Game Description: An epic, open-ended single-player RPG, Morrowind allows you to create and play any kind of character imaginable. You can choose to follow the main storyline and find the source of the evil blight that plagues the land, or set off on your own to explore strange locations and develop your character based on their actions throughout the game. Featuring stunning 3D graphics, open-ended gameplay, and an incredible level of detail and interactivity, Morrowind offers a gameplay experience like no other.
It takes a particular kind of mindset to really enjoy a game like Morrowind. You really have to get what the designers are trying to do and understand why they avoid what seem like more obvious alternatives. Like the two previous games of the Elder Scrolls series, Morrowind has its sights set on one goal: to provide us, the players, with all the limitless possibility our finite little minds can comprehend. In an age where blockbusters like Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy are accused of taking the "game" out of "videogame," its easy to see something like Morrowind as a critique of games that downplay the mediums innate virtues of interactive possibility. As a go-for-broke experiment in open-ended gameplay, Morrowind, like its predecessors Arena and Daggerfall, is ambitious, and that ambition is what gives the game a lot of its staying power. However, the manner in which it chooses to pursue that ambition is so single-minded, so dead-set on interpreting all aspects of the experience through a series of genre conventions, that it occasionally shoots itself in the foot. In many ways, Morrowind is a decisive improvement over the rest of the Elder Scrolls series and a relatively engaging game in its own right. As an attempt to realize a virtual world, though, its inability to think outside the role-playing game (RPG) box prevents it from achieving the sense of believability and purpose it obviously strives for.
Morrowind, like its predecessors, is a first-person RPG where a single player navigates the three-dimensional land of Tamriel, a fantasy world where a centralized, imperialist government rules uneasily over various ethnically diverse provinces, most of which feature races that are common to the role-playing genre such as elves, orcs, etc. Specifically, the game takes place on the Imperial district of Vvardenfall, the homeland of the Dark Elves where ethnic and religious tensions brought on by the Imperial occupation have sparked rumors of war. The game begins when the player, a prisoner from the imperial capital, arrives on a prison ship, is given her freedom without explanation, and set loose in Morrowind with only vague orders to report to the local Imperial secret service agent whenever it seems appropriate. From there, players have the option to pursue their orders (which, unsurprisingly, evolve into the main plot) or simply roam the land freely for as long as they desire and do anything that they wish. Naturally, theres quite a bit to do. The player can choose to plunder caves for treasure, sign on with the local law enforcement, join a religious cult, become a murderer, or even become an immortal vampire. All these are but a small handful of options available to the player and they all involve their own sets of people to meet, places to visit, and items obtain.
Of course, no RPG with this much variety would be complete without a system though which the player can customize her character. Naturally, the player is given the opportunity to choose a race, and gender, and a profession (or even create a profession if none seem suitable). These choices determine what skills and abilities the player will have during the game and from there can be customized as the player sees fit. Want to be an assassin who specializes in crossbows? Or a healer who responds to conflicts defensively? Or a charming rogue who can talk her way out of situations? Its all doable, and as long as players have the patience to improve their skills through repeated use or to buy training from experts, they have the opportunity to approach obstacles in a seemingly endless variety of ways.
Sounds great, right? Of course it does. The dream of the Ultimate Non-Linear RPG has been alive ever since the genre jumped off the page and into the virtual world of 1s and 0s. Its the holy grail the genre has sought after: to effectively recreate the sense of detail and narrative possibility that, previously, only a human imagination could provide. Morrowind, like its predecessors, is a dramatic push to make this dream a reality.
Its an admirable ambition, but one that works much better in theory than in practice. While theres no doubt that Morrowind is a much better game than either of its predecessors, it still suffers from the same core design weaknesses. The problem, I think, comes from two false assumptions. One, that a bigger world is a more real world, and two, that the subtlety achieved with lots of numerical stats is an effective substitute for the subtlety of actual physics. Sure, a big world with 50+ towns is realistic in the sense that its vast, but not as realistic as a world with five towns where the time that would have been spent to make the other 45 was spent giving each town the nuances that make them seem truly alive. Sure, a world where I cant kill a bandit because Im bad with a sword is realistic, but its far more unrealistic in the sense that my sword passes through my opponent without so much as being parried simply because a numeric skill rating is too low.
