The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood Review – IGN
Returning to the marshes and swamps surrounding the idyllic city of Leyawiin feels like a portal to a completely different time period of The Elder Scrolls lore. The last time we saw this part of Tamriel was back in 2006, where it occupied the southeastern corner of Cyrodiil in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. For reference, that was several years before we even knew there was going to be a Fallout 3, so it’s safe to say that it’s been a little while. The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood knows exactly which heartstrings it’s pulling here, as its roughly 20 hours of content – minus the endgame raid stuff – is littered with gags and unmissable references to Oblivion that generally end up feeling more endearing rather than stale.
The setting may be unique, but Blackwood is still very much the same ESO that fans have grown used to. This expansion barely breaks away – at all, in fact – from the formulaic zone design that it’s established over the last several years since its Morrowind chapter in 2017. We get the same exact number of quests, locations, skyshards, world bosses, and a new trial – which is the bog-standard configuration of new things that we get in every single new expansion each year. The developer, Zenimax Online, is nothing if not consistent! But at least it’s safe to say that the writing is filled with more zingers relative to last year’s comparatively dry Greymoor expansion, the geography of Blackwood itself is more varied and interesting, and the addition of companions that level up alongside you and follow you on your journey make its inherent repetition ever so slightly more interesting.
To be precise: there are seven main quests, six delves, nine points of interest with quests attached to them, two public dungeons, six world bosses, 18 skyshards to find, and a brand-new trial called Rockgrove – basically ESO’s equivalent of a raid. That said, good luck getting through it without a full group of 12 players. If you’re not in a guild, it’s still tough to find anyone to group up and play through that one with – even a week after launch on PC – and you’ll definitely need backup.
The world boss encounters are way more sophisticated and unique this time around. For example, the Sul-Xan Ritual Site faces you up against a group of Argonian priests who each share the same broader health bar. Meanwhile, The Shattered Xanmeer features one of the most fun and intense open world boss battles I’ve come across in ESO – where Oblivion portals open and close around you at all sides while a flurry of Daedra swarm over the battlefield. It’s great fun if your PC can keep up with the action.
But, as always, group content isn’t Blackwood’s main focus by a long shot, and the single-player main quest story actually carries some pretty great writing this year. The tale touches on some fascinating parts of Elder Scrolls lore while explaining how the Daedric Prince Mehrunes Dagon ultimately rose to power in Oblivion. You get to go back to the fiery Deadlands and rub elbows with its inhabitants, the terminally non-playable Dremora – and you even get to learn more about the mysterious powers associated with that realm, both mystical and political.
Blackwood still ends up being pretty cheesy in its delivery. Voice acting is lacklustre – characters still sound muffled and heavily compressed, which may be to conserve storage space, given how massive ESO has become. Either way, the performances are inconsistent, sometimes played dryly and other times with too much enthusiasm. And character animations still evoke the Uncanny Valley to its highest extreme; one main character who we’re meant to sympathize with constantly looks like he’s just had a fresh Botox injection. That’s not new, of course – that’s just how Nord characters look in ESO, but this rehashing of low-quality animations and character models in every new expansion contributes greatly to the feeling that ESO isn’t keeping up with the times as much as other MMOs have.
The side quests are hit or miss. Several stand out for interesting tidbits of lore they cast over parts of Tamriel’s constantly unraveling saga, but most of them are played for humor this year. That actually works in ESO’s favor given that, again, the acting is usually bad, and it’s an online game so you frequently have other players running around and getting in the way of your story. One standout quest has you directing several clones across an Argonian temple – called a xanmeer – in order to solve puzzles. Another great quest has you rescuing a profligious noble from the clutches of a Daedric cult, only to find out that he has other plans.
The big gameplay feature added this year is your new Companions system. These two recruitable characters can be summoned at any time when you are playing alone, and you can take them anywhere you go. They even share levels between your different characters, as long as you go and do the quests to recruit them on your alternates. Both companions have their own unique skills and playstyles: Bastian Hallix is a Sorcerer by trade, but you can make him into a healer or a tank if you prefer. Meanwhile, Mirri Elendis is an assassin who can move through the shadows and suck the life force out of enemies like a Nightblade.