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The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

/ May 25th, 2002 No Comments

The Elder Scrolls series of games (Arena; Daggerfall) has long been a favorite in the cult of the computer role player. Developer Bethesda’s design philosophy with their role playing games is to allow a completely open-ended system where a player can do what they want. Morrowind, the third in the series, not only provides that freedom to play the hero/killer/spy/scholar/whatever the player wants, but presents it on a scale not seen in anything short of a massively multiplayer online RPG.

While many current RPGs have done a fine job of giving their games a degree of open-ended game play, Morrowind cuts [almost] all chains on a player’s imagination, beginning from character creation and extending through whether or not the player even bothers to uncover the game’s main plot. If the 21 standard character classes are not enough, Morrowind allows a player to create customized classes. If the 55 base magic spells are lacking, a player can customize their own spells. If a player decides to turn down a mission from one of the hundreds of characters, they’re welcome to do some random exploring, tomb raiding, trading, pearl diving, chemical mixing, slave freeing, drink imbibing, reading…across the enormous world. Players who end up hating Morrowind’s world populated with many dark elves can create their own world with the included Elder Scrolls Construction kit. The possibilities are limitless and completely optional.

While this freedom could have added up to an aimless and boring experience – particularly for a casual gamer – Morrowind presents it with a graphical sheen on par with the first person shooter genre as well as an excellent fascinating story, both of which give incentive to progress through the game. For computer role players used to the small, bland, or chunky graphics of other CRPGs, Morrowind is a glimpse of heaven. Armor, clothing, weapons have their own unique look and reflect light convincingly. The monsters are equally detailed. The various cities and towns have their own architectural style, such that the sight of an imposing true-to-scale castle moving into view on the horizon with the sun sinking into the sea surrounding is nothing short of breathtaking.

Morrowind’s huge nearly seamless world is stuffed to the borders with various (non-random) dungeons, mines and ruins. Although it could take 2-3 hours of real time to run from coast to coast across the world, Bethesda included a number of quick travel features that keep travel from becoming a chore. The notable sites of interest are often relatively close to these quick travel destinations as well, striking a perfect balance between players who want to get on with the story and those who want to explore just one more place before getting on with the story. An excellent auto-map makes it difficult to get lost on the overland, although the journal becomes unwieldy and disorganized.

Unfortunately, with great graphics and epic scope comes great responsibility, both for the player and Bethesda. While the game overall ran smoothly once I got the very latest sound, video card and motherboard drivers, the game still occasionally freezes up on my P4 256K RAM GeForce 2. On the plus side, I have found a total of one easily overlooked bug in a quest or dungeon from about the 30 or so I’ve completed/explored – a remarkable achievement given a game of this size. Bethesda is currently working on a patch for stability and other issues.

Morrowind plays similarly to a first (or optionally a third) person action game.

Standard RPG statistic number crunching is performed in the background; all the action takes place in real time. This surprisingly gives Morrowind a Diablo/Dungeon Siege style of combat, requiring fast mouse clicks and quick decisions – it’s the best of both serious and casual role playing games! The superb interface accessible with a right click pauses the action to allow spell preparation during combat. Unfortunately, the combat style seems to favor a brute force fighter approach – it’s actually pretty funny to watch an enemy mage cast a few ineffective spells then start helplessly swinging a knife at one’s fully plated warrior. The game also features a simple but effective system for stealth, making a thief character a viable if challenging option. While the stealth system is a perfect fit, the trap/locks system staple to role playing thieves is lacking. Any type of character immediately knows if a door is locked or trapped, and any character can disarm or unlock it with a little persistence.

Considering Morrowind’s considerably successful stab at realistically behaving characters, the flaws in the system stand out. It’s easy to clean out the items in a character’s house while they and the guard stand around. Since a player can attack anyone in Morrowind – subject to arrest and fine – it’s also possible to slaughter an unsuspecting innocent, pay off the fine, rinse, repeat. This gets more absurd when a weak merchant will start attacking the armed and armored player for stealing, which allows the player to respond faultlessly in kind! Also missing – at least as far as I’ve seen in 40 hours of play – is the option to ally or even negotiate with the smugglers/drug runners/cultists that populate some dungeons. This would’ve provided an even bigger dimension to game play. Instead, the bad guys in dungeons simply launch a full frontal attack, rarely bothering to even summon their friend down the corridor to help. These AI flaws break the atmosphere at certain points, consequently making the game less challenging than it could be.

Even these quibbles are gnats when compared to the hundreds of hours of involving, eye-catching game play Morrowind provides. It is the new plateau for CRPGs and well worth a purchase for anyone with a relatively high-end system who enjoys character development, first person action, and/or good fantasy stories.

Final Word: For serious computer role players/adventurers with high end systems, this is it: single player role playing nirvana, thanks to the beautiful graphics, an interesting story, and near-infinite game play possibilities. Though the game gives plenty of options for more casual gamers, the scope may overwhelm them. Morrowind will also impress first person shooter players looking for some statistical depth ala Deus Ex or stealth-based play ala Thief.


Roy Rossi

Roy Rossi

Roy Rossi was a long time major contributor to Gaming Illustrated before disappearing of the face of the Earth. His service to GI will never be forgotten.
Roy Rossi

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