Even if you aren't a regular rider, you might want to hop on the hype train this time, because the next chapter in The Elder Scrolls Online's Gates of Oblivion expansion is basically ESO meets Murder on the Orient Express. A classic whodunnit with a Tamriel twist, this murder mystery is filled with intrigue and deceit—and the stakes of the investigation happen to be the fate of the world. No pressure.
"When you get into the story, you kind of think one thing is going on but as you start to uncover things, the story gets bigger and bigger and bigger," creative director Rich Lambert said at a recent preview event. "It's really up to you to figure it out and put a stop to it." At least with Blackwood's new companion system you don't have to go it alone; you can get your very own sidekick to play Watson to your Holmes (or Hastings to your Poirot).
Will Blackwood be worth the ride? I think so. After touring the upcoming chapter with Lambert, I hopped in and played it for myself. While I didn't want to solve the entire mystery before launch, I experienced enough that I want to see the end of the line when Blackwood releases on June 1 (June 8 for consoles).
The lay of the land
The new Blackwood region and its varied biomes are the backdrop of this mystery. Players will move from highland forests to bogs to swamps in an area extending from the southern tip of Cyrodiil to the western borders of Shadowfen, piecing together clues to suss out the murderer and wrap up the investigation while Tamriel is still intact.
The search starts in Leyawiin, a city instantly familiar to TES4: Oblivion players. Lambert said the idea was to "to make TES players feel at home." Although ESO's story is set 800 years before the end of Oblivion, Lambert emphasized that Blackwood is not just a prequel; it does have many familiar aspects, but "this is our own story, our own take on things." I really enjoyed the architecture of Layawiin, with its wide, cobbled streets, multiple-story buildings, and numerous bridges (plenty of room for Sleeps-on-Bridges to find a nice spot). The beautiful Chapel of Zenithar stood out and became my favorite structure. A major hub, Leyawiin also has full NPC amenities for brand-new adventurers and veterans alike.
Another place players might recognize the name of is the city of Gideon, although this area hasn't been seen since the very first Elder Scrolls game, Arena, from 1994. On the border of Black Marsh, Gideon is an eclectic place—an Imperial city built on Ayleid ruins currently run by Argonians. Lambert mentioned that other familiar locations such as Border Watch will be there as well as all new locations with unique stories.
So, wait. Where's the hellscape promised in the Blackwood trailers? Pockets of the fire-and-brimstone Deadlands are out there, lurking beyond randomly spawning portals. Unlike previous world events, The Oblivion Gates will not be shown on the map; players will have to explore to find them. Entering the portals puts you into public dungeon-style events where players work toward the center boss as the difficulty continually amps up.
I stumbled onto one straight away and sauntered in, but things didn't go well for me inside. I was glad the wayshrine was right there at the beginning—it turned out everything in the first area was connected, so one shot at a Daedra spider brought other demons and a few beholders (that I swear were multiplying) barreling toward me. To top that off, someone kept summoning little imps—basically swarming bombs—that chased me down. And right behind all of that was a massive guy ready to dismember me. Retreat isn't exactly a safe option, either, as all those mobs respawn fairly quickly. For now, these pockets of public dungeon diving will be the only access to Oblivion's Deadlands. Players will spend more time there, and learn more about their lord Mehrunes Dagon, in later parts of the expansion in the fourth quarter of this year.
Colleagues and companions
A good story needs compelling characters, and this murder mystery delivers. Lambert explained that one of the devs' favorite things to do is bring back fan favorites from the Elder Scrolls series. In Blackwood, players get to work alongside the plucky wood elf Eveli from Orsinium as well as the Dremora Lyranth from Shadowfen in ESO's base game. Eveli trying to live out her favorite detective stories is relatable and brings a very real quality to the character. Lyranth's cold curiosity and aloof nature are intriguing, and make me want to see if her demeanor cracks later.
Story NPCs like these two only show up at specific times, but players can have a full-time sidekick thanks to the new companion system. Blackwood launches with two companions that players can quest with: Bastian Hallix and Mirri. Once you unlock a companion they're available account-wide, which led to a bizarre situation where I was able to start the quest to get Bastian on a different character with Bastian already at my side. Companions can gain levels up to 20, and that progress and how you have them geared up is also account-wide.
Lambert stressed that companions are not meant to replace other players in higher-end content and cannot be used in PvP or in solo arenas. They're meant to fill out groups as players adventure around Tamriel. He used the example of playing with a friend who may not yet be comfortable doing delves with strangers, so two friends with two companions can dive in together. The companions can fulfill any role in the trinity or even a mix. How well they work will be on you—instead of just random programmed responses, ESO companions have skills just like players that must be selected and placed on their action bar. Make sure the right weapon is equipped for the skills you want—there's no weapon swap ability, so the only way to change is by equipping something else.
How skills work is also different. Players can't fire off companions skills via their action bar, so the system is based on priority and cooldowns. Companion combat skills must be placed in the order you want them used. How well your companion performs in battle has everything to do with how well you set their rotations up. Trust me: jumping into the Deadlands with companion skills tossed in willy-nilly does not lead to a favorable outcome.
On a positive note, this experience showed me that if companions fall in battle, they will pop right back up again when combat is finished if you haven't rezzed them mid-battle. I tested and confirmed this many times as I was bombarded with overlapping fire AOEs from every direction. Leashing mobs isn't much of an option, and you don't get time to catch your breath. You just need to power through. I'm pretty sure I wore out my dodge key.
As you get to know your companions you'll build rapport with them. They have their own storylines, and when they start trusting you more, more quests and perks will unlock. In the future you will likely also have romance options. Lambert stressed that while there are none at launch, the devs know players are very excited for it. He also noted that when it comes, romancing will be at the discretion of the player with no gender locks.
What Blackwood brings to the base game
You'll have to buy the Blackwood chapter to access the new region and story and companions, but there will be changes and updates for the base game. This includes console enhancements (up to double the draw distance and half the load times), a new tutorial, a new currency, and other QOL improvements.
The new tutorial's story includes the much-requested option for players to choose their own starting path from any of the chapters of the base game.
An addition I'm looking forward to is the endeavor system. Endeavors are a daily and weekly task system running in the background; players don't have to track or turn anything in to complete them. Currently there are over 60 different activities, and as each one is completed, you'll earn a valuable currency that lets you purchase items directly from crown crates, which normally cost real money. "For me this is really exciting because for the first time in ESO you can acquire crate items and crate cosmetics via in-game activities—you don't have to pay money for them," Lambert said.
Some other QOL improvements include adding an ability timer (you won't have to use a mod anymore), the ability to combine perfected and not-perfected items into one set (the set bonus will be not-perfected unless you have all five perfected pieces equipped), and an update to voice chat to make it more reliable.
If all this talk of Oblivion gates and Mehrunes Dagon is giving you pleasant memories of Oblivion, you're not alone. "[Oblivion] was my first game that I worked on at Bethesda when I first joined the company," Lambert shared. "And so it's kind of like full circle for me, and something I am very excited about."