The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim sits at the top of the Elder Scrolls franchise. It has sold 30 million copies, making it one of the top 20 best-selling games of all time. Bethesda has ported it again and again, from the original PC release to versions on Nintendo Switch and PlayStation VR. Nine years after its initial launch, fans are still enjoying all that Skyrim has to offer.
I find Skyrim a bit boring though. As a digital world to explore and get lost in, it's fantastic, but aesthetically, it's one of the least interesting Elder Scrolls locales. It's snow-covered mountains and forests, ancient stone ruins in drab grey. What's the point of creating these vast fantasy worlds and then not dreaming a bit bigger?
Meanwhile, The Elder Scrolls Online has been on a run of excellence in its past few chapter expansions. Morrowind took players back to the island of Vvardenfell, home of the Dark Elves, a place of alien fungi and lava. Summerset was the 'tock' to Morrowind's 'tick,' providing color and life to the High Elves. An island of high fantasy spires and shining forests painted over the harsh reality of slavery. Then there was Elsweyr, where harsh desert and bamboo-style forests met the mysterious Khajit, under threat from mighty dragons.
In contrast, Greymoor takes us to Western Skyrim, around a fourth of the map in The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim. The appreciable land on the overworld stretches from the Frozen Coast to Mor Khazgur, all the way down to Karthwatch. This offers us the chance to see key Skyrim locations like Solitude and the Dragon Bridge almost a thousand years before the events of Elder Scrolls 5. Before the death of the High King, before it became the seat of Imperial Power in the region, it's a mighty Nord city and the fulcrum around a local civil war.
My chosen hero is thrust into this bit of history, as High King Svargrim fights off the holds controlled by Jorunn the Skald-King and the Eastern threat of the Reachmen. When Svargrim's wife dies by the hand of a mysterious assassin, the hero is joined by legendary warrior Lyris Titanborn and Fennorian, a scholar from House Ravenwatch, a faction of friendly vampires. Together, the trio will stand against vampires, the Reachmen, and the Icereach Coven, in a plot to revive the Gray Host, an ancient army of vampires, werewolves, and the undead.
The team behind The Elder Scrolls Online knows what it's doing at this point. Ever since the One Tamriel update in 2016 and the release of the Morrowind expansion the year after, ESO has settled into a comfortable space of telling damned good stories. Sure, there are dungeons and raids, gear to collect, and mighty bosses to vanquish, but ESO has never particularly wow-ed in terms of combat or the scope of its encounters. Instead, it relies on strong storytelling, with quests full of interesting characters and cool ideas.
That hasn't changed for Greymoor. Not only are Lyris and Fennorian fun companions to pal around with, but I found myself running into all sorts of interesting, usually undead-related situations around Western Skyrim. There's the crew of a merchant ship that finds itself beached on the Frozen Coast; trapped without help as the water literally ices up around them, only to then get picked off by a mysterious creature. (Someone at Zenimax Online watched AMC's The Terror.) Or the tale of a young woman exploring magic and the boundaries of her love at the same time, only to fall into an icy curse. Another fun excursion involves a hidden mining town underneath Western Skyrim, with a host of indentured miners who find themselves being picked off one-by-one.
Zenimax Online is adept at starting with unique premises and then exploring them for 20-30 minutes. Like the random books you find on every shelf in any Elder Scrolls game, there are bite-sized adventures strewn across all of Greymoor.
So it's a shame that the main quest of the expansion isn't as interesting. Greymoor plays on Skyrim's Dawnguard DLC heavily, without matching up to it in impact. Unlike Elsweyr, where the primary threat made itself known rather early on, Greymoor takes a longer time to assemble the necessary players and put a face on the conflict. Without some villain to bounce off of, much of the primary campaign is spent gathering up like-minded supporting characters and poking against enemy skullduggery. Given the impressive presentation of the characters in ESO, giving players a great villain to contend with should always be the first step.
