home > Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind Review (Xbox)
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ups: Incredible freedom of play; lots of customization; tons and tons of play time; huge, seamless world; so much to dig into.
downs: Horrible combat; draw-in and fog.

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Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind Review (Xbox)
game: Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
four star
posted by: Shawn Rider
publisher: Bethesda Softworks
date posted: 09:10 AM Sat Jul 13th, 2002
last revision: 05:05 AM Fri Sep 23rd, 2005

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Bethesda Softworks brings us the first Role-Playing Game (RPG) for the Xbox, and it\'s a pretty sweet deal. Rather than building from the Japanese tradition of breathtaking cutscenes, cute, possibly superdeformed, characters, lots of minigames, and a very linear plotline, Morrowind presents gamers with much more freedom and customization, hearkening much more to American RPGs, most of which have been developed exclusively for the PC. The radically different approach of Morrowind will throw off some die-hard console RPG fans looking for the next Final Fantasy, but the rest of us, who either enjoy the American style of RPG or are just open to new gaming experiences, will find a lot to dig into.

Morrowind allows you to create a custom character from a wide array of options. You construct your character by choosing one of ten races (complete with several varieties of male and female avatars for each race) and one of 23 classes. The classes are divided into three main categories, Combat, Magic, and Stealth, and predetermined classes include great professions like Battlemage, Knight, Archer, Thief, Witchhunter, Monk, Assassin, etc. If these 23 career choices don\'t suit you, then make up your own ? you may combine skills and attributes in a huge variety of ways to make your own customized character. In addition to the race and class, your character is born under a Birthsign, which gives him or her special attributes such as quicker movement, invisibility, greater magic, etc.

Once you\'ve created your character the game begins with little fanfare. You are released from prison on orders from the Emperor, and nobody really knows why. You receive some sketchy orders from the officials at Seyd Neen, the small coastal town where you rejoin the world, to track down an official in a town to the North, and that\'s about it. It quickly becomes apparent that you can look at and pick up just about anything ? extra spoons in a silverware drawer, all the linens and clothes you see, every item in a shop. And if you trifle with this ability too much, it won\'t be long until you come across what makes Morrowind truly different ? steal from a shopkeeper and a city guard will be on you in a moment. You can fight with the guards, but when you fight the law the law usually wins. In most RPGs you are encouraged to ransack every house, shop, storeroom, and barracks you can get into, but in Morrowind that kind of behavior carries a fine and possibly jailtime.

You\'ll also discover quickly that you can attack anyone in the village. Who hasn\'t wished, in other RPGs, they could unload on that one character in the bar who won\'t give you the information you want? Now you can do that. However, as with taking whatever you see, murdering a citizen comes at a price. Spending time in prison lowers your skills and abilities, so it\'s generally better to make sure that if you are going to commit a crime you should have a lot of money on you so you can pay your way out of any significant punishment. It\'s all very realistic that way.

For the most part, the general conventions of how an RPG plays are all here ? you have an inventory screen, can look at your attributes, must repair armor and weapons, seek out specialists to find new items and whatnot. These systems of play are pretty easy to pick up on and, barring a few \"convenience\" issues (for example, scrolling through your inventory after you\'ve spent a hundred hours in the game collecting stuff gets pretty tedious), it\'s all done quite well. You can enchant swords and armor, haggle with shopkeepers for the best price, and read a huge number of books (some of which are over 30 pages long, and others of which enhance your skills).

Gameplay is focused on communication elements rather than on combat, and in a few paragraphs we\'ll see why that is a good thing. You can talk to anyone, and they all react to you differently. Many folks will ask you to do small tasks and quests, and if you do them they like you better. Depending on what race you are, what clothing and armor you wear, and what kind of activities you participate in, non-player characters (NPCs) react to you differently. If you have a price on your head, people will avoid you in the streets. If you are noble and likeable, shopkeepers will give you better prices. If you carry illegal narcotics (Skooma is popular in Morrowind) many traders will not deal with you.

Morrowind is focused around providing a fully developed world for your character to live and adventure in. As the game progresses you will uncover two main reasons for playing. The most prominent, as you are advised by a number of sources, is that adventuring is good for your well-being. Your character is reminded of how good it feels to be on quests quite often. The other reason to play, as given by the game, is to complete the \"main\" storyline. This involves the messianic return of a legendary hero to route the empire from Morrowind, and it takes a long time. That series of quests on its own would compose an RPG of decent length. However, there is much, much more to do in Morrowind, which is why you are constantly encouraged to seek out as many different adventures as possible.

Graphics are well-done, although it has to be stated up front that I had never seen \"fog\" (and we\'re not talking about the good kind of fog that belongs in a scene) on the Xbox until booting up Morrowind. On the one hand I can understand that the gigantic, and seamless, world of Morrowind couldn\'t be rendered in complete clarity, but on the other hand it seems like the barrier formed by the fog is always too close to your character. As you walk down a road you can\'t help but be distracted by serious draw-in, and at times when you should be able to see to the top of a hill, and your destination up there, you can\'t. The graphics are spotty in other areas as well. For the most part, water and reflections in the water are rendered very nicely. However, some swampy areas you walk through are poorly done ? the swamps don\'t ripple or splash at all, but the sound effects are there for tromping through puddles. In general, the color palette is pretty limited, too, which can make night time and dungeon crawls more difficult than they need to be.

The graphics shine when it comes to weather effects and daytime lighting. Everything tends to look really cool when you\'re pretty close to it. Characters all dress differently. Kill a bad guy and steal his clothes and he\'ll be laying in his skivvies on the ground in front of you. Equip your character with new armor and you immediately see the change. The design of towns and geographic regions is also very well done. Everywhere looks like a different place, from the down-homey swamps of Seyd Neen to the towering structures of Vivec each city has its own personality and aesthetic.

