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The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

Publisher: Bethesda SoftworksDeveloper: Bethesda Softworks
Reviewer: Mike BrackenReleased: May 2002
Gameplay: 85%Control: 90%
Graphics: 85%Sound/Music: 96%
Story: 95%Overall: 86%


Originally slated to be a launch title for Microsoft's Xbox system, Bethesda Softworks' Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind saw numerous delays before finally hitting retail shelves last month. The game, a sequel to the PC games Arena and Daggerfall, is an open-ended title that allows the player to determine his own course throughout the game. It's an ambitious idea-and one that only works some of the time.

You are the Nerevarine…or are you?

It is a time of change in the land of Morrowind. The Emperor is growing old and weak and a power struggle for control of the land seems to be set to unfold. The great houses, Hlaalu, Redoran, and Telvanni continue to feud, the Cammona Tong is at war with the thieves' guild, and there are rumblings that the evil Dagoth Ur himself is awakening in his prison underneath Red Mountain. It's an uneasy calm-the kind that usually precedes a monumental storm.

You are a prisoner, freed by a decree from the Emperor himself and sent to the Vvardenfall region of the world. You've no idea why you've been freed or what role you will play in the upcoming events-you simply arrive at the small port town of Seyda Neen. Here, you're given a simple task-take some papers to the nearby town of Balmora and meet up Caius Casades of the Blades-a secret spy organization in the employ of the Emperor. From there, how the game proceeds is entirely up to you.

Like just about everything in Morrowind, what you get out of the story is directly proportional to what you put into it. Bethesda has sought to create a game that can be played in any way the player chooses-and because of this, it's not necessary to play through the main quest at all. However, to get the true Morrowind experience, at least one playthrough should be devoted to the main quest of the game-the threat of Dagoth Ur-because this main quest is where the majority of the game's best writing and story are.

Still, if you have no interest in ever getting to Red Mountain, that's okay-because Morrowind is a large world filled with characters who will offer you quests, guilds to join, and ancient ruins to explore and loot. One could play hundreds of hours without doing anything in the main story-which is one of the game's strengths. It's not a linear adventure, and how you proceed is entirely up to you.

Boasting the equivalent of six regular sized novels' worth of text, the game requires a great deal of reading. The long and elaborate history of the Nerevarine and Dagoth Ur-as well as that of Morrowind itself-is presented in huge chunks of expository text. If you're not into some heavy reading, you might want to skip Morrowind.

Fortunately, the text is generally entertaining. Sure, there's the inevitable bit where different people repeat the exact same thing that someone else said to you already, but at least the quality of the writing matches the epic fantasy feel of the game. Of course, there are more than a few grammatical and spelling errors to be found in the game-it was probably almost unavoidable given the sheer amount of text that's present.

Despite that minor flaw, the story is arguably Morrowind's greatest strength-provided you actually follow the main plotline through to its conclusion.

Gameplay

If I were asked to describe Morrowind in the simplest terms I could, I'd say it's Everquest without the online aspect.

Morrowind is a MMORPG without the massively multiplayer online part. Because of this, the game is occasionally a lot less fun than it should be. Face it, no one plays Everquest because of the excellent battle system or compelling story-they play for the online community aspects. Those aspects are completely absent from Morrowind and the game suffers because of it.

The fact that it's reminiscent of Everquest brings up another important point: Morrowind has far more in common with PC RPGs than console ones. If you're not into PC RPGs, then Morrowind will not appeal to you-it has nothing in common with your standard console RPG.

The game opens with the character creation segment. You'll enter Seyda Neen and answer a series of questions about your name, sex, etc. Right from the start, the tough decisions start. You have a multitude of races you can be-each with their own strengths and weakness. If that weren't enough, there are even more classes of characters to choose from. Want to be a thief, an assassin, or a badass warrior? You can be any of those and countless other kinds of characters.

Don't like the classes that are available? Create your own custom class. You'll choose the name, the major skills, the minor skills, and so on. Because of this, you can create a multitude of hybrid characters that aren't available in the main selections.

Of course, if you want fate to determine your character, you can answer a series of questions that will determine your class from one of the pre-set options.

