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The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind - Retroview

Expansive, Detailed, Epic, Bland.
By: Lord Craxton

Review Breakdown
   Battle System 6
   Interface 5
   Music & Sound 4
   Originality 1
   Story & Plot 1
   Localization NA
   Replay Value 7
   Visuals 3
   Difficulty Easy
   Completion Time 10 Hours-Infinite  
Overall
5

Khajiit adventurer, with standard gear.
Khajiit adventurer, with standard gear.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

   I don't dislike Morrowind, but for some reason I can think of only bad things to say about it.

   The game opens as you step off a prison ship onto the shores of the island of Vvardenfall, in the Imperial Province of Morrowind. After some bureaucratic wrangling at the local Census office (a cleverly-integrated tutorial and character creation system), you're sent to meet Caius Cossades, one of the Emperor's spies. Caius deputizes you as his apprentice, and after instructing you to establish yourself with some of the local guilds and factions, he sends you out to run a series of errands gathering information about local legends. Turns out there's some pretty foreboding stuff in those legends, dealing with the usual fantasy spiel about dark forces, ancient conflicts, a destined hero, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

   Problem one: the plot isn't interesting at all. Not only is it about as generic as you can get without duking it out with an evil dragon, but the way it's implemented is just drab. You spend two-thirds of the game as Caius' glorified courier, a bunch of running around enlivened by the occasional dungeon. The third act is the same thing, only this time it's a bunch of spoiled nobles and tribe chieftains scattered far and wide over Vvardenfall. You don't get to anything especially heroic until the very end, and even then the final battle is a huge letdown. Throughout, there's an attempt to flesh out the world with detailed histories and interplay between various political powers, but these come off as thinly-veiled cribs from real-life history: the Roman Empire, the Protestant Reformation, and so on.

   We shouldn't dwell on this too much, though, because Morrowind is not meant to be a very plot-centered game. This is supposed to be the kind of game where you make your own story- do what you want to do, be what you want to be. Character creation is very open- there's a wide variety of races available, including cat-people, lizardmen, and several varieties of elves and humans. Class templates are provided, or you can create your own class. You also have a choice of thirteen birthsigns to give you an edge. As for what to do with your character, well, there are four guilds, three noble houses, two churches, and a number of miscellaneous factions, all of which want you to do their dirty work. Loyal service is rewarded with cash to invest in better gear or skill training, and advancement through the ranks is swift. If you're the exploring type, you'll find dozens of out-of-the-way dungeons and ruins, full of foes and treasures. If you're the thieving type, you can break into private houses and clean them out. If you're a bloodthirsty bastard, you can kill NPCs and take their stuff (but watch out for the guards).


Khajiit adventurer, with modded gear. Note the stylish twin shortswords and red cloak.
Khajiit adventurer, with modded gear. Note the stylish twin shortswords and red cloak.

   For all that, though, there's a sense of thinness to the proceedings, a certain lack of meaning. Advancement in guilds or factions never earns you any new abilities or authority, or even more interesting assignments- you're running the same basic fetch-and-carry errands as the guildmaster as you are as an initiate. After a while it feels like a treadmill, running around endlessly and getting nowhere. Exploring on your own isn't much better. Many of the dungeons are seriously lacking in treasure to make your jaunts worthwhile, and the level design has this unmistakable boiler-plate feel- like a bunch of pre-fabricated rooms jigsawed together. Daedric Shrines and some of the quest dungeons do provide decent enough challenge and rich rewards, but these are the exception rather then the rule. Likewise, though burglarizing the town sounds fun, it boils down to a lot of fumbling with probes and lockpicks, training your sneaking skill up, and then realizing no one has anything worth stealing. There's a whole lot to do in Morrowind, but it always seems like your time could be better spent on some other, better game.

   The island of Vvardenfall looks reasonably good, at least on the inside. The graphics are pretty high-res, and the various architectural styles on display are imaginative and varied. But the outdoors, despite a few fairly scenic views, is dull and uninspired. Nothing really jumps out at you. Well, no, one thing DOES jump out... gloom. Whether it was a design decision or a technological consideration, Vvardenfall is hazy and foggy place, with lots of subdued colors; Browns, grays, very light greens... I'm really getting sick of this, you know. Is there some law that says a "realistic" game has to represent every exterior as muddy dirt, stunted vegetation, hazy fog, and general lifelessness? The enemies look pretty generic. A few cool designs are drowned in a sea of uninspired ones, and the final boss is just plain goofy. Likewise, the game sounds pretty dull. Sound effects are decent but unremarkable, and music consists of a few tunes on endless loop. It's inoffensive, but it doesn't get your blood pumping or fill you with a sense of wonder either. Even the battle theme sounds laid-back and half-asleep.

