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RPG Codex Retrospective Review: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002)
Review - posted by Infinitron on Wed 15 February 2017, 23:49:11Tags: Bethesda Softworks; Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
[Review by Deuce Traveler]
WARNING: The review contains some spoilers.
The two most recent entries in the Elder Scrolls series will never win any popularity contests on the Codex, but the hivemind is split on the question of which of the more well-regarded earlier games was the best. Arena is admired for its character progression and class specialties, Daggerfall for its dauntingly huge scope which is still unmatched, and Battlespire for its puzzles and dungeon crawling. But for myself and many others, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is the clear favorite. Playing Morrowind is an engaging experience, starting right from the beginning with the complexity of its character creation sequence.
Morrowind's character creation is very similar to Daggerfall's, with the entire range of Elder Scrolls races available for selection, from Argonians to Redguards. Race is more than a cosmetic choice. As in Daggerfall, the different races have different bonuses to attributes and skills. Non-player characters in the game start with different initial dispositions depending on the player character's race. For example, Argonian NPCs won't be big fans of a Dunmer player. Morrowind's character classes are also quite similar to those in previous Elder Scrolls games. You can focus on spellcasting, melee combat, ranged combat or stealth, with many hybrids available in between those extremes. The ability to create a custom class is still available as a useful option for min-maxers. It's not all roses though, as the number of skills in Morrowind has been reduced. For example, in my Daggerfall playthrough I had a stealth-based character with points allocated in the Backstab and Critical Strike skills that increased my damage multiplier. Those two skills no longer exist in Morrowind, and instead you get an occasional notification that you've inflicted a critical strike for a fixed multiple of your normal damage. I understand the change, since the combination of maximized Stealth, Backstab, and Critical Strike skills was ridiculously overpowered, but I'll always have an issue with designers who take away player options as a series evolves, and I think striving too hardly for balance is an exercise in futility anyway. Hardcore min-maxers with time on their hands will always find a way to break the game.
The final step in character creation is the selection of a birth sign which grants unique benefits. Some of the birth signs give you the ability to cast a particular spell once a day, such as a short-term invisibility spell. Other birth signs can boost your available Magicka points, or allow you to detect any living creatures in your vicinity. There are some birth signs that will only be helpful at lower levels, while others never outlive their usefulness. After creating your character, you are thrust into the game world, in what is my favorite game opening of all time.
That might seem like a bold statement. There are games with similar openings, such as Ultima IV and Final Fantasy Tactics, but the impeccable pacing of Morrowind's opening beats them all. You start off in the dark and dingy hold of a ship, and then climb a hatch to the outside world where you find yourself surrounded by a vibrant alien landscape. This sequence is, to me, one of the most beautiful in any roleplaying game. Everything looks amazingly detailed. You can even gaze through the water at the ocean floor. After you get your bearings, you are told that you are a prisoner who has been pardoned by the Emperor and banished to the Dunmer island of Vvardenfell. The game does not tell you the reason you were imprisoned. and whether your character was placed under arrest because you actually committed a crime or due to political machinations is up to your imagination.
Morrowind allows you to manipulate just about any physical object in the environment, go anywhere you wish, and talk to anyone in the world about a wide range of subjects. I know that shouldn't sound so amazing, since RPGs have allowed you to do these things since Ultima V in 1988. However, Morrowind's contemporaries, such as Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, had actually fallen back in this area, and even Daggerfall's environments had objects that were only cosmetic and could not be manipulated, so the game was a breath of fresh air in a genre that had been stagnating.
After you complete the introduction, you are processed as a released prisoner and receive your first quest: go out and get a job. You can take up your first job offer to deliver a document to an Imperial official named Caius Cosades in a faraway town, but even when you meet with him he tells you that you need to go out and find more work before he'll trust you with additional errands. I took forever to deliver that first document, instead opting to travel around and explore, investigating the small dungeon close to the ship I'd arrived on and at the same time learning about the local politics. It is in that starting dungeon that you first run into slavers holding captured Argonians and Khajiit, highlighting that this is a game that takes the racial and political strife seen in Arena and Daggerfall and cranks it up to a new level.
The Dunmer, Argonians and Khajiit have their tensions, but the stronger conflict is the one between the Imperial occupiers and the Dunmer who have lost their political independence. The game doesn't shove this conflict in your face, but you can see it everywhere, reflected in the architecture and the clothing of the different populations. The strange native architecture is found in the heartland of Vvardenfell, and the Dunmer of these cities are well-dressed and make up the overwhelming majority of the population. Argonians are more commonly found in the swamps and backwaters of the island, dressed in poor materials and living in squalor. The Imperials have several outposts and ports along the edges of Vvardenfell, which are heavily patrolled by armored soldiers. These locations have familiar Western European aesthetics, which look quite out of place next to the strange fauna and flora outside their gates.
