldn’t predict world events, but it was what it was.)

It’s nice that Blackwood is a little more… well… cheerful. There are plenty of serious parts, but it isn’t unrelenting unpleasantness and darkness. Having Eveli along definitely helps with that.

The companions are fun. I’ve enjoyed running around with Bastian. ESO wasn’t a game I was craving companions for, but I do like the addition now that they’ve done it.

Overall great chapter. Looking forward to more!

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Michael Lehner

I was just about to point out the same thing: you do have to do the unlock missions on each character. But they are not that long, so not a big deal. Also, rapport (how much the companion likes you) is character specific.

After that, things are a big messy:
– You can create outfits for both companions. But the outfit is companion specific and shared by all characters.
– But you can assign a costume and a mount to the companion. This is character specific.
– The level of your companions, just as well as equipment, slotted skills and the progress in weapon, armour, undaunted, mages and fighters guild skill lines is account wide.

The last thing really saves you a lot of time, which generally is good.

The thing about weapon and equipment is a bit of a mixed bag. It stops you from efficiently having for example a melee-Miri on one character and a lightning-staff-Miri on another. But it also means that you don’t need to collect a full set of equipment for each companion on each character. Just gear the companion once and you are fine. So i guess the good outweights the bad. :)

And on the chapter: i like the writing more again. The western skyrim chapter so much suffered from the “this very important NPC is either more dense than a brick made of compressed lead, or clearly in league with the bad forces in action” right from the end of the first mission. Which just hurt the whole story so badly.

While one could always critisize one or another thing of the new expansions writing, where it was “gameplay over story consistency”, the flaws are comparatively small, so i really like it.

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Matt Comstock

A good review piece- Companions are definitely the star of the expansion.

I would note that the following comment is not entirely accurate: “The companions are account-bound, so they do not have to be unlocked for every character.” From my experience they are shared with your other characters on your account, but you still need to do the quest to unlock each Companion on each of your characters to be able to access them. Companion level, skills, and equipment seem to be shared, but rapport is specific to each of your characters.

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Raidervc

Companions are cool, and I am interested to see if they improve their AI over time. Also curious to see how they add new companions over time.

Oblivion portals are a total bust. They’re so rare to come across, the boss mechanic is dumb, and it’s the same path each time as far as I can tell. I far prefer dragons and harrowstorms as to them.