We have been waiting a long time for Elder Scrolls: Morrowind to be released by Bethesda Softworks, and the longer we waited and the more we read about the game, the more our expectations grew. To our great relief, Morrowind is everything that we were expecting and more. It is at long last"a true RPG for the computer.
Chris is the primary reviewer on Morrowind and has experienced the game on the Xbox. John is going to chime in on his experiences with the PC. He has also had the chance to play longer, as the PC version came out almost a month before the Xbox version, so he has had the opportunity to gain higher levels and to experience more high-level missions.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is a single-player role-playing game (RPG) where you can create and play any type of character that you would like, including but not limited to an assassin, magic-user, thief, rogue, fighter, or healer. Not only do your initial skills define your character, but also your actions in the game. The more you use a skill, the better you will become at it.
This is the most non-linear game I’ve ever experienced. Sit all day hunting fish if you like on the docks, or jump head first into your main mission. I’ve spent a couple of weeks myself diving old shipwrecks off the various coasts of the island of Morrowind.
After a short introduction that tells you almost nothing about what is going on in the game, you wake up on a ship and another prisoner asks you your name. At this point a box pops up and you get to select your name. Suddenly, you are naming and making your character, and you did not even know it. Pretty cool.
After a few seconds to look around a guard comes and tells you to follow him. He directs you to the top deck and then a sailor directs you off the ship. Another guard meets you and tells you that they don’t know where you are from. At this point a box pops up and allows you to select your race, hairstyle and facial features. Again, the character creation process is hidden within the actual process of playing the game.
Each race has advantages and disadvantages. Some information is displayed on the screen, but for a full description you have to look at the manual. The racial options include human choices like the crafty Imperials, the Hardy Nords, the Nimble and Deadly Redguards as well as Dark, High, or Wood Elf. There are also Argonians, which are lizard-like, Khajiit who are cat people and mighty Orcs. Following race and avatar selection, you are told to go inside, where you have to finish selecting your attributes, skills and birth sign. You are given three options to do this.
The first is open ended, where you can select exactly what you want. The second is where you can pick from a list of pre-generated Classes. The final option is to answer 20 questions, and the game designs a character specifically for you based on how you answered the questions. If you go with the open-ended option you get to select your primary skill area, be it combat, magic, or stealth, followed by choosing your primary attributes. Finally you get to select five primary and five secondary skills from three categories, which are based on combat, magic, or stealth. This is important because when you raise 10 points in your primary or secondary skill group, either by training or just by using them, you will go up a level and can increase your attributes.
Once that is done, you get to select a birth sign, which gives you special abilities. Sounds like a lot doesn’t it? Well I made three or four characters before I got one that I really liked. There is enough to do in the first little town that you start out in, that you can decide if you made the wrong character for your tastes. Once you have your character all set up, walk around the customs house and grab what you can and head out. The last guy you meet in the customs house will give you some money when you hand over your identity papers. That money, plus the money you get from picking up a few things at the customs house will be enough to fully equip your character.
You start the game with a mission to go find a man in another town and as you talk to people and explore the surrounding area other missions may present themselves. It is a pain to talk to everyone, as often times they repeat the same information, but it is the only way you can find out about the town. Actually that brings up the one major complaint I had with Morrowind. The people you talk to in towns often tell you exactly the same information. Guess that’s what happens in small towns. This does however make finding the people you really need to talk to all that much harder.
Following the path of your original mission is the only thing that advances the overall plot of the game. If you’re not ready to do that, you can go and explore the world, join one or all the guilds including the thieves, mages, fighters, or assassins.
You can also join a religion such as the Dunmer temple or the Imperial cult, work for one of the three Dunmer (or Dark Elf) Ruling Houses, or if you are very unlucky and have a late night encounter, you can become a vampire. Each of these groups will give you new missions. Most guild-type adventures have nothing to do with the primary thread of the game. Call it optional adventuring, though I would highly recommend you do it. At E3, the Morrowind folks said it could take 800 hours to solve the game if you do the optional quests, and after playing for weeks on end, I believe it. Even if you are just following the primary thread of the game, your boss in the blades – the Emperor’s spy guild which you join – will tell you to go out and do something else for a week or so from time to time, which serves as a means to force you into other things. Besides, that is how you become rich and famous in Morrowind. Its up to you, because the game is open-ended.
