Written by: Stoo

Date posted: March 22, 2007


Showing off the spear I looted from that stronghold in the background.

Welcome, RPG fans. Today we’re looking into a vast, epic session of goblin-slaying, questing and exploration. The Elder Scrolls series dates back to 1993, and throughout the four main games has kept to a few core premises. They’re single-character affairs with realtime combat, and they offer huge, sprawling outdoor areas with countless hours of questing on offer, all in a detailed fantasy setting. Far from being linear affairs, they largely leave to you to define your own path as a hero. A central storyline is on offer but there are also multitudes of side-quests, not to mention free-form fun of your own devising.

I suppose it might have made sense to start our reviews at, well, the start with Arena. Unfortunately though we’re never that organised, so instead I’m talking about Morrowind, which is outing number three. It falls on the borders of what we might call an “old game” – released in 2002, and a little notorious for running poorly on hardware of the time. Still given that the mighty fourth incarnation, Oblivion, was released last year I thought it might be worthwhile to outline its immediate predecessor. At heart they’re very similar creations, with Oblivion being modified and improved in various little ways based on fan reaction to this one.

Anyway, as is traditional for the series, you begin Morrowind as a humble prisoner. You’re a complete nobody and thus a blank slate for the player to build into a hero. At the very start you’re within the hold of a ship – recently docked at the island of Morrowind itself. This nation is the home of a race known as the Dunmer. They’re elves, but not so much the pretty Lord of the Rings sorts that might spend their days singing songs and brushing their hair. Rather, the Dunmer are a proud and insular bunch with strange customs, strong warrior traditions and a long history of mistrust of other races. Aside from charcoal- grey skins, their other most instantly notable feature is the males all sounding like chain-smokers. However, they’re also currently under the rule of the human empire of Cyrodil, who are kind of like this world’s version of the Romans. In fact, it’s under the mysterious orders of someone within the empire that you’ve been shipped to this remote province.

Stepping out of the hold at the prompting of the guards, you blink in the sunlight and take in the surroundings. A small village lies in a swampy region by the still waters of an inland sea. The light reflects off the water quite prettily, and a few peasants wander about between the few huts. It all feels rather sleepy and tranquil, in a damp and swampy kind of way. You’re then directed towards a soldier, who asks some questions, and then sent inside the customs house where an official asks a few more. This is in fact a fairly neat way of doing the traditional RPG “character generation” process – choosing race, character class, skills etc. These details established, another soldier gives you a bit of money and instructions to report to an imperial agent in a nearby city.

He sends you on your way, and that’s about as far as the game directs you. You’re left standing in the village, scratching your head and wondering where to go next. Well, a good first move might be to head to the general store and kit yourself out with a basic weapon and some provisions. From there, it’s up to you. You can head as ordered to the city if you wish. Or maybe you could explore the coastline, or just pick some other road and see where it takes you.

The area of land contained within the game is, according to Wiki, about six square miles. Which feels pretty enormous when you’re hiking around on foot. It’s something I always appreciate in the game – when hills in the distance are a real feature you can head over to and explore, rather than just a backdrop. Even if there’s nothing important there (and there often is), it just makes the world seem that bit more convincing when you can wonder anywhere off the beaten path, in a seamless world where nothing you can see is “off limits”.

Believe it or not the preceding game in the series, Daggerfall, was actually far larger. However, that one relied on endless randomly generated and samey-looking terrain, whereas Morrowind is far more detailed and varied. There are volcanic wasteland, rocky barrens, swamps and a rather pleasant stretch of rolling grassland. These wildernesses are dotted with points of interest for the intrepid adventurer – ruins, forts and tombs containing undead, brigands and worse. There are also several cities and many more small towns, with several distinctive architectural designs between them. Exploration for its own sake, is really an important part of the fun here.

