ESO: Back in Black(wood)!

I’ve been a fan of The Elder Scrolls Online ever since it reinvented itself with the One Tamriel update. For the last few years, it has been solidly my number two MMO after Guild Wars 2, but the Greymoor expansion was a huge turnoff for me for a lot of little reasons that added up to me pretty much quitting the game for a year. 

Greymoor started off at a big disadvantage, because it followed hot on the heels of Elsweyr, which I think will always be peak ESO for me. Elsweyr had a quirky, light-hearted vibe, which was such a nice change of pace from this game’s usual heavy, oppressive atmosphere. I mean, Elsweyr is a land of cat-people, who, depending on the moon phase they were born under, range in size from a normal house cat that can talk and do magic, to your standard playable humanoid Khajiit, to tigers gone Hulk. The zone was colorful, the story was engaging, the characters were memorable, and it added a lot to Elder Scrolls lore. Then came Greymoor, and it was the exact opposite. For one, it decided to beat the dead horse that is Skyrim. I’ve never liked any of the single-player Elder Scrolls games, and while Skyrim is the one I’ve put the most time into, it never grabbed me, so I don’t have fond memories of putting hundreds of hours into it like some people do. As if bleak vikingland wasn’t off-putting enough, ZOS decided to layer on vampires and gothic horror, which gave me eye strain, not only from squinting to see inside of shadowy subterranean castles, but also from rolling my eyes so hard. Just what we needed in 2020: Dark, bleak, and angsty. The Markarth DLC wasn’t much better, and was only bearable because Pippin was in it (seriously, how did ZOS not advertise that they got Billy Boyd to voice a character in their DLC? He’s not even credited on IMDB, but it has been confirmed to be him by official sources. Marketing fail). I slowly slogged my way through the stories of both, but only out of a sense of obligation. 

Anyways, that was last year, last expansion. I was more than a little afraid that I was going to have similar feelings about Blackwood, and if I did, it might be the end of my time in ESO. After all, it’s a retread of a locale from another TES game I own but barely played with an even more edgy Macguffin: Hellgates run by a four-armed devil who wants to destroy the world for no apparent reason. But so far, the story has had a lot less of the “Oh noes, the end times are upon us” stuff that I thought I was going to find, but rather feels more a mystery novel (something that the NPCs keep reminding us, which I find kind of immersion breaking, but whatever). Also, choosing Eveli Sharp-Arrow, a spunky Wood Elf who you may remember as the best part of the Orsinium DLC, to be the main character of this one, and then pairing her with Lyranth, a sarcastic daedra from Coldharbor, was a great way to keep things light, even when you do get to the doom and gloom parts. 

Speaking of story, is it just me or does this game talk down to us more and more each expansion? There was a part where my character had learned some information earlier in the story, explained it to one NPC, and then literally turned around and another NPC explained the whole plot, which I just explained to someone else within earshot of her, back to me again. There have always been optional “Wait, who are you and what were we just doing?” conversation branches here and there, and that’s fine. Maybe you left the game for a while and now you’re back and wrapping up old quests want a refresher on what’s going on. That’s actually a great thing that I think a lot of RPGs could learn from. But this was just straight up narrative hand-holding. It’s not like the narrative is even that complex; if you’re paying attention, you’ll get it, and if you’re not paying attention, you probably don’t care enough to listen to the review session, do you? Don’t get me wrong, most of the story is great, but there are also some moments scattered throughout where it just feels like the writers think we’re stupid.  

The biggest selling point of this expansion for me was the companion system. This has the potential to be a real gamechanger, especially for people who like to play alone or in small groups. Sure, companions crank out only a fraction of the DPS of a human player, but it might be just enough to duo or even solo a lot of dungeons with some effort (I’m sure there are people who do this already, but I mean possible for us mere mortals). Not content to simply hand you human pets, ESO went the extra mile to give the two companions added thus far their own story, and giving them their own reactions to what the player chooses to do, which gives me real SWTOR vibes. 

Of course, there are only two companions in this expansion, and everyone already is asking when the next one will be available, and who they will be. Some are hoping for various well-known NPCs, but I kind of doubt that will happen. As cool as it would be to have Razum-Dar or Naryu at my beck and call, it seems more likely to me that companions will be new characters created specifically to be companions, so they’re more of a blank slate. Plus, it would make doing old quests that involve that character kind of awkward. Then again, I once saw Abnur Tharn in three different places wearing three different outfits in the same room in the Mages’ Guild, so who knows. Wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff happens in this game. Either way, nobody should be surprised if companions start popping up in the cash shop for at least $30 a pop, because ESO will use any trick in the book when it comes to monetization.