When faced with what is now the fifth chapter for an MMO released way back in 2014, the challenge starts to become how to stave off monotony. Fortunately, the focus on storytelling has allowed the Elder Scrolls Online to continuously put out quality content and this year’s Blackwood chapter is no exception.
My first impression of the titular zone was that it was much larger than ones added in previous chapters. However, lacking the verticality of last season’s offerings ultimately meant the same amount of running room that we have become accustomed to. The zone itself is also very visually appealing. Clearly there was no change made to the graphics engine or anything like that but it never felt like just a retread. It’s not like a swamp or a ruin is a new setting for the game but it does successfully feel like something unique to this release.
There are of course the standard cookie cutter activities that will be just fine for fans but do nothing to change the opinions of those who have since lost interest. The checklist of new skyshards to hunt down, delves to explore and world bosses to defeat is almost too systematically marked off.
When it comes to over world activities, there is always one that is unique for each new chapter. In this case, it’s Oblivion portals that randomly spawns on the map. They will transport players to the Deadlands and task them with moving between islands on a lake of lava until they meet the final encounter. This marks the first time in the games history that you need to hunt down an activity rather than just follow a marker on the map and honestly I like the dynamic nature of initiation but once inside it feels like just another public dungeon.
The new companion system might just be one of my favorite additions to the game since launch. For players who walk alone in Tamriel, it provides a lot of help. You will unlock two by way of quests and they have their own personalities, stories, and load outs for both skills and companion specific equipment. I have been focusing on Mirri as her expertise passive has a chance to find additional loot when opening treasure chests.
The one annoyance I have with the system is that opening the companion menu involves pressing the overly used interact button while highlighting them. I have lost count how many times I have inadvertently opened the menu when trying to jump or loot something. They also have a rapport mechanic that changes based on specific actions. For example, Mirri does not like the use of the blade of woe but loves completing fighter guild dailies. Increasing this rapport will unlock further story quests for the companion so there is still a good reason for players who don’t need the help to still utilize them.
There isn’t too much I can say about the story that wouldn’t potentially creep into the realm of spoilers. You find yourself in Blackwood investigating the disappearances of some political councilors that seems to be the work of the Dark Brotherhood and ultimately leads to your unraveling the manipulative scheming of Mehrunes Dagon. What I can say is that the seven main story quests will take approximately the same 15 or so hours to complete as all the previous chapters.
With every new chapter also comes a base patch that is accessible to all players and I want to just take a minute to touch on them. Firstly there is a new overarching tutorial zone that is meant to give all players, regardless of the content they have purchased, a uniform introduction to the game. Story wise it is the tried and true concept of breaking out and escaping imprisonment but at least it now takes place in a nicer looking location. Unlike previous tutorials, it provides the player with all the weapon types as an option to test out and in general feels like it provides more succinct lessons for the games base mechanics. It all ends in a new portal room that allows the player to begin with whatever campaign they want from those they own, which is nice.
The other big addition was the next generation console enhancements, which while delayed a week are now available to everyone sporting the new hardware. There are definite improvements in the steadier frame rates, increased draw distances and most beneficially the reduced load times. I have been sticking almost entirely to the fidelity mode on my PS5 and have not had any issues at all. However, I have heard some reports from players on the next gen version experiencing an increased rate of system crashes. At this point, the Elder Scrolls Online chapter releases have become somewhat predictable and usually only seem to provide one bigger gameplay change. The companions and their ability to travel to any zone with you might be the most beneficial for new players who are just starting out. For seasoned veterans, they are just a dash of flavor on top of the expected high quality expansion experience.