The Dunmer themselves are quite diverse, which is another source of conflict. They might be united in their dislike of the Imperial occupation and their feelings of superiority over the poor Argonians, but if you take those external targets away the animosity is quickly directed inwards. The Dunmer Great Houses are in harsh competition for dominance over the island, and the regions they control deviate sharply in cultural norms. House Redoran is martially inclined and its members live in traditional adobe domiciles, members of House Telvanni live inside giant mushrooms and are strong practitioners of magic, and House Hlaalu mimics Imperial culture to some extent while focusing on trade and stealth. And if that's not enough, there are also several nomadic clans of Dunmer called Ashlanders who despise their urban cousins as much as they do outsiders. The Dunmer outnumber the Imperials and could probably kick them out of Vvardenfell if they wanted to, but they can't seem to get their act together enough to do so.
Moving onward, visiting Caius Cosades will initiate Morrowind's main quest, but as mentioned previously, he turns you away at first, telling you to go take some odd jobs and come back later. The game really encourages you to avoid the main quest at the beginning and to try joining up with the various factions and doing some side quests instead. These quests will beef up your character and earn you some coin to buy better equipment, so it's a good idea to take them early on. There are many joinable factions in the game, ranging from professional guilds to religious cults to Dunmer houses to the Imperial army. It's possible to rise in the ranks of a faction, but in addition to performing tasks for it you'll also need to show that you are talented enough in the appropriate skills. For example, you might be able to peform several important services for the Mages Guild using only the strength of your sword arm, but you won't get anywhere in that organization unless you also display some strong talent in spellcasting.
Morrowind's faction quests usually deal with increasing the wealth or power of the questgiver or acting against a rival, further fleshing out the game's setting. Going through a faction's entire questline is worthwhile, allowing you to earn a positive reputation through your heroics while gaining unique artifacts, such as the Skeleton Key, a high quality lockpick which is the reward for the final mission for the Thieves Guild. If I have any complaint about these quests, it's that their progression is anti-climactic. The early quests you can do for a faction are typically simple courier missions, which are usually quite low on risk if you pay to use the game's various transportation services. The financial rewards for these quests are generous enough to allow you to upgrade your equipment so that you can survive the harder ones later on. The mid-tier faction quests are the best. You might have to march deep into hostile territory to retrieve a holy relic from the body of a fallen knight, or delve into the bottom of a dungeon to retrieve lost technological marvels. But the final faction quests are too often overly simplistic, merely asking you to travel to another city and murder an NPC at their residence. By the time you get these missions, the cost of transportation will be negligible and your stats and equipment will make them utterly trivial.
When you finish a faction's final quest you become the faction leader... and that's it. There are no more missions, and you can't order the faction to do anything or make any other changes. The designers could have added some sort of random quest system like in Daggerfall, or at least have you make the occasional administrative decision to make it feel like faction business was under your control, but there's nothing like that in Morrowind. I think the game would have been better off if your character was elevated to an honorary position in the organization instead of becoming a faction head who has no executive responsibilities.
Morrowind's lengthy main quest is centered around a historical figure named Indoril Nerevar, a Dunmer hero who united his people against a terrible threat in the ancient past. The initial stages of the quest deal with collecting historical writings and bringing them back to Caius Cosades for study. As a player, you find that there are several different interpretations of how and when Nerevar died, and of what occurred in the political vacuum that came after. Vvardenfell's different factions each have their own version of this history, and though you never get a definitive answer on what really happened, the ambiguity surrounding the question drives the motivations of all the major actors. Soon you will find that even the big bad guy and his followers justify themselves based on their understanding of Nerevar's fate. They believe that their side was wronged and that they're working to cleanse Vvardenfell of a false religion. You might even sympathize with the villain's point of view, though you still have to take him down.
To do that, you will need to gather support to your cause, and this is where Morrowind's main quest also runs into some problems. There are several factions that are willing to aid you in your quest if you help them out with some of their more thorny issues. All well and good, but once you complete the tasks a faction assigns to you, you also have to meet with its officers and convince them to give you their blessing. For the most part, this is done by simply bumping up the disposition of the officers until they are willing to pledge support. Because of this, the lead-up to the final showdown feels more like a boring chore than an epic adventure. I wish the designers had spent their time making the faction missions more complex instead of forcing me to do this. They probably wanted to give the Speechcraft skill a chance to shine, but a rich character can easily use bribes to overcome a deficit in personality. That said, the game does pick up a bit after you gather the necessary factional support, with some good old fashioned dungeoneering that requires you to kill things and take their loot.
