(PC Review) The Elder Scrolls III: Tribunal

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

Overall: 8 = Excellent

Minimum Requirements:
P3 500, 256 MB RAM, 32 MB Direct3D compatible video card, 1 GB free Hard Disk space

(Originally published on December 31, 2002)

There’s no question that 2002 has been a banner year for gaming, what with the large number of high-profile, high-quality titles that have hit the market. The RPG genre in particular has seen a tremendous boom, with countless titles offering fans the chance to take up the sword against the forces of evil in its countless forms. And yet, among this crowded pack of competitors, a few have shone through as true classics, the strongest of which was Bethesda’s long-awaited The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Epic, expansive, and highly entertaining, it offered gamers the chance to carve out their own piece of history in a world so large and so wide-open that it practically lives on without you. In a surprising and not unwelcome move, Bethesda soon thereafter announced an expansion, to be released scarcely six months after the original game. With The Elder Scrolls III: Tribunal now on the market, gamers can now judge for themselves whether the first Elder Scrolls expansion ever is worth its weight in Imperial gold.

Among many other things, Morrowind told the tale of ancient prophecies in the land of the Dark Elves, and the part that equally ancient gods had to play in it. Three gods in particular—who, together, make up the heart of the Temple—had a hand in this development, although you only ever encountered one, Vivec, in your travels. With the advent of the Tribunal expansion, you get to travel to the capital city of Mournhold, through which you will meet the remaining two: Almalexia, and Sotha Sil, both of whom have issues and motives of their own that draw you in and threaten to destroy the land. It’s an interesting plotline that helps to further flesh out the gameworld, and your further involvement with the central figures of the Temple only serves to enhance the overall Morrowind experience. Thankfully, the story developments don’t stop there, as you also become involved with the newly appointed and terribly ruthless king of Morrowind, as well as his mother Barenziah, both of whom have figured in various ways and bits of literature in previous Elder Scrolls titles. It’s great to finally be involved in the larger figures of the Dark Elves’ history and to finally venture from the land of Vvardenfell, though it’s unfortunate that you’re still very highly restricted to a relatively tiny piece of off-shore land. It lends a bit of claustrophobic feel, at least initially, and although you’re later able to venture beneath the city and beyond, it’s a feel that you’ll have trouble shaking. Still, for those who felt that Morrowind was a bit too wide open, it could be just the thing.

Between and through these central figures, you’ll move through the bulk of Tribunal‘s twisting storyline, which is much more narrow and focused than that to be found in the main body of Morrowind. Rather than allowing you to take sides in the ongoing hostilities between the numerous political struggles that so vividly mark Vvardenfell, Tribunal directs you down a rather specific, highly linear path that doesn’t allow for much freedom of choice. As with the playable area itself, this too seems a little restrictive for those such as myself who appreciated the original title for its free-roaming, do-as-you-please approach. However, there’s something refreshing about being able to embark upon a series of directed, focused quests that actually serves to rejuvenate the entire feel of the game. It also helps greatly that the quests themselves tend to be expansive, and apart from the “descend into the depths of X dungeon and kill Y monster” bits, quite interesting as well. The larger-scale quests even introduce you to a large series of colossal, sprawling dungeons that were such a staple of both Arena and Daggerfall, and were noticeably missing from Morrowind. There are also a considerable number of side quests that you can take up if you so desire, as virtually every person you find in Mournhold has some dark secret or some quest that needs solving. Probably due in part to their more focused nature, even these are vastly superior to those to be found in Vvardenfell, happily blending good amounts of humor with interesting scripting, such as those you’ll find when you’re asked to participate practically unprepared in a local play, or when you’re asked to act as a bouncer for the local tavern. Almost all of these quests are quite difficult, and are obviously tailored towards the higher-level crowd that finds itself becoming bored with the distinct lack of a challenge that tends to crop up once you’ve picked up the more powerful weapons and spells. While some would argue that the quests are hardly the heart of this expansion and that the countless player-made mods nullify its value, their quality is such that they do a great deal in making it worth your while, and the extra 30 to 40 hours of gameplay certainly don’t hurt any either.

Apart from the new quests and areas, Tribunal also introduces a few new extra features to try and improve your overall experience. The most notable and important of these is the incredibly crucial Quest Sorting feature, which is integrated into and accessible from your journal. Allowing you to split your duties into Active Quests and Completed Quests, you can easily flip through your missions by their title so you have a much better idea of what you have on the go, which became extremely problematic after accumulating several hundred journal pages. It’s still quite lacking in that it still rarely specifies which city or organization the quest-giver can be found in, but it is nevertheless an enormous improvement that simplifies matters considerably and should save prospective adventurers from having to take down pages upon pages of handwritten quest notes. The other, less pressing improvement is the addition of a map notation system that allows you to add whatever comment you want in the form of a mouse-over within a tiny red square. This too is quite handy, as comments you’ve left in one area can be viewed from its entry point within a separate area. Finally, there’s also the Seller Max button, which enables you to sell your pricier items for whatever the vendor is able to pay, requiring only a single click as opposed to the endless ages of manually lowering the prices as has been the case. It certainly makes certain aspects of the game much easier to deal with, and with the map notation and quest sorting, represents the main driving reason that the die-hard Morrowind fan should indeed pick up this expansion.

