ZeniMax Online either has an impeccable sense of timing, or it’s so lucky that all its employees should go buy lottery tickets this second. The smoke and memes have barely cleared in the aftermath of last night’s series finale of Game of Thrones, and yet, mere hours later, ZeniMax is kicking open the gates of early access for Elder Scrolls Online’s Elsweyr expansion ahead of its official release next Monday. (Only for PC and Mac users, though—if you’re on a console, you’ll have to wait until next week.)
Elsweyr is a perfect chaser for HBO’s tale of politics and fantastic beasts. You’ll see dragons, for one, and lots of them. You’ll find family members with decidedly different opinions about the invasion of a city, and you’ll even find an army of the undead worked into the mix. And if that all sounds a little too familiar, get this: Elsweyr’s also got a bunch of cat people. And we all know how much the Internet loves its cats.
Other MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV make you spend ages grinding out earlier content before you reach cool new stuff like this, which can be a drag for new players. But not Elder Scrolls Online. You can start the game straight at the part with dragons as a Level 1, in fact, if you buy the $60 Elder Scrolls Online: Elsweyr edition. If you’ve already bought ESO, you can get Elsweyr with a $40 upgrade.
Crouching tigers, barely hidden dragons
I’ll chat more about the zombies and cats when my full review drops sometime next week (along with the new necromancer class—which is great). Today, though, let’s talk about the dragons.
In Elsweyr, dragons are a frightful sort, recalling both Daenerys’ beasts in Game of Thrones and the flying lizards of Skyrim. (So much so, in fact, that I wonder if the latter influenced the former.) Here they’re no one’s pet—not even you if happen to be an ambitious throne-seeker with silvery hair. They’re highly intelligent, too, as they switch from conversations in resonant academic English to violent chats in Skyrim’s dragon tongue without skipping a beat.
They’re the indisputable masters of the food chain, and it doesn’t take long to figure out why earlier Elder Scrolls lore speaks of folks worshipping them as living gods for centuries. Indeed, Elsweyr helps put Skyrim’s Dovahkiin in context. The hero of that game could clobber dragons single-handedly with anything from knives to bare fists, while in this game I saw six players fall dead at once from a single blast of dragonfire. Twenty other players piled on the beast like ants on a sugar cube to minimal effect.
No wonder Whiterun guards speak of the Dovahkiin in awed tones when they’re not reminiscing about arrows in their knees.
Such a drag
But Elsweyr’s dragons are familiar for other reasons besides nostalgia, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Our little pile-on made me realize that Elsweyr’s dragons are ultimately just new incarnations of the quasi-dynamic “Dark Anchors” and “Abyssal Geysers” that have enlivened Elder Scrolls Online’s open-world experience for around six years now.
In the case of Dark Anchors, three anchors drop from a portal in the sky, some monsters tumble out and try to knock you around, and then you and other players smite a final boss and scramble away with its loot. They’re great for leveling if you do them repeatedly, although that gets dull quickly.
And so it goes with Elsweyr’s dragons, except they’re always the boss. Oh, they certainly leave a great impression, but only because they’re new. They fly around and roar and land in a cloud of dust. Sometimes they’ll briefly fly away from battles and lob fireballs from convenient perches, but they always come back for some more punishment. But much like Dark Anchors in other zones, they always plop down in the same three spots in Elsweyr (which I’ve taken to referring to as Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion).
I guess it makes sense in some respects. You can’t have dragons terrorizing random stretches of this dusty, cat-filled landscape. It would ruin the careful storylines of other quests (and possibly bug them out). Maybe that was fine in single-player Skyrim—as that kind of thing happened frequently—but it could be an easy recipe for disaster in a massively multiplayer RPG. I worry, though, that this approach will make get these awesome beasts forgettable before too long. It’ll make them (sigh) routine. For now, though, players don’t seem all that worried.
“So dragons are basically the same thing as Dark Anchors?” I asked in chat in the closed beta last week.
“But with DRAGONS!” someone responded. A few gleeful responses followed. Fair enough.
A world of trouble
This kind of familiarity probably only matters for people like me, who spend way too much time in this kind of game. If you just want to experience a thoughtfully written story with lots of dragons, political intrigue, and hordes of undead, Elsweyr is a logical followup for anyone needing more closure after Game of Thrones. And if you find the dragons do, in fact, get old, the entirety of the rest of Elder Scrolls Online is out there waiting to be explored in any order you wish.
If you need a good dragon fix this week, I’ve spent enough time in Elsweyr already to let you know you’ll get it here. Just keep in mind that you won’t be able to ride them (to my knowledge).
If you want to do that, you’ll want to check in for World of Warcraft’s 15th anniversary event later this year. It’s got a world-breaker of a deal for you.