ELDER SCROLLS ON­LINE: MURKMIRE RE­VIEW: AT LAST, LOVE FOR THE LIZARDS

Macworld (USA) - - Macuser - BY LEIF JOHN­SON

It’s hard to love a swamp. Moun­tains have majesty, deserts have mys­tery, but what do wet­lands have? I imag­ine some Joe on the street would boil it down to some­thing like “muck, malaria, and mosquitoes.”

Even so, Famia Mer­cius, an an­ti­quar­ian who’s a great ad­mirer of the Elder Scrolls se­ries’ lizard-like Ar­goni­ans, is try­ing to get me to love the sur­round­ing marsh as she does. She’s not do­ing such a hot job. She slaps a gnat off her neck while in the mid­dle of a giddy in­tro­duc­tion, and her stone house sug­gests she re­tains some reser­va­tions about liv­ing like the lo­cals. I can’t say I blame her. After all, the place (and the name of the DLC) is called

Murkmire, which hardly sounds like it’s go­ing to ri­val Tahiti in va­ca­tion lis­ti­cles any­time soon.

Murkmire is a risky set­ting; I doubt it could have sus­tained one of Elder Scrolls On­line’s largest “chap­ters” like

Mor­rowind ( go. mac­world.com/mrwd) or Sum­mer­set ( go. mac­world.com/smrs). You won’t find tra­di­tional fan­tasy crowd pleasers like snowswept peaks and el­ven tow­ers here.

In­stead, I spent roughly half my 10 or so hours with Murkmire slosh­ing and sloosh­ing through a flat ex­panse of pud­dles punc­tu­ated by a thou­sand spindly trees; the rest of my time con­sisted of slosh­ing and sloosh­ing through pud­dles pool­ing be­tween rocks. Murkmire oc­ca­sion­ally chan­neled In­di­ana Jones by send­ing me into long-aban­doned

Ar­gonian zig­gu­rats stuffed with blow-dart traps and spikes, but I some­times got the feel­ing that de­vel­oper Zen­i­max On­line was try­ing to min­i­mize the time you spend here. Murkmire isn’t even

that big: You’ll only find two new delves and two new world bosses, although there’s quite a few new gear sets and mo­tifs for craft­ing.

BORN ON THE BAYOU

And yet it’s needed. After all, Elder Scrolls is of­ten at its best when it runs us along the rough edges of fan­tasy worlds.

Long­time fans know the Ar­goni­ans come from the Black Marsh, but in the past we’ve only caught glimpses of it in zones like Shad­owfen. There, the lizard­kin re­main over­shad­owed by cul­tural forces that have loomed over them for years, be they the Dark Elves that use them as slaves or the Im­pe­ri­als that hold them in only slightly bet­ter re­gard. They’re treated like turds un­der the world’s boots, forced to live in muddy hov­els on the edges of towns. I used to see those muddy huts as ev­i­dence of a proud cul­ture; Murkmire, though, hints that they might rep­re­sent forced poverty.

Murkmire lets us see Ar­gonian life when they live on their own terms. The main city of Lil­moth is an agree­able one

(and one you may spend a lot of time in, con­sid­er­ing that craft­ing benches are as close to­gether here as they are in player­fa­vorite Rawl’kha).

Here, they live in wooden, comfy homes with stilts that raise them above the muck. Oc­ca­sion­ally you’ll find some of these huts built around a hist tree— which Ar­goni­ans re­vere as other races re­vere gods—cre­at­ing a struc­ture that’s at once a vil­lage and a treehouse. Frankly, I’d kind of like to live in one of these huts my­self, but the only new player house here is a stag­ger­ingly large half-sunken zig­gu­rat with the lower level mag­i­cally sealed off to serve as an aquar­ium. Con­sid­er­ing the state of the rest of Murkmire, I’d be wor­ried about gen­tri­fy­ing the neigh­bor­hood.

Here, so far away from the world’s usual com­ings and go­ings, the Ar­goni­ans re­tain their pride. Some clans even re­tain their fe­roc­ity, un­dulled by gen­er­a­tions of bondage weigh­ing down their kin else­where.

