Getting a Lot More with Morrowind

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It looks like the developers at Bethesda are actually going to be releasing their Morrowind RPG in May for both the PC and Xbox, which is pretty amazing considering how much depth is contained within the game world. Well, I guess they have been working on it for quite some time, but after playing with the preview version of the game, I can say that their efforts were well worth the wait.

Put simply, Morrowind is quite possibly going to revolutionize the way people think about role-playing games on the computer. I’ve played about every RPG for the past six years, and never have I been so impressed with the potential for a game to really change the market. I am not sure if Morrowind will make a bigger splash than, say, what happened when the original Baldur’s Gate was released and people started to think it was cool to play RPGs. But it could be even bigger than that.

Let me hedge my bet a bit though. I am a hardcore role-player. I love it when game worlds seem like real life, which means that they are complex and offer unlimited paths to solve problems. Too many games like Microsoft’s Dungeon Siege or even Blizzard’s Diablo series are billing themselves as role-playing games, when in fact they are actually mostly shooters with top-down views. Not that they are not fun to play, but they are not what I would call a role-playing game. A role-playing game requires serious character development, a non-linear plot and lots of plot twists. But mostly, it must give the player complete freedom with the game world.

Morrowind is a role-playing game of the highest order. If you don’t absolutely love intense game worlds or if you thought that Icewind Dale was better than Baldur’s Gate because it was less complicated, you probably are not going to have as interesting a time in Morrowind as I did.

Your first visit to Morrowind is a bit like your first visit to a place like New York City. It’s huge. You feel that at any moment you could get lost. Lots of people are walking around conducting business and engaging in plots with and against one another. And they are all more or less oblivious to your presence unless you make it a point to become involved in their affairs. And despite its amazing charm, there is the feeling that you need to be on your guard, because there are seen or unseen hostile elements about somewhere. The only real difference is that you are much more likely to be attacked in Morrowind than New York, at least on a good day.

It’s fitting then that your adventures in Morrowind begins in a small town, one of many throughout the vast landscape. This gives you time to learn how to talk to people and take on a few missions that are designed to show you how to accomplish tasks within the game. It’s a fully 3D world, so walking around in it is just like walking around in real life. I’ll talk about the graphics a bit later, but "realistic and fantastic" come to mind for the short description. You can also switch on the fly to a third-person view if you choose.

Character creation is done in a very interesting way. I don’t want to give anything away since I think this is one of the best parts of the game that you will discover, but lets just say you create your character as part of a natural process in the beginning of the game that is 100 percent suited for a title heavy with role-playing. Ultimately, you can use a variety of pre-existing templates for your character or create any variety of custom-class adventurer, which is what I did.

At the beginning of the game, you are given a main mission, or at least the first leg of that mission. You can follow that mission right away, or you can set off to follow your own path. I would recommend the latter. You can take a silt strider transport to the next town you are supposed to visit, a sort of giant flea that serves as one way to get around Morrowind quickly, or if you can find someone in town who knows their way around, they might give you directions. I decided to walk, and boy was I glad I did.

Unlike the Dagger Fall world, which was randomly generated, everything in Morrowind has been hand-placed. So almost everything in the game world has purpose, and almost everything holds secrets. To illustrate this point I’ll tell you of my experience on the road. I had just won a hard fought battle against some giant crab creatures and decided that my character wanted to take a swim to get cleaned up. I was beside a lovely pond out in the middle of nowhere and decided to jump in. I was swimming around and noticed that at the bottom was an oyster. Sure enough, there was a 100 gold piece pearl inside.

Now, I am pretty sure that less than one percent of the people who play the game will probably find my secluded pond and decide to jump in. So it’s very likely that hardly anyone will find that nice pearl, which is quite valuable for a starting character. Nonetheless, someone took the time to put it into the game world. And Morrowind is filled with things like that. It’s what makes the non-linear gameplay so interesting. I can’t even begin to estimate how long it would take to complete the game, because you could literally live in the world doing side quests, odd jobs and general exploration for a seemingly infinite amount of time.

