08 Jun 2021 2:45 PM +00:00

ESO Blackwood Review: Bogged Down

ESO Blackwood is the latest Elder Scrolls Online update, taking us to that in-between place that’s not quite Argonian and not fully Cyrodiil. It’s a promising adventure on paper, with intrigue and murder, new friends, and old foes. In practice, Blackwood seems unsure of itself and leans too heavily into re-building familiar locations instead of creating interesting stories.

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Death — Death Everywhere

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Blackwood drops you outside the city of Leyawiin at the edge of the Blackwood swamp and points you toward a murder mystery — although “mystery” is a bit of a misnomer. It’d be more accurate to call it a murder fetch.

The Elder Council seems to be dying at an alarming rate, and you’re just the hero everyone needs to traipse across the entire region and warn surviving councillors before it’s too late, which it almost inevitably is. The story behind these assassinations and the Blackwood expansion, in general, is rather loose and, for Oblivion fans, a bit too familiar.

The Longhouse Emperor was developing a secret project connected to The Four Ambitions and the Daedric Princes, a project divulged only to a handful of his closest councillors and seemingly connected to Mehrunes Dagon just like in Oblivion.

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The ESO Blackwood expansion is set 800 years before Oblivion, so rehashing what amounts to nearly the same plot seems like a missed opportunity to engage with the series’ and region’s lore on a deeper level.

The same sense of missed opportunity fills the rest of the region. Blackwood seems intriguing and deadly when you first arrive, a desolate, gray swamp with adventure waiting behind every dip in the land and secrets squirrelled away in every crag.

Swamp Life

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What you actually get is a desolate, gray swamp. I followed a set route during my Blackwood preview in May and, while it seemed bare at the time, I assumed more quests were tucked away out of sight. Some are, but most of the (long) time you’ll spend wandering the region is a bit too quiet and lonely.

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Blackwood’s early quests don’t help here. MMOs are notorious for drawn-out quests, but the Blackwood quests take it to new heights without offering much in return. The main quest itself almost ventured into parody, sending me hither and yon to find bodies, hear some lengthy dialogue, and go back to be told I need to find another person.

The expansion’s lore seems detached from nearly everything you’re doing. You’ll find dozens of books and letters with fragments of stories or character profiles and the obligatory dense fantasy terminology, but unless you’re closely familiar with TES lore, it just washes over you and eventually gets shut out.

Other callbacks to TES, including Gideon and Leyawiin, are appreciated but feel sterile and empty. I’d rather see ZeniMax experiment with something new or take advantage of the time gap between ESO and Oblivion to do something more interesting beyond just recreating familiar locations.

The main plot and quest narratives also have an identity problem, as they’re caught between trying to tell serious tales and turning everything into a joke. One grieving lover turning her werewolf suitor’s suicide into a joke is… well, tasteless, but throwing attempts at humor into every would-be serious scenario gets old quickly anyway, even when the subject matter isn’t as heavy.

The writing itself is also a bit disappointing since each piece of lore and most of the dialogue reads as if it were written in the same voice.

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Back from Oblivion

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Oblivion Portals, also taken from TES Oblivion, pop up regularly and transport you to the Deadlands. It’s a new public dungeon with some tough enemies and a chance at earning new gear, but it’s also not enough to warrant a full, paid expansion.

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Fortunately, Blackwood’s biggest new feature, companions, help break up the monotony some. After finding and completing each companion’s quest, they’ll join you permanently on your quests in Blackwood and earlier chapters.

Companions have their own quests, you can outfit them with gear, and there’s even a hint at a possible romance between them either later in the Blackwood update or in a future one. However, this also seems better suited to a smaller update instead of a full expansion.

One other thing that bears mentioning is how ZeniMax positions Blackwood. You can technically begin ESO with Blackwood and access tutorials at any time through the Collections menu, but it’s definitely not geared at newcomers.

Aside from the story content having more meaning for those who’ve played at least one ESO expansion before now, there’s hardly any practical tutorial to help get you acquainted with the game’s dozen or more systems.

The Verdict

ESO Blackwood feels and plays more like an interim update than a significant new expansion. That could change with new additions over the next year, but I think it’s time for ZeniMax to step back and take longer than a year to create these new expansions. Fan service is fine, but it should be anchored to something more solid and substantial as well to make it worthwhile. Until that happens, just wait for a sale.

3/5

Reviewed on PC (Steam)

Review copy provided by the publisher