Of course in visual terms Morrowind isn’t quite as stunning as it once was. The technology is of a couple of steps behind the latest 3D engines, and the drawing distance before scenery fades to fog is a little close. Also, thinking in aesthetic terms instead of technical, the designers maybe overdid the volcanic wastes. Still, the land remains picturesque in a rugged kind of way. Enough so to have inspired me to spend a few hours just roaming about and taking screenshots, of windswept cliffs and eerie ruins at dusk. There are some decent weather effects to go with it all, and a day\night cycle – the sky at night still looks pretty gorgeous. You can also get fan-made textures to smarten it up a little – more on that kind of thing later.

So we have a large and detailed world, but we might also hope that Bethesda made it suitably atmospheric – as gamers we want the illusion of exploring a fantasy nation, not just a really big gaming map. Part of what helps on this count is the exotic, even slightly alien feel to the environment, which sets it apart from more traditional tolkien-ish “high fantasy” stuff. Examples include giant mushroom towers, guards in armour made of insect shells, and giant bugs that are used as transportation between cities. There is also plenty of reading material, available in the form of books and parchments you read in-game, that tells you about the land and its people. Bethesda put a lot of work into thinking up the legends and histories of the Dunmer. You could probably spend the best part of an hour reading it if you were to drop in on the major libraries, wizard’s towers or any other place of learning. None of this background information is essential to the gaming, but it helps add depth to the fictional world around you.

The land is populated by roughly a thousand characters that you can interact with. Apart from a few spoken greetings and comments, conversations are text based, conducted by clicking keywords. Most people will discuss several topics with you, however there tends not to be a huge variety in what they say. Responses are taken from a few stock sets, based on race or location. To be fair there are hundreds of people on this island; it might have been quite an effort to give them all unique opinions on High Elves, the Empire, how their business is going and the price of fish. Still you’d think a bit more individuality could have been thrown in. Fortunately key characters at least – lords, leaders and those relevant to the story – have a greater degree of individuality.

Dangerous ruins, at dusk.

There’s also the question of what these people do. Or rather, don’t do. In fact, they’re a rather inert bunch, eternally either standing on the spot or wondering around aimlessly. Shopkeepers are rooted behind the counter, patrons in a tavern are always there propping up the bar, farmers really don’t get a lot of farming done. No-one ever even goes to bed or closes up shop for the night, In one sense it seems an unfair criticism to make; don’t NPCs in other rpgs just stand around uselessly anyway? I’m replaying Baldur’s Gate right now, and it’s stuffed full of Generic Peasants who do nothing. I think though, the difference in Morrowind is, it goes to great lengths in many respects to create realistic and immersive environment for the player, helped along by the fancy 3D engine and first-person perspective. Thus its shortcomings in some related areas are more noticeable. Basically they’re holding themselves to higher standards than some basuc isometric-view RPG or dungeon crawler. It’s something that could have been helped by, say, just by giving farmers or blacksmiths a few scripted animations to represent their work. Also maybe implementing daily routines – even something as basic as “sleep, go to field, go to tavern, repeat” would have gone a long way. The Gothic series stands as a good example of bringing its people more to life in this way.

That’s the world of the game, anyway. However in the usual RPG manner, before you get a chance to venture forth into that world you need to have sorted what kind of a hero you want to be. Your character is defined by a proficiency in eight skills, selected from a list of many more. If you wish you can choose a pre-determined character “class” – thief, knight, sorcerer etc, each of which is defined by the skills with which they’re equipped. If you know what you’re doing, however, you can create a custom hero class of your own. Want to be a mage who wears heavy armour? Go for it, you’ll just have to make do with one less magical skill to make room for it. Or a barbarian warrior who, contrary to his brutish looks, knows the arts of potions and healing spells? It’s up to you, he’ll just have to make do with less variety in weapon and armour proficiencies.

