(PC Review) The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Nick Stewart

Overall: 9.5 = Must Buy

Minimum Requirements:
P3 500, 128 MB RAM, 32MB Direct3D compatible video card, 1 GB free Hard Drive space

(Originally published on June 3, 2002)

Throughout the years, the RPG genre has seen countless classics make their mark on gaming history. Early contenders such as the D&D Gold Box and Bard’s Tale series still bear a great deal of sentimental value, as do the likes of Wasteland, which eventually became reborn in the form of the terrific Fallout and its equally terrific sequel. Naturally, there’s no ignoring the recent effects of the Baldur’s Gate series, as it not only stood as a revival point for the sagging genre, but it also helped re-introduce this style of gaming to the mainstream, where it has since enjoyed a glorious new life.

However, when it comes to sheer epic expansiveness and unbridled freedom, there has perhaps been no truer example of an RPG than The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, the illustrious sequel to The Elder Scrolls: Arena. Within the rich fantasy world of Daggerfall, players were given complete and utter freedom to pursue whatever goals they wished, be it to complete the main storyline, or to pursue a full-time career as a catburglar, crusader, merchant, tomb raider, artifact hunter, noble, or whatever other option might come to mind. Its practically limitless and mostly randomly generated gameworld, colossal cities and infinite quests created an experience that won countless awards despite the equally countless bugs that proved to be a sticking point with most fans. Now, six whole years after this classic’s release, Bethesda Softworks is trying to bring the magic of Tamriel back to the masses in the form of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. It’s been a long, long wait for fans of the Elder Scrolls, but a true sequel to Daggerfall has finally arrived (discounting of course Battlespire and Redguard); the question is, is Morrowind a true successor to this classic title?

As the game begins, you find yourself an Imperial prisoner who, for reasons as yet unknown, is being brought by ship to the island of Vvardenfell within the titular province of Morrowind. Before you’re released into the conditional custody and watchful eye of Caius Cosades, the leader of the local Imperial-run spy contingent, you’re marched through the local Watch Office to process your registration and subsequent release. It’s through this initial phase that you craft your character, adjusting his or her identity as you answer the various questions asked of you by the guards and officials. It’s an ingenious and seamless system that also teaches you how to understand and use the interface, using a series of pop-up windows to ease you into the game’s basic functions. It’s a great and user-friendly way to begin an amazing game that soon takes you beyond the simple docks and offices of the starting village into mountains, dungeons, city-states, tombs and more as you discover your part in an earth-shattering prophecy that will change the face of the land forever.

Morrowind‘s treatment of character races, class selection and skill development is much the same as it was within Daggerfall, with a few minor adjustments. Rather than simply representing a cosmetic difference, your choice of race will also offer you various benefits and weaknesses which can further serve your role-playing goals. For instance, Orcs are hardier and stronger than most other races, giving you a bonus to combat-related skills, whereas the mystically-inclined High Elves find themselves with a more significant mastery of all things spell-related. Imperials, on the other hand, are slightly more diplomatic, while the residents of Morrowind, the Dark Elves, or “Dunmer”, offer a solid balance between magic and combat. With ten different races, there’s something to suit all styles of play.

A character’s race isn’t the be-all, end-all of their identity; in fact, this distinction likely goes to a person’s class, or chosen profession. The game offers a multitude of ways in which your class can be determined, as you’re able to choose from a list, or if you wish, you can answer an Ultima-style series of questions that will suggest a class for you. If you’re not satisfied with the options offered to you, or if you have a better idea for a class, you can create your own by specifying which skills you would like to designate as your Major, Minor and Miscellaneous Skills. This designation is important, not only because your Major skills grow more quickly than the others, but also because improving ten points worth of Major and/or Minor skills will cause you to level up. Once you’ve finished up this bit of business, you can also select your Birthsign, which gives you additional powers, abilities and weaknesses. The latter is an interesting addition to the mix, though Daggerfall purists might be upset that a great deal of the complexity in creating your own class – including phobias, light-dependant health and magicka regeneration, and climate survival – has been omitted entirely. This straightforward simplicity is not an altogether negative switch, though it definitely stands as an appropriate symbol of the change in attitude between Morrowind and the previous two Elder Scrolls titles.

