When The Elder Scrolls Online announced its upcoming Greymoor expansion set in Western Skyrim, Zenimax Online stressed that it would "forge its own path." As I walk beneath the outer arches of Solitude and through its massive inner gate—seeing the familiar execution platform on the right and local tavern on the left— I wonder if I've been taken for a fool. Despite taking place 1000 years prior, Zenimax's version of the clifftop city is so strikingly familiar to the version in TESV that I initially feel it has taken a very well-trod path instead of forging a new one.
It's after I've saved a bespelled dark elf, helped fortify the garrison at Dragon Bridge, and joined the Antiquarian Guild that I feel confident that Zenimax is doing as it promised. Back in January, ESO's creative director Rich Lambert told me that the team would be "telling our own story in a familiar place." Indeed, Elder Scrolls has never been about the places themselves, not to me anyway, but about the silly scenarios and wild characters that happen in them. In that way, ESO's next chapter takes after Skyrim's spirit just as much as its architecture.
Old Nord order
I started the preview build of ESO's Greymoor chapter twice: once as a level one character and once as a max level monstrosity. Zenimax has assured players that the expansion is meant for everyone as its previous chapters were.
As a new player, I wake up in a dungeon—as a protagonist is wont to do—with my new cell mate: a vampire named Fennorian. Luckily he's a good vampire, and much like a broody teen bloodsucker, very much wants to help me but is afraid he might hurt me. After turning into a spooky blood mist to escape our cell and open the gate for me, I help Fenn locate a vial of vintage red stuff and we proceed to sneak our way out of the cavernous lair of a witch coven.
A few combat lessons and a boss fight later, my new Khajiit Necromancer and vamp friend escape the coven and hoof it to Solitude to warn the Nord king that there are witches brewing a nasty storm in his territory. Along the way, I meet up with a dying Nord who begs me to keep a journal safe as he flees Solitude's guards. He's been helping to investigate this same witch problem, which the locals apparently don't take so kindly to.
As a max level character, I mosey off Solitude's docks and right into Bronhold the Nord as he collapses, sharing his secret witch coven investigative journal with me. Inside Solitude, my reputation precedes me and an innkeeper at The Loney Troll offers me a free room if I promise to keep the place up nice to boost her reputation. Don't mind if I do.
In my first five plus hours with the preview I meet up with Lyris Titanborn, ESO's badass giant-blooded Nord from the original main quest line, and attempt to make the high king of Western Skyrim remove his head from his rear. King Svargim is predictably stubborn. The nearby priests of Meridia are tragically beset by monsters called Harrowfiends. The local guards are a textbook case of Nord xenophobia. As ever, the overarching plot is a bit melodramatic but individual quests shine with memorable characters.
The first quest I happen upon inside Solitude's gates is a very perturbed vase that insists it is not decor at all. After collecting notes scattered around the city dictating verses to a reversal spell, I'm able to speak the incantation that turns this broody bottle back into a haughty dark elf named Narsis Dren, a somewhat infamous adventurer from ESO's own previous plot lines.
Narsis Dren and his bumbling Nord assistant are an amusing pair that I suspect will continue popping up throughout the expansion. ESO's recurring character Rigurt The Brash, a somewhat hapless Nord diplomat to the Dunmer, will also make a comeback. Last year I was thrilled to see my Khajiit companion Razum Dar, a consistent presence in the Aldmeri Dominion branch of the main quest, show up in the Elsweyr expansion. Once again, ESO's own charismatic characters continue to leave a more lasting impression on me than its epic world-saving main plots.
Later on, I'll be venturing deeper into Blackreach, the glowing subterranean Dwemer ruins beneath Skyrim. The confusing caverns broke my spirit in TES V but I am eager to see how Zenimax expands the area into a new experience.
Another of Greymoor's big additions is its new Antiquities system, which adds a new guild to Tamriel and a new set of activities for players. As part of Zenimax's push to have "something for everyone" the new system revolves around lore, exploration, and a couple new minigames.
The Antiquarian Circle is a guild of scholars and explorers who trot the continent digging up ancient artifacts and cataloging them. Joining the guild nets you a starter pack of "leads" to chase: likely spots to find these sought-after relics. After you've depleted those, you'll need to find fresh leads yourself. They can be anywhere, Zenimax says: inside random overworld chests, drops from bosses, and other such spots. They're all over ESO's world as well, not just in the new expansion. Each lead has a location and a rarity. The rarer they are, the more difficult they'll be to find and dig up.
In the first part of the process you'll use the Antiquarian's Eye to scry for the precise location of an artifact. The scrying game is a sort of match 3 variant where you're trying to build your way to specific points on the board by connecting contiguous tiles with the same symbols before using up all of your turns. At the end of the day it's a minigame, but it's plenty more complex than lockpicking and has its own specific skills to unlock that help with solving the more challenging boards. As someone who can happily spend an hour stealing from my usual route of lockboxes, I can see the appeal of a chill diversion from standard questing and killing.
If you successfully scry the location of the Antiquity, you'll see an area on your map to travel to. If you're slightly less successful, you'll have a few locations to scour. Once you find the dig spot marked by shiny yellow particles, you can trigger the excavating game. This one's a bit like Battleship, where you'll use tools to dig through three layers of a grid board looking for the artifact itself before consuming all your energy.
After you've successfully dug them up, you're apparently free to take Antiquities home with you, which is an amusing policy for a glorified treasure-hunting society. Some are decorations to add to your player house. One appears to be twelve separate parts with increasingly difficult scrying and excavating games in order to assemble an in-game mount. Still others are ESO's new Mythic Items, rare gear that each have a monkey's paw system of attributes that are one part blessing and one part curse.
Aside from its new story, quasi-new setting, and new minigames, Greymoor is also revamping ESO's vampire skill line to make it more interesting, though I didn't play around with them firsthand. Greymoor is also adding a new raid-style dungeon for twelve players, which ESO refers to as "trials." Thanks to the Greymoor-specific tutorial for newly minted players and recognition for the veterans, there does seem to be something in the new chapter for just about everyone.
It may look like the Skyrim you remember, but there already appear to be plenty of new adventures planned for Elder Scrolls Online's return to the north.