Reflections on Morrowind, Part 2 - Mods, Mods, Mods

Part 1

Not long after giving up on Fallout 3, I made the plunge into Morrowind, partly for its fame and partly because my computer couldn't (and still can't) run Oblivion; I could've gotten it for my PlayStation, but I'd had enough of slogging through a Bethesda game on a console, and all I'd heard of it suggested the vanilla experience was not only limited but in some respects outright awful, and the famously pudgy character models didn't much help.

So I bought Morrowind and the first thing I did was follow Knots’ modding guide to the letter; meticulous instructions for installing every code patch, content patch, utility, and scripting fix, along with a gigantic list of graphical updates for nearly every model and texture on Vvardenfell and beyond. I spent a *lot* of time scouring Planet Elder Scrolls for every interesting .esp I could find, the process hugely gratifying and, to me, novel; having never modded a PC game – having not played many PC games at all – the simple act of dragging a dude’s free RAR file into a directory, checking a box on a mod utility, and seeing an immediate improvement to some facet of Morrowind was nearly intoxicating.

Morrowind, on its own, is a fantastic experience, but – and I imagine this is a large contribution to why Bethesda games are so popular – my Morrowind was uniquely my own. I could spend pages lavishing praise on specific mods, including abot’s scenic silt strider travel, Necessities of Morrowind, which introduces cooking, drunkenness, and sleep, the utterly indispensable Better Bodies and Better Heads, Darknut’s Greater Dwemer Ruins – Morrowind may not be the greatest game ever released, but it is, bar none, the greatest I have ever played. I eventually wrote a mod guide of my own (starting off with an insistent pointer to Knots’ instructions), collecting those that were most vital to my experience; I’d still recommend it as a jumping-off point for newcomers, but I haven’t checked the links in a while (Planet Elder Scrolls’ Morrowind mod database had a small aneurysm early last year, and many vital resources were unfortunately lost; feel free to message me if any of the links are broken.)

But I am getting ahead of myself. The Morrowind modding community is great, but few would dispute that it’s Bethesda’s work that ultimately counts. And my, what a job they did.

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Reflections on Morrowind, Part 1

My first experience in Morrowind came sometime in 2010, during my tenth or eleventh year of high school, after years of hearing about it intermittently; spoken of in hushed tones, with a certain reverence, wistfully remembered for its bizarre and truly unique setting; I knew I had to see what this was all about.

Bethesda’s unparalleled gift for world-building had previously ensnared me in Fallout 3 – having been handed a copy by a friend in the late eighth or early ninth grade, I quickly became deeply absorbed in the vast, haunting ruins of Maryland and Virginia the game had conjured; hundreds of hours poured into the Capitol Wasteland, mastering tricks, optimizing builds, fighting and stealing and living among a cruel, vibrant, and often touching post-apocalyptic society. Xuanlong, AER9, Reilly’s Rangers – perhaps I was just young, but I doubt I’ll ever forget those trusty and dependable standbys, always there to get me through any adversity, old friends fit for the warmest nostalgia. Through necessity, I played Fallout 3 on the PlayStation 3, by every measure the worst possible platform to do such a thing, but I didn’t much care. And though the harsh and complicated land of Vvardenfell eventually supplanted them in my mind, at the time, there simply was nothing as engrossing as those dusty, sun-baked plains, those ruinous towers of glass and steel.

Fast-forward a year or so and the cycle repeated itself with Fallout 3’s Game of the Year Edition, and another hundred-odd hours sucked into the world on the TV screen. Anchorage, the Pitt, clunky ret-conning, a tedious spaceship slog, and, best of all, the murky swamplands of the Virginia coast; it was a mixed bag, but one worth seeing through if only for the material rewards. Or so I thought. Each piece of content handed my character another superpower, in the form of equipment; an everlasting, perfectly-effective stealth suit. A deadly assault rifle, quiet as a whisper. A hand cannon packed with buckshot, and a Samurai’s sword. Enough alien weaponry to outfit a small army. By the time I was rolling through the last of Broken Steel’s missions, my young Wanderer had become a god; there’s really no other way to describe it. And it would’ve been fine and dandy, except Fallout 3 set out to match him; as my character’s power escalated, so too did that of his enemies, until the Capitol Wasteland was crawling with hulking monstrosities, nigh-invulnerable ghouls, and a limitless flood of iron-clad Enclave shock troops. As I trudged through the nightmarish hordes, impressive, but hardly enjoyable, it dawned on me; this was not the Capitol Wasteland I had fallen in love with, where a desperate survivor and his trusty dog scrounged for caps and fended off drug-fiend raiders – it had become utterly foreign, and I didn’t much appreciate the change. Disillusioned, I turned my back on my former friends; stepping up to the game’s ultimate decision, I chose to annihilate the game’s cheery do-gooders with a rain of treacherous hellfire. I walked my avatar home to his ramshackle dwelling, hired his washed-up, heartless mercenary neighbor, outfitted them both in the armor of kings, and they faced the Wasteland together; then I switched off the game, navigated to the saves menu, and deleted all record of their existence. I was done.