The skills fall into three main categories, weapons and armour, magic, and a fairly miscellaneous set the game terms “stealth”. In practise, most skills are based around invisible dice-rolling – you try to take an action, the game works out whether or not you succeeded and failed, and reports back. It keeps track of every successful use, and once this has happened enough times that particular skill rating goes up a point – allowing you to use it to a more powerful level, and\or with a greater chance of success, in future. Meanwhile, every ten skill increases means a good old RPG-ish “level-up”, at which point you can boost basic character stats like strength and speed.

It’s a fairly slick system. The one place the constant dice-rolling can get frustrating, however, is in hand-to-hand combat. It might look like your sword hit that bandit, but if the game rolled a “miss” then, well, you missed. That kind of business might be ok for tactical isometric-view type RPGs like Baldur’s Gate, but in the land of action-oriented first-person combat, it’s just annoying. All I can say is that once you’ve worked the skill up a little, it shouldn’t happen so much. As some consolation you get a wide range of weapon types, and also three classes of armour. The latter works simply by: the more you get pummelled whilst wearing it, the more effective it becomes in warding off damage.

In fact on the subject of arms and armour, there’s also plenty of fancy loot to chase. After all, for all the talk of atmosphere, or story, or whatever, hunting for that sword with an extra +10 damage is something all we RPG dorks spend time doing. Armour comes in several pieces, and can be worn in combination with regular clothing, allowing for a lot of customisation. So you can expect a fairly patchwork appearance sometimes – your advanced arcane ebony cuirass, right gauntlet and longsword mixed in with basic iron armour to fill in the other gaps. Oh and you can walk around with a robe over your gear, and whip it off in a dramatic manner to reveal your awesome magical armour when you enter a room. Although won’t actually impress anyone but yourself. Dork.

Magic meanwhile offers a wide range of spell effects. Destruction spells for example are your standard fireballs, bolts of lighting etc. Alterationlets you float through the air and walk on water, and Restoration is all about healing and enhancing your stats. A welcome feature is the option of mixing various effects. So you can create an arcane blast that freezes and cooks a goblin at the same time, whilst rooting them to the spot via paralysis. Or a spell of levitation and invisibility to let you soar overhead oblivious bandits. With these go two further creative skills – enchanting puts spell effects onto your gear, and alchemy makes character-boosting potions from materials found around the lands. The implementation has a few flaws though though; fireball-type attack spells are in my experience underpowered, ant thus a “pure” wizard type is hard to play. Still, as a supporting tool it can be entertaining. The “get better with practise” system means you might find yourself sat in an empty field launching fireballs into the sky just to boost skills… but then that’s probably quite realistic when you think about it.

Fan-made character models and skins greatly improved on the originals.

As for stealth, well, Thief fans might find the sneaking disappointing. I’m not sure how much light and sound come into it, and I suspect much comes down to just position and enemy field-of-view coupled with regular dice-rolls to see if he’s noticing. Lockpicking meanwhile is a simple click-and-diceroll affair. So Morrowind can hardly compete with stealth-based games on their own turf, but it does at least make a more sneaky roguish kind of character a viable option. Thrown into this set are Speechcraft and Mercantile – basically more dicerolling that aims to make boost peoples “friendliness” rating or offer you better deals respectively.

Anyway, with this all established in my slightly methodical and plodding way, now you can (finally) get down to the structure of the game – what you actually do out there. The main story behind the game plays out through a central series of missions, starting with you working for an imperial spymaster. It builds into a scenario involving an ancient enemy awakening, and the prophecies of a returned hero. Unsurprisingly enough, that’s your role. First though you must learn more about these prophecies, and how you might go about fulfilling them. From here you work to gain the trust of the tribes and noble houses of the Dunmer people, and ultimately become their great champion on a mission sanctioned by their own demigod.

