Feature Article

Elder Scrolls Online's Blackwood Is A Familiar Return To Oblivion, Now With Companions

Elder Scrolls Online is introducing a brand-new Companion NPC system with the Blackwood chapter, but it does little else to mix up the predictable formula.

ZeniMax Online Studios has settled into a predictable and consistent release schedule with The Elder Scrolls Online's chapters and DLC updates--for better and for worse. The first quarter of every year always gets a two-pack of new four-person group PvE dungeons, the second quarter gets a massive new "chapter" expansion, the third quarter gets two more dungeon releases, and then the final quarter of the year is a smaller PvE DLC, usually a new zone that's directly connected to the year's big chapter update.

This year's large chapter expansion, Blackwood, feels significant because it brings in more regions from Tamriel's central province, Cyrodiil, and lets players return to the Planes of Oblivion to once again wage war against the Daedra. For an MMO that's already retread Morrowind and Skyrim areas, it's only natural to bring back Oblivion as well.

Betting On Blackwood

Blackwood features about 30 hours of new storyline content, in addition to tons of new side quests, delves, public dungeons, world bosses, and more across the new zone. Blackwood's version of world events take on the form of Oblivion portals that crack open around the region, similar to Dark Anchors from the base game, Abyssal Geysers from Summerset, Harrowstorms from Greymoor, and so on.

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I enjoyed exploring the new Imperial City of Leyawiin, even though it just reminded me of Solitude and virtually all other major cities in the game. There wasn't really anything notable about it as being a major Imperial stronghold other than the pompous nature of its wandering NPCs. The region itself is mostly a lush forest, which is a great change of pace from the frigid snowscapes of Greymoor and was reminiscent of Summerset, my overall favorite region in ESO.

As exciting as it is to return to landmark areas such as the Imperial City of Leyawiin as a long-time Elder Scrolls fan, I can't help but feel like the game has severely plateaued at this point. I've been playing ESO off and on ever since the PC version was in beta, and it's hard to shake the feeling that each new content drop is starting to feel like the same thing in a different coat of paint based on this early preview so far.

My concern is that each of the last three expansions has felt extremely similar to the others, other than the overall setting and theme, since they follow the same cadence of content drops. Without a new class to mix things up like Morrowind's Warden or Elsweyr's Necromancer, most of the focus will be on the quality of the zone and its questing, which puts a lot of pressure on Blackwood to deliver more than just a walk down memory lane.

Thankfully, the biggest thing ESO has done well over the years and continues to deliver on is the quality of its quests and writing. Every NPC is fully voiced with excellent voice work and great storytelling that digs into the lore deeply. I'd even say ESO, as a whole, has better and more interesting quests than any single-player Elder Scrolls game I've played. So hopefully it can deliver to help alleviate the feeling of "sameness" that is starting to plague the new chapter launches.

New Companion System

All that being said, the thing I am most excited about that's debuting with the Blackwood chapter is the new Companion system. Just like in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, you'll now be able to have named NPCs follow you around and fight by your side.

In the preview server, we had a dark elf mercenary named Mirri Elendis and a humanoid mage named Bastian Hallix available as companions. Every companion in ESO will feature original questlines you must complete before they will join you, at which point you can summon them from the Collections menu under "Allies" in a similar way to how you equip a mount or non-combat pet. Of the two, I preferred Mirri thanks to her witty attitude and natural complement to my brawny adventurer.

Once you've got a companion, you can equip them with gear to specialize their role in combat. There's also a menu of abilities specific to your companion, which can be placed on their skill bar. The types of skills you assign (either Damage, Tank, or Healing abilities) will determine how they act in combat. It's a relatively simplistic system, but is better than a generic mercenary system like you see in various other MMOs. The fact that companions have their own questlines, full voice acting, and more is a nice treat.

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There doesn't seem to be a way to direct or control them in combat that I could find like you would a pet, so they function independently once you exit the menus. Neither companion seemed particularly powerful--they aren't a real-person replacement--but it's nice to have someone along while soloing. At the very least, it will help make collecting Skyshards and clearing map achievements less lonely and perhaps future DLC will add more companions and further flesh out their individual storylines.

It's a bit odd though that you can see everyone's companions at all times. Ideally, ZeniMax will let players customize their appearances more or have a large assortment of companions to choose from when Blackwood releases to avoid the awkward cloning problem. For example, during Mirri's quest, the regions involved were public areas, so I ran into another player doing the same quest, at the same time, with an identical-looking Mirri. It all felt a bit silly.

The new Companion system definitely adds some fun nuance to playing the game, whether solo or with friends, and hopefully it will continue to grow in future patches and updates. Now that the developers have targeted the fan base's nostalgia specifically with content expansions themed after Morrowind, Skyrim, and now Oblivion, I'll be curious to see where they go next. You can only clear so many mini delves, four-person dungeons, and 12-person trials before it all just bleeds together.

Elder Scrolls Online's Blackwood chapter releases for PC and Stadia on June 1 and comes to consoles on June 8--that's the same day ESO gets its free upgrade on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S.

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