Every long-running franchise has its "break glass in case of an emergency" title. For Assassin's Creed, it's what fans have been wanting for ages: a game set in medieval Japan. Zenimax Online has already revisited one of Bethesda's fan-favorites with 2017's The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind, a loving homage to The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind. But the studio has held back since then, with subsequent chapters heading to Summerset and Elsweyr, largely unexplored places in Elder Scrolls canon.
Elder Scrolls Online isn't struggling though. In fact, it's riding high with 15 million copies sold and around 2.5 million active players. There's no reason to break the glass. And yet, the next chapter of Elder Scrolls Online is Greymoor, a region that was the focus of the best-selling (and most-ported) Elder Scrolls game of all-time, The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim. Just in time for the 10th anniversary of Bethesda's classic RPG.
Players have already embarked on this year's storyline, the Dark Heart of Skyrim, in the recently released Harrowstorm dungeon DLC. Greymoor continues the dungeon's adventure of Nords and the undead in the snowy, desolate peaks of Western Skyrim. This side of Skyrim never joined the Ebonheart Pact, and its Nords live a rougher life than their Eastern counterparts. Over the past few days, I've tasted Greymoor's tale of faux-Norsemen and vampire lords, and some of the new features heading to ESO's next chapter.
Return to Skyrim
The peaks of Skyrim are back, even if it is a thousand years in the past and a Dragonborn short. I admit, revisiting Skyrim isn't as amazing as I expected. Seeing the city of Solitude at the height of its strength is interesting, as the version in The Elder Scrolls 5 was a worn-out shell of its former self. But to be honest, Skyrim is visually one of the more boring locations in Elder Scrolls lore. It's snow and mountains, rocks and rivers. I've played Skyrim so much that it's almost generic by now, especially when compared to the colorful locales of Summerset and Elsweyr. For Zenimax Online, it was key that Skyrim was more of a "harsh, believable environment," with the team playing around more with the underground Blackreach.
"There's a huge amount of unexplored space down [in Blackreach]. That's where we really kind of forged ahead and did our own thing. There are little bits and pieces in the overland, but we tried to make that more of an homage to [Skyrim]," ESO creative director Richard Lambert tells USgamer.
I wasn't able to get to Blackreach during my time with the Greymoor preview, but images from Zenimax Online show that it's clearly the visual showcase for this chapter. They show the purple hues from living crystal formations or the blue glows of underground spores, contrasted with the warm orange of fires keeping underground camps warm. So while I was a little disappointed, I'm glad that there's some hope on the horizon in that regard.
You'll spend a great deal of time exploring all of Skyrim above and below, because there's a brand-new Antiquities skill line. You'll learn to become a hunter of ancient relics from the Antiquarian Circle, a group of adventurous scholars. "The original idea was, 'What would Indiana Jones in Tamriel be like?' A lot of times what Indiana Jones was doing in the movies, even before he went on his adventures, was researching clues and reading books. Going through all these obscure clues to try to figure out where he could go and look for this thing," says Lambert.
But you're not in the real-world, so Zenimax had to put a magical spin on everyone's favorite film archeologist. (Unless you're a Lara Croft or Benjamin Franklin Gates fan.) Using the Antiquarian's Eye, a "weird ancient alien technology" that can track down lost relics, you'll start with leads on artifacts, and eventually head out into the world to dig them up. You'll also find leads on these relics from your normal questing, and then you'll be able to Scry those leads with the Antiquarian's Eye.
What's interesting is that instead of the normal crafting windows, Antiquities has two new mini-games. When you're Scrying, you're attempting to match glyphs in order to build toward glowing hexes on the board, which are clues as to the location of the relic. Collecting all of the clues narrows down the location to a single section on your map. Once there, you'll dig, which is another game similar to Minesweeper, where you're looking for the right location of the item. Both mini-games are limited by time and available turns, but better leads have bigger boards. Don't worry though, you also have a number of skills you can pick up to help you with the puzzles.
