Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
There are many different opinions on what it is that makes up a role-playing game. Some say RPGs are games in which you experience an epic, cinematic story while becoming emotionally attached to the various characters involved. Others say an RPG should be a dungeon crawl with heavy emphasis on battles and the gaining of experience points. But, I have a slightly different opinion on what a true RPG should be. I believe it is any game that places you in an unfamiliar fantasy world, with the complete freedom to do whatever it is you want. I think a true RPG should never force you to follow a linear path and always allow the actions of YOU, the player, determine how the game is played out.
Ah Vvardenfell, my home away from home
For quite some time I was largely disappointed with the direction that console RPGs were headed, as games like Final Fantasy X and Skies of Arcadia just weren’t scratching that itch of mine to experience a vast fantasy world as I saw fit. I would find myself asking, “Why can’t I just ditch my party members and go exploring?’ or “How come I can’t sneak in the backdoor of this shop and steal some of those expensive weapons?” And so I continued on for a while remaining relatively disinterested with the state of RPGs in general. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Bethesda released their epic role-playing masterpiece The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind for the Xbox, and my flagging interest in the RPG genre was given a 10,000 volt electric shock in the behind.
Here was a game that embodies everything I thought a true role-playing game should be, it takes place in a vast fantasy world, gives you a nearly infinite freedom of choices and never forces you in any specific direction to advance the story. I immediately found myself falling head over heels for Bethesda’s epic RPG, and spent more hours than I’d care to admit immersed in the expansive world of Morrowind. It is after spending these countless hours with the game that I have come to the conclusion that Morrowind is a benchmark title, not only for RPGs, but also for video games in general.
Your first experience in the vast world of Morrowind is a humble one. You awake aboard a slave ship that has just landed on the island of Vvardenfell. The slave traders inform you that they have been ordered to set you free, and you are unceremoniously released from captivity. Upon exiting the boat you are greeted by a fellow who asks for some information, and this is where you chose the name, race and sex of your character. You have a wide assortment of choices when choosing your appearance, so you really feel attached to your personalized Morrowind alter ego. After this is done you are sent to the local record keeper, and there you make more important decisions such as your class (ie – fighter, mage, ranger, or even a custom class) and skills you would like to specialize in. When this is finished you are told to go meet up with a man in the neighboring city of Balmora, but whether you choose to do so is completely up to you. At this juncture in the game you could literally spend 50 hours of gameplay time just wandering around doing odd jobs for various guilds, stealing goods for money, or anything else you feel like doing, without ever even talking to the fellow you were told to go meet.
That’s the beauty of Morrowind. The way the game unfolds is based entirely on your decisions and you are never pushed in one direction or the other. Of course, if you want to complete the main story of the game you are going to eventually have to talk to that man in Balmora, but there is never a time when the game forces you to do so. All the side quests offered by Vvardenfell’s Great Houses (the political factions on the island), guilds and inhabitants equate to hundreds of hours of gameplay time apart from the main quest. This immensity is simply unheard of with console role-playing games and makes Morrowind something truly special.
The way statistics and leveling up are handled in the game is relatively simple, yet surprisingly effective. Your character has dozens of skills such as longblade, heavy armor, athletics, speechcraft, etc, and in order to increase the capability of these skills you must continually use them during gameplay. Like the rest of the gameplay in Morrowind, the way you go about gaining levels is entirely up to you. Some people may reach level 20 by using mostly fighting skills like axe, medium armor, archery, etc, while others may reach level 20 by using only thief related skills such as sneaking, trap disarming and lock picking. There are also trainers located in the various cities throughout Vvardenfell that can raise your skills, for a price of course. This ingenious system of skills and leveling-up is a refreshing change from the linear Japanese RPG style of preset level gaining, and truly allows your character to grow as you see fit.
Just because Morrowind allows you the freedom to do as you will, don’t think that there aren’t rules and regulations on the island Vvardenfell. Go ahead and steal all you want from somebody’s house, but just don’t let them see you do it or your crime will be reported to the authorities. The same goes for murder and assault (though you are free to defend yourself when attacked), and the only way to remove your criminal status is to pay off your bounty or go to jail for a certain length of time. Jail isn’t the best option in the world, because during the time of your imprisonment the skills you worked so hard at leveling-up actually LOSE experience. If you get caught performing an excessive number of crimes, it is entirely possible to run up a bounty on your head so high that you could never hope to pay it off. If you become too much of an outlaw you’ll find yourself attacked by town guards where ever you go, and life can get a bit difficult. Luckily, there are certain shady individuals in the thieves guild who can remove bounties from your head at half price, so it pays to have friends in low places.