Combat is another sore spot, and probably the biggest flaw in Morrowind. As you play, whether in combat or not, you can switch from first to third person view and vice versa. In general, I prefer the first person perspective, although on occasion you\'ll want to switch between them. The trouble is that in a first person game melee combat is not the most fun. That is probably why we refer to that other genre as the First Person Shooter, even if it includes a lot of action and storyline. And in a third person title, combat is always tricky when you are dealing with more than one enemy ? hence the development of lock-on targeting systems and other ways of accomodating the third person perspective in a combat-oriented title. Unfortunately, Morrowind\'s combat is just horrible, regardless of which perspective you are using. In first person mode it always feels like you are just thrashing around with your combat knife, whether you use a steel longsword or a Daedric katana. Missle combat is a bit better, but your archery skill has to be pretty dang high to make it any fun. In third person mode you end up spinning around and slashing like a maniac just trying to get the right bead on your opponent. Add to this chaos the fact that you never know how powerful your enemies are or how much you are hurting them, and you\'ve got some awful, awful combat. When you land a strike on your enemy, you\'ll see some blood spurt out, but that\'s about it. You never know their hit points, how much damage you are doing, or how close the monster is to dying. This makes it frustrating when attempting a tough challenge ? if you die on the final boss is it because you are not at all ready to take him on or because you just weren\'t using the right weapon? Only trial and error, and lots of it, will tell.

And in a game as open-ended as Morrowind, the lack of any kind of statistics during combat really hinders gameplay. You can pick up quests from people just walking down the street, and sometimes these are very fun and very profitable endeavors. However, guaging what kind of challenge you can take on, even when the enemy is right in front of you, is too difficult, especially in the early stages. You\'ll find yourself passing up these opportunities in order to follow tiered quests from your official contacts or higher-ups in the guilds just to make sure you\'re attempting challenges you can actually accomplish.

As I said earlier, it\'s fortunate that Morrowind doesn\'t rely on the combat too heavily. You have to do it enough to make you curse the system, but the real joy in Morrowind is inhabiting the world. Morrowind is a continent that has been taken over by the Imperial forces. The natives (mostly elves of various types) are not necessarily too happy about their colonization, in large part because so many foreigners have been showing up. So the race and class you choose has a lot to do with how people like you. Morrowind is also a fairly devloped continent, so there are plenty of guilds, religions, and noble houses in existence. You can join any of these entities and take part in their business. Join the Fighters Guild and you\'ll be sent on missions that enhance their wealth and standing, or just resolve a political debate (usually with fisticuffs). The same goes for the Mages Guild and Thieves Guild. Do very well in any of these guilds and you can take control of them. Just playing until you are the head of one of the guilds is like playing an entire RPG. Join one of the houses and you\'ll start as an errand boy, but you can quickly move up the ranks until you can exercise some real political power.

So you can either stick to the main series of quests, which you are started on at the beginning, or you can choose to pursue a series of quests focusing on one of the guilds or houses. You can also just run around the countryside stumbling across interesting action. The world of Morrowind is huge ? it literally takes hours to traverse it on foot. Luckily there are two forms of transportation in Morrowind. The Silt Striders are giant bugs with passenger compartments carved out of their backs, and they run like a train line. The Mages Guilds also have teleporters which can get you to different areas. You can bounce around to get to just about any city in Morrowind if you learn where various stations and guilds travel to, but you\'ll always have to go out walking eventually, and you never know what you\'ll find. Unfortunately, walking is too slow. Running is too slow. Movement in general is just too slow. You can get the \"Boots of Blinding Speed\" (and then you need to get the helm of something or other so you can see the screen when the boots are equipped), and that is a good quest to seek out.

There\'s so much to Morrowind that it is really mindboggling. Delve into alchemy and you\'ll be reading enough text to constitute a college-level course. Much of Morrowind can\'t be entirely sussed out by reading the materials in the game and instruction manual. There is a guide to the game called The Morrowind Prophecies which is very useful, and as with any really cool title, Morrowind has spawned dozens of fansites and forums. To really explore the limits of the game, you\'ll want to check out some secondary resources.

And when you do start exploring you\'ll find that Morrowind can be gamed just like other titles. You can do tricks to up your Mercantile skill quickly (the game rewards you for haggling, so just buy and sell the same product over and over again, each time nudging the price up or down minutely). There are also little flaws that allow you to exploit the legal system (paying 25 gold to off a shopkeeper, steal his goods, and live in his house isn\'t a bad investment) and skill development. If you lay hands on a Golden Saint you\'ll find yourself able enchant items with permanent effects, and then you can remove the Golden Saint and still maintain the enchantment, which allows you to enchant everything you own with wildly powerful spells. There are lots of these little tricks and cheats, and it\'s hard to say if these are bugs or just flaws in how the gameplay logic was thought out. Either way, it just provides more fodder for the forums, and you have to get very \"into\" the game to really have these things affect you.

What Morrowind demonstrates more than anything else is the joy of interacting with a completely open world. It proves that you don\'t need a lot of blood and guts to make a game appealing, especially if you give a high level of interaction. Sure, GTA3 is pretty damn interactive, but not as free and open as Morrowind. And GTA3 relies on its violent and graphic content to grab attention (then it wows gamers with the freedom of play). Morrowind is a bit of a mind-boggling game at first ? you are not dropped into an existing story, but allowed to ease yourself into the world however you\'d like, and the lack of direction can be disconcerting. From the moment you begin playing Morrowind you\'ll imagine different ways you could play with different characters. It has its flaws, but not only is Morrowind the only choice for Xbox-owning RPG fans, it is one of the best RPGs ever made.