(PC Review) The Elder Scrolls III: Bloodmoon

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

Overall: 8.5 = Excellent

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

(Originally published on August 12, 2003)

Whether you loved it or hated it, there’s no denying that The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind represented a landmark achievement in CRPG design. Its colossal landmass and supremely open-ended gameplay offered players the chance to carve out their own distinct role while participating in a suitably epic, world-altering quest which, thankfully for its fans, proved to be popular enough to spawn an equally excellent expansion pack, Tribunal. Although the latter helped to satisfy the gaming community’s hunger for a more fully fleshed-out world, fans of the series continued to clamor for greater Daggerfall-like opportunities, pointing out the increasingly generic terrain, as well as the inability to transform into a werewolf. Enter the latest expansion, Bloodmoon, as it attempts to rectify these concerns in its own stylish and unique way.

Those who chose to dive into Morrowind‘s first expansion, Tribunal, will almost immediately find Bloodmoon to be a completely different experience. Where Tribunal essentially forced you to seek out the added city of Mournhold by constantly threatening you with murderous assassins, Bloodmoon is happy to just let you discover it at your own pace. No pressing, world-altering issues are breathing down your neck this time around; in fact, you have to learn of these newer developments via rumors, leaving you to go out of your way to seek out its additions, which this time around consists of the arctic island of Solstheim. Located off the western coast of Vvardenfell, Solstheim is a surprisingly expansive stretch of terrain that roughly measures a sixth of the game’s primary landmass. Unlike in Tribunal, however, Solstheim isn’t about a densely packed, almost claustrophobic population jammed into cramped living quarters; rather, the sprawling, frozen wasteland features but a few scattered groups of civilized people, and even they are often no warmer to you than the tempestuous arctic weather. The face of the land itself is rather varied and diverse, and thankfully offers a drastically different environment than the ash-blasted plains of Morrowind. Being able to explore this wide-open landscape, complete with powdery hills, thick forests of sky-high coniferous trees, icy lakes and mystical rock formations is a real treat, especially with the snowy winds at your back.

Exploration is rarely a peaceful affair, however. While the island of Solstheim is home only to a few local Nord tribes and is little more than an unhappy outpost for Imperials, countless creatures wander the snowy drifts, looking for hapless wanderers to stumble into their midst. This includes a more traditional wildlife than is known in the depths of Morrowind, such as feral wolves and a few species of bears, which will angrily lumber in your direction if they so much as smell you in the vicinity. A number of exotic races also make a hostile appearance: there are the undead draugr who make for shockingly quick zombies, the hideous spriggan who must be killed three times to be truly defeated, and the vaguely amusing boar-riding goblins. There are even quite a few ravenous Nord barbarians who take none too kindly to your presence in their lands, and will gladly exterminate you on sight. In fact, virtually everything you come across is more than a little enthusiastic about chewing your face clean off, a danger that is compounded when you consider that most enemies are considerably more powerful than anything you’ll find wandering the hills of Vvardenfell. Suitably strong characters should find this to be a refreshing challenge, although lower-level players would probably be wise to keep to the mainland until they’re capable of putting up a decent fight.

Bloodmoon happily offers much more than a new lands to explore and things to kill, however, and this largely comes in the form of quests. As mentioned earlier, the Imperials have established an outpost on the safer edges of Solstheim, and it is on the shores of this very outpost, Fort Frostmoth, that you first arrive. Of course, since the island represents little more than a monster-filled tundra to them, the Imperials send only borderline-criminal soldiers to man the fort, which, in combination with the profound sense of isolation, has led to a general sense of unhappiness and despair among the troops. By helping the higher-ups investigate some of the goings-on in the fort – and beyond, before long – you can launch into deeper look at some of the inhabitants of the island, their culture, as well as some truly dark and bizarre happenings. For an alternative and potentially profitable look at Solstheim, you can also choose to lend a helping hand to the East Empire Company, who are also using Fort Frostmoth as a temporary outpost, albeit for entirely different reasons than the Imperials. With raw ebony outcroppings to found in certain regions of the island, the East Empire Company fervently wishes to establish a colony of their own in the area, and should you choose to do so, you may assist in overseeing its construction by running various errands, clearing out troublemakers, and occasionally choosing buildings to be erected. Watching the colony gradually take shape through your actions is actually quite satisfying, and helps to create a sense of belonging to the island; when combined with the generally excellent and involving set of objectives to be found throughout Solstheim, the quest system for Bloodmoon nearly proves to be worth the price of admission all in itself.