After that, you get to choose your appearance-there are a variety of different faces and hairstyles for each race. Choose carefully, because that's the look you're gonna be stuck with for the next hundred or so hours…

And last but not least, you can pick your astrological sign. Each sign has benefits and drawbacks-some signs have more healing ability but are weak to magic, etc. Choosing a sign isn't vitally important, but you should put some thought into it.

With that done, you're ready to hit the world. Running out into town will demonstrate several things that set Morrowind apart from your typical console RPG. First, you can do whatever you want-you can leave town immediately and head to caves where you have no chance of surviving. The game doesn't put any barriers on where you can go or what you can do based on your level or any other criteria. It's entirely possible to wander into places you have no business being right from the first minutes of the game.

Second, you can pretty much do anything you want in the towns-with consequences, of course. Think that Argonian dog is charging too much for his items? Slaughter him and take what you want. Do you covet that white sword of woe in the Balmora guard tower? Steal it if you can-but be prepared to die if you get caught. That's the beauty of Morrowind-you get to do what you want. You can kill just about anyone, take just about anything, and go pretty much anywhere you choose.

The downside of this is that it's often easy to get lost in the game. Morrowind throws so many quests at you, so many places to go and explore, that it's quite common to find yourself unsure how to proceed. The major complaint with Square's Saga Frontier was that it was too open-ended-and it often looks like a paint-by-numbers portrait in comparison to Morrowind. Console gamers, who are used to rather linear RPG experiences, are going to find that Morrowind requires an adjustment to their playing style and has a bit of a learning curve.

Because of the open-ended nature of the game, it's tough to review Morrowind. With all of the variables involved, players can have radically different game experiences. While my game might start off slow because I'm a battlemage (who doesn't have much experience with weapons or magic in the early going), a thief or a straight fighter might fare much better. Conversely, if you spend your time fighting, your skills will improve-but you don't really have to fight much at all if you concentrate on things like speechcraft.

Much like Deus Ex, Morrowind is programmed to allow the quests to be resolved in a number of different ways. Warriors can go in and kill people and take what they need. Thieves can steal it, smooth talkers can use their silver tongue, etc. Unfortunately, because of the way the game's set up (allowing for different approaches to each situation), it often feels a little unbalanced. It's too easy to manipulate this system (and the leveling up one as well) in the early going-thereby creating tank-like characters who are virtually unstoppable. This is particularly true with the warrior classes. Once a warrior reaches level 20 and above, he's tough to bring down.

Leveling up is done in a way that's rather different from the standard RPG formula. You don't earn experience points in battle; you earn skill points for using your skills. For example, using an axe in battle will increase your axe skill level with each hit. When that level reaches 100 points, it levels up (and those skill levels can go to 100 as well). When you've leveled up 10 things in your major or minor skills (in any combination-it could be one level increase of 10 things, or 10 of one), your character will grow a level. At the level up, you're given three points to allocate to your core stats (strength, intelligence, agility, endurance, etc.). Depending on what skills you leveled up and how many times you leveled them up out of 10, you'll get multipliers by certain categories.

Because of this, training and using certain skills excessively early on can make your character incredibly strong much faster than he should. Your overall level doesn't really matter in Morrowind-it's the levels of your skills and main attributes.

It's obvious that Bethesda implemented this system so the different classes could become proficient with skills outside of their area of expertise, but the disappointing aspect is that it's mostly used to create an unbalanced character that makes the game far easier than it should be. Killing level 20 guys in two or three hits is fun for a while, but it does get old.

Speaking of battle, let's take a look at the combat system.

Simply put, Morrowind's combat system is boring. Based on the hack-and-slash mechanics of countless PC RPGs, the combat here is yawn-inspiring in a lot of ways. Bethesda tried to make it interesting by implementing the 'chop-slash-stab' system to the mix (what type of blow you utilize depends on your movement), but the end result is yet another game where you stand in a position and wale on the monster until one of you dies.

What makes it even worse (at least in the early going before you get your god-like character) is the realism. Because you have low stats (meaning you're not going to be a force with a weapon or magic), you'll swing and miss more often than you'll hit. Lowly rats are deadly adversaries in the early going, a fact that doesn't exactly make the game fun.

