Reviewed: November 19, 2003
Released: June 4, 2002
Maryland based developer Bethesda is perhaps best known for their venerable Elder Scrolls series, each installment having received numerous awards and critical acclaim from players and critics alike. Released in May 2002, Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was certainly no exception – ravenous RPG fans across the world praised the game for its amazing depth and almost overwhelming freedom.
In the first few moments of the game, you are unleashed upon the island of Vvardenfell, with little more than an ambiguous set of instructions to guide you. Where you go from there is entirely up to you. Gone are the standard conventions of linear RPGs, abandoned for the sake of allowing the player to forge their own destiny. Though ultimately there is an overarching quest that will bring you to the end of the game, it is entirely your decision when and how to pursue it, and you can easily get lost for weeks in the multifarious sub-quests and career paths.
Morrowind was followed by the release of two expansion packs – Tribunal and Bloodmoon – which were previously only available to owners of the PC incarnation. Though it was often speculated that it would remain this way forever, fans of the Xbox version were delighted to hear the announcement that yet another all-inclusive version of the game, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind GOTY Edition, would be released for the console, and that this time around it would include all of the content from both expansion packs.
Generously priced well below the original, and with hours of more content to boot, Morrowind fans furiously prepared their saved games and characters for the two additional locations – Mournhold, capital city of Morrowind, and Solstheim, an arctic island to the North.
Aside from the new locations, dungeons, equipment, and quests, Bethesda also opted to include some new features, most notably the inclusion of a health bar that indicates how much life your opponent has left. In the original, it was often impossible to gauge how much longer a fight would continue. Though that was never much of a problem when battling diseased rats and mudcrabs, some of the game’s more ferocious skirmishes could drag on for quite some time. Now it is easier to decide whether you should flee or continue to fight.
Also added was a difficulty slider, which enables the player to make the game easier than the original, or harder, whichever suits them better. A few bugs were also rectified, though no one is too clear on exactly what was fixed.
One problem that was admittedly not addressed in the Xbox version, due to the constraints of the game’s code, is the lack of an organized journal. As with any complex RPG, it is necessary for the game to chart the acceptance, and completion or failure of quests, due to the sheer number of them. The original Morrowind included this feature, though by default the journal would open to the first page, and after lengthy progression through the game, it became impossible to track down vital quest information that had been forgotten.
Morrowind is a world of ridiculously long names, as well as countless caves, ruins, and tombs that are almost identical. Thus tracking down the tomb you were supposed to go to five quests ago becomes a quest of tedium.
Also missing from the Xbox version is the ability to insert placeholders and notes into the game’s map. Again, this makes tracking down certain locations infinitely more difficult. Vvardenfell is vast and mountainous, and though there are several different quick-travel options, it nonetheless becomes necessary to travel through much of the land on foot. Xbox gamers might experience some dismay over these omissions, but ultimately they do not detract from the game too severely. Still, it would’ve been nice to see them included.
So then, new features and missing features aside, what does the additional content have to offer the seasoned Morrowind player? In the tradition of the open-ended gameplay that Morrowind is known for, either of the two new locales can be reached long before completing the main quest.
Mournhold, City of Light, City of Magic, is not located on Vvardenfell, and requires a certain sequence of events to occur on the island before players are allowed to travel to the new city. Once players arrive there, they will be pleased to find that Mournhold is far more cosmopolitan than the cities of Vvardenfell. It is a metropolis of towering walls, thriving flora and fauna, ostentatious noblemen and even a sprawling sewer system.
Though the ash covered locales of Vvardenfell sometimes seem bland and uninspired, Mournhold is vibrant, almost alive. From the Royal Palace to the Great Bazaar, exploring the limits of the city is a pleasant experience. As it should be – for the player is not allowed to travel outside of its walls, except when teleported to certain locations during the Tribunal main quest.
Speaking of the Tribunal quest, it differs from the one presented in the original, requiring the player to trudge through complex dungeons and overcome fantastic new creatures. The series of quests offered in Tribunal retain the epic feel of the original, though they are far more centralized. There are also a handful of sub-quests to be found in Mournhold, as well as crafters capable of forging custom armor and weapons.
