Sunday, May 18

A Retrospective On My Elder Scrolls Experience: Morrowind

My experience with the critically acclaimed Elder Scrolls series was somewhat unusual. I started with Oblivion, it being my first true open world and Western RPG. I then moved onto Morrowind, before playing Skyrim. In my last post I detailed my experiences with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. At the time I had only been exposed to JRPGs which tended to be linear, with non existant moral choices or freedom to explore. When I bought and played Oblivion on a whim, it blew my mind and exposed me to what RPGs could be. Oblivion was a beautiful experience, though as time went on I realised it wasn't without significant faults. After being drawn into one Elder Scrolls game I wanted more.

The year was 2009 and looking to expand my Elder Scrolls experience I decided to pick up The Elders Scrolls III: Morrowind. Morrowind was released in 2002 and was the first step in bringing the Elder Scrolls series into the forefront of WRPGs. I'd read about people's experiences and many considered it far superior to Oblivion as well as one of the best RPGs ever. Naturally I was curious about how Oblivions predecessor would play, especially seven years after its release date.

I was made aware of graphic overhauls that existed which would significantly improve the visuals of the now dated looking Morrowind, so after installing the game I decided to start there. Comparing the before and after was impressive, Morrowind perhaps looked even better than Oblivion.

After modding the graphics look as good as Oblivion's, if not better

Since it was my first play through I decided to leave the rest of the game intact and mod no further. The opening of Morrowind was far briefer than Oblivion and for that I was thankful. Within 10 minutes I was in a small village and start on my journey through the land. As mentioned in my Oblivion retrospective one of my favourite ways to play RPGs is as a thief. I steal, I strike from the shadows, I fighting battles on my terms. So one of the first things I did in Morrowind was attempt to steal valuables from the town. To my dismay I realised that your success in stealing isn't decided by your skill in environmental awareness, but instead entirely based on your Sneak skill. It didn't matter if you tried to steal right in front of somebody, or behind their backs everything was decided by this dice roll. NPC's didn't even have day cycles which meant they didn't go to bed and leave me the opportunity to steal. This was my first encounter with the stat focused gameplay of Morrowind, as opposed to the more action focused gameplay of Oblivion.

So my first foray into gameplay was disappointing, it seems I couldn't play a thief the way I normally would. Unfortunately as I played I discovered more problems. Combat was also stat based. Whether an attack hit or missed was determined entirely by your stats, meaning you could be point blank whacking away at an enemy and your attack would not connect. I found this frustrating, though found some salvation in bows and crossbows which had to be aimed carefully and always hit. So combat sucked and so did being a thief, was there any hope for this game or was I seven years too late to enjoy it?

As I explored more of the game I discovered redemption. Quest text was fleshed out and you were encouraged to read, as opposed to blindly following quest markers. In fact there were no quest markers. As a result you had to explore and take in the carefully crafted surroundings. You actually had to think about where you were. As a result, if only through force, the areas in the game felt grounded and permanent.
NPC's also had a lot to say and quest text was able to deliver an elaborate story with compelling motivations for characters. Another massive boon I found in Morrowind's environments was the diversity and alienness. Homes in giant mushrooms, cities in pyramidal shapes, demi gods and giant bugs used for transport. It was so fantastical and different from the cookie cutter Tolkien based world that most RPGs fall into.

Some of the more fantastical armour in Morrowind

The story was interesting for the involvement of the god like Vivec. It seems that Bethesda was willing to do take more of a chance in Morrowind, creating a world that surprised and awed you. Whereas Oblivion (and Skyrim) trod the path of generic Tolkien fantasy. The quests in Morrowind were varied and one aspect I really appreciated was the interaction between guilds. At one point a Morag Tong quest requires you to steal a book from The Fighters Guild. It is probable that you will get caught stealing the book and kicked out of The Fighters Guild. So you are presented with a choice, support the Morag Tong and face reprisal from another guild, or leave the book where it is. I loved the fact that the Guilds were aware of each other and the interaction between them had consequences for the player.

Another major perk of Morrowind was the lack of item and enemy scaling. Enemies are mostly static leveled, which means that you can encounter monsters that can kick your ass, that you'll destroy and everything in between. This also meant you could find extremely powerful weapons if you went off the beaten path. This made exploring much more risky, but rewarding. It made you feel, that as a character, you were becoming more powerful.

It seemed that Morrowind had worse combat, worse stealth, but better enemies, leveling, world and quests than Oblivion. As I continued to explore the world of Morrowind and progress through the quests, over the 20 or so hours, my enthusiasm to play started to fade. The atrocity of the combat started to get to me. The mashing mouse 1 to kill enemies and the limitations with stealth made combat a chore. Eventually stopped playing.

I came to the conclusion that Morrowind would have probably been the best Elder Scrolls game to date...if I happened to play it at the time it was released. The world was intricate and bold, exploring and leveling were so rewarding. The poor combat could be considered acceptable back then perhaps, but when I played my vigour was worn down. Despite this I came away feeling happy with my experience of Morrowind. I could say I ultimately enjoyed it though I couldn't bring myself to complete it. And so ended the second Elder Scrolls game I played. In two short years Skyrim would be released. Promising to be of epic proportions, there was already murmuring of dumbing down the game and making it appeal to a wider audience..