The narrative is maybe let down slightly by dry and detached execution, and it’s more interesting for the themes presented than any kind of personal drama, but it still works pretty well. Also it’s helped out by its ties to the background material I mentioned, which adds depth, and provides some interesting insights on the various groups involved. There’s a theme of old powers falling and the fear of what might replace them. Also a few question marks are left hanging over whether or not your character really is a reincarnated champion, or just someone in the right place at the right time. Are you a mystical hero, or merely a useful tool for stabilising a troublesome province of superstitious elves? You can’t even be fully sure you know the full truth about that “ancient enemy”, as everyone seems to have their own version of the history of this land, and how he became an enemy in the first place.

Importantly though, it’s left to you to follow this story at your own pace. You can start it straight away or after weeks of play, and leave it to follow other adventures at any point. Beyond this, the emphasis is on the free-form play. The scope is there to create your own hero, play out your own story for him or her, pick and choose your adventures at whim. Gallant hero of the people, cunning sneaky rogue who fills his pockets with noblemens’ riches, cold-hearted assassin, it’s up to you really.

The basis of this is formed by the numerous quests and mission available. Some are one-offs in service to the people of Morrowind, others come from major factions you can join. The fighters’ guild for example are your basic mercenaries-for-hire, whilst the Mages’ guild are into gaining knowledge of the province, and will often send you off searching for trinkets and books. There are two religious bodies with quite a variety of quests, from gathering donations for the poor to retrieving long-lost holy relics from the clutches of demons. On top of that is the imperial legion, an assassins guild (conducting legally-sanctioned murders), and the three noble houses of the Dunmer.

Some of the questing feels like errand-running – “go here, kill some baddies\retrieve an item return”. It’s certainly true that they would have benefited from some more interesting writing, and brief stories to push them along. Still, the Main Quest is there to provide the story-driven adventuring if you really want such a thing. The various side-quests meanwhile serve as a framework around which the path of your hero can be written. They’ll send you visiting the various cities, meeting some interesting and powerful characters within this fictional world, and most importantly romping out through the wildernesses in search of action, experience and loot.

Here’s a typical example of how an evening’s session might progress: You’re being sent to investigate a ruined fortress by the mages’ guild, in search of some powerful relic. You get some provisions, then trek out from the city into the misty wilderness. A while later you encounter your destination, a slablike structure sat ominously amidst the low hills. Wondering what’s inside you find the answer is: a swarm of angry demons. Eventually you emerge from the depths, leaving a trail of mangled monsters in your wake with your armour bashed and dented. In one hand you clutch a powerful new enchanted spear, and in the other some ancient tomes on the long-dead dwarves that you hope the mages will shed some light on. Then you begin a weary trek back to town – looking for the welcoming signs of civilisation, a good blacksmith and an inn.

Ok, these spikey ruins all get a bit samey, but you don't have to visit every last one.

After that you might go do another quest. Or you might have spied an abandoned Dwarvern fortress in the distance on the last mission, rumoured to contain powerful weapons behind its steam-powered guardians. So even though you don’t have any current orders relating to it, you head there anyway to see what spoils await a brave adventurer. Or you might go for a hike along the western coastline, looking for smugglers’ caves to ransack before calling in on the military base to the north for new orders. Or if you’re a greedy sort, look to see what you can plunder from the Wizards’ towers of the east. Or go picking flowers in the pleasant southern farmlands – really, they’re useful for alchemy. Or go rearrange your weapon collection (no, really, I’m that much of a dork) in the house you occupied after killing its owner – a known criminal who you dispatched for the local magistrate.

There’s only one more problem I should mention. The difficulty curve, you see seems fairly well-balanced at first – you romp around doing basic quests, killing rats, and running away screaming like a little girl when a monstrous demon chases you. With experience, you become more powerful, gain better gear, and entering those ruins more confidently to show those demons who’s boss. However, eventually you reach a point where you realise you’re so powerful, that nothing can seriously threaten you anymore. This won’t necessarily be at the “end” of the game (in as much as this game has an end) – you can reach this state well before you’ve done all the quests on offer. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy questing around the island anymore as a lvl40 super-warrior, it’s just not quite as intense raiding a ruin or fighting a pack of bandits when there’s no real sense of danger.