Leveling up is interesting as well, as it now provides you with a mere three points to invest in your attributes (strength, luck, intelligence, and so on), though you might be awarded with “investment” multipliers up to x5, if you leveled through skills that rely upon similar attributes. As a result, Morrowind enables your character to level up by doing what he or she does best, be it stealing, casting magic, or killing monsters – or, alternatively, by purchasing skill training from various individuals located in various guilds and across the land. This ultimately makes for a very natural system of progression, albeit one that lends itself a little too easily to ridiculously over-powered characters in the later game, as you gradually gain enough financial power to train yourself in whatever skills you so desire. As a result, your choice of class becomes almost irrelevant as the game goes on. A skill cap might have helped this particular problem – for instance, setting the maximal Minor and Misc. skill values to 75 and 40 instead of 100 – though it ultimately would have detracted from Bethesda’s firm “play how you want to play” Elder Scrolls mantra. Die-hard RPGers will be able to find various ways to constrain their character to their particular class, but it is a shame that they should have to, as it is an otherwise excellent system.

Much like Daggerfall and Arena before it, Morrowind stays true to the Elder Scrolls convention of offering a sprawling landmass to explore, while enabling the player to engage in a broad, sweeping plotline, as well as a wide number of alternative activities and quests. However, it should be noted from the outset that Morrowind’s scope is drastically different from its predecessors; in fact, a number of changes have been made to the series’ core gameplay, most of which change the overall experience considerably – some for the better, some for the worse. The most notable of these changes is the game’s scope; rather than allowing players to explore an entire country (as was the case in Arena) or an entire province (as was the case in Daggerfall), Morrowind restricts its focus to the aforementioned region of Vvardenfell, a large volcanic island located within the titular province of Morrowind. Additionally, because a single region is considerably smaller than, say an entire province, the developers have gone to the trouble of hand-crafting every square inch, every aspect of the gameworld. Gone are the randomly generated dungeons, characters, quests, and cities, as every conceivable item and area within Morrowind has been designed and planned out in advance.

On one hand, this is a positive thing, as this personal touch lends a much greater sense of realism and character to the gameworld, truly making you feel as though you’re traveling around and becoming involved with the vagaries of Vvardenfell. No longer will you be forced to spend hours upon hours searching for a crucial quest item that can’t possibly be reached thanks to the interminable twists and turns of a generic, random dungeon. Also, quests now feel as though they have some actual bearing on the world around you, and your ascent through the ranks of the various guilds feels much more natural and realistic. Traveling on foot across the landscape is no longer a bland affair either, as each area within the region possesses its own native flora and fauna, making a trip across the land an adventure in itself. The down side to all of this, however, is that, when you first start out, the epic, grandiose feel is somewhat lost when you consider that there’s a finite amount of land to explore and quests to accept. One could literally quest forever within Daggerfall and lose oneself in the colossal cities, which is a claim that Morrowind is unable to make. Additionally, due to the smaller scale, the passage of time is considerably slower; whereas Daggerfall years could pass by relatively quickly due to long travel times, Morrowind‘s travel is often measured in hours or days. As a result, there are no more “national holidays” that affect pricing and celebrations, no special days on which to summon daedra, nor are there any buyable ships, horses, or horse-drawn carts to help speed along your travel. Given, you can hire a ship’s captain or siltstrider (which is essentially a colossal tick) to carry you from one spot to another, but it fails to carry the same personalized appeal that came with ownership.

