The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind - Staff Review  

Expansive Yet Empty
by John Boske

Low to Moderate
40-50 hours


Rating definitions 

   Many games tout immersion among their redeeming traits, but few truly deliver the promise of entering a rich, detailed world. Enter Morrowind, the third installment to Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series; an RPG made with the premise of almost absolute freedom. On this point, Bethesda delivers. Almost no RPG, past or present, has matched Morrowind in terms of sheer scope, detail and imagination, and the amount of things you can do in this game can rightly boggle the mind. Unfortunately, what it has in scope, it lacks in heart, and although no two adventures across the island of Morrowind will be exactly the same, they'll almost certainly seem that way.

   You begin the game a prisoner, transported by ship to the village of Seyda Neen, where a brief tutorial introduces you to movement and interaction. No one's sure why, but by Imperial edict, you have been released from prison and have been directed to assist an agent of the Emperor. What follows is a curious tale about vague prophecies and Imperial politics which promises to take your adventuring self all over the island. Along the way, you might ally yourself with one or more Morrowind's many factions: professional guilds (fighter, thief or mage), the Imperial legion, the Great Houses (native political factions), or religious orders. There are many, many non-factional quests to partake in, and you may even join one of three clans of vampires if you search hard enough.

   The visuals are nothing short of stunning. Even compared against modern games, Morrowind is still a very, very beautiful game. From tiny fishing villages to decrepit ruins to barren wastelands, Morrowind spares very little in the way of environmental design. Each location is rife with flora and fauna, both harmful and helpful. Plants can be harvested for alchemical ingredients, houses contain all manner of amenities (clothes, silverware, books, pots and pans, food - all of which can be picked up, used and/or sold), and shops have their entire inventory on the shelves, available for inspection - or theft. The downside is that some areas which are supposed to be teeming with activity are anything but; this is most obvious in the city of Vivec, which is supposed to be a thriving metropolis yet looks conspicuously empty, and sadly you spend more than enough time there to notice this.

   Music and sound are overall very good, but not always used effectively. Weapon clashes and magic effects work well enough, but the voices are particularly good. Each race on the island has its own accent, from the purring trills of the Khajiit to the deeper rasps of the Dark Elves, and the dialogue during idle chatter, cutscenes and combat is convincing. Sadly, all conversation is text-only, taking some of the punch out of the game's more dramatic moments. Music has a similar problem. The game cycles through a set number of tracks, which, while well composed, play regardless of your surroundings. That upbeat stringed piece you heard in the city can also play out in the field, in caves full of monsters, in a high-security prison, in the middle of a dust storm, or even in the final dungeon. It ranges from harmless, but confusing to extremely jarring in practice. Fortunately, the combat music is never out of place, with a good number of enjoyable battle tunes.

Clearly, I have failed at the negotiations. Clearly, I have failed at the negotiations.

   As mentioned, one of the game's big draws is freedom, and that includes customization of the character. During the tutorial, you pick the gender, race and face of your character, and then set your skills and abilities either directly, by picking a character class, or answering a questionnaire which picks one for you. You get a wide variety of skills (weapon/armor types, magical classes, thievery skills, etc.) all of which get better with practice and help raise the statistics that govern them, and there is nothing stopping you from excelling at both heavy weapons and spellcraft, or thievery. While this works well enough to permit a wide variety of playing styles, it is extremely easy to exploit or otherwise mess up. Levels are gained after ten increases in primary or secondary skills (those you pick as important, or which are important to your class), and stat increases are tied to the skills you use. Throw in mentors whom you can simply pay to improve your stats, and it is entirely possible to level up over and over without ever learning how to defend yourself, and it's also possible to max out your stats before you do a single quest.

   The controls are classic first-person shooter: WASD layout, mouse aims/turns, left click to use a weapon and right click for a spell. You can switch out from first or third person at any time, and you perform different weapon strikes depending on which direction you're moving in while attacking. Inventory can get cluttered, especially when you start getting really good things, but you're told what each item, skill or spell does as you pass the mouse over it, and the system doesn't usually overwhelm despite the high detail. Getting around the island can take a while on foot, but there are other methods of travel, both magical and mundane, which help with the longer, more remote excursions. Having said that, spells like Levitation, Water Walking, Mark and Recall (teleportation to a previously marked spot) are all but essential to every player. Conversations are based around keywords, some of which require you to persuade, bribe or intimidate for a better reaction - and some of which lead to fights.

Hmm... that house looks unguarded... I mean vacant!  Yes, vacant. Hmm... that house looks unguarded... I mean vacant! Yes, vacant.

   The best things that can be said about Morrowind are that it is immersive, and original. Although some of the major cities feel empty, the game is oddly at its best when you are completely alone. Traversing through treacharous swamps to reach an isolated village on the coast, or braving ash storms to find a remote nomad village, or going dungeon-crawling in a dungeon rife with ancient technology... it all looks and feels superb. Even little things like watching the clouds break to reveal a starry night sky, or a sunset on the plains, carry a magic all their own. Morrowind is blessed with an excellently-written, highly interesting history, much of which is available in books scattered across the land, and the cultural divide is evident in the politics - land disputes, Great House clashes, even enslavement of some of the races. Even creature designs are a sight to behold, with interesting and innovative critters that are well integrated into the world, from the jellyfish-like netch to the lumbering guars to the towering silt striders that some cities use as transportation.

Unfortunately, while the game excels at painting a picture and pulling you into it, it falls flat when you try to actually do something. The typical FedEx/Assassin quests are as dry as any other RPG, and due to the distance between cities they usually take longer to do. Plot-related quests are lacking in terms of drama, with a few interesting exceptions, and it's hard to get attached to anybody in the game. Occasionally you get to do something fun, like sneak into a prison or help a warrior explore a dungeon, but for the most part it's go here and either get something, give something, or beat somebody up. Even the endgame, which is laid out in exquisite detail by way of in-game documents, consists of little more than charging into a dungeon and hacking up anything that stands in your way. There is no drama, no build-up... just run in and kill. All while listening to the same music you've been hearing for the past 40 hours.

   At the end of the day, Morrowind has quite a bit going for it. It's big, it's beautiful, it's fresh and it's versatile. Also, as befitting a game that comes with its own construction set, it is highly modifiable, and fan mods for Morrowind number in the triple digits. Unfortunately, it is also dry, empty and emotionless, a game that's all body and no heart; all journey and no destination. For the player that fancies a good journey above all else, there is much fun to be had with Morrowind, but the more casual gamer might be left looking for something more satisfying.

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