Morrowind can be played with either a first or third person perspective and uses an intuitive Halo-esque control scheme that makes traversing the vast island of Vvardenfell a breeze. Both the left and right analog sticks are used simultaneously for walking, looking and strafing, while the ‘L’ and ‘R’ triggers are used respectively for jumping and attacking. There are a few extremely negligible issues with the controls, as you can sometimes find yourself getting ‘caught’ on objects in the environment. You might just be jumping along, trying to build up your acrobatics rating, when suddenly you find yourself stuck on the side of a building or some other obstacle. Usually you can wiggle and jump enough times to escape from this unscathed, but I did have to restart my game on one occasion after getting stuck this way. I attribute these minor glitches with the sheer immensity of the world you are exploring, as it would have been near impossible for the folks at Bethesda recreate every situation that will arise during gameplay. These issues only come up about once every five to six hours, and I stress that they take absolutely nothing from Morrowind’s stunning gameplay.
When encountering an enemy wandering the landscape, or when you attack an NPC (or one attacks you), the game’s battle music begins playing and you have the option to either fight or beat a hasty retreat. Battles are controlled no differently then in a first person shooter; you just use a crosshair to lineup your attack and then swing your weapon at the enemy. There is a stamina meter that must be monitored, as you inflect less damage the lower the meter gets. The amount of damage you inflict and your hit percentage is dependent on your skill level for the weapon you are using, so it is always wise to carry something you are well-practiced in. Whether you are using a sword/shield combo, battle-axe, bow and arrows or spells, the fighting in Morrowind is easy to perform and complements the rest of the gameplay remarkably well.
All of the various environments on Vvardenfell are gorgeous, and that is a big motivation to explore new areas of the island. Grasslands, swamps, desolate wastelands, craggy mountains and more all await you during your journeys, and there is always something new to behold just over the next rise. The towns in the game are masterfully designed, whether it is the small fishing village of Khuul, the medieval castle town of Ebonheart, or the majestic and awe-inspiring city of Vivec. The architectural design in the game is always exceptional and varies widely from region to region, so you will most likely find yourself falling in love with one particular town or area on Vvardenfell.
The water in Morrowind has to be the best ever in a video game, as it undulates and reflects the light exactly like it would in real life. It is quite amazing to see raindrops create hundreds of tiny ripples on the surface of a lake or river during a downpour. While I am on the subject of rain, I should mention that the environmental effects are also quite extraordinary. As you are traveling, you will often be able look up and see ominous dark clouds slowly move in, cover up the sun, and unleash their fury. The sandstorms are also very believable and your character (and NPCs) actually shields his/her eyes with an arm while walking into the wind. Even the starry night skies can captivate you with their slowly moving quasi-aura borealis and multiple moons. And the sunsets….ah, the sweet, sweet sunsets. Let me just say that standing on the castle parapets of Ebonheart, while watching the fiery red orb of the sun dip into the ocean’s waters is quite possibly the closest you’ll ever come to a having moving experience from a video game. Truly remarkable.
The only low point of Morrowind’s visuals is the character models. While they are quite detailed, their animation quality is often much too jerky. This is especially noticeable when watching an NPC walk from a distance, as their animation is made even choppier than normal in an effort by Bethesda to keep the framerate up (which apparently worked because the framerate stays very solid). Thankfully, it is not something that hinders your enjoyment of the game, as everything else is so absolutely beautiful. The good news is there are many different character types in the game, so you won’t see an excessive number of recycled models during your travels across Vvardenfell. Also on the positive side is every single piece of clothing or armor you don actually becomes visible on your character, so you can personalize your appearance to your heart’s content.
Morrowind’s score is splendid and really gets you in the mood to do some epic role-playing. A different variation of the main theme plays at various points during your exploration of Vvardenfell and it always seems to fit the atmosphere perfectly. Some may be turned off by the repetition of the music, but I never found myself tiring of the game’s wonderful score. The grunts, weapon strikes and other general effects are also quite excellent and add much to the game experience. I personally love the sound effect for unsheathing a long blade. Shhhhiiinnnng! I feel like such an incredible badass every time I pull it out. The voice acting for the NPCs is superb overall. Depending on what race an NPC is and how much they like you, their voice will be appropriately different. There are some phrases like “What do you want outlander?” and “Speak quickly.” that do repeat often, but since you only hear it when you first approach someone it never grates the nerves. It is refreshing to see a developer get some quality actors as opposed to the company’s janitorial crew to handle the voice duties (all developers at Koei please take note).
In the end Morrowind stands as a landmark game, not only for RPGs, but also for video games in general. I urge anyone and everyone even remotely interested in role-playing games to check out it out, as this style of nonlinear gaming simply cannot be experienced with any other console RPG. I’ll even go so far to say that Morrowind is a reason to buy an Xbox for, especially if you don’t own a computer fast enough to handle the PC version of the game. You may find the game a bit slow and uninteresting at first, but before you can blink you’ll be playing 14 hours a day and waking up in the middle of the night with skooma (the narcotic drink of Morrowind) cravings. And be warned, before you step foot into this epic world say goodbye to all your friends, family and loved ones. Tell them they won’t be seeing you for a few months. If they ask why, tell them you are going on vacation. This won’t be that far from the truth, because you’ll be taking a long trip to the land of Vvardenfell, where you’re the hero and anything’s possible.