Buddying Up in Blackwood – ESO Heads to Oblivion
As has become the norm for the unstoppable MMO, Elder Scrolls Online, a year’s worth of content is being readied to unleash on its players and give them all an excuse to ignore the rest of life while they continue to explore Tamriel. This year the action is taking place in Cyrodiil, the setting of the game that got many a player into the Elder Scrolls to begin with, a little game called Oblivion. So how exactly are Bethesda mixing things up this year? Well, I was lucky enough to attend a QA session with Rich Lambert, Creative Director at Zenimax Online Studios and I was also given access to a test server to see exactly how everything is shaping up.
I will start this by saying I never played a lot of Oblivion. Morrowind, sure, Skyrim of course, but not Oblivion. Something about it never clicked with me, so diving into Cyrodiil has been a new experience for me. There was none of the familiarity of last years Dark Heart of Skyrim event present so everything I was experiencing was brand new and I have to say refreshing. I loved exploring a different era of Skyrim last year, but it has to be said it is all rather….well…. grey. Cyrodiil is anything but, feeling much more like Elswyr with lush forests, coastlines and ancient architecture everywhere. This continues to be a game that surpasses visual expectations of the genre and my hats of to the team in charge of the looks.
Each event in ESO seems to steer the game further and further away from what we consider a traditional MMO. Sure, there is plenty of things for guilds, teams and small groups to do together but honestly, there is just as much (if not even more) single-player content in the game. At this point calling ESO an MMO is somewhat misleading, it is much more of a shared-world adventure experience than what was allowed for in the traditional World of Warcraft style MMO. Blackwood takes that trend even further with the big new addition of companions. These companions are like a more advanced housecarl from Skyrim or Dogmeat in Fallout. They come along as extra combat buddies as well as providing a whole host of commentary, quests and just general entertainment. They are also incredibly flexible as to how you want them to react. Rich clarified in the QA session that they have no set AI routines that follow a particular strategy but will instead act in accordance with how they have been kitted out by the player. Allocate healing spells and buffs, the companion will hang back from combat and focus on helping the player, give them a whopping big sword and some fire spells and they will charge into the fray as a damage dealer. After playing around with this feature on the test server I can confirm that the companions work really well and while they will never be the equal of a good human companion, these AI buddies allow the anti-social among us to experience a range of ESO content they may never have tackled before.
As is something of a tradition with ESO when a large new chunk of content comes out, there is an updated tutorial for new players to tackle and with Blackwood, this tradition continues. This time, however, things are a little different. Instead of the tutorial taking place in the location of the newest expansion, it occurs in a High Elf castle, where after the tutorial has been completed you get access to a room full of portals, linking you to the various locations in Tamriel. Creating this central hub style location makes sense as the game continues to grow and it gives players a choice of where to start while having room to grow as more content is added. It wouldn’t surprise me if this was the last update to the tutorial, as it makes total sense to keep this one going forward.
Another thing that ESO has included in the last few events has been a group activity where players online rush from all over the map to take down a particular big baddie. In Elswhyr there were Dragons, in Skyrim there were vampire blood storms and now in Blackwood, there are Oblivion gates. These gates function much like they do in the game Oblivion and players need to rush to close it and can end up in Oblivion themselves. I couldn’t experience one of these on the test server due to the small player count but considering the group activities in the last two expansions were a blast, I can’t wait to give this one a crack when the game is released upon the world.
As for the story missions in Blackwood, well players can expect murder mysteries, creepy assassins and a host of supernatural suspicion. I actually tried to skim the story as much as possible while playing so I don’t ruin it for myself when it gets released. Even saying that should tell you how different things are in ESO these days. The lore, story missions and general writing is all equal to any single-player RPG that Bethesda has released and in the world of MMOs, the only one that even comes close in terms of storytelling and lore is The Old Republic and even then I would give the nod to ESO by a significant margin. This really has become a game for fans of deep fantasy worlds to really dig into and bask in and thanks to the game’s adaptive world, there is no need for players to grind to higher levels to see what the story has to offer.
In all, it is clear to see that ESO’s metamorphosis from a struggling MMO into a grand adventure that is open and welcoming to all types of players has been a huge success and a path that Bethesda and Zenimax Online are continuing to walk, improving the building blocks along the way. Blackwood’s addition of companions and new tutorial is just further evidence of their commitment to make ESO a place where everyone can play, not just those who have the time to max out their stats. This sort of commitment to their craft ensures that I, along with a host of others, will be playing ESO off and on for a very long time to come. The door is wide open, the welcome mat is out, you should come and join us, there is an adventure to be had.