Vir­tu­ally ev­ery quest al­lows a peep into Ar­gonian so­ci­ety. Books found through­out Murkmire tell of ma­tu­rity ri­tu­als in­volv­ing pot­tery; mis­sions from wan­der­ers em­pha­size the im­por­tance of roots from a hist tree. In side quests we catch glimpses of the changes Ar­gonian in­clu­sion in the wider world has brought, be it con­niv­ing over prop­erty or be­tray­als for the sake of nurs­ing skooma ad­dic­tions. Through it all, the in­hab­i­tants of Murkmire re­mind us that theirs is a so­cial so­ci­ety that has changed its per­cep­tion of it­self, right down to for­sak­ing their old zig­gu­rats—the “stone nests”—for the im­per­ma­nence of their wooden struc­tures.

THERE GOES THE NEIGH­BOR­HOOD

It’s hard to blame them; change comes as fre­quently as the rain in Black Marsh. It’s fit­ting, then, that Murkmire’s best sto­ries

deal with the out­side world’s at­tempts to change the swamp for its ex­ploita­tion. Famia her­self is a part of that her­itage: She’s here to col­lect ar­ti­facts and cart them off to the Im­pe­rial City be­cause “Ar­goni­ans just don’t care about their his­tory that much.” Her heart’s in the right place, but it’s an ar­gu­ment that’s been used for bad ends too of­ten in the past.

But her in­ves­ti­ga­tions lead to a fas­ci­nat­ing glimpse into the depths of the Ar­gonian re­la­tion­ship with the hist, even if the over­all main story slips too eas­ily into the for­mula of be­tray­als and gotchas that make up so many of ESO’S tales. Key char­ac­ters pop into the nar­ra­tive with the star­tling swift­ness of a jack-in-the-box, while promis­ing char­ac­ters like the Kha­jiit mer­ce­nary Zadaza get too lit­tle screen time. All the same, I ad­mire the story at its core, along with its han­dling of the com­plex and some­times coun­ter­in­tu­itive al­liances that come out of a colo­nial le­gacy.

And if you’re sick of swamps and the like, don’t worry—much like many ESO patches, it gets trippy. Murkmire’s main story goes places I never would have guessed based on its fens and its Tomb Raider– style romps.

You’ll never see those trippy set­tings out­side the main story. The mire it­self is so soaked in Ar­gonian cul­ture that for­eign ad­di­tions stick out like a blight. The most no­table of these is the new four-man

Black­rose Prison arena, an aban­doned Im­pe­rial struc­ture that’s now home to a band of ruf­fi­ans who are hold­ing a ran­dom Wood Elf’s friend hostage. Much like the Mael­strom Arena, it’s a bru­tal place. I like the de­sign; too of­ten ESO has stuck to tra­di­tional arena de­signs for these kinds of things, while Black­rose sends you bat­tling through rooms with vary­ing chal­lenges and lay­outs. Ul­ti­mately, the prison will likely be the rea­son why you re­turn to Murkmire after fin­ish­ing the story.

But the story and the zone to­gether rep­re­sent one of those rare mo­ments when ESO dis­tin­guishes it­self by bring­ing some­thing gen­uinely new to the

Elder Scrolls uni­verse. It’s one big re­minder that there’s of­ten beauty and rich va­ri­ety in things we too quickly dis­miss as ugly. Murkmire may look bland in com­par­i­son to a won­der­land like Sum­mer­set, but that’s only when you’re drink­ing in the big pic­ture.

Look more closely, and you see new species such as “swamp jel­lies” and “cat­a­pult cab­bages.” You’ll find wa­ter­falls where you ex­pected to find stag­na­tion. For some of us, I imag­ine it’s a metaphor for ap­pre­ci­at­ing the Ar­goni­ans them­selves, who re­veal a depth that ar­guably ex­ceeds that of the other races when you ex­am­ine them more closely.

Like Famia, like me, you may learn that you can grow to love a swamp.

Elder Scrolls On­line’s Murkmire DLC is freely ac­ces­si­ble with an

ESO Plus sub­scrip­tion ( go. mac­world.com/esop). Al­ter­na­tively, you can buy it for roughly $20 through ESO’S in-game

Crown Store ( go.mac­world. com/crwn). ■

It looks like the area where I grew up. That’s not a com­pli­ment.

The story gets a lit­tle…sappy.

The ghosts of lizards past.

You’ll find some skel­lies, too, if you need your Hal­loween fix.

What a re­lief.

It’s not quite a gelati­nous cube, but it’s close!

Don’t drain the swamp.

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