Wine or Vinegar: Morrowind

Morrowind was an amazing game. It was beautiful, original, hugely immersive, incredibly fun, and ground-breaking. There was nothing else

Don’t even pretend you don’t want to ride this thing.

like it in all of gaming. It wasn’t just the best Elder Scrolls game, it was arguably the best Western RPG of all time.

In 2002.

In the ten years since, gaming’s changed a lot. The Elder Scrolls series has progressed through the crowd-pleasing-yet-broken-and-ugly Oblivion (which we’re never going to do for this series because that game has aged about as well as a sack of meat) to the crowd-pleasing-and-pretty-awesome Skyrim. Western RPGs have changed from the D&D-style romps of Neverwinter Nights to hugely ambitious spectacles like Mass Effect. So how does Morrowind hold up? Is it still an incredible RPG, or merely a stop on the genre’s evolution?

(One thing that’s not up for debate: the theme song. That will always be amazing. In a thousand years archaeologists will find it and say, “man,  these people knew what was up.”)

Graphics and Art

It’s worth joining the Randian slaver-wizards just to hang out in their awesome houses.

We decided to start here, since it’s where the passage of time is most obvious on games. Morrowind didn’t have a huge amount of graphical power when it came out, compared to contemporaries like TimeSplitters 2 or Windwaker— its textures were flat, it had a fair bit of copy-pasting, and the game’s color palette heavily tilts towards shades of brown. We came into this category with low expectations.

We were more than a little surprised. This game’s aged better in ten years than Oblivion has in five. The game’s still fairly brown-and-grey, but it works very well within its limitations and produces some fantastic visuals. The game’s short draw distance is strategically used to make the island of Vvardenfell seem mysterious and shrouded in dust and fog, while the roughness and blockiness of the game’s models lends itself to the rustic, inelegant architecture and hostile landscape of an unwelcoming and harsh country.

Its biggest visual strength comes through here– the incredible art design, which is honestly heads and shoulders over Skyrim or Oblivion. The architecture and look of the

This image contains just about everything wrong with the game.

world is incredible and inventive, and serves to create a lush and deep world. From the twisting vines and mushroom towers of Telvanni wizard colonies to the insect-shell homes of the volcanic interior, there’s a ton in Morrowind that looks absolutely original. Your first time visiting Sadrith Mora, as you walk out of the plain Imperial fort and see the bizarre mushroom city emerge from the fog, is a moment of strangeness and wonder that not many games could hope to match. The game doesn’t have great graphics on pure hardware, but elements like this infuse it with a real life and energy.

It does have its faults, of course. The character animation is unbelievably stiff and clunky, a lot of the interior environments (especially the caves) look really, really, dull and repetitive, and a lot of the magic effects are fairly ugly and look like basic particle effects. Then again, that last one’s the only one we have a right to complain about, since apparently Bethesda’s firmly committed themselves to bad character animation and repetitive dungeons.

Role-playing and Exploration

ORIGINAL CHARACTER COPYRIGHT CARDINAL VIRTUAL, DO NOT STEAL.

Okay, this is what Morrowind’s famous for. There’s just so much stuff. So many skills that you can, if you want, build a character that specializes entirely in useless ones… which is not a point in the game’s favor (if you want to play it, don’t invest in Spear). The ability to hyper-specialize in character creation is fun, but it does make the game less intuitive and with a steeper difficulty than its predecessors. It won’t be until your second playthrough that you learn that there are almost no good spears or blunt weapons, that Medium Armor doesn’t have any great endgame gear, that Security can be made obsolete with only two spells, or that Alchemy is a free pass to break the game. That said, it’s nice that the roleplaying is much less combat-heavy than later TES games– it’s much, much more viable to play as  someone other than a god-killing warrior, and more routes to fame and fortune. You can go diving for pearls and hunting for valuable supplies, you can dedicate yourself to raiding tombs, you can even go all Omar Little and rob crime syndicates and drug smugglers for a living (although, if arrested, you can not put a tie on over your armor and talk about the corruption of the system). And, unlike the later games where smashing everything is a viable option, each of these will require different skills and a different play style.