What I mean by open ended is that, say you’re a member of the fighters’ guild and they send you on a mission to get something from the thieves’ guild. If you’re a member of the thieves’ guild, you may be able to get the item without fighting the person who has it. Otherwise get ready for a fight. In this way your moral compass and your actions in the game dictate what type of person and what type of character you want to become.
It’s worth noting that the quests in Morrowind are excellent. There are quite a few "go fetch" missions, but these are balanced by a lot of really thoughtful ones. You will find yourself involved in murder mysteries, finding missing persons, rescuing maidens in distress and sometimes even getting backstabbed by your employer. You really have to stay on your toes. The designers of Morrowind are obviously crafty individuals (and I would bet pen-and-paper role-players as well) and they bring all their tricks to the game. Beware the pretty maiden who just wants you to wade into a pond to get her ring back because she does not want to get her feet wet. You have to think, "If she was afraid of getting wet, how did she lose the ring in the middle of the pond?" Not everyone, or in fact hardly anyone, is exactly what they proclaim to be.
At higher levels you can even do really cool things in the game, like getting permission from the ruling Duke to build your own village – if you happen to be a high ranking member of a local noble house. Or you can romance certain characters till they ask you to move in with them.
The game does have some adult things in it that the ESRB probably missed when they evaluated the game for the Teen rating. The world is huge so I don’t blame them. Though I do think the teen rating is appropriate, there is some heavy drug use in the game. You can find a lot or people addicted to a drug called Smooka. The cat people seem especially vulnerable to the effects. There are also slaves in the game, most of which can be freed by you if you want to take that route. In one town there is an erotic dance club too. I know because I asked several of the girls, who describe their profession as "acrobats," to move into my cool village with me. A few said yes. Anyway, just be aware that Morrowind accurately simulates a world, and like real life you will run into both good and bad folks out there. If you go looking for the dark side, you can probably find it.
We have already talked about leveling up, but there are two very important things to mention here. As soon as you reach a new level you need to rest or sleep right away. If you go up another point, it does not count towards your next level till after you level up. The second thing is that your attribute improvements are based on the skills you used. So if your character improves three points in intelligence-based skills, you can improve your intelligence attribute by three points by only spending one pip in the level up process. But, if you improve only two points worth of endurance skills, you can only go up two points in endurance by spending one level up pip. You have three pips to spend when you go up a level to improve attributes. You can still go up one point in an attribute, even if none of the improved skills that let you make a level were based on it, though it’s hardly efficient to do.
At any level the Graphics in Morrowind are "Extremely Impressive." Factoring in the size and scope of the world, they actually reach the level of unbelievable. After you have been playing the game for a while, you will be able to jump to any part of the world, and after looking around for a few seconds you can actually tell which region of the country you are in by the surroundings.
That level of detail goes right down to the native population. With so many combinations of races, faces, hairstyle and clothing, and the number of people walking and standing around, sometimes it really feels like the villages, city and world are truly alive. I often felt like I was walking around inside a massively-multiplayer online game, only this world is dedicated solely to your enjoyment.
Weather also helps to make the game seem realistic. You will hear distant thunder, and it’s kind of scary when wearing headphones and you are out in the middle of nowhere. Then the rain will start falling. And if you start to hate the rain, just wait till you head up north and experience your first full-blown sandstorm, complete with all the townspeople walking around with their hands in front of their faces trying to block it. Visibility drops considerably during these gales, and if you are outside you have to be wary of a monster’s sneak attack. You wont hear them because of the wind, and you might not see them till they are pretty close to you.
The monsters themselves are scary. Undead shamble around and some of them make very labored breathing sounds. Cliff Racers, a sort of flying dinosaur, will swoop down unrepentantly from on high and lash out with their pointed tails. It’s enough to make you jump out of your seat when taken by surprise.
