Game Review - by James Allen
As you may have seen if you follow this site (and who does?), I don't play (or review) many role playing games. In fact, I can say with confidence that I have owned a grand total of zero RPGs in my time as a gamer (unless you count Sea Dogs, but I don't, it's more of an action game, sort of, all right maybe it is an RPG). It's not that I hate RPGs, it's just that I play other games first. So, you're going to get somewhat of an outsiders (or outlanders (I love referencing the game I'm reviewing)) opinion of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, the third installment in The Elder Scrolls series that I had previously never heard of (told you that I never played RPGs). Morrowind has been in development since the writing of the Old Testament (And God said, "Let there be Morrowind," and it was good), and now it's finally released to the general gaming public. Morrowind features open-ended gameplay and darn good graphics, or so the press releases state (and they are full of objective fact). So, will Morrowind become the definitive role playing game, or show me why I don't play many RPGs? Oh, who are we kidding, you know it kicks butt.
In Morrowind, you create your own character and go out into the world, doing pretty much whatever you want. Morrowind is completely open-ended, which is a tactic that has been flubbed in other games (see Battlecruiser: Millennium), but it works here because of the number of quests and things to do. Most games just have the equivalent of the main quest in their arsenal: in Morrowind, it's just a small fraction of the game. The main storyline goes like this (without spoiling too much): you're dropped of on an island for reasons unknown to you, but you may be the guy who can kick the butt of the main bad guy on the island, Darth Maul…I mean Dargoth Ur (there are actually a bunch of parallels between this game and the Star Wars movie franchise…try and pick them all out!). It's a pretty neat adventure in itself, but doesn't begin to relate how much there is to do in this game. There are numerous (remember, in Morrowind, numerous doesn't mean 10-20, it means several hundred) quests for each of the ten factions you can join (each with their specialty), miscellaneous quests for each city, and at least over 800 different places to go and explore. Wow. Probably the most surprising (or most relieving) aspect of this is that the total freedom actually works in Morrowind, giving the impression that the game does not restrict what you want to do. On top of all this, included is The Elder Scrolls Construction Set, where you can make anything from simple plug-ins to alter gameplay mechanics, to an entire new world to play with. Like Morrowind didn't already give you enough to do. Oh, and the guide to Morrowind (not included, but I got it with the game) is very informative and useful for people like myself who suck. Are the features in Morrowind good? Yes, yes they are.
The lowest point of Morrowind is the sound, and even then it's isn't even close to being bad. The soundtrack to the game accomplishes two goals of background music: fitting the atmosphere, and being both memorable and non-intrusive. The environmental effects are also very well done, from the falling rain to the howl of a sandstorm. The main complaint that I have is the small variety of phrases that the NPCs (that's non-playable characters; I know people always assumed that I knew what it meant) say. Now, I realize that providing a direct sound clip of every response is both impossible and would take up 10 CDs, but I'd like to see more canned responses. After you talk to a character for the third time, they keep saying the same phrases that you've heard before. I don't think that thirty different phrases for each different character type is out of the question. It's strange that, with so much attention paid to the other aspects of the game, that the sound falls short of being spectacular. Oh well.
Now that we have all these things to do, how do we do them? Well, the first step is the ingenious character creation model in Morrowind. You actually come up with your characteristics in interactions with several NPCs, rather than archaic menus at the beginning of the game. You select your race (which determines your starting attributes), but your class can be made from one of three options: choose a pre-defined class, answer 10 questions, or make your own. In the game of ten questions, each question has three responses (for stealth, combat, and magic) and the combination of the answers means that your dream guy is a tall, strong man with good gardening skills. Wait, no, it picks one of the predefined classes for you. The most fun and powerful tool is creating your own. There are a bunch of skills to choose from, each falling into the three categories I named earlier (stealth, combat, and magic, silly head). For example, combat skills include axe, long blade, and medium armor, stealth skills include security, sman, and speechcraft, and magic skills are of the schools of destruction, restoration, and illusion. You get to pick five major skills and five minor skills, and everything else becomes a miscellaneous skill. You also choose a birth sign, which provides some more bonuses. As you can see, you can play the game over and over with different characters, each time attacking the challenges differently.
Your character has three different stats, health, magicka, and fatigue. Fatigue is derived from running, jumping, and getting attacked. Since you character moves at a realistic pace, you'll probably want to run everywhere, which drains fatigue and makes your attacks less effective. This is kind of annoying. If you are hurting, you can sleep in any legal bed or out in the wilderness away from enemies until you are healed. At any one time, you have an active weapon and active magic, which can be activated by selecting it and using it. I haven't seen any penalty for not hiding your sword (insert your own joke here), so you could keep it out all the time. You character can also carry a finite amount of weight, known as encumberance. In Morrowind, almost everything (barring fixed lights, tables, chairs, and banners) can be stolen, and sold back to get some money (we don't need no stinkin' morals), so you can become so weighted down that you can't move. You can also encounter some diseases along the way, and everything up in the Ashlanders land in the north seems diseased. You can die, or, more likely, just get a reduced attribute.