This choice really shines through in the game’s sidequests, which absolutely dwarf Skyrim in their variety and number. For the sake of the replay we focused on only three factions: the Fighter’s Guild, The Temple, and Great House Redoran. No main quest, barely any sidequests apart from these, no other factions. It took about 30 hours. And there’s still the main quest, two guilds, two Great Houses, another church, the Imperial Legion, and the club of government-sanctioned assassins. And two expansions. This amount of content definitely leads to some repetition (and a fair bit of walking, since there’s no fast-travel apart from the major towns and a couple spells) but it also makes the game feel epic and gives a real sense of scale to your accomplishments. It can be fairly grind-heavy and occasionally tedious, but we prefer it to the Skyrim model where you can go from a new recruit to Guildmaster over the span of about five days.

The world’s just as complex and sprawling. It has its faults– the Ashlands are just not fun to be in, and needing to walk/fly/swim everywhere gets real old– but the thrill of exploration that the game offers is fantastic. Because it doesn’t rely on random generation (the worst thing in Oblivion hands-down and one of Skyrim’s big problems), there’s always a chance that you’ll stumble upon something wonderful and cool, whether it’s a cache of endgame weapons, a book that can help decipher a dead language, or a secret ring that can change the whole balance of the game. It also means that there’s some incredibly powerful things in the world, just waiting for you to come and take them– meaning that exploring isn’t just about becoming gradually stronger, but about the chance to find real treasure. And since the world is so unique and alien, simply exploring is its own reward. In almost every fantasy RPG you go into the world knowing what it’s going to be like, but poking around Morrowind’s dark corners brings you ever-closer to actually understanding the weird and unwelcoming world of the game.

Gameplay

After all this praise, it’s good journalism to end on our reservations, which is why we saved the actual gameplay for last. This wasn’t great when

Wait, no, THIS picture contains everything wrong in Morrowind.

the game was new, and time hasn’t been kind to it. The combat system is too dominated by invisible dice rolls and repetitive animation, and you won’t be consistently hitting enemies until your weapon skills are incredibly high. There is an upside to this– watching your character transform from a bumbling oaf who manages to miss a crab 80% of the time to a master swordsman who can duel gods is pretty rewarding– but it’s not worth the frustration. If you’re a new player who gives up on the game, we’d wager money that’s what drove you away. Enemy hitboxes can be  fairly weird (especially cliff racers, pictured right– the much-despised enemy who is hard to hit, screechy, persistent, and everywhere), and some things, like enemies who can damage your stats or absorb your health, are intensely frustrating. Magic and stealth don’t fare much better– casting spells in a combat situation is infuriatingly trial-and-error, while sneak-attacking enemies is so futile as to be almost laughable. They’re both much more tolerable outside of combat, so playing a pacifist thief or specializing in healing and exploration magic are both viable.

That said, the combat’s general weakness isn’t as huge of a deal as it might sound, because it’s only one path through the game. Even in the main quest, there’s only a handful of missions where combat is the real priority, while exploration, intelligence-gathering, and diplomacy are the real meat. Even a character with no particular skill for violence can get by most quests by investing in some decent enchanted items, finding a decent weapon, and keeping stocked on potions. If you’ve ever had the experience of trying to play a thief in Oblivion, you can see why this approach has its merits.

Still Worth It?

Absolutely. It may not be as fun or as pretty as Skyrim, but as far as game design goes it’s every bit as good. The issues with the gameplay aren’t really a product of its age, either: they were an issue in 2002, and they didn’t keep it from being the best game of the year then And the game’s triumphs, in some cases, still haven’t been surpassed. It’s still one of the best settings in video game history, still has a clever and well-written plot, and in some cases still looks amazing. In the end, it’s not so much that it’s aged well as that it hasn’t really aged: the things that were problems have gotten worse, but the game’s sheer scope and ambition look even more impressive in comparison to a lot of RPGs since then than they did when it came out. If you’ve enjoyed the more recent Elder Scrolls games, and especially if you’d wished they’d had more depth or a more original setting, check it out by all means (slap on a mod that gives you a house and some merchants with more money, first). It’s not the game it used to be, but it holds up as a fun and interesting experience, and one of the deepest and most detailed RPGs of all time.

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