Things like these wouldnt be so terrible, except that Morrowind doesnt seem prepared to deal with narrative consequences implied by this absurd logic. It doesnt muster any really creative excuses for why the world operates the way it does other than "its an RPG." Why doesnt anyone one go to sleep? Why arent there any children? Why do otherwise peaceful people fly into a homicidal rage as their only response to the most benign physical threats? Why is your character bipolar in his/her response to any situation, only being able to choose between being a do-gooder or a self-serving scoundrel?
Dont get me wrong. Im not criticizing Morrowind because it contains weaknesses in logic. All games that attempt to simulate a believable world do. The best games of this sort, however, find fiendish and interesting ways of disguising them. Games like Deus Ex, Thief, and even The Legend Of Zelda: Majoras Mask managed to orchestrate such ingenious excuses for their obvious logical shortcomings that they transcended them to achieve an impressive illusion of believability. Rather than trouble itself with such things, Morrowind seems content to coyly ask the player to ignore them because well, I guess because we should be happy that the game is so damn big.
Not that this makes Morrowind a bad game. Its actually quite a fun game, just not a very good example of a world simulation. Even though to accept the world as real required a suspension of disbelief that was beyond me, I did find the basic format of advancing in a profession to be engaging. In my game I was a thief, and I had fun thieving, looting, and becoming involved in conspiracy plot that decided the fate of Morrowind and the Empire. So, I think the game works on many of the levels it promises, but just not on the one that is the most vivid and enticing. The back of the box promises the opportunity to "live another life," and that really isnt something that Morrowind delivers on. If you want that and all the dramatic subtlety it implies, youd be better off picking up a bargain bin copy of Fallout or Planescape: Torment. The Elder Scroll series, for all its achievements, still doesnt quite seem to understand that role-playing a profession isnt the same as role-playing a person.
Matt really hit the nail on the head when he said that one needs a particular sort of mindset to truly enjoy Morrowind. It is non-linear in the extreme, and the sheer size of the world and the number of quests can be staggering. Many may find such immensity and open-endedness intimidating or even ridiculous, but I found it liberating.
Morrowind is a role-playing game in the truest sense of the word, and those who are expecting to sit back and be told what to do, get shepherded from scenario to scenario and click through endless scenes of scripted dialogue will be in for a shock. I find it very interesting how the term "role-playing game" gets thrown around and applied to many games that dont even follow that basic criteria; where instead of "playing a role" of some sort the player merely controls a party of characters whom they may or may not actually relate to or care about. Morrowind, on the other hand, gives the player the opportunity to assume a personality and profession of their own choosing. Herein lies the key to getting the most out of Morrowind: one must role-play a character. The game throws so much out there all at once that its easy to get overwhelmed by the number of different avenues to pursue and the fact that its common to have 10 or more quests running simultaneously. Sticking to a persona helps to determine which quests to take on and which to leave behindfor example, if I decide to play a thief or assassin with questionable morals, I am likely to ignore the peasant woman on the side of the road asking for help. Those trying to be the go-getter who does everything will get hopelessly bogged down.
The weaknesses in logic brought up by Matt are all valid; however, I wouldnt go as far as to write off the games attempt to let the player "live another life" as a total failure. Unlike Matt, I felt that a big part of "living another life" (in other words, role-playing a person) was in fact tied directly to the profession and other variables involved with the character generation process at the beginning of the game. As for the personality itself, that is really up to the gamer to create, and more importantly to stick to throughout the game. In this way Morrowind itself isnt much help, because almost all of the moral and behavioural decisions and environmental interactions are left to the player, who can choose to react "in-character" or not as he or she chooses. In other words, it takes a certain kind of pro-activeness to assume a personality in Morrowinds world and, Im ready to admit, it requires a fair amount of creativity and imagination on the part of the gamer. Is this a carefully crafted challenge on Bethesdas part to make the gamer participate non-passively in his or her environment, or merely laziness which demands more out of the gamer than is fair to ask? I dont feel that Im able to answer such a question.
