By the time December rolls around, a full decade will have passed since Bethesda first awed us with the announcement of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which is considered one of the greatest sandbox RPGs of all time (if not for its depth or its main quest, then for the openness and flexibility of its world). The Elder Scrolls Online returns again to that frosty, Viking-esque province with its new Greymoor expansion, and it’s… just fine. Its quests and setting are appetizing enough if you like your Nordic-themed fantasy served with a gooey side of vampires, but I never shook the feeling that ZeniMax Online’s latest dish left the kitchen a tad too early.
Greymoor is certainly beautiful, to its credit. It’s set in Skyrim’s dreary, marshy northwestern corner, which nevertheless manages to show how far ESO’s graphics have come since we saw the eastern half of the region at launch back in 2014. The centerpiece is Solitude, a city that extends over a rocky arch and makes a good subject for screenshots (and which makes me wonder about the property value of the plots directly above the precarious gap). Unfortunately, the potential for creativity gets mired in the drive for nostalgia. Maybe we can accept that the fortress city of Solitude looks exactly the same despite this story being 800 years before Skyrim, but nearby Morthal is also still just a handful of shacks beside a swamp. Surely there would have been some differences in that span of time, just to make it distinctive?
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Fortunately for anyone wanting a bit of visual variety, Western Skyrim takes up only a little more than half of Greymoor’s new playable area. The rest of it unfolds in Blackreach: a gorgeous, sprawling (yet labyrinthine) zone with glowing mushrooms the size of redwoods and gothic-inspired castles that reach as high as skyscrapers. Blackreach isn’t a new thing; it, too, saw some screen time in Skyrim, but never on so remarkable a scale as this. As with excellent ESO DLCs like Murkmire, it’s a reminder of what wonders ZeniMax can achieve when it’s freed from the bonds of the past (or the future?), and I wish we could have seen more of that.
The drive to pay homage to Skyrim, in fact, may be at least part of the reason why the story falls a little flat. You’ll find no dragons here (although you will find the dragon shrines), but Greymoor does recall the single-player adventure through a vampire-heavy story that riffs a bit on 2012’s memorable Dawnguard expansion. As in Dawnguard, you’ll even get a vampire companion who tags along on a lot of quests, although Greymoor’s Fennorian is never quite so memorable as Dawnguard’s Serana. Occasionally, the tale delivers moving moments, and Jennifer Hale’s usual excellent voice acting in the role of the hero Lyris Titanborn does help make up for some of the weaker moments. On the whole, though, it’s a predictable and brief storyline that feels a little too similar to last year’s Elsweyr expansion in its broad strokes. The main bad guy barely gets any screen time at all. The side quests are a bit of an improvement, but even they never hit the same high notes we’ve seen in the last few chapters like Summerset and Morrowind. Considering this is Skyrim we’re talking about, I was expecting a little more than just “okay.”
The story is also the basis for the random “harrowstorms” dotting the landscape of Western Skyrim and Blackreach, which are basically spots of unpleasant weather which turn the inhabitants into mindless husks or fast-moving zombies in the vein of 28 Days Later. The storms look cool, but in practice, they’re merely another variation on the dark anchors, abyssal geysers, and dragons we’ve seen in previous chapters—and for that matter, the loot is so pitiful that they’re mainly worth doing for XP. Also, it’s a shame that wayshrines for quick travel feel inconveniently placed for harrowstorms and that Greymoor doesn’t mark the events on the map as Elsweyr did with dragons.
You’ll find a sense of familiarity creeping throughout the rest of Greymoor, too. This is not a chapter to play if you’ve been wanting a massive overhaul of the now-familiar ESO experience we’ve known since 2016’s One Tamriel, which did wonders to reinvigorate the game after its rocky launch but is now starting to lose some of its novelty. So in addition to the familiar harrowstorms, completing Greymoor’s full range of content consists of venturing into six soloable dungeons called delves, two public dungeons that offer a little more challenge (and good grinding spots), beating six world bosses, hunting down skill shards for more skill points, and – for high-end players – a new raid-like trial. The trial aside, that’s roughly 15 to 20 hours. If you’re new to ESO and you simply want to visit Skyrim again, I recommend it for how this familiar design allows you to drop straight into the new content. In MMORPGs like Final Fantasy XIV, by comparison, getting to the new good stuff typically involves a slog through older and often interior adventures.
But there is at least one genuinely new feature, and it’s one I expect will be remarkably beneficial for new players. I speak of the new “Antiquities” system, which comes with two skill lines and bears a superficial resemblance to World of Warcraft’s archaeology profession. Despite the similarities between the two concepts, the relative complexity of the minigames makes ESO’s antiquities far more entertaining than WoW’s version, even though it, too, quickly devolves into a grind if you want to get the most out of it. The first half consists of a “scrying” minigame to minimize the number of dig sites on a zone’s map you have to visit to find an artifact, while the second half makes you dig in the dirt with everything from brushes to shovels for the actual items, with the difficulty finding the relic before the stamina bar runs out increasing with the quality of the relic.
The ostensible appeal of the Antiquities system lies in the way it lets you dig up everything from cosmetic items to a mount and the new batch of rare “mythic” gear, but I especially welcome it because it’s a good way for casual players to make a decent pile of cash. Prior to this, making good money in ESO tended to involve joining a trading guild for the privilege of using an auction house NPC, but Antiquities artifacts sell to vendors for anywhere from 250 gold to 5,000. That’s good walking-around money, and a lot more than you’ll get from stealing random junk. The process of leveling alone made me rich enough to properly furnish my player house, which I’d previously given up on because I couldn’t keep up with the dues demanded by my trading guild.
In keeping with the theme of the expansion, the release of Greymoor also introduced the first big overhaul to the vampire skill line since launch. It’s essentially what we get in place of a new class. This isn’t a strictly Greymoor feature, though, as any players with vampirism get the changes regardless of whether they have the expansion or not. Feeding is a lot more fun now, as there’s a surprisingly wide range of animations for the moments when you sink your teeth into hapless bandits. But playing a vampire also comes at a higher cost now: skills cost more resources and enemies do a lot more damage to you the more powerful you are, and then a lot of NPCs won’t interact with you if you’re at the highest stage. The only way to get rid of it is to wait it out for a few hours or to grab a potion that isn’t always easy to find. I’m personally enjoying the changes, but I can see how some previously viable playstyles like vampire tanking aren’t going to cut it going forward.
Speaking of waiting, you might want to give Greymoor a little more time to settle before joining in. The Skyrim name is such a popular draw that Zenimax appeared totally unprepared for demand, resulting in massive server lag for the first couple of days and pings that shot up past 900 and made common animations take around a minute. That’s better now after a weekend patch, but Greymoor remains plagued by plenty of other bugs, including a particularly nasty one that makes some enemies in delves totally untargetable and invulnerable to attacks.
I had fun in Greymoor. I actually gasped the first time I saw Blackreach open before me, and I don’t think any landscapes in Summerset or Elsweyr ever led me to do that. Even so, some of the magic feels missing from this expansion. It’s beautiful yet a bit hollow, sort of like Blackreach itself. Maybe this weakness has something to do with the fact that ZeniMax had to do many of the final touches while working from home, but even so, considering what a powerful hand ZeniMax holds with Skyrim, I expected more. It’s clearly aware of that nostalgia value, as it still hasn’t released southern or northern Skyrim and cities like Markarth and Whiterun, as if it’s holding them back for a rainy day. And when those zones arrive—maybe around the time of the true 10-year anniversary of Skyrim—here’s to hoping that they leave a shout echoing through gaming history, much as Skyrim itself did.