Magic suffers the same fate-if you have a low skill level, you'll fail with the casting more often than you'll succeed. It's a great idea in theory-however the implementation leaves a bit to be desired. Most people don't want to spend ten minutes trying to kill a measly sand crab.

Things do get better, though. Once your skill level increases, the battles become quicker and more action-oriented. They're still little more than simplistic button mashing, but that's not entirely a bad thing.

What also makes the game interesting is that there aren't a multitude of powerful weapons around. Generally speaking, the weapons from the beginning of the game are the same ones you'll be finding much later in the quest. Unlike the console RPG, where the next town always has a significantly better weapon or armor, the stores of Morrowind all seem to have roughly the same stock. There are some specialized weapons in the game, but they're still nothing like the ultimate weapons you'd find in your average Final Fantasy game.

What makes weapons and armor better is the act of enchanting them. Enchanting bestows magical properties on the item that can be used when the player sees fit. Enchanting a weapon with a powerful fire spell can make all the difference in those tough fights as each strike will dole out additional damage in the form of the fire spell. Of course, enchanting costs money and souls. You need to capture the souls of major enemies if you want the weapon to have a good magical charge, and the more powerful the spell, the more money it costs to enchant the item (plus, items have limits to how much enchantment they can hold). It's not as complex as it sounds, but there is a bit to consider when enchanting a weapon.

The other nice feature is that the player can customize spells. Visiting certain mages will allow the player to create new spells with stronger effects than the standard ones found in the game. Because of this, the player can create a nuclear spell that will blast huge and powerful fireballs that hurt everything in a huge radius-which is a lot better than the game's standard fire spell. To balance this, the bigger and more powerful the spell, the more magicka it costs to cast-and the lower the percentage of it actually being cast successfully.

At any rate, the gameplay in Morrowind is good. There will be two decidedly different opinions of it-those who like open-ended PC-style RPGs will love it. Those who've been weaned on console RPGs will probably be a little disappointed. Morrowind is a decidedly PC RPG on a console system-that's sure to turn some folks off.

Graphics

I like to call this section 'the good, the bad, and the ugly'.

There's little doubt in my mind that Microsoft's mighty black box is the only console that could even come close to pulling off a game of Morrowind's visual magnitude. Morrowind is a game that taxes mid-range PCs-so it's doubtful that the PS2 could have even begun to handle the job.

Still, the Xbox isn't a high end PC, either-and because of that, the game takes some lumps in the graphics department, particularly when compared with a high end PC.

The good things are in the details. Morrowind is a rich and diverse land. From the pyramid-like Cantons in Vivec, to the mushroom houses in Sadrith Mora, the land is incredibly unique. No two places look exactly the same, and because of that, finding each new town is an experience in and of itself. It's no exaggeration to say that I simply stopped and examined the scenery on numerous occasions. I watched the sun set between the peaks of mountains, I watched the clouds drift across the stars in the night sky, and I walked around in countless rainstorms, simply impressed by how immersive the game felt.

Many of those positive experiences were countered by a group of recurring negatives, though. The most glaring thing in Morrowind's graphics is the insane number of jaggies present in the game. Aliasing issues were supposed to be the domain of the PS2, but Morrowind has more jaggies than you can shake a stick at. Everything has them, it seems, and while I've never been one to harp on them too excessively (I think people who do are often too interested in graphics), I did find it surprising that there were so many-and that they were so noticeable-in this game.

Another bothersome element was the draw-in and pop-up featured throughout the game. Granted, draw-in is inevitable it seems, but there were some instances where it was really noticeable. It's nowhere near as bad as Summoner (which will forever be the standard for bad draw-in distances in a game), but it's still there and noticeable on a number of occasions.

More annoying than that were the thousands of seams that are visible throughout the game. I didn't even try to count how many texture seams I could see on the game's ground, but it seemed like every time I looked down, there was yet another flickering white line. Granted, the game is huge, but some play tester had to notice these things-they're just about everywhere.

As far as character models go, that's a toss up. I found most of the models sort of ugly, particularly my own character in the third person mode (talk about stiff and clunky animation…) Everyone seems a little too blocky and rigid. Again, it's not a major flaw, but it is worth mentioning.

