Reviewed: January 14, 2003
Released: May 8, 2002
I awaken from a disturbing dream to find myself in the hold of a ship. Disoriented, I don’t quite remember who I am or what I’m doing here, but my situation soon becomes clear.
I’d been wrongfully abducted, then inexplicably released and placed on this ship which is about to set port at Vvardenfell in the province of Morrowind. Apparently, my freedom has its price, for I have been tasked with delivering a package to someone a fair journey from port. Why this strange “delivery”, and why me? I have yet to discover.
I’m herded off ship and into a census office, where an official’s questions force me to remember who and what I am. I tell him my name, race, profession, even my birth sign, which is important because in this magical realm, one’s astrological sign has great bearing on his strengths and weaknesses.
As I leave the census office and enter a strange new land, my life is now my own. I can choose to deliver the package thereby setting off a chain of events which will forever change the world around me. I can also choose to forget about my mission and make a life for myself, as an adventurer or mercenary perhaps, maybe as a merchant. There are a thousand ways to earn a living or acquire wealth if that’s my desire, and a thousand places to explore with mysteries to unravel if I’m an adventurer at heart.
I step out into a day filled with sunlight- and possibilities...
So begins my journey in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, an open ended fantasy RPG which manages to be epic in scope, deep in atmosphere, and broad with choices, all at the same time.
Morrowind is not so much a game as it is a life. Every design choice in Morrowind, from the first person perspective to having the player take the role of an individual (as opposed to controlling an entire party) draws the player into that life and makes it as real as possible.
One is immediately thrust into the story before even dealing with character creation. The opening sets the stage while unobtrusively teaching you the controls and allowing you to become comfortable with them. Then character creation becomes part of the story as you answer the customs official’s questions. Morrowind always gives choices- there are several classic methods of character creation as well as the ability to create custom characters. With four nationalities of human, three races of elf, an orc, cat-like Khajit, or lizard-like Argonian, and a choice of over twenty professions or creating you own, the permutations are endless. After choosing race and gender, one can then customize their appearance even further.
Those of you who’ve played Morrowind’s predecessor, The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, might remember that some complained it was too big, and the plot too loose. Daggerfall was one of the best RPG’s of its time, but players could get lost in the story even if they wanted to follow the plot. The designers apparently heeded this criticism, keeping Morrowind large but not nearly as large, and the story non-linear but not nearly as loose, creating a deeper, richer world because of it.
Be warned that it is still very easy to get lost from Morrowind’s main plot even if you don’t want to stray. Those for whom following the story to its conclusion is paramount might want have a strategy guide at hand for use as a road map.
Also, don’t expect the level of melodrama, with its sweeping romances and shocking betrayals, that one finds in the highly linear console style RPG’s. Games like the Final Fantasy series, because they force you on a set path, can be rich in story detail and melodrama. Morrowind is more subtle, as much of the story evolves from your general interactions with the world around you as it does from the plot-advancing quests.
A good analogy might be drawn from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. The success of these books comes not from the simple tale of a quest to destroy a ring, but from the world which has been built up around this quest. The reader becomes intimately acquainted with the humorous, food-loving hobbits, the proud, near-immortal elves, and a land which is as alive as the creatures inhabiting it. Morrowind gives the player the ability to achieve this same level of intimacy, to learn about the underlying attitudes and politics of the varied races and cultures which co-exist in this region.
As in real-life, the dynamic world of Morrowind reacts to you. What you are, what you wear, whatever known actions you’ve recently committed, all will affect how others respond to you. Additionally, every action you take opens some doors and closes others. Killing someone will preclude you from receiving quests that character might have otherwise presented you with later in your travels. Joining a faction (different from guilds, factions are special interest groups) will open up new quests and story lines, but prevent you from accepting those of a rival faction. Same goes for joining a vampire bloodline (clan).
In terms of game mechanics, Morrowind follows traditional RPG formulas. The player has different levels of ability in many major and minor skills, and can advance these skills through practice, “leveling up” as he gains experience. Where Morrowind excels in this area is through the sheer number of possibilities available to the player. One can, for instance, develop good hybrid characters such as armor-wearing magic users with solid fighting skills.
As with other RPG’s, Morrowind also evolves around quests, those which advance the story, and side quests which provide opportunity to advance your skills, obtain interesting artifacts, and generally flesh out the world around you. One can join guilds or happen along an interesting non-player character (NPC) in order to unlock whole series of quests which tell their own stories.
By their nature, quests in any game can’t involve more than going somewhere, and then giving/getting/battling something. With all of its hundreds of quests, Morrowind’s writers have mostly managed to create interesting back stories which keep these missions from becoming too repetitive or generic.
Of course, combat and magic both play major roles in Morrowind. Magic is divided into classes called schools in which characters can develop proficiency. These schools include Illusion, Conjuration, and Destruction, among others. Alchemy, the magical science of mixing various ingredients together to form potions, is well developed here, and some players will find experimentation in this art to be an enjoyable pastime in itself.
Combat is real-time, and can become quite complex. The player can chop, slash, or thrust with his sword as he chooses and even vary the intensity of his attack. Those without the speed of thought or patience for this can (thankfully) set the computer to always use the best attack.