So you might hit a point, sooner or later where you’ve seen everything the game has to offer. Even if it takes a while. You’ll either have done every quest you can find, or just be finding it all a bit too easy. Fear not, though as there are indeed further challenges available. For one thing, there are two lengthy expansion packs. One adds a new island, another a city, and between them they have their own stories, numerous quests, and new challenges for high-level characters. So that’s another fortnight of your life gone.

On top of that, there’s a vast-range of fan-made mods out there. In fact Bethesda made the game specifically with this kind of functionality in mind. The very nature of Morrowind is geared towards new content being slotted in, and a simple editing application was included on the CD to encourage us all to have a go at making mods. Allowing you to manipulate the game’s environment, and write scripts to control characters and events, it’s simple enough that even an idiot like me could operate it.

Some mods are merely cosmetic – higher resolution textures, or better quality character skins and models that improve on the rather ugly originals. Others add new quests, anything from a few minor errands, to an epic story in multiple chapters. They might add houses, towns, even landmasses. Or seek to add further detail to the gameplay itself – more complex fighting systems, cooking and water gathering or ridable animals.

So two services are being provided here: extending the (already vast) hours of gameplay in offer on the game, and also in some cases improving the experience or partially making up for some of Morrowind’s inherent flaws. This is why I’m mentioning this point in the main body of the review instead of a sidenote, also it’s the reason I wouldn’t recommend the X-Box version. It might make sense to stick with the unaltered game at first, until you have the hang of it, but in the longer term without mods you’re only really getting about half the potential gaming on offer.

Let’s try and reach some conclusions. Morrowind sets itself some fairly lofty goals, and it would be overtly gushing to say that it meets that target on all counts. There’s definitely room for improvement – for one thing there are the practical issues of gameplay balance to deal with. Also, Bethesda did great work in producing a vast and detailed world full of questing opportunities, but the next step is to really bring it to life. Part of this comes down to more active characters, presenting a more convincing illusion of being real inhabitants of this world. Also, I’d like to get the sense that my actions matter to them. What we need is a step up from “go run this errand” followed by “great thanks here’s your gold”. Be it through better writing, scripted scenes, or the implementation of consequences to action.

For what it’s worth, Oblivion did indeed take some steps in addressing these points. Although it did introduce some problems of its own. However, for this article we’re asking if Elder Scrolls number three is still worth your time. Well, Morrowind makes a pretty grand effort. It scores for sheer freedom, and for the joys of well-crafted, open-ended play. Goblin-slaying, serving the guilds or robbing entire towns blind, that’s what Morrowind is for. The story it does offer is just one, relatively more structured option. The theme here is of exploring and questing for the hell of it; more incentive in the way I outlined above would help, but the sandbox model gameplay is itself sound. Some people might just not get the appeal of such things, and prefer something more story-driven, but that’s really going beyond the bounds of analysing how successful this game is within its own ambitions. If you find it too aimless, maybe you’d be better served with Final Fantasy – and I don’t mean that derisively, each game reaches for different goals.

Ulimately there are several other RPGs in the “huge and epic” category out there competing for your time. Obviously enough, there’s Oblivion itself. There’s also the Gothic and Neverwinter Nights series, of which I’ve not played either but heard good things about. Then of course we have the colossal, life-consuming monsters that are the massively-multiplayer online RPGs. Having been lured in by World of Warcraft myself, I can confirm just how addictive they can be. So I wouldn’t be so bold as to say Morrowind is the very greatest of RPGs any more. Still, the official stance of this site is that it deserves a place amongst amongst the top set, even if it’s the older and slightly clunky one of the class.

Oh, and even Rik has a copy. Not actually installed it yet, mind you, but this is the guy who normally runs a mile from anything that features dwarves and goblins. So any RPG that convinces him to hand over a hard-earned £10 must have something going for it.