Nevertheless, it’s important to understand that this isn’t a condemnation of Morrowind‘s capabilities; even with its pre-defined landscape, it is still positively immense. It would take you an incredibly long time to walk from one end of Vvardenfell to the other, and with 350 dungeons dotting the region, you find something new practically every time you hit the road – it’s incredibly easy to become distracted as you travel from point A to point B. Much the same can be said for the number of quests available to the adventurous player: with about six or seven different guilds, three political Houses and a number of smaller groups, there’s no shortage of people to betray or ally yourself with, especially when you consider that each group has branches and representatives in various cities, each offering their own set of unique quests. For example, within my first 100 hours in Morrowind, I didn’t even touch the main plotline, instead choosing to offer my services to the Fighter and Mage Guilds – and even after those 100 hours, I hadn’t yet finished with either guild. The game is THAT big. When you factor in the expansive main plot – which Bethesda claims can take more than 100 hours to complete — and the fact that countless, non-guild individuals sprinkled across the land offer alternative quests, Morrowind becomes a title that can easily rival Daggerfall in terms of shelf life. In fact, the sheer size and breadth of potential opportunities are almost better than those offered in the previous Elder Scrolls title, in that the generic, random quality has now been replaced with something intricately personal. In time, you learn to appreciate Morrowind’s personal touches, and it soon becomes Daggerfall‘s equal in the pantheon of RPG quality.

Although Morrowind offers a much smaller area of play than either of its predecessors, the number of potential guilds and level of political involvement is much greater than ever before. Not only can you run quests and further the goals of the Fighter, Mage and Thief guilds, but there’s also a state-sponsored assassin’s guild, two religious cults, not to mention three different political Houses, each with their own preferences, plans, goals, and allegiances. These Houses each rule over various cities and regions of Vvardenfell, and are constantly at odds with one another as they struggle violently for power. In fact, each House and guild has a certain influence over most every NPC you come across, and as a result, your actions tend to have vast repercussions on how you’re treated. If, for instance, you go and kill off a certain mage as part of a Fighter’s Guild quest, you might find that members of Houses and guilds that he belonged to will now treat you a little more coldly than before, causing some of them to overcharge you for their goods and services. Repeatedly perform negative actions against certain groups, and you’ll find their members being downright mean to you, often refusing to speak or do business with you. This political cross-involvement is terrific and adds immensely to Morrowind‘s atmosphere, creating a believable and intelligent environment in which to pursue one’s own goals and to role-play your character to the hilt.

The pursuit of quests or the completion of the main storyline aren’t the only things you’re capable of doing in Morrowind; in reality, you could almost lead an entirely separate life with the different options that you’re offered. For instance, the process of Alchemy has returned in a decidedly more useful and natural form: you may now collect a positively huge amount of potential ingredients from various plants and fungi scattered liberally across the land, defeated monsters and creatures, not to mention a number of local vendors. What helps even more and feels much more realistic is that certain plant life and creatures are native to the various regions of Vvardenfell; you’re much more likely to find luminous russula in swampy areas, whereas fire petals are highly prominent in the ash-specked area surrounding Red Mountain and the resident volcano. You can also try your hand at enchanting items, which is much as it was within Daggerfall: if you manage to trap souls of your defeated enemies within certain gems, you can then use them to charge all manner of items – from pants and shoes to rings and amulets – with a wide variety of effects. As previously mentioned, this aspect has been watered down, in that you may no longer add disadvantages to be able to increase the potency of your enchantments; instead, a system of cost and charges has been modified to try and balance things out. Like with most every aspect of the game, it’s much more simplistic, and prevents you from regularly creating overly powerful items. In fact, it works in the opposite direction: it’s virtually impossible to successfully create relatively potent enchantments, unless you use magic items to boost your Intelligence, Luck and Enchant stats past their maximal values. As a result, you’ll often find yourself relying on professional Enchanters-for-hire to create your most important items for you, provided of course that you provide the full soul gem. It’s actually a pretty solid system that lets you make some basic, functional magic items, and forcing you to work long and hard for the truly powerful items.

