on 31 December 2012
I recently reviewed Bethesda's 'Dishonored', which I regarded as a return to form for a company that I thought had lost its way slightly with Oblivion, Fallout and Skyrim. Personally, I regard Morrowind as by far the best game produced by them, in fact it occupies a podium spot in my Best Games Evarrr Top Five. Whilst Oblivion, Fallout and Skyrim all went on to make more money than Croesus, I think Morrowind is the creative high water mark and with that in mind I'd like to explain why. Pointlessly, as it happens, because no doubt you've already played it and made your mind up so you'll either be agreeing with me or voting this down as a load of soggy bog roll.
My first experience with Morrowind was probably much the same as many others. I got off a prison ship, picked a class, race, name and a head. Having done all that, and robbed a tax office of just about everything including their wares, I ventured out into the village of Seyda Neen. I spoke to some locals, followed a few dialogue trees, wandered out into the local countryside and was nearly killed by a rat that my character seemed unable to stab to death, or even tread on. With my health dangerously low, I then turned tail and fled as fast as my asthmatic level-one-no-stamina character could muster on his brittle legs in the direction of the guards who managed to save my life... just. I then found a bed, had a sleep and a cry, and decided to use the public transportation system until my character had learned which end of a knife was the sharp bit.
Yes, Morrowind is a game that doesn't treat you like a complete idiot - it simply allows you to be one under your own foolish steam. Unlike Grand Theft Auto, where you are given a sandbox but then only allowed into certain bits if you misbehave yourself, Morrowind gives you full access to a vibrant and sometimes hostile world and lets you take your chances. This is good for the story arc of your character. Whilst it wasn't the first game to allow you to level up as you go along, not many games gave you this much freedom to make mistakes. You want to try and climb the Red Mountain at level two, asks the game? Well on your own head be it. You fell in a river full of killer fish running away from a bandit who had a huge axe when you had no armour other than a cloth shirt? Tough. The beginning of Morrowind, when you are still a pup, is genuinely terrifying at times - it almost becomes a survival horror. It also makes your eventual leveling up more rewarding. As most of the monsters and people are a fixed level, you can have your teeth kicked in by a level 10 Orc one day, but a few training sessions later go back and show him who is boss.
This all adds to the immersion of the game, which is by far the strongest card in its' deck. The 'realism' of your character's initial ineptitude means you are encouraged to join various factions and guilds who ease you into the world through menial tasks at first, building into harder missions as you grow stronger. The NPCs handing out these missions will even stop you from doing one if they feel you are not up to the task. With the various guilds and factions, not to mention the races (some of which are persecuted, some of which are the persecutors), Morrowind grows into more than a game arena filled with objects for your own amusement; it becomes a proper society, complete with political strife, bureaucracy, and even xenophobia and out-and-out racism, and if that sounds vaguely familiar to you then you've probably read a newspaper in the last three hundred years. If I sound pretentious comparing a game filled with wizards, goblins and other fantastical creatures to a modern democracy with its power struggles, suppression of the working classes and fawning, self righteous excuses for such behaviour then you can knock off my beret, throw my coffee in my face and mash my fingers with a hardcover copy of Jean-Paul Sartre.
Although the island itself is small compared to the maps in Oblivion/Fallout/Skyrim, the different areas with their own geology, weather and architecture help make it seem larger than it is. The uniformality of the other three games is not evident here with distinctive styles for the powerful Houses, and all manner of locations from swamps to grass plains and the arid volcanic areas around the Mountain. Also, setting this sandbox on an island, and the presence on all four sides of a wide sea, makes for a less claustrophobic experience than the invisible-walled sandboxes of Oblivion/Fallout/Skyrim.
