Endlessly replayable, endlessly brilliant
(Just copy-pasting an old review of mine from GS, just to see the reader review system in action ...and probably expect a ton of bias).
Morrowind is the much-anticipated third installment of the Elder Scrolls series. Arriving four years after the release of its predecessor, The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, Morrowind seems more than worthy to carry on the tradition of the immerse and non-linear style of role-playing game. Like Daggerfall, Morrowind is a first-person RPG that lets you basically choose your own adventure--a style of game that admittedly isn’t for everyone. However for those with an independent streak who would rather “go it alone” than be shepherded from scenario to scenario, Morrowind will not disappoint.
This game has even less of a premise than Daggerfall, a game which basically dumped you onto a continent with a vague order from the Emperor to investigate the ghost of a king who was haunting the castle of the capital city. Morrowind gives you even less to work with. You are a convict; nameless, faceless, without a history, who has been mysteriously granted freedom by the Emperor, released onto the giant island-continent Vvardenfell and given orders to deliver a package to a certain individual in a nearby town. This is the extent to which your quest is introduced--the rest is up to you.
Your first step will be creating a character, and Morrowind has one of the most thorough and detailed character generation systems I have ever seen. Not only can you specify your character’s race and gender, but can then choose from several different physical representations of that race, each with different facial features and hairstyles. Most of the races available in Daggerfall have been carried over and a few new choices have been added: there are the human races of Redguard, Nord, Imperial and Breton; the elven races of High Elf, Dark Elf and Wood Elf, and the bestial Khajit (cat-like creatures) and Argonians (lizard-men). Orcs are also a playable race this time, instead of being the mindless monsters they were in Daggerfall. Once a race has been chosen you can assign a profession for your character, each of which has different major, minor and miscellaneous skills. (These skills fall into three broad categories of Combat, Magic and Stealth and include the various magical disciplines and fighting arts as well as things like lock-picking, sneaking, acrobatics, swimming, armor-repair and mercantile abilities. Major and minor skills will be easier to increase and affect your character’s level advancement.) It is also possible to create a custom class and choose your own skill-sets. You can even choose what “sign” your character was born under. (Each sign gives your character certain special abilities.) The sign feature replaces the assignment of certain specific strengths and weaknesses in Daggerfall. In Morrowind, strengths and handicaps such as night vision, weakness to disease, immunity to poison, magic resistance and such are decided by the race and sign that you select
You begin your quest in one of the more backwater towns of Vvardenfell, but from there the entire continent becomes open to you. You can elect to begin the main quest straight away by delivering the package as you were told, or ignore orders for the time being and set off exploring on your own. For those with an adventurous spirit, Morrowind is full of dungeons, shipwrecks, ruins and mines full of monsters and treasure. Or, you can become involved in the politics of Vvardenfell by joining guilds or one of the three Imperial Houses. Guilds include the Thieves, Fighters and Mages guilds, and there are several other factions that accept recruits as well. However, you must be careful who you ally yourself with because politics are always in motion and you will almost certainly end up making enemies with another faction. Great Houses are farther reaching, and allying yourself with one is a major decision that cannot be revoked.
The thing that becomes apparent almost straight away is that Morrowind is very complex, much more so than the previous games in the series. Racial and social tensions, slavery, factional scheming and conflicting political agendas all simmer together under the shadow of a malevolent being named Dagoth Ur who resides behind the Ghostgate in the center of Vvardenfell and sends ash and blight across the land, encroaching slowly but inexorably into ever wider territory. Combined with this evil is the classic conflict of old verses new. The Dunmer, or Dark Elves, had been the ancestral inhabitants of Vvardenfell but have recently been displaced to an extent by new arrivals, the Imperials. Many resent this new influence from the West, and some fanatics are willing to take their hatred to the extreme. There is also the presence of several older, more ancient technologies on the island--relics of long forgotten civilizations. Huge ruins full of artifacts that have long ago ceased to work, but who beckon to be rediscovered and used. There are even rumors of secret cults of demon worshippers and vampires.
Guilds and Great Houses will give quests, as will various NPCs. These are not, as they were in Daggerfall, randomly generated and will be the same every time through the game. Nevertheless, the possibility for replay is endless, especially if you actually role-play your character and take on a persona. Perhaps you are a noble knight who helps people in distress and expects no reward in return, or a thief who never pays for anything if he can help it but prefers to pickpocket and shoplift, or an ambitious mage whose goal is to advance through the ranks of the guild and become Grand Master, or a “Robin Hood” type character who frees slaves and steals from the rich, or an evil outlaw who spurns authority and will kill for the shirt off someone’s back. Add to this the fact that becoming a member of certain factions excludes you from joining others, meaning you will have to play the game multiple times to experience everything.