   The island of Vvardenfall looks reasonably good, at least on the inside. The graphics are pretty high-res, and the various architectural styles on display are imaginative and varied. But the outdoors, despite a few fairly scenic views, is dull and uninspired. Nothing really jumps out at you. Well, no, one thing DOES jump out... gloom. Whether it was a design decision or a technological consideration, Vvardenfall is hazy and foggy place, with lots of subdued colors; Browns, grays, very light greens... I'm really getting sick of this, you know. Is there some law that says a "realistic" game has to represent every exterior as muddy dirt, stunted vegetation, hazy fog, and general lifelessness? The enemies look pretty generic. A few cool designs are drowned in a sea of uninspired ones, and the final boss is just plain goofy. Likewise, the game sounds pretty dull. Sound effects are decent but unremarkable, and music consists of a few tunes on endless loop. It's inoffensive, but it doesn't get your blood pumping or fill you with a sense of wonder either. Even the battle theme sounds laid-back and half-asleep.


Altar of a Daedric ruin. Swipe the offerings, if you dare.
Altar of a Daedric ruin. Swipe the offerings, if you dare.

   There are also some serious performance issues. There must be a memory leak in the code somewhere, because Morrowind can slow down considerably- even intolerably- during long play sessions. Or short play sessions with lots of teleporting from city to city. And although crashes aren't all that common, they do happen with some frequency, so save often.

   As for the action: well, if you've played Daggerfall, the previous Elder Scrolls game, you probably remember the "hold-the-mouse-button-and-flail-around" approach to combat. It's less silly in Morrowind, but the same principles apply: directional key plus mouse for an attack, holding the mouse longer for more power. However, combat is much more varied strategically- each skill and weapon class has its own strengths and weaknesses, and you have to play to your strengths to win. Magic will help, but is too complicated. The game requires you to pick a spell from the menu, and then drop out of combat mode to cast it. You're probably better off finding weapons with spell effects attached, or just casting long-lasting buffs before a likely fight.

   Of course, no review of Morrowind would be complete without mention of mods. The PC version of Morrowind ships with a fairly intuitive editor, one of the game's big selling points. (XBox players, unfortunately, are out of luck.) This allows any of the hundreds of armchair game designers out there to put their money where their mouths are. And indeed the various Morrowind sites around the internet are bursting with literally thousands of tweaks, enhancements, and additions, which go a long way to extending the game's already mammoth playtime, as well as smoothing over the rough areas.

   Unfortunately, they create new problems as well- many screw with game balance, or are poorly designed or implemented, and it takes a good deal of trial and error to weed the good ones out from the bad. Ratings on the major mod sites help, but not enough: on Morrowind Chronicles half the mods are user-rated about 50% Excellent, 50% Poor. There's also the fact that, if you install too many mods, you'll begin to get serious difficulties. Mods will conflict with each other, exacerbate already serious lag issues, or interact in some bizarre way that breaks the game entirely. Furthermore, though a lot of modders have created new content, very few have fleshed out the existing content. This leaves the impression of playing the same thin game with better bells and whistles. Overall, the effect of mods is more good than bad, but they must be handled with caution and restraint.

   Another major selling point is sheer volume. Due to the huge number of things that can be done, Morrowind takes weeks upon weeks to explore fully. The main quest is over in about ten hours if you really rush it, but the sidequests bring the playtime up considerably. Unfortunately, the challenge factor is low. Your character gets very powerful before long, and the enemies can't quite keep up. This means you eventually hit a wall, even *with* mods to add new stuff. It helps that you can start with a different type of character. But even if you ally with different factions, the quests are similar enough that you get the feeling it's just the same game over again.

   Overall, I'd say Morrowind is a case of quantity over quality. There's lots and lots and lots of stuff in there... it's just that most of it is pretty dull. It's not bad, but it feels like killing time between other, more interesting games. Which, considering the current state of PC gaming, might not be very far from the truth.

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