As far as combat goes, if you know what you're doing and have found a good way to restore your Magicka, then you can probably get away with playing a pure spellcaster. More likely though, you're going to depend on a combination of ranged and melee attacks. Taking out an opponent from afar is normally the way to go, but you have to be prepared for those moments when you find yourself pinned down. Some of the toughest enemies you'll encounter towards the end of the game have powerful magical attacks, which oddly enough can be neutralized with arrows. In my playthrough, I often found myself fighting ranged duels with spellcasters where I fired arrow after arrow at them, each one hitting and interrupting a powerful mana blast as I closed in. It's fun to slowly whittle down an enemy with cheap ammo this way, but it's better to learn how to maneuver on the battlefield, dodging enemy attacks while hitting their flanks. There's also something to be said in favor of simply closing ranks with an enemy as quickly as possible and hacking them over and over again until they stop moving, depending only on your sword arm with healing potions for support. Another favored combat tactic is to cast powerful ability draining spells on an opponent until they are too weak to put up any effective resistance to your attacks. Other tactics worth mentioning are the use of summoning spells to distract opponents, fooling the poor AI into falling into lava or traps, and levitating over targets to rain death from above. Morrowind offers countless ways to succeed at combat for those with an imagination.
Although there are some quests in Morrowind that can be completed using stealth or dialogue, combat is unavoidable as you travel back and forth across the world and delve its many dungeons. Dungeons are no longer procedurally generated like in Daggerfall and are more thematically consistent. You'll find yourself exploring places such as mines, Dwemer ruins, and Sixth House fortresses. The Dwemer ruins are particularly haunting, offering a glimpse at what the extinct Dwemer civilization was like before their magical catastrophe wiped them out. Some ancient machines still operate and guard these vacant halls, creating an evocative mixture of steampunk and fantasy. Too bad that getting to all of these interesting dungeons can be a pain in the ass.
I believe the developers of Morrowind made a design decision that resulted in a glaring flaw. The game is amazingly detailed, with architectural styles and natural terrain that vary from region to region, city to city, and dungeon to dungeon. All of that detail meant that something had to be cut somewhere, and so the game's dungeons are very small compared to the ones in previous Elder Scrolls titles. Some of the dungeons on the main questline can be fully explored in fifteen minutes, which would have led to a rather short total playtime if you could run through them back to back. I also believe that the developers were so in love with the world they had created that they wanted to ensure that players took their time exploring it. And so Morrowind is the only game in the series where you can't fast travel on the world map. Even Oblivion for all of its faults handled this better by allowing you to fast travel to any significant location you have already visited. Your character can only fast travel using in-world transportation services, which means that in order to get to most dungeons you're going to have to hike painfully long distances. This experience becomes worse at higher levels as much of the wildlife is out to kill you while not being any sort of real threat. The notorious cliff racers are the worst of the bunch. They'll sneak up on you from above and you'll only realize they are there when you hear their annoying screeches and start getting knocked around by their tail strikes. I suspect the only reason the designers made cliff racers so prolific was to stop you from circumventing everything using levitation magic. All of this ensures that most of your time in Morrowind will be spent pointlessly walking from place to place, rightfully earning it the derided moniker of 'hiking simulator'.
Still, the good moments outweigh the bad. I could go on and on about Morrowind's various little features, like the ability to become a vampire or a werewolf. You can build an estate to store all your loot, although you might prefer to take it upon yourself to wipe out a bunch of overly smug jerks at a certain Balmora club and use the place as an early headquarters. The game also has two expansion packs that add even more content: Tribunal and Bloodmoon.
Tribunal takes you to Morrowind's mainland, though unfortunately you never get to leave the capital city. It's got lots of dungeons, mostly consisting of underground sewers, which for some might be a relief from all the travel that's forced upon you in the base game. Pretty much all you do is get a quest, go down into the sewers, hunt down your objective, and then go back to the surface for your reward. Although I enjoyed the simplicity of this, the expanion's overarching plot made little sense to me. The original Morrowind was a complex story with shades of gray, where you might even feel sympathy for the villain. In contrast, in Tribunal you have absolutely no reason to side with the people you're working for. They are obviously horrible people that are acting against your interests, yet you're forced to follow the main quest and buoy their shaky authority, right up until a dangerous opponent finally shows up for you to kill. The expansion also hands out treasure and powerful artifacts like candy, making your character completely overpowered.
Bloodmoon is definitely my favorite of the two expansions. Here you are sent to investigate a besieged Imperial fortress on a small Nordic island. The Imperials are surrounded by hostile forces that they do not fully understand, which is damaging their morale and creating paranoia. You have the option of supporting the occupying forces or throwing your weight behind the barbaric natives and their pagan customs. And then you're noticed by a certain evil Daedra and find yourself fighting for your life. I really like Bloodmoon and the feeling of cold isolation and creeping dread it evokes. It serves as a great capstone to the Morrowind experience.
Morrowind and its expansions are available for purchase on Steam and GOG. The game still holds up today, and I consider it one of my top five RPGs of all time despite its faults.