Even when you are doggedly following the main quest, the game tries to steer you to explore new areas outside of the main plot. Your first real mission once you meet your plot-following contact is to go out in the world, join some guilds, get some better equipment and come back when you are more prepared. Joining guilds opens up a whole new world of quests and missions important to the mages, fighters and thieves that make up the specific guild’s membership. You can also join the imperial legion, or the great native houses that ruled the land before the imperials showed up. The amount of political intrigue is sometimes overwhelming as different factions vie for control, power and prestige. It’s a perfect setting for an adventurer not afraid to delve into complex and very detailed plots.

I had a pretty good time breaking into houses and stealing things on my own, or trying to shoplift things off the shelves of arrogant storekeepers when they were not looking. I even stole the entire silverware set from a governor’s mansion, complete with plates, knives, forks, spoons, pitchers and his entire wine collection. There were some pretty well stocked pawn shops in that town, let me tell you. I also took it upon myself to go around freeing slaves, long before I learned of a secret organization that did just that.

The graphics, as I mentioned earlier, are amazing. Although some of the minor characters, like the legion troops, look similar, you can almost always recognize people you know at a distance because their body features and clothing styles are different. The game world itself is as you would expect from such a vast area, it varies as you travel. Some areas are swampy marshes, some are temperate forests and others are wastelands of broken trees and barren earth. Houses in towns have varying architecture as well depending on the culture with the most influence in the area as well as climatic conditions. Swamp villages look a lot different than rugged mountain outposts.

Combat in the game is pretty straight forward. If you are a swordsman, you mostly have to just face your opponent and swing. Magic users can fire off spells at a distance, and the area of effect spells are very cool to behold, and great for clearing out a room. Any character can learn any skill, so a fighter can eventually become a mage with enough practice.

I was a tiny bit disappointed with the combat. I guess I was looking for a few special moves or some way to give my character a bit of an edge. Mostly, if you are more powerful than your opponent you will win the combat. That’s what happens when two guys stand there bashing each other. But I also have strategically used items, the surrounding terrain and spells to help me beat more formidable foes. It something you will have to figure out as you go.

The game’s emphasis is not really on combat, so the lack of a detailed combat engine is forgivable. If you are smart or stealthy, you can probably avoid most encounters. And perhaps this simple combat engine was a way to make the game more accessible to the more casual or action-oriented role-players.

The monsters are very well done, and look scary. Even the standard giant rat looks cool. They will charge at you if you face them, but if you are looking away and they think they can get away with it, they kind of slink towards you till they get close enough to pounce. More than once the sound of their footsteps was the only clue that these stealthy beasts were about to attack.

In the end, Morrowind comes off feeling very much like a massively multiplayer game due to the size of the world and the sheer number of characters within. However, unlike massively-multiplayer games, the entire world of Morrowind is directed towards letting a single player have a heck of a good time. Basically, there are no other player-characters to mess with the fun. What is left is a beautifully stocked world for players to discover at their own pace.

Oh, there is one more thing that Morrowind brings to the table. There is a construction set that lets gamers create their own Morrowind-like world. I experimented with this a bit, creating an island where all the female NPCs wore bikinis and begged big strong adventurers to go kill the bad troll living on the other side. They would do it themselves, but you have armor and they have no clothes after all. It took about three hours to program my little 15-minute silly adventure, but it did demonstrate the potential of the average person to create their own first-person 3D world, an amazing feat when you think about it.

Morrowind could follow two paths when it is released in a couple of weeks. It could become the next big thing to happen for PC gamers, and give the Xbox an RPG that nothing, and I mean nothing, on any other console could even touch in terms of depth of gameplay and storyline. But like some great novels (who has really read Crime and Punishment anyway?) Morrowind might be a notch above the average gamer used to straight-forward click-on-the-monster-and-kill-it-games.

Morrowind will certainly make a huge splash among hardcore RPGers like myself, I’m just not so sure the rank and file person will enjoy delving so deeply into the game’s mysteries. Then again, perhaps the gaming community will surprise me. I certainly hope so, because if Morrowind proves successful, I doubt role-players will ever settle for going back to things the way they were.

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