Blackwood, the latest chapter in The Elder Scrolls Online’s ongoing “Gates of Oblivion” event, is poised to be a particularly special experience for fans of the all-time classic Bethesda fantasy RPG The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. While the chapter is set 800 years prior to the events of Oblivion, Blackwood’s versions of the sprawling cities of Leyawiin and Gideon, as well as the devilish Deadlands, will undoubtedly feel familiar to veterans of the 2006 classic. But as we learned during a hands-on demo period in April, the expansion also features new areas and characters that bring these iconic locations to life in new ways.
Like with the game’s Skyrim-based Greymoor chapter, nostalgia permeates every aspect of Blackwood, including the setup of its story. Mehrunes Dagon, Oblivion‘s diabolical antagonist, takes center stage once again as the chapter’s main villain, but things aren’t as they seem.
“The story is about a deal with a devil,” ESO creative director Rich Lambert explains. “When you first arrive in Leyawiin, you’re asked to investigate a threat to a number of Imperial counselors who used to council the Longhouse Emperors. When you start to dig into things, you begin to realize that there’s a lot more going on than initially expected. How Mehrunes Dagon is involved in this is up to you to figure out and put an end to.”
Spawning randomly in the swampy Blackwood east of the legendary city are Oblivion Portals, which don’t appear on the map, making each encounter feel unexpected. When you interact with these portals, you’re transported to the Deadlands, a public dungeon-sized area where you can find new loot, face challenging enemies, and uncover details about Mehrunes Dagon’s grand scheme.
“Mehrunes Dagon is one of my favorite Daedric Princes, if not my favorite,” Lambert says. “He’s this cool, big, badass, four-armed character that wields axes. How can you not like that?”
Oblivion Portals are not the same as the Oblivion Gates you fought to close in Oblivion, however. Unlike the latter, portals behave more frenetically and plop you in random spots across the Deadlands, Dagon’s hellish realm.
“We’re thinking of these as Mehrunes Dagon figuring out that tech,” Lambert explains. “It’s like his initial science experiment. These are the precursors to the gates. They don’t work exactly the same way. There may or may not be secrets hidden in there. There are also other parts of the Deadlands explorable in the main story. The fourth-quarter DLC is going to be more akin to, say, Clockwork City, where you’re in the Deadlands, exploring the Deadlands.”
While nostalgia will be the key to charming Oblivion veterans when exploring the Deadlands, Lambert insists that there are more than a few surprises in store for even the most knowledgeable fans.
“When you get to the end of the dungeon, you learn a bit about how Mehrunes Dagon is doing this and you’ll see that things aren’t the same as they were in Oblivion. This is different—it’s our take on Oblivion portals and how Mehrunes is using them.”
Leyawiin, however, brings back very warm memories of Oblivion. The city is lovingly recreated along with the addition of new areas, like a dock and some sections that were flooded in the 2006 game. But even more impressive is the return of Gideon, a location that debuted in the very first Elder Scrolls game, 1994’s Arena, and hadn’t been seen since. Needless to say, it’s very cool to see how ZeniMax Online Studios is weaving the historic settlement into ESO’s ever-expanding map.
Exploring the highland forests of the region of Cyrodiil evokes Oblivion in a powerful way as well. Blackwood even lets you explore areas like Border Watch, Undertow Cavern, and Deepscorn Hollow as they were centuries before the events of the classic RPG.
Another aspect of Blackwood that harkens back to Oblivion is the new companion system, which allows you to recruit one of two NPCs, Imperial knight Bastian Hallix or Dunmer thief Mirri Elendis, who will then accompany you anywhere in the game other than solo arenas and PVP. The companion system should beef up the party of players who feel less comfortable with the more social aspects of the game, giving them a customizable NPC sidekick who can help them throughout their journey.
“Companions are essentially a permanent friend or adventuring buddy,” Lambert says. “They will follow you into pretty much any content. They can be a tank or a damage dealer or a healer.”
Companions have their own gear (you can’t give them yours) and behave independently on the battlefield, though you can customize their skill rotations. There is a hierarchy of skills, so if you want your companion to behave like a healer, you prioritize healing skills on their rotation so that they employ that style in battle. Both companions come with their own content, including quests and individual storylines, and you build a rapport with them as you adventure continues.
Two fan-favorite characters, Eveli Sharp-Arrow (from the Orsinium DLC) and Lyranth (Base Game), also return to help you unravel the mystery behind the brutal attacks on Imperial counselors across Blackwood. While the storyline is relatively small in scope at the outset, it eventually spirals into an epic undertaking.
Blackwood also offers a new trial called Rockgrove, which features three unique bosses with hard modes, new gear and cosmetics, and a new mount as a reward for completing the challenge. There is also a new “endeavors” system that allows you to buy crate items that typically cost real money by completing tasks that run in the background while you play. This is the first time these crate items will be available to earn without paying real money.
Console players will also get next-gen console enhancements for Xbox Series X/S and PlayStation 5. Updates include a 4K/30fps fidelity mode and a 1440p/60fps performance mode for Xbox Series X and PS5 (on Xbox Series S, it’ll be 1440p/30fps and 1080p/60, respectively). You should also expect improved lighting and textures, a nearly doubled draw distance, and more.
So far, it looks like Blackwood is yet another massive ESO chapter that reintroduces players to a familiar corner of Tamriel with a few twists to keep things fresh. Lambert and his team pay homage to Oblivion while also bringing to the table new stories and twists to the original lore.
“One of the best things about Blackwood for me is kind of going back to my roots,” Lambert says. “When I first started at Bethesda, my first game was Oblivion. Now I get to contribute more to it and flesh the world out to learn more about the history of the area.”
The Elder Scrolls Online: Blackwood is out on June 1.