The magic model in the game is very good, although I tend to use force. You cast spells just like swinging your weapon, and each spell has a magicka cost along with a chance of success, derived from your attributes and skills in magic. If all of the included spells aren't enough (and there are a bunch of them), you can make your own (or have someone else do it) using a powerful spellmaking utility. You can also enchant your weapons, so not only to they deliver damage from the strike, but also deliver some magical damage as well. Potions are one-time use elixirs that restore health, magicka, fatigue, or attributes. You can produce your own potions by combining plants and such you find (or steal) in a process termed alchemy.
Your interactions with NPCs are done with a keyword-based dialogue system, in which you click on a word or phrase, and they'll talk about it. This is how you advance during the side quests, but most of the main quest's dialogue is done automatically for you. Most of the people you will encounter are merchants in stores, which usually specialize in an area, like weapons, armor, clothing, books, outfitting, or just a general pawnbroker (and the House of Earthly Delights in Suran). Speaking of books, some books that you read can increase your skill levels, which is a good transition to leveling up in Morrowind. You gain higher skill levels by actually using your skills. For instance, if you use your long blade often, your long blade skill will increase, and eventually your skill rating will increase by a point; you can also pay for expensive training. If you accumulate ten skill increases in your major and minor skills, you get a level up; you sleep, and upon awaking, can add more points to your attributes (like strength, intelligence, etc). In additon, you can get multipliers for the skills you used most since the last level increase, so adding one point to speed may add 2 or 3. Nice.
Since the island of Vvardenfell (pronounced "Morrowind") is rather big, and you tire if running, you can take several methods of fast travel around the island. The most popular is the silt striders, big bugs that shuttle people around. You can also take the more conventional boat, or get poofed by a Mages Guild leader. Now, with all of the talk about taking things and killing people, there are some consequences. If your crime is reported (someone sees you do it), you'll have to either pay a fine, go to jail, or fight your way out. So, that's a short introduction to the world of Morrowind. As you can see, the graphics and features are not alone in their greatness, as the gameplay modeling is also very thorough. Now, no review would be complete without complaining about a couple of things.
Morrowind is not perfect, but it's close. One thing I'd like to see changed is an animation during fast travel instead of a blank screen with a loading bar. Suggested by Game Genie compatriot StormDaemon is sleep cycles of the merchants and people in general. Go to the store at 3 a.m. and, sure enough, they are still there. Does everyone on the island have the dedication level of Apu (can't be a good review without some Simpsons reference)? I'd also like to see interactions between NPCs, instead of ignoring each other around town; it's like their own purpose is to serve you, instead of having their own agendas. Also, there is no health indicator for enemy units, being either a bar or physical deprivation. I'll also comment on those people who say the game is too easy. There is a way to abuse Morrowind and become super powerful in a short amount of time and practically wipe out the population of the island. My question is, why? Does this give you some sort of enjoyment to slaughter everyone in existence and become the most powerful person in the game? Well then, stop complaining if the game is too easy. It's darn hard to scale the game when this amount of freedom is given to the player to make it competitive for all, so obviously it's made more challenging for the beginner, and thus easy for the experienced character. Of course, there are plenty of difficult dungeons to find full of powerful beings ready to kick your butt. So stop your whining! Anyways, enough of my soap box, Morrowind is great.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Morrowind has the best graphics of any game ever. Certainly, the level of detail is there: missing planks on a dock, facial features, and insane textures. Each region has a distinct architectural difference, from the more familiar designs of Balmora to people living in dead animals in Ald'ruhn (those folks are weird). The sheer number of object is amazing, especially off the beaten path where you are no instructed to go in any of the quests: it just doesn't let up. Not to mention the great time of day and weather effects, which you can see samples of in the screenshots I took. There's dynamic lighting for everything, too. You must experience the game first hand to believe the graphics; I know that when I saw the screenshots for this game before it was released I said, "Yeah, right." But it's true! All of it is true! Now, the bad news: this game is slow. You can see in the bottom right corner the frame rates I was getting with max detail at 1024x768: my system is an Athlon XP 1700+, 512 MB RAM, and 128 MB GeForce 4 Ti 4400. Now, I shouldn't be getting no 10 FPS, and this is not just a problem with me. It seems that there is an upper limits of frames you can get, no matter what kind of processor or video card you have. The good news is that the game is playable at 10 FPS for the most part, and out in the country or inside it jumps up to reasonable levels. But if you got the system (which is above the minimum requirements), Morrowind sure looks great.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is a great game. There's so much to do, and fine ways of doing it, that the gameplay is top-notch. And the graphics, my stars! Every place in the game is a potential screenshot. I can say that Morrowind is the best RPG I've ever played, but that isn't saying much of doing the game much justice. It's a huge world full of things to do, in any order you can think of. You should by Morrowind without any hesitation. Go on, do it right now. The silt striders will wait.