I would also mention that Morrowind is far more sophisticated than its predecessor Daggerfall in terms of believability and non-player character (NPC) interaction. It is no longer possible to steal all the items from a store one night and sell them back to the same shopkeeper the next day. Merchants have a fixed amount of gold and cannot afford to buy the most expensive items, making it harder to amass ridiculously large sums of money. NPCs still have their quirks, to be sure, and when it comes right down to it are still moulded from the same finite number of character templates. However, the pool from which they are drawn is much larger than in Daggerfallso large that the game must be played for some time before the repetition of phrases or similarities of appearance become noticeable.
The PC version comes with a feature called the "console," which is in my opinion a mixed blessing. The console is a little window that can be called up during the game and gives the player access to the game code, so that by entering programming commands they can artificially alter aspects of the game environment such as adding or removing items from the characters inventory, changing the characters location, and raising or lowering stats or skills. I question the motivation behind the inclusion of the console; likely it was put there to provide an easy way of fixing potential bugs or glitchessomething Morrowind has its fair share ofbut of course once it is used once its very hard to ignore. I found myself using it with increasing frequency as a sort of "fast travel" option to move my character to the various cities instantaneously, rather than suffer by walking from location to location (which can take 5-10 minutes of real time).
Also included with the PC version is a separate program called the Elder Scrolls Construction Set, which allows the creation of custom-made "modules" that use the games templates and can be added on to the existing Morrowind environment. I chose to explore neither the console nor the construction set in great detail, partly because I felt that it was like ripping the skin off the game and exposing the skeleton underneath. In a game that strives to be totally immersive, it seemed that these things merely reinforced the fact that what I was playing wasnt actually real. Nevertheless, I will not deny the fact that they are both powerful and potentially useful tools.
If Morrowind is any indication of where The Elder Scrolls series is headed, I would say that it is certainly moving in a positive direction and I am very excited to see what will happen with The Elder Scrolls IV. I feel that the Elder Scrolls is a work of arta bastion for serious gamers amid the full-motion video driven, linear, autocratic "go here now!" RPGs that both insult my intelligence and annoy me. I agree with Matt that there are some fundamental issues with the game engine that need serious tweaking if the game is to achieve, as he so aptly phrases it, the "dream of the Ultimate Non-Linear RPG." For this to happen really comes down to whether the developers acknowledge the issues or care to do anything about them. It would be very easy to get into a "waiting for Godot" mentality, believing that the perennial "next one" will finally achieve the perfection that Bethesda has come so close to achieving with Morrowind. I suppose I am more willing than Matt to believe that they can and will do it.
(Disclaimer: This review is based on the PC version of the game)
According to ESRB, this game contains: Blood, Violence
Parents shouldn't have much of a problem with Morrowind. Although it is adult in subject matter and complexity, it never really rises above a PG-13 level of intensity (although I wouldnt recommend the game for very young children.)
Fans of the Elder Scrolls series will probably like Morrowind. It improves on its predecessors in every way and interjects a lot more personality into the look as well as the mechanics of the series.
Fans of RPGs in general should probably check it out, although it is so open-ended the lack of strong narrative direction might turn some players off.
Fans of online RPGs might want to take a look since Morrowind's size gives it much of the same ambiance of an MMORPG though without the human interaction.
People who are interested in videogames that create virtual worlds might want to pass on Morrowind. Superficially it looks impressive, but the rules that govern it are too awkward to maintain a sense of immersion that can compare with the better examples of world-sims on the market.