Alternatively, you can brute force the process by simply taking the lead and going to every highlighted region on your map. Eventually, you'll find the right one, the puzzles just shorten that journey. "We wanted to make sure that anybody, regardless of skill or type of player, could participate in the system," says Lambert. "Some players will absolutely just get a clue as quickly as they can, then go around to all the locations, try to brute force their way through it. Others will go through the entire process of leveling up the skill line and getting all the clues. We wanted to satisfy both sides of the player base."
The relics available include mounts, motifs, furnishings, and the all-new Mythic Items. The latter are powerful new pieces of equipment, but you can only wear one at a time and they also carry a heavy penalty. Lambert outlines a pair of boots that prevent the wearer from being snared or rooted, but you also can't sprint. He calls the balance of these items a "kiss curse." "Ultimately, we don't want one particular item to be the best thing in the game to use in all situations. We want them to be situational," Lambert explains.
The Antiquities system is a new way to explore the world of the Elder Scrolls Online, something that's probably useful when visiting a place that's so familiar to many. And while the mini-games are conceptually odd, they're an interesting diversion from the combat-focused Harrowstorms, delves, and dungeons. Skyrim may still look like a rolling set of snowy mountains, but the treasure in those hills gives you more of a reason to take in those vistas.
Vampires and Vikings
Greymoor's tale kicks off with a hurried, dying man who charges you with finishing his mission. Ancient artifacts are being smuggled into Solitude, the home of High King Svargrim and the reigning capital of Western Skyrim. Investigating this plot sees you moving from low-level skullduggery to a plot to murder those closest to the High King and plunge Skyrim into war. Your hero has to navigate the High King's forces, Jorunn the Skald-King, the rising vampires, and the witches of the Icereach Coven. Not a great place to find yourself.
At your side for this in the Dark Heart of Skyrim is Lyris Titanborn, a half-Nord, half-Giant warrior who players met long ago in Elder Scrolls Online's initial release. Lyris is one of the Five Companions, a group of legendary heroes led by the Dragonborn Empire Varen Aquilarios. For Zenimax Online, adventuring in the land of the Nords was a perfect reason to bring Titanborn back to the forefront. "She kind of epitomizes what a true Nord is. She generally speaks with her fist or acts first and then answers questions later. That's kind of the feel we wanted to get across," says Lambert.
Lyris will not be your only companion on the journey. The early quests in Greymoor also introduced me to Fennorian, a vampire of House Ravenwatch. This group was established by Count Verandis Ravenwatch, who charged his followers with using their vampiric powers for good, not evil. Fennorian was sent to Skyrim to look into the advent of the Harrowstorms, unnatural events that corrupt those caught in their wake, turning them into mindless, feral vampires.
With the focus on vampires, Zenimax Online decided to take another look at the existing vampire skill tree. Old abilities have been replaced or improved to feed into the fantasy of being a vampire. Take the new ability Mesmerize, which stuns all enemies in front of you, or Eviscerate, an attack that deals more damage based on how much health you're missing. The old Ultimate, Bat Swarm, has been replaced with Blood Scion, a powerful ability that vastly increases your health, magicka, and stamina, heals you for 33% of your damage done, and lets you see through walls. Many of these abilities are now tied to the justice system, meaning using them in public counts as a criminal act. People don't really like vampires running around their towns.
One change to vampires is something players have been asking for: instead of the old animation for Feed, which sucked the blood from your target from a distance, you now feed directly, biting necks like a proper vampire. The change is based on work Zenimax Online did for the Blade of Woe skill in the Dark Brotherhood tree.
"We wanted vampires to feel like more of an experience," says Lambert. "So when we were looking at the Dark Brotherhood, and specifically the Blade of Woe, when you were doing that it felt like you were part of the Dark Brotherhood and you were ritualistically and systematically murdering people. That's what the Dark Brotherhood was all about. We wanted that feel to be a part of the Vampire skill line as well. We looked at what [the act of feeding] was on live right now, and it's not very good. So now there's a bunch of different ways that you can bite people and feed on people, that makes it feel like you are a vampire and doing vampire-like things."
