When The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim originally released back on Friday, November 11, 2011 (11/11/11) it was a monumental day for me. I was attending university at the time and called in sick to my on-campus job the following morning and skipped all of my classes that day. I’d gone to midnight launches on Thursday nights at GameStop before, but never one like this. It felt like a cultural milestone, an event people would remember for the rest of their lives.
Fast forward nearly nine years later and Skyrim is once again at the forefront of a Bethesda-published game, except this time it’s for Zenimax Online Studio’s massively popular MMORPG The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) with the release of the fourth major content expansion: ‘Greymoor’.
In ‘Greymoor’, you’re tasked with venturing to the capital of Skyrim, the city of Solitude, to investigate a series of peculiar disturbances throughout the region. Witches from the Icereach Coven and dangerously powerful vampire lords have begun summoning massive, swirling harrowstorms that wreak havoc on villages and disfigure people by inflicting them with a horrible curse that transforms them into monstrosities known as the harrowfiends.
Thanks to how ESO is a fully scaled MMO, meaning all of the content scales to your level and there are no minimum level requirements outside of end-game content and proper group dungeon queues, you could jump right into ESO as a new player and focus exclusively on ‘Greymoor’ if you wanted. Every zone and every story is self-contained, which makes it highly accessible.
Overall, ‘Greymoor’ tells a good enough story that could have been great. Skyrim, the region itself, has long been the home of vampires, according to Elder Scrolls lore, but in terms of scale and epic magnitude, it’s tough to outdo the enormity of dragons, which the previous expansion ‘Elsweyr’ focused on. The area itself is far more dense and compelling than a mostly barren desert, though, and I found the characters more engaging this time around. That said, however, by the end, the core storyline does fall a bit flat.
The new chapter adds both Western Skyrim and the Blackreach Caverns as new zones. Western Skyrim is actually more like Northwestern Skyrim, since on the actual in-game ESO map for Tamriel it’s only a small quadrant of the region. There is still well over half of Skyrim missing from ESO – even after you consider both The Rift (with Riften) and Eastmarch (with Windhelm) already exist in the game. Other major cities like Dawnstar, Riverwood, Whiterun, and Winterhold are all missing, which leads me to believe a Central Skyrim DLC will be released later this year to incorporate some of them.
On the other hand, the new Blackreach Caverns zone that runs beneath Skyrim as a massive underground labyrinth of sorts is almost entirely new. The version of Blackreach from the single-player game was only a limited area to visit briefly, but you spend nearly half your time in ‘Greymoor’ underground. Visually, it’s absolutely stunning with amazing iridescent mushrooms that stretch dozens of feet into the air and a powerful atmosphere that forces you to take in your surroundings with every step.
Unfortunately, Blackreach’s actual layout is far from intuitive. The whole thing is quite literally a giant maze with multiple layers and overlapping passages rendering the flat 2D in-game map nearly useless. Tracking waypoints is a chore since your compass only shows you the direction it’s in, but not the elevation of your destination. Most add-on mods that incorporate mini maps and other convenience additions for PC players aren’t updated with ‘Greymoor’ support as of the time of this writing.
Since ESO takes place a full century before the single-player Elder Scrolls games (ESO is in the Second Era, while others, like Skyrim, are mostly in the Third Era) it’s not quite the same. Some areas are a bit different geographically, but Solitude itself is very close to the same architecturally. When you first enter the zone and see the enormous arching land bridge that extends the city across the water so that it’s nearly suspended in the air, it’s quite a sight to behold.
‘Greymoor’ also introduces the new Antiquities system, which boils down to an assortment of minigames that let you “scry” for locating valuable Tamriel treasures and then excavating them. The great thing about the system is that it provides an alternate way of acquiring powerful new items and sometimes even rare collectibles without having to complete top-tier end-game content like difficult Veteran trials.
On the other hand, I found the actual minigames bland, boring and uninspired. Mechanically creating new content like this is difficult for a six-year-old live game since you can’t dramatically overhaul or inject anything very new, but it still didn’t seem fleshed out enough.
Out of all MMOs on the market, ESO has an excellent grasp on environmental storytelling and instilling a strong, immersive atmosphere. There aren’t flashy cutscenes to sell you on the story, just extremely good writing, great voice acting, and intense moments of actual gameplay that keep you grounded in the moment. Visual treats like seeing Solitude for the first, approaching a harrowstorm after watching the spiral descend from the sky, and battling a horde of vampires feels just as epic as you’d think it would.
The new delves are all great and the new public dungeons are a blast. Despite not being a big fan of the Blackreach as a zone, I especially enjoyed the Labyrinthine dungeon located there. It covers a large area with a ton of enemy variety and features a clever play on time-juggling craziness with Dwemer ruins and artefacts. It’s a bit whimsical with some challenging battles, so it felt like a nice respite from the extremely dark and ritualistic focus of the main storyline.
Due to the setting and aesthetic of the “Dark Heart Of Skyrim” as the marketing slogan says, I played through the main storyline on my secondary low-level Khajiit Necromancer mage character so I could explore the more ‘evil’ character options thematically and fully indulge in becoming a vampire.
With ‘Greymoor’, the developers totally overhauled the vampire skill line. There is a new ultimate transformation now and a full assortment of skills so that it functions almost like its own class. For example, one ability slowly drains your health over time while another dramatically enhances your damage output based on how much health you’ve lost. It’s full of synergies like that.
However, not all of the changes are as effective or interesting. A lot of players became vampires just for the passive bonuses you’d receive even without slotting any vampire skills, but now all non-vampire abilities cost more stamina and magicka to use and you take significantly more fire damage. On one hand, the game has made vampires feel almost like its very own class, but on the other, it’s dismantled the way that vampirism has worked as a complement in Elder Scrolls games ever since their inception.
All told, I probably spent the majority of time with ‘Greymoor’ on my main character, an Argonian Warden tank, just flat out exploring. Hopping on a mount and galloping around Western Skyrim, spotting iconic areas and avoiding giant camps like it’s 2011 all over again. That is, when I could get in.
The first few days were plagued by frequent server issues that caused disconnections, clogged servers with long login queues, and even significant lag. At one point while playing there was a solid two-second delay between me pressing attack buttons and them actually happening in the game. Luckily that was fixed the next day. It was also frustrating to deal with multi-hour server downtime late at night during the exact hours I and several others I know usually play.
Anecdotally I’ve heard from others of similar, and sometimes much worse, problems with the ‘Greymoor’ rollout. Previous releases like ‘Elsweyr’ and ‘Summerset’ didn’t have such consistent and wide-ranging technical issues.
The Elder Scrolls Online is absolutely one of the best, most successful and most content-rich MMOs on the market right now.
‘Greymoor’ isn’t the best expansion Elder Scrolls Online has seen, but it also probably isn’t the worst depending on who you’re asking. There is certainly plenty to do between the sprawling mountains of Western Skyrim and labyrinthine depths of the Blackreach Caverns, but splitting the focus between two extremely distinct areas feels like a bad idea. While there are still a handful of missteps, ‘Greymoor’ proves that returning to Skyrim can be fun for more reasons than just nostalgia.
- Gorgeous environments
- Entertaining new characters
- Exciting lore implications
- Fun new dungeons and group content
- Returning to Skyrim is full of nostalgia
- Main story falls flat by the end
- Blackreach is an inconvenient maze most of the time
- Bugs and connection issues
- Vampire changes feel like an overall downgrade