Bethesda Softworks brings us the first
Role-Playing Game (RPG) for the Xbox, and its 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 dont
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.
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 thats 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 wont 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
discover quickly that you can attack anyone in the village. Who hasnt wished, in
other RPGs, they could unload on that one character in the bar who wont 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 its 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. Its 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 youve spent a hundred hours in the game collecting stuff gets pretty
tedious), its 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 well 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.
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.
well-done, although it has to be stated up front that I had never seen "fog"
(and were 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 couldnt 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 cant 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 cant. 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 dont 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 youre pretty close to it. Characters all dress differently. Kill a bad guy
and steal his clothes and hell 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 youll 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, Morrowinds 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
youve got some awful, awful combat. When you land a strike on your enemy,
youll see some blood spurt out, but thats 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 werent 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. Youll 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 youre attempting challenges you can actually accomplish.
As I said earlier,
its fortunate that Morrowind doesnt 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 youll 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 youll 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 youll always have to go out walking eventually, and you never
know what youll 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.
Theres so much
to Morrowind that it is really mindboggling. Delve into alchemy and youll be reading
enough text to constitute a college-level course. Much of Morrowind cant 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, youll want to check out some secondary resources.
And when you do
start exploring youll 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 isnt a
bad investment) and skill development. If you lay hands on a Golden Saint youll 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
its 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.
demonstrates more than anything else is the joy of interacting with a completely open
world. It proves that you dont 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 youd like, and
the lack of direction can be disconcerting. From the moment you begin playing Morrowind
youll 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.