But all this development would be for nothing without good game mechanics, and Morrowind delivers there as well. Morrowind is a skills-based game, which means that your character improves by successfully performing a skill as opposed to gaining experience points. For example, if your character successfully picks a lock or casts a spell enough times, his skill level will improve. For this reason, the character will be weak in the beginning of the game, which makes things quite challenging, but as skills improve and the character becomes more powerful, the game will get easier. You will be able to notice your character’s performance improving over the course of the game is his skills increase. For example, as Athleticism and Acrobatics are increased, there will be a noticeable improvement in the character’s speed and how high she can jump. Not only is this highly realistic, but also allows you to focus on the skills you want to improve rather than getting blanket improvements to each skill every time you level up. Stats, on the other hand, are improved by leveling up, and leveling up happens each time major and minor skills increase by a total of 10. Stats are the usual categories of strength, intelligence, willpower, etc and govern how well skills are performed and certain other things like maximum HP and MP.
The world of Morrowind is 3-D at its best, in that you can make your way into every nook and cranny of the game environment. By climbing, swimming or using levitation you can scale mountains, reach underground caverns, cross lakes or ravines, or even climb over the walls and roofs of buildings, often discovering secrets in the process. The game comes with a decent paper map, but at least 80% of the areas in Morrowind are unmarked and waiting to be discovered by the explorer.
The fighting in Morrowind is fairly basic, and does not have to be the focus of the game unless your character is a fighter. Basically you don’t “engage” an enemy in a one-on-one turn-based battle, but can take a swipe at anyone who is close enough to you. Once fighting you can attempt to run away (you will be chased, however), or continue until one of you is dead. You attack by clicking the mouse on the monster and dragging it various ways to represent different weapon strokes. Certain strokes such as jabs, thrusts or slashes, work better with different foes. Offensive magic can be used during fights, and weapons can be enchanted to have certain destructive magical properties. Weapons include axes, spears, various types of swords and daggers, hammers and staves, and there are also several powerful “artifact” weapons that have special bonuses. Armor also comes in great variety in light, medium or heavy weights that affect how quickly your character can move verses how well they absorb hits.
There are six schools of magic in Morrowind, and every character will have to master at least a few spells if he wishes to go far in the game. Conjuration is the summoning magic that lets you summon monsters or items to aid you in battle. Destruction encompasses attack spells like fireball. Restoration is healing magic. Illusion changes peoples’ perceptions of you, and includes spells like invisibility. Alteration and Mysticism are varied schools that allow everything from water walking and water-breathing to levitation and telekinesis. These spells can be bought at guilds, or learned from NPCs, but by far the coolest feature is the Spellmaker, which lets you create spells of your own choosing where you can specify the velocity, duration and effects.
In a genre where producing stunning visuals is not always the top priority, Morrowind is a rare example of and RPG with superb graphics balanced with great depth of gameplay. The game is absolutely stunning, with characters that are very realistic and life-like, and objects and backgrounds with amazing levels of detail. The wilderness areas are particularly breathtaking, and the various weather patterns such as dust storms and rain add a lot to the experience.
The audio is very well done with a nice selection of voices to complement text conversations. NPCs utter a variety of phrases as your character approaches them (not just one or two repeated ad nauseam, but a fair sized list of 15 or 20), and their tone changes depending on their disposition towards your character. The voice acting is passable, with a decent variety of actors providing samples; though later on you'll start to feel the repetitive nature and realize that perhaps the game would've benefited with a bit more lines of spoken dialogue. The soundtrack, composed by Jeremy Soule, is in an elegant and suitably epic orchestral style. The music is subtle enough not to become intrusive, yet still contains some beautiful and memorable melodic lines. The only complaint here is that there is not a big enough variety of musical tracks to compliment such a large and complicated game. There are only about 10 tracks in total, which means there is a lot of repetition.
In the end though, Morrowind is a hard game to recommend if merely for the fact that it is a daunting game to tackle, and those looking for a viseral gaming experience might want to go elsewhere. The combat is deritivtive and can grate on the user's nerves at the outset, and the lack of any real direction save for a note given to player might be a little too much for many gamers out there to handle or take-in. But those that do decide to give Morrowind a chance will not be disappointed in the least, and at most will be enjoying not only the best RPG of 2002 (Sorry NWN), but one of the more memorable and endlessly replayable games to come out in years.