Historical note: This column was never published. I wrote it for the July 2002 publication of The Louisville Computer News, but that monthly newspaper closed shop after the June publication. Unfortunately, my editor failed to inform me and I wrote and submitted this column anyway.
Name: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
Developer: ZeniMax Media, Inc.
Publisher: Bethesda Software, Inc.
Requires: Windows 98+, 800 MHz processor, 256 MB RAM, 1 GB hard drive space, DirectX compatible video and sound card (accelerated video and sound recommended)
Retail Price: $49.99
Street Price: $39.99
Role-playing games, where players assume a role and develop a character by exploring and interacting with a game universe, are a bit of anomaly in the fast-paced, action-packed dominated world of current gaming titles. Yet, the venerable single-player RPG spawns some of the most passionate electronic gamers you can ever hope to find. Each title is anticipated with Pavlovian fervor for months before it is actually released. This pattern held true for The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, the latest RPG from Bethesda.
Morrowind is one of the most ambitious RPGs to date. Building on a world established by two previous games, Morrowind is a sprawling world with potentially limitless game play. The island of Vvardenfell where the game takes place is massive by most anyone’s game standards and is completely detailed and fully realized. Morrowind marks the high watermark for RPGs and should not be missed by any gamer professing to be a fan of the genre. However, a little caution is called for; this game is not for everyone.
Fulfilling yet another prophecy
Morrowind sticks to a tried and true RPG main premise to establish the basic plot line. Your character will start the game as a confused, poorly skilled citizen of Vvardenfell that has just been released from incarceration. You are set on your way with a minimal set of instructions and with no sense of purpose. However, you are given the impression that your destiny is to do something great and profound. How you fulfill that destiny is going to be up to you and will be greatly influenced by the character you choose to create.
All of the traditional RPG character types are available. Anything from a rogue thief to an armored knight, including spell-casting mages and hybrids with both magic and fighting skills. The type of character you wish to play and the skills they possess is entirely up to you. But take note, personality plays a large role in how non-player controlled (NPC) characters react to you. If you are a thief or a vampire they will treat you as such.
Besides the main quest of fulfilling your prophesized destiny there are hundreds of smaller side quests that you can complete. These sub-quests are extremely important for developing your character’s skills and for raising or lowering your standing among the various factions of your politically dynamic little island. A player could conceivably ignore the main quest and concentrate on these sub-quests exclusively and still get 100+ hours of game play.
This is perhaps Morrowind’s most noteworthy accomplishment; it is completely open-ended. Quests can be completed in almost any order and at your leisure. The game does not penalize players for taking their time, nor does it penalize for ignoring the main quest. Player’s are free to develop their characters as they see fit. However, this freedom is also a double-edged sword. Less experienced RPG players may find the lack of direction frustrating and disorientating.
The Morrowind world is a detailed 3D environment with natural transitions from day to night. The weather is unpredictable and can restrict vision or otherwise hamper travel. Hundreds of inhabitants live their lives busying themselves with their own little adventures. The Morrowind world is absolutely huge in comparison to most any other RPG you have played. While that fact means there is much to do and see, getting there can sometimes be tedious and frustrating. Even with three different modes of fast travel, you will find yourself walking for much of the time.
Once you get where you are going, interaction with the locals is a straight-forward mouse click. Lengthy conversations are achieved by clicking key words revealed in the text. And there is a fantastic amount of text. Besides NPC conversations, players are encouraged to read the various books and documents found throughout the game world. These books describe the history of Vvardenfell and also provide your character with much needed instruction in key skills.
Scratch your niche
And this leads us to some of the problems I find with Morrowind. While I am normally the last one to complain about a game having depth and length, this game stretches it to the limit. There is so much room to roam in this game that it is easy to get lost. This lack of direction is exacerbated by the minimal mapping interface and its lack of an annotation feature. In fact, because this is single-player and because of the wilderness expanse you sometimes have to traverse, it is often lonely.
The inhabitants of this world reinforce this bleak existence. They seem to live very limited lives. They are always minding their store or standing on their street corner, no matter the time of day or the weather. It is somewhat perplexing to see a NPC standing in the middle of nowhere in a raging sandstorm and having that character react to you as if it was a mild and sunny day.
But these are relatively minor annoyances forced by game mechanics and can be forgiven. Some day technology will allow games to present more dynamic and alive worlds. In the meantime, if you think you can make an RPG that circumvents these game conventions, Morrowind ships with a completely functional game editor. Using the game engine and the editor, budding game developers could create an entire new game with new graphics, new quests, and new inhabitants. The recent trend of shipping editors with games intrigues me and I hope it becomes standard practice.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is rated Teen (T) by the ESRB, which I find to be slightly harsh. The violence in the game is very mild, especially when compared to any modern first person shooter. My guess is that because the battles mostly involve humanoid characters the ESRB gave it a relatively high rating. The reality is that, because of all the reading, only teens and above would be able to play the game anyway.
All things considered, Morrowind is a very good RPG, one of the best of the genre right now. The game world is huge and players can immerse themselves into a fantasy universe of magic and chivalrous swordplay to their heart’s content. Playing all of the possible quests and interacting will all of the various characters of this world would take most players well past Labor Day.
However, Morrowind is not for everyone. This game is best reserved for the hard core RPG fan. The pacing for the game is closer to that of a text adventure and many gamers used to action will get frustrated very quickly. If unhurried, purposeful role-playing is your thing, Morrowind will keep you busy and happy through the summer. This is the epitome of a niche game so you have to ask yourself if you are fan of that niche. If you are, then you have found the game that fills it.