We toured the Dark Heart of Skyrim with the devs

Skyrim holds a special place in the hearts of many. Massive mountain ranges blanketed in snow, Nords going about life in the harsh climes, fishing and farming in the areas that allow it. There is something majestic and untamable about the land that is mirrored in the people that live there.

Welcome back to Skyrim

But the Skyrim we know and love, the one in The Elder Scrolls V, is pretty far in the future when it comes to The Elder Scrolls Online. 900 years before the story of the Dovahkiin, a lot can be instantly recognised, while a few places have buildings that don’t survive the test of time. The team at ZeniMax Online Studios worked really hard to make sure that locations, buildings and vistas from TES V would be familiar. Where applicable, the layouts are the same, with cities and keeps having the same floor-plan. In other places, buildings are quite different, showing the passage of time and how people flock to certain places for functional reasons.

In the TESO time period, the Imperials haven’t arrived and conquered the northern lands yet, and a war between West and East Skyrim preoccupies many of the inhabitants, and an ancient vampire lord has amassed a terrifying army full of vampires, witches and werewolves and is twisting the very land with blood magic, hexes and curses.

“We had to strike a balance between paying off the nostalgia for players who are fans of Skyrim, cause we didn’t want to disappoint them. But also introducing new things so they wouldn’t just think ‘oh, you just copied over Skyrim and put it in my Elder Scrolls.'”

Zone lead Ed Stark and lead content designer Jeremy Sera took me on a tour of the region that players will be exploring next week (May 26 for PC, June 9 for consoles). Starting in Solitude, which is the main hub for this region. The Solitude Docks is the first place that veterans will arrive once they get the Greymoor chapter. This city is where players will find all the merchants, crafters, daily quests and PVP-related NPCs are located. Solitude is also the home of the king of Western Skyrim, so get used to visiting here a lot as you quest in Greymoor. It is also the home of the new antiquities system, which will turn you into an ancient treasure hunter. You can see the layout of Solitude is still very similar to what exists in TESV, but without the Imperial influences.

Loading into the city is really quick, part of the optimisations that ZeniMax is doing to make the game as smooth as possible. Part of the trick is having the city be physically far away in the zone, so that your computer isn’t trying to load what is going on outside the walls while you are in a bustling town.

Stark mentions the fine line of paying homage to what exists in TESV, and making their own world a few times during the tour. “We had to strike a balance between paying off the nostalgia for players who are fans of Skyrim, cause we didn’t want to disappoint them. But also introducing new things so they wouldn’t just think ‘oh, you just copied over Skyrim and put it in my Elder Scrolls.'” One example of something that doesn’t exist in Skyrim is a massive structure called the Tower of the Wolf, which was built by High-King Svargrim, but it is nowhere to be seen in Skyrim. Obviously something big will happen here, as the tower is one of the locations of the main story of the game. Another example is Dragon Bridge. Remember the Dragon Bridge Overlook? It looked impressive but oddly abandoned in Skyrim. Here though, there is a garrison because it is an important line of defence against the Reach.

Harrowstorms

Greymoor is part of a dark, gothic and more grisly tale than previous chapters of TESO, and the Harrowstorm is a perfect example of this. A massive tornado-like storm can be seen in the distance, angry seething red leaking out of the vortex. As you get closer the world gets tinged with crimson, as if the air is filled with a fine mist of blood. At the bottom of the storm, a ritual is being performed by Icereach Witches to turn people into monsters. Three angry Witch Pikes, large thorny growths that can strike out at nearby players form the heart of the ritual, and lost spirits are sucked into them, energising the Grey Reliquary in the centre. These work a lot like the Geysers or Anchors of TESO: built for a group of players to work together to fight the various boss monsters, destroy the Witch Pikes and disrupt the lost souls. Doing so will get loot and stop the ritual, if you don’t mind fighting some grotesque enemies

Blackreach

Underneath Skyrim, the vast Blackreach caverns are full of mystery. Ancient Dwemer constructions, towering mushrooms, glittering crystal formations and more are found down here, along with the Folmer, blind, devolved Snow Elves that lurk in the darkest reaches. But there is also a town down here, and far to the north, where no sunlight can reach is a mighty Vampire stronghold. And if you like your life on the vampiric, gothic side a new home can be bought here called Bastion Sanguinaris, which will fulfill your dark desire to have an abode fit for a true Vampire Lord.

Antiquities

Want to do something that doesn’t involve killing? Or perhaps a break from the killing? A new system that lets you be a magical archaeologist, giving you leads to explore around the world, using a scrying stone and excavating tools to unearth these old bits of history. These two mini-games will lead to objects to sell, but also mounts and other cool things can be found as you follow leads and track down these lost artifacts. It feels like a good excuse to go exploring a region or two, unearthing its history.

There are myriad other things coming to Greymoor. Powerful mythic items that will give you a bonus that feels as good as a full set bonus, but only having to equip a single item. Performance fixes like better multi-threading on the client side, and server optimisations which improve scenes with lots of players especially with lots of AoE effects.

A lot of love has gone into designing the world of West Skyrim, from researching shallow-draft boats for marsh-fishing, to which way a waterwheel turns in a lake, to watching elk sharpen their horns on nearby trees and bears fishing in the river, there is a sense that the people making this game put a lot of care into the smaller details, giving players much to look at while doing quests or hunting down antiquities.

If it has the letters RPG in it, I am there. Still battling with balancing trying to play every single game that grabs my interest, getting 100% in a JRPG, and devoting time to my second home in Azeroth.

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