With this freedom to move around (once you are strong enough of course) coupled with the drastic clash of cultures and races and the bickering that accompanies it, what you are left with is an ability to build yourself up in whatever way you feel like - completely at the expense of the main quest. All of these factions will require a certain set of talents, and you can pick and choose a pre-set character if you so wish (Warrior, Mage, etc), but the bewildering array of skills that you can pick and choose for your character means you can create just about anything. Some of my previous favourite characters have included a religious zealot who behaved abominably to anyone who wasn't a member of the Temple, a pacifist monk who went out of their way not to kill anyone but instead used Calming Spells before running away as fast as his habit would allow, an Orc who couldn't swim and was terrified of water and a Wood Elf who channeled the future spirit of Corvo from Dishonored in totally silent assassinations of authority figures. The potential is limitless, and it is a shame that all these individual skill sets have been largely lumped together in one gelatinous mass in the subsequent Elder Scrolls games.
Since I've been dribbling on about stuff that is completely intangible for a number of paragraphs, I suppose I should talk about the technical stuff. It isn't the greatest looking game in the world, although any number of easy to download mods can partially solve this. The draw distances are going to look utterly antique to us now, but honestly you really do get used to it, and that is not the poor excuse of a whining fanboy (well... not much.) The music is somewhat limited in terms of variety and so it is remarkable that the main theme of Morrowind doesn't irritate at all; the music soars with a majestic sweep of strings, interrupting itself with some tense cello when an enemy approaches. In terms of the controls, combat can be a bit fiddly in the heat of the moment and you would be well advised to set various things to Hot Keys and then, for the love of Azura, Remember Them. For dialogue there is very little in the way of voice acting; you are given topics to click on, which I prefer over having the character stare at you in that intense way whilst you listen to someone phoning it in. Further to your interactions, there is a bar which tells you the disposition of a character towards you (from 0-100); this will be the catalyst for how much or little they feel like telling you. You'll never create a character with whom everyone will get on with - all the NPCs have their preferences and prejudices - but hey, that just feels more realistic. If you stopped one hundred people in the street and asked them a random question some might answer happily, some will distrust you and answer tentatively, a few may simply brush you aside based on a fear of being mugged or the fact that at first glance you are old or young or male or female or black or you have hair down to your belt or a yellow and green mohawk. Likewise, if you are sided to Hlaalu don't expect any love from the Redorans. If you are a Dark Elf, don't expect love from any of the beast races. If you are a Telvanni, don't expect love from anyone... not even other Telvanni.
Morrowind isn't a perfect game. The game is weighted very heavily towards combat. Spells, even the more powerful ones, are quite weak in comparison to the various melee weapons and many enemies are able to resist or even reflect them back at you. Only after a good few years of playing can I now successfully navigate the world as a character totally biased towards magic with no weapon specializations, and it's still reliant on you keeping that mana bar topped up which is a mean feat in itself. Also, you might be tempted to create a self-sufficient character, specializing in Alchemy, who uses the natural fauna to create potions. Don't, because the vast majority of the more commonly found foliage will only help you with fatigue. So you'll just end up with about one hundred Resist/Restore Fatigue potions of dubious quality. Useful for raising gold but a bit ineffectual when you are pinned down by a monster and need a shot of health or a surge of strength to barge past.
There are probably loads more things I could talk about but this review would become an essay. I've missed out the creepy tombs that can be explored, or the mysterious Dunmer fortresses or the Dwemer steampunked forts, the vast tomes of literature that are actually worth reading and give more insight and background, the bizarre quests to save naked Nords or the anti-slavery campaign you can instigate. Over and above all this though, I just love the total freedom that this game gives you. My favourite kinds of games are the ones where you get a sense that the world you are inhabiting could get along just fine without you, thank you very much for your help notwithstanding. You are a small cog, a minute speck of dust in a much grander and larger time line. Morrowind reminds you of this all the time in the ruins, the settled towns, cultures, races, factions, politics, shipwrecks, tombs and cities, and the fact that you really do have to work at becoming someone in this universe. I don't think it has ever been bettered, and given the way the Elder Scrolls series seems to be sliding towards a grey mundanity, I don't think it ever will.