There are still even other additions to the Elder Scrolls environment that fans might appreciate, though in some cases it can be so minor as to be only pleasing to the purists. For instance, there’s a couple new armor types: the High Ordinator armor, which is essentially a silvery version of the regular Ordinator armor, and then there’s the Royal Guard armor, which is by far one of the most interest sets of armor you’re likely to find within the game. Unless you’re a high-level character of considerable evil and power, it’s unlikely that you’ll get your hands on any of it, since the ones who wear them are both strong and in the service of a god and a king. Also, the difficulty of the added quests might make even high-level characters glad that you can purchase pack rats and hire a surpassingly useful mercenary within the city of Mournhold, though his pathfinding AI is beyond irritating and it’s a shame that you can’t take him back to the Vvardenfell. There are also a number of brand new monster types scattered beneath the city of Mournhold, such as liches, goblins, fabricants, and more; while the goblins and clockwork beasts are particularly nicely modeled and animated, the rest leave much to be desired. Even the anticipated Mournhold armorer is a bit of a letdown: it’s great that it enables you to use raw ebony, glass and newfound adamantium ore for creating individual pieces of armor, but not only can you achieve more with the prolific Indestructible’s Armorer mod, a separate official patch allows you to purchase a full set of adamantium armor from a certain vendor on Vvardenfell itself. As a result, even the armorer is going to be left as something to be employed solely by dyed-in-the-wool RPG purists.

Not all of these minor additions are a bust, however, as Mournhold’s Museum of Artifacts is a wonderful touch that breathes new life into your pursuits of strange and powerful items. The curator of the museum will gladly gape in awe at some of the particularly unique pieces you uncover in your travels, and will also fork over a great deal of money—up to 30,000 gold, in fact—for the privilege of displaying it; you can always attempt to steal it back, if you don’t want to part with it permanently, but the series of High Ordinators guarding the place might take offense at your less-than-honest tactics. The Museum isn’t the only place that seems to have deeper pockets than most; many of Mournhold’s vendors are considerably richer than their Vvardenfell brethren, meaning that higher-level characters will finally be able to afford better and bigger enchantments and spells in a rational, challenging way without having to resort to in-game cheats such as the talking Mudcrab. Still, for all these improvements and for all that the expansion offers, it’s clear that it’s not for everyone.

The city of Mournhold and its underlying areas tend to feature slightly different architecture than what you’ll find throughout Vvardenfell, and it’s all quite beautiful in its own way. Almalexia’s Temple is quite the sight to behold, as are a few of the underground waterfalls and cavernous chambers – not to give away any particularly interesting plot twists — to be found underneath the city, while even less important structures such as the city’s manor district is nicely done and fits perfectly. The new armor types, and the Royal Guard in particular, are rather drool-worthy and lend a certain feeling of importance to what is the Dark Elves’ capital city. Even the new monsters look rather nice, and the goblins especially look good enough that you’ll wish you’d see them in other areas within Vvardenfell itself. There are no truly drastic changes in the graphical department, but considering that you’re still within the realm of the Dark Elves, this is probably a good thing.

There are even less changes in the sound department than there is within the graphics, although it should be noted that many Mournhold residents will now audibly make quest-related comments as you pass them by. It’s not much of a change, but it’s a nice touch, and helps to make the city seem more alive.

The three primary changes to Morrowind‘s interface—the map notation, quest sorting and Seller Max button—are so considerably helpful that they become enough of a reason for fans of the game to pick up Tribunal. The quest sorting system in particular is a real godsend, and helps to relieve a lot of the headaches that surround having to keep track of all the minute details, though the regular lack of details as to the locations of the questees can still be a problem.

Although it’s unlikely to convert disbelievers, The Elder Scrolls III: Tribunal is a solid expansion for an already solid game. Not only does it tack on a good 30 to 40 additional hours of gameplay to a title that already had hundreds of hours worth, but it also addresses a couple of major concerns that players have had since Morrowind‘s release. While the opportunity to travel to the Dark Elves’ capital city, meet the king and meddle in the affairs of the two remaining gods of the Temple is an interesting one, the new quest sorting system is probably the best reason to get ahold of Tribunal. In other words, this expansion is most clearly directed towards those who couldn’t tear themselves away from the original title, though it should be noted that the considerably smaller playing area and the highly linear quests are obviously tailored towards those who spurned what they perceived as being an overly open experience. Still, die-hard fans are the ones most likely to appreciate it, and if you’ve ever found yourself in Morrowind‘s powerfully addictive grip, you owe it to yourself to pick up Tribunal.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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