And there will be a vast underground gothic manor called Bastion Sanguinaris for sale, if you want to dive fully into that vampire roleplay. The vampire theme runs deep in Greymoor, from the vampires and feral undead above, to the darker things hiding in the depths of Blackreach. "When you start digging into a lot of the history in Skyrim, there is a vampire influence in that area," says Lambert, referencing the Dawnguard expansion for The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim. "So we started going in and thinking, 'Well if there's an influence there, there has to be some kind of story behind how the vampires came to Skyrim?' So we started digging in on what Blackreach was and what could be down there in addition to what is already known."
The Next Chapter
Each chapter of Elder Scrolls Online has had a singular focus: fleshing out the races of Tamriel. Of the nine races available to players, Dark Elves were the focus of Morrowind, High Elves took center stage in Summerset, and Elsweyr took place in the home of the cat-like Khajiit. This time around, Lambert says that the team generally just focused on filling out the map of Tamriel, not on any specific races. That potentially dashes my hopes for a Redguard-focused chapter in Hammerfell.
"Usually it starts with [ESO director Matt Firor] and I looking at the map and going, 'What have we done? Where haven't we been yet?' Then we start looking at biomes and the types of stories we want to tell," says Lambert. "When you compare and contrast each of the chapters, we had Morrowind, Summerset, and Elsweyr, and now Greymoor; each of the biomes is very, very different. The biomes also help influence the storylines that we're telling as well, so it's a multi-pronged approach. But generally it starts with looking at the map and figuring out where we could go next."
What's ahead is finishing the year-long Dark Heart of Skyrim storyline. There's a figure shrouded in shadow who is driving the Harrowstorms, and Lambert confirms to me that our primary antagonist is vampire-related. "There's more of a twist in the storyline," he teases. "There will be a really big moment at the end of the chapter that will get players going, 'Wow, I wasn't expecting that,' and then that leads into the second half of the storyline, which really starts digging into who this vampire lord is and why he's doing the things he's doing."
Right now, the rest of Elder Scrolls Online's year is set. Greymoor is scheduled to release in June for PC, Mac, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. It'll be followed with a dungeon-focused DLC in August, and another narrative DLC finishing off the storyline in November. However at the moment, with the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus, Zenimax Online has transitioned into a work-from-home studio. Lambert isn't expecting any delays in the current schedule, but he doesn't rule them out either.
"At this point, it's still kind of too early to tell. We literally just transitioned the entire team last week to work from home," says Lambert. "It has gone a lot smoother than I thought it was going to. Our IT team killed themselves to get us transitioned over to working from home, so we're still kind of feeling things out. I think it's probably safe to assume that there will be some delays, because obviously we're still learning the ropes and uncovering holes in how VPN or remote desktop work. But overall, I'm pretty pleased with how we've been moving and making progress."
In the meantime, the team is working on bringing Greymoor closer to its planned June launch. My preview this week was an interesting peek behind the curtain, with unfinished art assets like paintings with the word "TEMP" stamped on them and Alexa-like "robo voice over" in the place of voice acted dialogue. It's a testament to the amount of work that goes into ESO's great narrative presentation.
Players can take their first step in Greymoor today, with a free prologue quest entitled "The Coven Conspiracy." Zenimax is also throwing the doors wide with a free play event from April 1 at 10 a.m. ET until April 13, allowing anyone to download and enjoy the base game and the Greymoor prologue quest. It's a tease for the next chapter in Elder Scrolls Online as it enters its sixth year, on its merry way towards that ten-year milestone. Skyrim being the next move towards that milestone is a chance for Elder Scrolls Online to look back to the franchise's past. At the same time, Skyrim is a good foundation for ESO to evolve a bit, while still delivering the stories and characters that the MMO is known for.