Screens and controls are fairly intuitive. Overall, the mechanics of gameplay should not yield too many surprises for experienced RPGers. The surprises, appropriately, are left for the gameplay itself.
Graphics are stunning, but demand a powerful computer. (I know, you’re tired of hearing it.) Despite what the box says, you’ll need a fast machine and a top notch video card in order to avoid sluggish frame rates. Morrowind was one of the two titles which forced me to go out and buy a new machine (the other was GTA3). Be prepared to update drivers, tweak your machine, and play with resolutions(yeah, again) in order to achieve good performance.
From a technical standpoint, Morrowind’s first person views are light years ahead of Daggerfall’s views of two-and-a-half-D sprites and scenery, taking the next evolutionary step in the Elder Scrolls series. (A third person view is available, but it detaches the player from his character, and otherwise makes effective combat more difficult.)
From an artistic standpoint, Morrowind’s visuals are just as beautiful. Places and people are in some ways different and alien, in some ways as familiar and comfortable as I imagine they’d be if I’d gone back to a simpler time in our own world.
Different regions each have their own look and feel, for instance, indigenous plant life not found elsewhere. This again adds to the realism promoted by every aspect of Morrowind’s design, as does the passage of time and weather cycles.
The gradual shift of day into night reminded me much of time passing in Grand Theft Auto III, another visual feast of a game and one which bears strong comparison to Morrowind in terms of its graphical accomplishments- and its demands on your CPU and video card. I think it’s safe to say that whether or not your computer performs well with either of theses titles is a fair indicator of how it will perform with the other.
The music and ambient sounds for Morrowind were wonderful, appropriately adding to the mood and feel of the title. It’s good to see a trend forming among developers, who are consistently paying more attention to the important role of sound in rounding out a game’s feel. This seems to be true for all genres, and I hope to see it continue.
The only problem with the score in this title is that, although varied, it doesn’t account for the fact that a hundred hour foray into Morrowind requires a lot more variety than a thirty to forty hour romp into the usual game world. Perhaps this is too much to ask given the huge scope of Morrowind’s design in other areas, but it would have been great to see more theme music applied to specific locations and situations to make them more unique, much as the flora and fauna of the varied regions made them feel different visually.
Here’s an idea for designers: New sound tracks could perhaps “unlock” at various points after a certain number of hours have passed, levels attained, and/or other events have triggered them in order to keep the music fresh. This is not so different from unlocking new characters, cars, areas, etcetera in other games as rewards or in response to triggers within a game.
Since “value” is partly a function of how much play time you can squeeze out of a title, or “bang for the buck”, Morrowind, like Mark Spitz in the ’72 Olympics, gets the gold medal in just about every category: playability, replayability, and expandability.
Assuming one enjoys the open ended, non-linear play style represented by Morrowind, one can easily run a hundred hours on a “first run-thru” if they enjoy the title to its fullest. Heck, one can play it forever after finishing or without ever finishing, living in the game world.
Of course, there are good reasons for a second journey into Morrowind. Starting again as a thief instead of a mage, or a Khajit instead of a human, gives a very different experience and a fresh perspective on this highly interactive world. People will react to you differently, and there will still be many locales you hadn’t visited on your first trip, waiting for your discovery.
The best argument for a second visit is based on the dynamic “opening some doors while closing others” nature of the story I mentioned earlier. Big vampire fans (and you know who you are) will have to play again in order to join another clan, and open up a new subplot with its own quests. For mortals, befriending those you’ve killed in a previous game might just yield a few surprises. Morrowind is worth another trip, I wish we had that option in real life.
In terms of expandability and community, the PC version of Morrowind includes the Elder Scrolls Construction Set game editor. This just about insures that the modder community will be opening up new areas of Tamriel for exploration on a regular basis.
Of course, value isn’t really just a function of time, but of quality as well. Morrowind has that quality, and most RPGers will want to give it the time it deserves.
Much as I try, I can’t point to any aspect of Morrowind and say that it was truly innovative or groundbreaking, but the designers have raised every aspect of the title to the highest level that today’s technology and a love of their work can achieve. The result is that Morrowind’s story, atmosphere, dynamic nature, graphics, sound, and overall production values combine to pull the role player into the best, most immersive experience to date. It’s no accident that I’ve avoided using the word “game” when specifically referring to Morrowind in this review.
There are only two concerns, which I’ll repeat here. The first is that the lack of a tight linear story might put off those who prefer the console, “Final Fantasy” type experience. The second is that the steep system requirements and finicky nature of Morrowind means that you’ll need a good machine, and that you may need to work (updating drivers, tweaking settings, etc.) to fully enjoy it. But it’s worth the effort.
Remember why we play RPGs to begin with. To live another life. Live pen-and-paper role playing games managed to achieve this without fancy technology. All we needed was a talented Dungeon Master to spin a good story, and a bunch of friends who shared our interests with whom we could share a beer (or for you young’uns a glass of milk) and some friendly conversation. Morrowind is the closest a computer RPG comes yet to giving you that other life, warrior or mage, human or elf, good or evil.
Like its predecessor Daggerfall, Morrowind is destined to become a classic, a “must have” title for anyone who considers him or herself a role player.
Isn’t this why we play RPGs to begin with? To live another life?