Of course, a large new landmass, new quests, and new set of creatures certainly make for a fairly good expansion, but what makes Bloodmoon truly worthy of your attention is alluded to in the game’s own title: werewolves. Being able to become a vampire is all well and good, but what fans of the Elder Scrolls series have wanted to see is the ability to contract lycanthropy (as was the case in Daggerfall), and with Bloodmoon, Bethesda delivers. Pursue the quest system long enough, and you’ll eventually find yourself with the glorious opportunity to become a werewolf. While doing so offers all the perks and drawbacks as you’d expect, being a werewolf is actually a strategic affair, as the “rules” of lycanthropy force you to re-examine how you live not only in Solstheim, but in the land of Vvardenfell as well. Sure, being a werewolf changes your appearance from a dashing adventurer to that of a fur-covered beast on a nightly basis, and yes, it also boosts your attributes, melee skills, and sensory abilities, but these talents come at a price.

For starters, you’re restricted to using your claws and little else, meaning that the use of weapons and magic are effectively impossible so long as you’re in your altered form. The lack of armor makes you particularly susceptible to specific attacks, such as certain spells, and especially silver weapons – which, incidentally, is the weapon of choice of Solstheim residents. Also, playing as a werewolf will mean that your health will gradually decrease unless you ravage and destroy one NPC each and every evening; thankfully, bandits and mad barbarians qualify, so you’re not left worrying if you’ll ever run out of potential quest-givers. And to make things extra challenging, should anybody witness you actually transforming to or from a werewolf, your name will be known throughout the lands as a murderous beast, and everyone you see will attack you on sight, regardless of your present form. Although the other factors involved in being a werewolf are extremely interesting and a ton of fun, this last one is probably the best of the bunch, as it forces you to quickly develop a keen awareness of time. You’ll often find yourself glancing at the sky or even calculating how long it should take you to travel from one destination to another, just so you’re not left in the middle of a town square when your transformation hits. It’s a fantastic dynamic, and really helps Bloodmoon to be an immersive and unique experience, and for fans of Morrowind, genuinely makes this an expansion pack worth owning.

After all the ash-flavored graphics of the original Morrowind, Bloodmoon‘s snow-covered hills, frozen lakes and lush forests definitely provide a much-needed and very literal change of scenery. Some textures remain somewhat muddy, but overall, the new look has been implemented surpassingly well, immersing you fully in the artic environment of Solstheim while simultaneously making you feel as though you truly are miles and miles into the wilderness. The new weather effects are also very well done, with the snowstorms varying from blinding full-in-your-face blizzards to lazy snowfalls in which the individual flakes pepper your vision. Nicely rounding out Bloodmoon‘s visual additions are the new creatures, which look good, animate well, and seem to be every bit as much a part of the land as the trees and snow. The only downside to all of this is that it tends to make for an even harder framerate hit than any other part of Morrowind. On one hand, the increased graphical appeal is worth this minor slowdown; on the other, those who already find themselves tolerating slideshow-like speeds might find this a bit too much to bear.

With the exception of the occasional NPC who tends to make quest-related commentary, Bloodmoon doesn’t really offer a whole lot in the sound department. Given, the subtle ambient audio is appreciated, and the occasional new monster effects seem appropriate, but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of new material here. What really seems lacking, however, is the distinct sound of hearing your footfalls crunching in the hard-packed snow. Considering that you can often hear your steps elsewhere in the game, this comes as a notable and strange omission. In the end, it’s not as though it’s a problem, as the heart of the interest in Bloodmoon is in its gameplay additions rather than its new audio bits, but it’s still a tad disappointing nonetheless.

For those who missed out on Morrowind‘s first expansion, the extremely enjoyable Tribunal, Bloodmoon offers the same range of enhancements to the core game: map notation, a quest sorting option for your journal, and a Seller Max button for when you’re dealing with vendors. All of these are extremely helpful, particularly the quest sorting option, which relieves you from having to keep pages and pages of quest notes, although it occasionally fails to mention where given questee might live. Of course, if you’ve already installed Tribunal, none of this is new.

Although I consider myself a diehard fan of Morrowind, my initial reaction to the announcement of Bloodmoon was one of severe skepticism. After all, the idea of basing the expansion pack around the ability to become a werewolf seemed a bit lacking to me, especially in light of the wealth of newness that Tribunal had offered. Fortunately, Bloodmoon handles the werewolf aspect with such style and engaging strategy that I couldn’t help but be won over by its charms. Traveling the countryside with an eye to the sky while taking care to avoid having to spend sunset in the presence of others may sound somewhat tedious but actually presents a refreshing change of pace to those who may have become jaded to life in Vvardenfell. Having to consider your travel arrangements as well as your stripped-down, claws-out battle strategy is both interesting and highly entertaining, and offers a completely new set of challenges for battle-scarred Morrowind veterans. The further addition of the artic island of Solstheim, along with its new and intriguing quests, landscape, and monsters, rounds out Bloodmoon extremely well; that it eschews Tribunal’s railroading for a much more open-ended exploration style leaves fans of the series virtually no reason to pass it up.

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

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