And last but not least, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the slowdown. Morrowind runs at a fairly decent frame-rate most of the time, then it'll drop down for a second, then resume its normal pace. However, when fighting multiple enemies who are using magic, the slowdown gets downright ugly. We're talking major droppage in frames, which makes the fights a lot more difficult than they should be.

While it seems like I'm being hard on the graphics, I'm really not-Morrowind is an impressive game visually. Unfortunately, it has some pretty serious flaws that mar the graphical presentation and ultimately lower the score. The Xbox version doesn't compare to the PC version on a high-end machine-but I seriously doubt that the other two next-gen consoles out there could run it at all. If you don't have a top-of-the-line PC, the Xbox version is certainly the way to go-and your friends will still ooh and ahh over the graphics.

Sound/Music

Composer Jeremy Soule provides the musical accompaniment for Morrowind, and it's some very fine work.

The score is comprised of a number of rich orchestral tracks that really complement the game's epic tone and feel. The music is often relegated to the background of the scenes, where it provides support for the action instead of being a major component of it. This is a nice touch since the music never overwhelms the action.

My only complaint with the score is the lack of variety. Many of the tracks repeat too often, which isn't a bad thing (because they're good tracks), but a little variety would have been nice.

The rest of the sound work is great-the voices are unique (dependent upon race and gender), ambient sound is excellent (particularly the thunder storms-it's like listening to real rain), and the whole package sounds even better if you have a Dolby Digital system.

Control

No major problems with the control. Moving is a breeze with the analog sticks on the Xbox controller. The button layout is solid and intuitive, and my only major beef would be that the strafe option on the X-axis stick isn't nearly as effective as it should be.

Other than that, the game makes a nice transition from the keyboard to the controller.

Glitches and bugs

It pains me to have to write this category in any review. I don't often have to do it, since console software is usually without any major bugs. But, since Morrowind is a PC port, I suppose bugs were inevitable.

At this stage, Morrowind is a very buggy game. This isn't too terrible for PC gamers (who can download patches as they become available), but does present a problem for Xbox owners (who probably won't have access to patches any time soon-if ever; MS is very strict about content that goes onto the Xbox hard drive and patches seem unlikely).

The bugs and glitches in the game run the gamut from annoying (the 'continental drift' factor that has certain characters like the Balmora silt strider operator falling off his perch and disappearing from the game) to devastating (if you kill a person but fail to take an item you need, and if that person's corpse disappears, the item is lost forever-meaning you can't continue that quest). The problem isn't so much that the game has bugs-it's that the game has so many of them. Bethesda seems to be notorious for letting the general public be their 'play testers'-which is (again) fine with PC owners who can get patches. However, that the Xbox version features many of the same problems as the PC game is disappointing. Once more, most of the bugs are annoyances and not outright game killers (although my copy of the game has an alarming propensity for locking up), but it's disappointing to see a buggy piece of software released when it could have been fixed.

Conclusions

To be honest, I had a love/hate relationship with Morrowind. There were moments where I was swept up in its brilliance and the open-ended design. Then there were moments where I was so sick of doing yet another variation of one of the game's three standard fetch quests that I wanted to cry. In the end, the positives outweighed the negatives.

Morrowind is an ambitious game that suffers from more than a few flaws. Yet, it's hard to take off too many points for those flaws when the majority of them spring from the fact that Bethesda is trying to make innovations rather than retreading the same old ground. Face it, it would have been easy for them to slap together yet another derivative RPG and get it to the market. Instead, they've made a game that tries to be a true role-playing experience. It succeeds on some levels-and it fails on others-but the effort is appreciated and deserves some recognition.

Ultimately, if you have a choice, the PC version of Morrowind is the way to go. You'll not only have access to the patches, but the mod kit adds so much more to the game after you've defeated the main quest. Now, that's not to say that the Xbox version is bad-because it's not. If you don't have a high-end PC, this version is a more than viable alternative and will allow you to experience one of the most ambitious RPGs in recent memory.

Mike Bracken

Morrowind features some diverse and attractive architecture.

Exploring the wilds of Vvardenfell.







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