The only odd thing is that no one seems to sleep. It might be nice if for example, the troll that always walks across the bridge in Balmora would go inside at night or something. Also, I imagine that I will one day run across someone that looks like someone else I met somewhere in the game, but you know what: that happens to me sometimes in real life. The game does go into such detail, that each home that you enter is different and displays a bit about the resident’s personality. In an early fighters guild quest about this lady with a rat problem, I learned she was nuts about pillows for example. They were everywhere in her house, on the beds, in cabinets, in barrels, strewn across the floor and unfortunately, acting as a nest for some big rats.
With the sheer number of characters in the game, you would expect them not to speak at all, but as you stroll around the game, people will say hello to you. Longer conversations where they tell you what is going on are all done in text, but for a single CD game, any speech is impressive in my book. On rare occasions, people will actually speak to you about things that are important, and the voice acting is impressive. Linda Carter, aka Wonder Woman, does the voice of the Norse women, and she sounds great. Not sure who did the dark elf women’s voice, but they are so grating I want to run my sword through them every time I get insulted by one.
Beyond characters saying hello, they will also shout in pain when attacked, and possibly shout for help. Along with those battle sounds there are other sounds in the game like weapon hits and blocks, rain falling, and different spells have specific sounds. Heck, even different footwear sounds differently when walking, though you really have to be listening to notice.
The background music is for the most part a nice quiet little score that does not repeat often enough that you will ever notice. The PC game has an special collector’s version you can get that comes with a pewter figurine and the soundtrack. The soundtrack is good enough that you can just listen to it in your stereo. It makes great background music for my Tuesday night RPG games too. Least I forget the occasional slip into battle music, the crescendo is often the first indication that you are about to get whacked by someone or something.
For the Xbox version, I always wonder about a game that uses every button on the controller. Some games lay out the controls in an easy-to-use fashion, and some companies just get it wrong. Well fear not, because not only are the Xbox controls for Morrowind easy to use, but they are placed in such a way that after a few minutes of game play, they just seem to fit. And joy of joys, you can save anywhere in the world. Got to love a console with a hard drive. During game play, loading new regions takes only seconds. But while saving takes only seconds, loading a saved game takes a while. Same story with the PC version, though a recent patch makes things a bit better there.
The combat, magic, and thieves skills are all well done, and for the most part are all simple click and use types, with one notable exception. The sheer number of magic spells is both an advantage as far as options go, and a disadvantage when it comes to selecting spells in combat.
I did run into a little snag early on in the game. I was between an enemy and a door and as he was running at me, I closed the door. Well, he ran up and blocked the door without opening it, and him trying to come through also served to stop me form being able to open the door again. I had to leave the area and return later, when the encounter had reset and the door opened. Based on my experiences, most of the monsters use the old "charge" method of attacking. And just when you think that is always the case, you will get the surprise of your life when a couple archers sit back and pepper you with arrows, or when a mage does the same thing with magic. So other than needing to teach the monsters to "step back and open the door" the AI is very smart.
Between the two of us we have covered a lot of detail about Morrowind in this review and believe it or not, I don’t think we have really even begun to scratch the surface. I was impressed with the game from the first time I saw the early beta on the PC. Waking up and having some guy ask me my name stuck me as a fun way to begin an RPG.
For the PC, there is a construction tool set that lets you program your own adventures. Making an entire world from scratch is a lot, but making little add-on towns and the like is not too difficult. If you love the game and want more, you can always make some of it on your own. I think it’s a great idea to let the players build the world if they want. Kudos to Bethesda for not treating their construction engine like a trade secret.
Moving though character generation and out into the world, I continue to be impressed by the graphics, the game interface, the music, the openness of the adventure and the hundreds of different quests and adventures, as well as the different tombs, ruins, and caves doting the landscape. I remember I was talking to John a few days after he received the beta of Morrowind for the PC and he was telling me that he randomly decided to go for a swim in a lake and happened to find a pearl. I don’t know if that was a random happenstance, or a set encounter, but that level of thought and planning makes for a strong RPG and Game of the Year contender.
I can not imagine giving anything less than a perfect 5 GiN Gem score for Morrowind. If you like RPGs at all, do yourself a favor and try this one. Even if you don’t like RPGs, you might after playing this one for a few hundred hours.