One of the biggest draws of the Elder Scrolls series is being able to live a life of crime, something that Morrowind is more than happy to offer. As always, you can skulk and sneak to try and avoid detection, pick pockets and locks, disarm traps, backstab, and just flat-out steal whatever isn’t nailed down. Of course, being a career criminal isn’t always easy, since people will very often report your felonious actions to the guards, which will add to the bounty on your head. A small bounty isn’t a particular problem, as the guards won’t bother to harass you about it unless you talk to them; as your bounty rises, however, you’ll soon find that guards will become more and more insistent on talking to you, demanding that you either pay the fine and relinquish all stolen goods or that you do hard time in prison, which erodes several points (or more, depending on your jail time) off various skills. You can always resist arrest if you wish, and if your bounty is extremely high – if, say, you’ve murdered a number of innocent people – the guards won’t give you the option, and will try to kill you on sight. Despite a few discrepancies and illogical developments involved with the latter, the entire criminal aspect actually works pretty well, and coupled with the Thief and Morag Tong guilds, gives plenty of memorable opportunities for role-players looking to indulge their less-than-ethical side.

If hundreds of hours of gameplay and great amounts of replayability aren’t enough for you, Morrowind also includes a separate CD, The Elder Scrolls Construction Set. Bethesda claims that this is the exact set of tools that they used to create the game, something that is easy to believe once you’ve poked through the editor and taken a look around. Using this incredibly powerful tool, you can create any number of plug-ins for whatever purposes you may desire; whether it’s an extra-powerful set of armor, new houses or dungeons, additional NPCs or quests, you can bring it all into the game with the Construction Set. There’s an incredibly active Morrowind mod community at work that’s already produced a great deal of excellent mods that not only enhance the experience, but improve it tenfold. For instance, there’s a mod that introduces Daggerfall-style banks into the major cities, complete with interest accumulation, safety deposit boxes, and purchasable real estate; a mod that allows you to harvest raw materials from the land and use them to forge your own armor and weapons; a mod that enables you to purchase your own pack animal that will follow you around and level alongside you; as well as any number of difficulty-enhancing mods. The only disadvantage to this particular tool is that it is not officially supported by Bethesda, meaning that, if a player-made plug-in happens to mess up a savegame, the developers can’t help you. This is indeed a problem, since disabling a plug-in that you’ve been using for a while will often cause Morrowind to complain a great deal, and sometimes crash. This forces you to be very careful about which mods you use for extended periods of time; still, when you consider the incredibly benefits offered by the use of these plug-ins, it’s worth the hassle. When discussing the primary difference between the PC and Xbox versions of this tremendous game, the inclusion of the Construction Set is going to be an important factor.

There are various other complaints to present, as well. For starters, there’s the difficulty; in short, there isn’t much. Although the game tries to keep up with your progression by spawning tougher monsters as you level up, it’s not nearly enough to present any sort of challenge once you’ve hit a certain level. This diminished challenge worsens if you’ve managed to stumble across some particularly powerful armor or weaponry, which isn’t too tough to do; by the time I was level 7, I had found some strong armor and an enchanted warhammer that carried me through the rest of the game. From that point on, I was capable of taking down most monsters with two hits, which drastically cuts down on the suspense associated with an abandoned tomb or powerful monster. It also seems that monster hitpoints and attack capabilities have been diminished. Facing a slaughterfish or dreugh within Daggerfall would mean a difficult, bloody and harrowing battle; facing them within Morrowind is a joke, as a single blow of your hammer can sometimes be enough to do them in.

