The Elder Scrolls Online - Greymoor review: 2020's Tamriel Tourism Starter Kit
- 02 June, 2020 13:00
I feel like I must be the first person to ever be upsold into playing The Elder Scrolls Online based more on the fun I had with the series’ mobile spin-off than my flirtations with Morrowind, Oblivion or Skyrim.
Even as someone who loves their historically-flavored fantasy settings, I’ve never been all that invested in Tamriel. I’ll take another Dragon Age, Warcraft or Pillars of Eternity game over a new Elder Scrolls any day of the week. But, after Blades surprised me, I was willing to give Greymoor a fighting chance.
The Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor is the fourth major expansion for Bethesda’s always-online and ever-evolving installment in the fantasy RPG franchise.
Set in the mountainous slopes of Western Skyrim, Greymoor sees your character in pursuit of a sinister coven of Vampires and tasked with bringing order to a wild land in disarray.
Technically, the through-line for the plot here begins with the previous Harrowstorm DLC and Greymoor prologue story content but, coming in as a newcomer, I didn’t feel too out of my depth. Cast as a hero of your own making, you’ll trawl the slopes of Skyrim for clues, defend against supernatural incursions and recruit allies to your cause.
The Getaway Plan
Much like the MMORPG’s first expansion, Greymoor is unashamed to milk the legacy and reputation of its setting for all it's worth. Fair enough - the team behind the game would be foolish to do anything else. The shadow of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim looms large and evoking its memory is an effective way to delight current players, encourage lapsed subscribers to return and give skeptics like me a good excuse to finally give The Elder Scrolls Online a shot.
Creating a character can take as little or as long as you want. I ended up creating a Nord Dragonknight because having a burly barbarian who can breath fire seemed like a pretty fun way to go about things.
As someone who has played a lot of World of Warcraft and, more recently, a lot of Star Wars: The Old Republic, I was actually pretty impressed with the quality of the writing and storytelling in Greymoor. Almost everything seems to be voice acted and even the expansion’s smaller B-plots take some fun and unexpected turns.
The Elder Scrolls Online doesn’t exactly subvert or reinvent the typical fantasy tropes but it often deploys them in ways that feel fresh. Even when the stakes are small, they feel meaningful and inviting to engage with rather than disposable or forgettable. It really feels like the writing and voice actors involved put in the work to make me care about what's happening and what I'm doing.
As opposed to the World of Warcraft model of what MMOs should play like, the quests in Greymoor feel less like filler. They’re not something to be blitzed through on your way to the level cap. They’re the reason you’re there in the first place.
What’s more, since the quest content in Greymoor scales with your level, you’re more-or-less free to pick a direction and see what you’ll find. In that sense specifically, I was impressed with how well The Elder Scrolls Online evokes the open world structure found in its single-player counterparts.
Alternatively, if you’re more a stick-to-the-handrails kind of adventurer, the main quest in Greymoor will guide across and underneath Western Skyrim. See, ESO’s latest add-on doesn’t add a single location to the MMORPG's already-expansive world. Technically, it adds two.
Scattered across Graymoor’s Nordic valleys are ancient Dwarven lifts that can transport you to the subterranean territories of Blackreach. The geode-lit caverns of Skyrim’s underworld act as a nice tonal counterweight to the open skies of the realm above.
Again, massive caveat that I’m coming very late to the party here, but I found the combat in The Elder Scrolls Online to be something of a mixed bag. It’s not bad but it certainly took some getting used to.
Like combat in the other Elder Scrolls entries, close-combat encounters feel awfully floaty and weightless. On the other hand, the way that the combat systems in Elder Scrolls Online incorporate blocking, interrupting and breaking yourself out of stun effects forces you to be a tad more actively engaged than most other MMORPG combat systems do.
Weekend in Skyrim
Beyond questing, Elder Scrolls Online also features a number of different professions that you can pursue such as cooking, smithing and enchanting. Greymoor adds the archeology-flavoured antiquities system to this side of the equation. This system lets you scry out the location of buried relics for fun and profit.
Antiquities aren’t a massive-game changer but, treated as a side-hustle to slaying vampires, they’re a neat addition that changes the way you think about and traverse the physical spaces in the game.
While much of what Greymoor has to offer can be experienced as a single-player experience, there are a few additions here that encourage you to collaborate with others.
The most visible of these are the Western Skyrim’s Harrowstorms. These crimson-colored public events funnel you and nearby players to a shared location and see you fight off waves of enemies before taking down a boss. They’re repetitive by nature but a fun enough diversion.
Unfortunately, Harrowstorms are something of a locus for Greymoor's technical and performance issues. Even playing a machine grossly overpowered for it, my time in Tamriel was plagued by sudden frame-rate dips, texture pop in and a handful of crashes. I’ve played buggier launch titles but, given the age of Elder Scrolls Online’s architecture, it’s disappointing to see Zenimax and Bethesda don’t seem to have a handle on things this late in the game. Though not directly related to the above complaints, it's also a shame that the folks behind Elder Scrolls Online haven't found a way to facilitate cross-play.
Greymoor also introduces new endgame content in the form of a 12-player Trial called Kyne’s Aegis. Unfortunately, I was not able to properly experience this for myself - since the in-game group finder caps out at 4-player dungeons and PVP battlegrounds.
With a main quest that took me about twelve hours to complete, there’s simply no way you’re going to reach the level cap in Elder Scrolls Online with Greymoor alone. Thankfully, the standard edition of the latest expansion bundles together the previous Morrowind, Summerset and Elsweyr Chapters. Once you’ve had your fill of Western Skyrim, there’s still plenty to see and do.
Of course, if you're coming to things as someone who has already played plenty of those earlier expansions, the high price that Greymoor demands might leave a sour taste in your mouth.
It might come with a bucket-list of cosmetic goodies but Greymoor doesn't include past (or future) DLC that isn't one of ESO's major Chapter updates. If you want to go back and see where this year's 'Dark Heart of Skyrim' storyline began, you'll have to pay for it. If you want to see where that plotline goes next, that too will cost you money. If you're a newcomer, there's a ton of content here but plenty more that Bethesda want to charge you for later down the line.
The Bottom Line
As someone who has always found the Elder Scrolls games a bit overrated, I came away from Greymoor genuinely thrilled. Perhaps that’s because, as opposed to something like Oblivion or Skyrim, ESO feels like much less of a compromise on what it's trying to do.
Elder Scrolls Online isn’t trying to be this big simulation-like open world game and an epic fantasy RPG. Instead, it’s just trying to be the latter and, after a few years of refinement, the team behind the game seem to have become very good at it.
What’s more, where expansions for other MMORPGs like WoW are more focused on stretching out the long-tail of an online game’s appeal, Greymoor is able to do that while also acting as a compelling entry point for new players. The previous expansions for the game might be bundled in but there’s no real pressure to go back and experience the last four years of story content if you don’t have the time or desire to.
As far as MMORPGs go, The Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor feels surprisingly respectful of your time. If you go looking for stuff to do, you’ll certainly find it but if you just want to jump in for a dozen hours of tourism in Tamriel, you can hit the highlights without over-committing.
It might share a setting with the single-player focused franchise but Greymoor feels like it’s much more comfortable in its own skin and for all that Elder Scrolls Online might seem like another World of Warcraft, the game’s latest expansion shows that it's possible to have a different - and arguably more compelling - model for what an endless fantasy MMORPG can be.
As you might expect, the joys of Greymoor aren’t found in the destination but in the journey.
The Elder Scrolls Online: Greymoor is available now on PC, Playstation 4 and Xbox One.