Solstheim, the new land added in the Bloodmoon expansion, is a frozen expanse of island within a boat ride’s distance of Vvardenfell. Unlike Mournhold, players can elect to travel here at any time during the game, though they are discouraged from doing so until they’ve got a few levels and skills under their belt. The icy climate is a welcome change from ash-strewn hills and swamps of the original; instead of ash storms, you will endure blizzards. Here players will find a mining outfit in dire need of assistance, and a village of Nords troubled by nefarious beasts.
As in Tribunal, there are new creatures to slay, new armor to adorn yourself with, and a series of quests that will prove both challenging and rewarding. Absent are annoying Cliff Racers and suicidal Kwama Foragers, replaced by roving packs of wolves and fearsome bears, who will stand on their hind legs and tower over the player before swiping at him with their flesh-rending claws. These are not the only bestial perils of Solstheim, some of which will resurrect themselves before your very eyes until you strike them down three times.
Perhaps the most oft-mentioned addition to Bloodmoon are the werewolves. Like the vampirism of the original, you can contract lycanthropy and become one of the half-human abominations yourself. During the day, you will live as you normally do, but at night you will shed your human skin and become an oversized version of the wolves you tangled with earlier. If anyone witnesses the transformation, you will be marked for death from that point forward, even by those who are hundreds of miles away. Transformation also requires you to feed, on human flesh of course, and failure to do so will result in bodily harm.
I remember reading about Morrowind for the first time on a flight from D.C. to Amsterdam, and I was awed by the handful of screenshots I saw. A couple of years later, when the game was released, my admiration was justified. As in the original, the land of Vvardenfell is made all the more real by the relentlessly detailed and masterfully crafted landscapes. It’s as if the deities of Morrowind carved the entire world from a great wooden block, and it truly does seem like an alien fantasy world.
The new additions do even more to make the world more alive, though neither of them are nearly as large as Vvardenfell itself, they still remain more varied and appealing to the eye. While this game may not boast the best graphics to ever grace the Xbox, there are few RPGs on the Xbox that can equal Morrwind's level of detail and artistry. The graphics of the new locations are not a drastic departure from those of the original, though they are well refined and the variety lends itself well to the world of Morrowind.
The audio of Morrowind plays a practical as well as aesthetic role. While in the wilderness, enemies can sometimes beset you from all directions, but you will nearly always hear the sounds of their presence long before you encounter them. The music will also shift from melodious to something more fitting of battle, and serves as another cue that something will soon be upon you.
Though little of the game’s dialogue is spoken, NPCs will utter certain catch phrases as you pass by them – these range anywhere from “Whatever you want, outlander, within reason.” to “Move along.” These phrases will sometimes change based on that NPC’s attitude toward you, and a few new phrases are added with the addition of the two expansion packs.
The sound serves its function well, but given the vast amount of time you can spend playing the game, you will get perhaps more familiar with it than you’d like. Still, it is always entertaining to hear an opponent cry out a grave threat as they charge toward you.
Ultimately, the Game of the Year Edition of Morrowind adds a generous heaping of additional content to an already vast game. If you weren’t fond of the original, chances are you won’t feel much different about this expanded version. Though the game could certainly never be accused of a lack of profundity, it also requires dedication to unlock all of its secrets.
Exhausting all of the game’s quests, items, spells and conversations requires an inordinate amount of time, but this is, after all, a heavyweight among RPGs. Certainly this is one of the most robust games you can buy for under $30. The total amount of gameplay to be found here can easily exceed 100 hours, which is a far cry from some recently released games that seem to end in the blink of an eye. Other companies would do well to emulate Bethesda’s generosity.
Fans of the original will find much to admire and conquer here, and they would be well advised to pick this title up. If you are new to the world of Morrowind, and own an Xbox, this is the version you want. Some players have complained of random lockups and sluggishness, though during the course of my time with this game I never encountered the former and only witnessed the latter during certain parts.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind GOTY Edition retains some of the flaws of the original (uninspired landscapes of ash) and is deprived of some of the features that made the PC version much more playable, but it is a worthy investment of time nonetheless. That is, if you have the time – games like this do not fit easily into a balanced social life. In fact, if you aren’t careful, it can very easily usurp it.