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Preview: Morrowind (PC/Xbox)
  Morrowind The third installment in the acclaimed Elder Scrolls series, Morrowind looks to be the quintessential non-linear RPG experience.
Screens


Some of Morrowind's inspiring scenery.


Talk to the staff cuz the face ain't listening.


A wayward adventurer gazes upon a stony visage in the Xbox version.


The Elder Scrolls Construction Set at work.


Tourism continues to decline on account of the rainy climate and insect problem.


Dungeon crawlers get down and dirty in the third-person perspective.


Media
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Platform: PC/Xbox
Developer:Bethesda Softworks, Inc.
Publisher:Bethesda Softworks, Inc. (U.S.); Ubi Soft (Europe)
Rated Teen (13+): Blood; violence

    The moon and tide. Hydrogen and oxygen. Frat parties and cheap beer. Working Designs and gratuitous game delays. Like these fundamental relationships, non-linear questing and The Elder Scrolls franchise are, for better or worse, inseparable. As much as driving, central narratives have done for RPGs, Bethesda Softworks has shown with Arena and its sequel, Daggerfall, just how appealing an open-ended romp through living, breathing, pre-industrial fantasy worlds can be. There's something about waking bright and early from hard-earned, textured-mapped lodgings and plotting your own day's adventures that taps into the primal, vicarious thrills that draw us to RPGs in the first place.

   Arena and Daggerfall demonstrated Bethesda's acumen for character building and variegated world design, though both games were limited in practice by the retrograde technologies of their times. That's not to say that these seminal efforts weren't on the frontier of the PC gaming experience in the 90s, but storage and graphical limitations ultimately hampered the free-form bliss aspired to. The seemingly endless channels for NPC interaction and sidequests became, on closer inspection, predictable and workaday. Outside of the optional main scenario, Arena's dungeons were aesthetically mundane with layouts all too self-similar to incisive players (the lost artifact dungeons are a good example), and Daggerfall's buggy engine became a bigger liability than its designers would have liked. Both were deserving of the notoriety and awards garnered for pioneering non-linear gaming, but it was hard to shake the feeling that, while Bethesda was certainly onto something, it wasn't able to deliver wholesale on the immaculate gaming experience strived for.

   More than five years later, the next chapter in The Elder Scrolls series is poised for release. Morrowind, like its predecessors, is an essentially open-ended affair, though players are free to tug on its central narrative threads if they so choose. This time around the northeastern province of Tameriel (aptly named Morrowind, for anyone loathing of metaphorical titles) and its Vvanderfell District, whose diverse topography of ancient cities, desert wastes, volcanic islands, arid grasslands, and more populist west-southwestern coastlines, serve as the locus of play. The region's politics are dominated by three major cultures: the Ashlander Nomads, the Imperial colonies, and the Dunmer Great House culture, which is comprised of three distinct sub-cultures of aristocrats, merchants and sorcerer lords. The resulting conflict of interests between the clashing cultures--even the Dunmer houses can't seem to get along--suitably characterize the hostile milieu, where the military dominance of the Imperial Legions is all that keeps the powder keg from igniting. This, coupled with Vvardenfell's vast, unexplored lands and the presence of the Blight, an unseen entity that ravages everything in its wake, should give players plenty to think about.

   Visually, Morrowind's environments and characters are rendered in real-time and were designed to take advantage of the latest in 3-D graphic accelerators. Judging from the panorama of existing media, every character model, edifice and landscape is richly textured, and dazzling weather and day/night lighting effects only serve as a reminder of how far graphics technology has progressed from just five years ago, when pop-up scenery and flat, wooden character models were prevalent. A graphical feature new to this installment is the ability to toggle between first and third-person points of view on the fly.

   In Morrowind, players can build their characters around a number of class archetypes, ranging from warriors to thieves and magic-users. Interaction within the game's world is colored by the player's actions. Lead an altruistic life of serving the common good and people will generally respond positively. Run through the colonies hacking down innocent civilians and your exploits will become a bit more precarious with the local law enforcement on your back. Conversing with non-player characters is simplified with a keyword system, wherein words that trigger specific responses are highlighted and stored in a comprehensive listing so that topics can be introduced and referenced with aplomb. Over 3,200 NPCs inhabit Vvanderfell District, all of which can be interacted with in some way.

    In addition to the main storyline, Bethesda promises that there will be more than enough diverse quests available from the outset to keep players interested. Morrowind features over 300 unique dungeons, including the usual geographical/architectural assortment of caves, ruins, mountains, deserts and so on. Players also have the option of joining up with guilds and journeying on behalf of their respective interests. Guilds are stratified along character class lines (e.g., fighters, thieves and mages). The game's magic system allows players to combine spell effects and customize specific variables such as power, range and effect to yield a near-endless array of incantations. In addition to these key features, Morrowind also boasts a new musical score from veteran composer Jeremy Soule, one of the industry's premier talents. Soule is known for his work on other PC titles such as Total Annihilation and Icewind Dale, as well as the black sheep of Squaresoft's SNES family, Secret of Evermore.

   A promising component of the Morrowind experience is The Elder Scrolls Construction Set, which looks to be Bethesda's gushing love letter to pen-and-paper RPG aficionados. The construction set allows players to micro-manage every facet of the Morrowind universe from dungeons, towns, landscapes, dialogue, weapons, characters, races, magic and much more. The system is built on plug-in technology, where all changes to the game's world are saved as separate files, which can then be incorporated into individual sessions. Players can also create their own campaigns and allow friends to download the necessary modification files into their existing games.

   Morrowind ships on two PC CDs and one Xbox DVD on April 29, 2002, with the The Elder Scrolls Construction Set being a perquisite of the PC version only. Hopefully, Bethesda will augment its legacy with a gaming experience that shows considerable next-generation shine, and one whose gameplay is as refined as it is inspiring.

by Michael Henninger


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