Additionally, the manual leaves a great deal to be desired. While it is functional in that it informs you the basics of gameplay, it pales extremely drastically in comparison to the Daggerfall or Arena manuals (or even Redguard, for that matter), which detailed the history and local flavor of the area, explained the importance and beliefs of the various factions, pointed out the difference between the various materials used in armor and weaponry, and briefly detailed some of the monsters. None of this was crucial to gameplay, but it was certainly helpful and added a great deal of flavor and relevance to the games, and it is a definite shame that it this tradition was severed with Morrowind. Also, the in-game Journal, which automatically notes important quests and events, fails to mention the location of the individuals who gave you the quests, not to mention that it becomes incredibly difficult to page through hundreds and hundreds of entries to figure out which quests are incomplete. As a result, you’re pretty much forced to note all your quests the old-fashioned way, with a pen and notepad, which is a shame, given how the Journal is otherwise invaluable in its ability to recall virtually any aspect of conversation you’ve previously had. Finally, it should be noted that speaking with NPCs can grow to be a somewhat dull experience, in that a great many of them all have almost the exact same things to say. When you consider that Gothic allowed for a much greater degree of individuality among its NPCs, this is a bit of a disappointment; however, this a bit of an unfair comparison, considering that Morrowind has upward of 2000 to 3000 conversational characters wandering about – and, to be fair, that fact alone helps to make the cities seem full and alive, if only superficially so.

It might sound as though I was disappointed with Morrowind, and in a sense, I suppose that I was, at least initially. The switch from limitless quests and terrain to a finite (though still absolutely enormous) amount is a bit jarring after six years of living with Daggerfall’s charms, but once you get used to the changes, you come to appreciate them and enjoy them every bit as much as you did their predecessor. The hand-crafted touch lends considerably more quality to every aspect of the game, and enables the developers to involve the player much more deeply in the political and social landscape that helps to make Morrowind the exciting, memorable experience that it is.

It’s no secret that Daggerfall, for all its brilliant and unparalleled gameplay, had less-than-attractive graphics that were somewhat sub-par even for its time. Emphatically determined not to make the same mistake, Morrowind pulls out all the visual stops and offers what can easily be considered the most beautiful and attractively rendered RPG ever, rivaling even most modern FPS titles in terms of graphical splendor. The fact that the landscape is handcrafted and not randomized transforms what was once forgettable into something that can and should be admired. From the rolling, grassy hills to the wide-open plains to the ash-covered volcanic peaks, Morrowind‘s scenery is a character all its own, as beautiful as it is expansive. It is probably the most natural-looking example of nature ever witnessed within an RPG, and is so entrancing that it’s quite easy to become distracted by its beauty. Countless details help to solidify the visual experience: plants, marshes, rock formations, trees, and much more all help to make the land feel very much alive. Even the night sky, with its countless stars and twin moons that undergo numerous phases, has something wondrous to offer those who are willing to give it a casual glance. The various cities are distinctive, each one featuring its own look that suits the area it’s in, its buildings suiting the style of architecture that are unique to the city’s controlling House. Weather is equally impressive, with rain and lightning storms urging you to run for cover, while the land’s infamous ash storms curb your visibility and interfering with your movement. There’s also no forgetting the animation and textures, which are smooth, detailed, and life-like. On higher resolutions, witnessing an Argonian warrior in mid-combat or even a robe-clad High Elf muttering idly can be nothing short of jaw-dropping.

Strangely enough, what’s perhaps most impressive are the water effects: if you’re privy to a video card capable of pixel shading, prepare to be awe-struck. While there’s nothing particularly notable on normal cards, pixel shading transforms the game’s water into a thing of beauty as it ripples with the wind, idly reflecting its surroundings. It even trails as you swim through it and features the obvious landing of raindrops during a storm, proving that graphics are becoming more and more lifelike as time goes on. If Morrowind’s gameplay is atmospheric and immersive, then its visuals are doubly so. Never has an RPG worked so hard and so effectively to draw you into its unique world.

There is one major drawback to all this beauty, however, and it is one that every gamer should be made aware of prior to purchasing this title. The problem is that, for all its lush visuals, Morrowind is an incredibly system-intensive game. The minimum system requirements are a P3 500, and the recommend specs are a P3 800; my system is halfway between the two, and with the visual settings at a third of their capacity, I was getting anywhere from 5-15 FPS in busy cities, 10-25 FPS outdoors, and 10-40 FPS indoors. Even systems exceeding 1.2 GHz will have similar problems; unless you’ve got an upper-range system, these types of problems will remain somewhat persistent. Now, RPG games have never, ever been about blazing framerates, nor do they need them like FPS titles do; however, it’s still problematic. This isn’t an Ultima IX level of calamity, nor is it even close; however, if you’ve got a lower-end system, you should be willing to accept some chugging and stuttering in exchange for the great-looking graphics.