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Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction vs. Just Cause 2


This blog only covers these games’ mechanical aspects. If I get a good response, I’ll follow up with a non-mechanical comparison, comparing their stories, settings, characters, factions, music, and all that great stuff. This is also my first blog ever, so feel free to criticize me as harshly as you honestly can.

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As a fan of the first Mercenaries, I was always bummed out by the lack of similar games in this current generation. Since Mercenaries 2 exists in my same cognitive space as the Matrix sequels, the only recent game that’s tried to approximate POD’s military-GTA structure is Just Cause 2.

And damn, is it a good game.

But I’m torn, dear Internet.

JC2 has a lot going for it – it contains the single best open-world of a non-RPG ‘sandbox’ game, it flouts the laws of physics with the best physics-flouting-thing since the Gravity Gun, its utterly fantastic Grappling Hook, which, by the way, is borrowed if-not-directly from Mercenaries, though I wouldn’t know, as I never played JC1. Regardless, this grappling hook makes Mercs 1’s simple and limited helicopter-hijacking mechanic seem childish. Well, partially, but more on that later. The vehicles – though there are fewer of them, and no tanks among them – handle better than the ones in Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, which sort of floated across the landscape like a hovercraft. There are also motorcycles, and motorcycles in open-world games instantly make those games awesome. The gunplay is also better from a mechanical standpoint, headshots are satisfying and easy and the ragdoll physics are fun to observe. But, the guns’ variety is very limited, and though they can be upgraded they only consist of the expected archetypes, without even any proper descriptive names. There is a Black Market dealer, who is simple, reliable, and invincible, though his stock is quite… erm, Spartan. Destruction is the game’s bread and butter, with a tracked ‘Chaos’ meter that rises from destroying military property and taking upgrade pieces, but there is no full destruction a la Bad Company 2.

Mercenaries 1 is almost to the letter this game's opposite.

Its open world is smaller, though it doesn’t feel small as scale is the critical issue. Mercs doesn’t have planes or magical Spider-Man gauntlets, so the pace of transportation allows the world to feel perfectly fine up against Just Cause. Also, there are two world maps, something which imprinted itself on my adolescent brain as true and good and causes endless disappointment due to its absence in pretty much everything else. Though hijacking in JC is easier due to the grappling hook, it’s also less interesting than Playground of Destruction’s implementation. Both use quick time events, but Mercenaries’ are fully animated cutscenes unique to each vehicle, while Just Cause’s are simple three-face-buttons punch outs with the pilot or driver. Mercs’ are also harder, in that you can actually fail them and they use more buttons, though you are invincible to enemy fire for their duration, which isn’t the case with Just Cause. Mercenaries also has better vehicles, though their handling isn’t the greatest. There are real tanks in addition to APCs, many more civilian and military models, and the only thing lacking is the absence of planes, which actually helps to slow transportation and in the long run makes the world feel more expansive. With respect to weapons, there are many more, up to and including classic LucasArts cheat-code type bangers as portable airstrikes (housed in an RPG) and portable artillery (oddly, this one’s a pistol). However, let’s just say modern action games do the whole shooting thing better than open-world PS2 games. The Black Market dealer is better, but more difficult to make use of. His inventory is way more expansive, but each piece of merchandise has to actually be dropped from a helicopter (or landed if it IS a helicopter), which is far more complicated and failure-prone than simply spawning it in like in Just Cause. Destruction in Playground of Destruction is a playground’s worth of fun. Every building in the game can be leveled, albeit in a smoke-and-sinking-polygon PS2 sort of way, and military structures can still be destroyed for cash, though unlike Just Cause 2 this also includes vehicles. I also think the sound cue is better.

With the mechanical elements of these games, an uncanny trend arises. Mercenaries has more. More vehicles, more guns, more world maps (having 2), more stuff for you to buy, more unlockables, more QTEs, more destruction, but Just Cause 2 does it all better. So I can’t – or I won’t – place one above the other. It’s a matter of Depth vs. Polish, and different gamers are looking for different things.
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