Things do start to improve more once the campaign spends more time in Blackreach though. Blackreach is the underworld of Western Skyrim, and the place where the developer flexes a bit. While Skyrim is just grey forests and mountains, Blackreach is a world of giant, bioluminescent mushrooms and odd, jellyfish-like creatures. Amongst this alien life, there are ancient Dwemer ruins and even the necropolis of the enemy nestled among glowing pools of lava. Greymoor Keep, the place this expansion is named for, is such a fantastic capper to Blackreach.
I admit, however, that Blackreach doesn't feel as naturalistic as theSkyrim overworld does. Skyrim feels like a place, with logical spots for the various cities and quest locations. Blackreach instead feels more like a theme park for the MMO, with the mining town being only a few steps away from the hidden village of sightless vampires. How exactly did the miners miss them? Regardless of that issue, Blackreach is the highlight of the expansion. Hell, the contrast between both halves of Greymoor is strong, and Blackreach's standout visual hooks make me wonder why Zenimax Online even needed to bother with upper Skyrim itself.
Zenimax Online didn't spend all its time on world-building and storytelling though; it's also spun up a few new gameplay features for the Greymoor expansion. Key among them is the Antiquarian Circle guild, which unlocks the relic-hunting Antiquities system. This system is split into Scrying and Excavating halves. Scrying is really just a Match-3 mini-game where one aims to clear certain sections on a wide playing field. The more sections you clear, the more you narrow down your Excavation spot on the map.
Once the dig spot's been discovered, the Antiquarian’s Eye is used to point the way toward the spot to excavate the item in another mini-game, this time in the style of Minesweeper. Antiquities is a fun little diversion that can net treasure, which can be turned in for valuable gold, or other new items, like the new mythic gear. Still, it's just a diversion overall, as opposed to the meat of Greymoor.
Another new facet of Greymoor are the harrowstorms, and I'm sad to report that they're just another new flavor of the dark anchors, abyssal geysers, and dragons from previous chapters, making them basically world events that occasionally appear on the map. In the narrative, harrowstorms turn nearby citizens into mindless zombies, consuming their souls in an urn to summon creatures from the Grey Host. In practice, players have to destroy witch pikes that are protected by enemy creatures, before finally dealing with a random final boss creature.
Unfortunately, like the previous incarnations of the system, players simply swarm everything in a mess of melee and magic until the event is done. I can see the designers stretch to provide something new, but the community simply side-steps all of that, making harrowstorms just like every other random open-world event in Elder Scrolls Online. (It also doesn't help that in many cases, the harrowstorm will be destroyed in the time it takes you to travel to the location.) It feels like Zenimax Online is entering into a bit of a rut with this event system overall.
That may be true of Elder Scrolls Online as a whole. I finished all of Greymoor's main tale in around 30 hours. This chapter lands at the bottom of the pile compared to Morrowind, Summerset, and Elsweyr. Under the hood, the Elder Scrolls Online remains the same grinding machine it's been since 2016. I know the ebbs and flows of the experience, so the entire thing lives and dies on the freshness of the new world being presented to me. And compared to its immediate predecessors, Greymoor is simply not as fascinating.
An MMO's expansions need to surprise players, creating an interesting world to explore and vibrant characters to enjoy. Greymoor does this, but only to a certain degree. It falls short when compared to what came before. I understand the logic of returning to Skyrim ahead of the 10th anniversary of The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim, but it's a locale that doesn't resonate with me as much as it might with other players. Maybe that'll change as the ongoing storyline for 2020, entitled Dark Heart of Skyrim, expands Greymoor to further places—here's hoping for the Forgotten Vale or Eldergleam Sanctuary—but for right now, Greymoor is just solid, not fantastic.
The Elder Scrolls Online heads back to familiar locale ahead of the 10th anniversary of The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim. Unfortunately, Western Skyrim isn't the same stunning location as Morrowind or Summerset. There are moments of beauty, but Skyrim itself is drab, grey landscape for the most part. The undercroft of Blackreach is a more interesting and fantastical location, but it's only half of the entire experience. And while the Antiquities system is a fun addition, the harrowstorm open-world events feel hauntingly familiar. ESO's storytelling is still top-notch, but where that story is told matters just as much.