Thankfully escaping the overwrought, poor quality sounds littered throughout its predecessor, Morrowind features a terrific array of effects that enhance the game in almost every way. The sound of an enemy’s warhammer violently slamming against your steel breastplate is enough to make you jump out of your chair, and the crisp crackling noise of a magic lightning bolt leaping from your fingertips is always satisfying. Ambient sounds are also done well, as a casual walk along a Vvardenfell beach will cause the sound of waves lapping against the shore to mingle with the cry of distant creatures. Voices are extremely professional (even Lynda “Wonder Woman” Carter lends her audio talents to the mix) and believable, lending a considerable degree of authenticity to the countless and varied denizens of Morrowind; you’ll never confuse the deep hiss of an Argonian with the soft purr of a Kajiit or the gravelly, vaguely hostile vocals of a Dark Elf. There’s a great deal of vocal recurrence among the NPCs, but that’s to be expected, considering their sheer numbers. Composed by Jeremy Soule, the master behind many soundtracks including Icewind Dale’s classic score, Morrowind‘s music accompanies the on-screen action perfectly. Every bit as memorable as any of Soule’s previous work, the score is energetic, sweeping, and epic; in short, perfect for this game.

Morrowind‘s interface is so streamlined and clutter-free that Daggerfall veterans will likely find themselves quite disoriented for the first ten or so minutes. Apart from a handful of movement and spell/weapon ready keys, the heart of the control scheme lies within a menu system that’s activated by right-clicking, which pauses the game and gives you access to every function you’ll need. Inventory management, spell listings and character outfitting are all handled via these draggable and re-sizeable menus, as are all manner of additional functions, such as alchemical and item enchantment processes. Health, fatigue and magicka are displayed at the bottom of the screen along with any beneficial or detrimental effects that you’re currently affected by. It’s terrific in that it frees up virtually the entire screen while you’re actually playing, allowing you to view your critical information at a quick glance with incredible ease. It also removes a great deal of the clunkiness of Daggerfall‘s interface, which was unnecessarily laden with buttons and redundant features; as a result, Morrowind feels elegant and functional. The new Jedi Outcast-ish method of combat is a tad clunky, though even these issues can’t mar the sheer simplistic beauty present here.

If you can gather nothing else from this mammoth review, understand that Morrowind is colossal, offering a virtual infinity of opportunities for the ambitious RPG fan. Of course, its focus is considerably narrower than its predecessors and often finds itself trimming previously available features as a result: for instance, Daggerfall veterans might be disappointed to find that NPCs are awake 24 hours a day and no longer follow a daily schedule, not to mention that character and item creation systems have been simplified. Most notable is its switch from randomized terrain and quests to a hand-crafted variety, and although this initially sounds problematic, it isn’t. The developers have more than offset this potential pitfall by preserving the series’ signature epic scope, implementing enough dungeons, options and quests fill three whole RPG titles. Because of their personalized nature, quests are more involving and interesting, the political tapestry is much more complex and profound, and the landscape is now tremendously exciting to explore. In fact, this personal approach to its design has lent it a kind of unique beauty that would have otherwise been impossible, though impatient gamers should be wary of its generally taxing FPS counts. If you can look beyond these slight problems, however, you’ll find that Morrowind is the truest of gaming gems, preserving the spirit of the Elder Scrolls while carrying the almost decade-old franchise into the present. With its “no limits” style of play, its epic scope, its beautiful graphics, music and sound, as well as the editor and growing wealth of mods, Morrowind is staggeringly replayable, and easily stands as one of the classic RPGs of our time.

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