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.
Okay, here's today's to-do list: I need to go sell some of the rare weapons and armor Ive found for some cash, and trap a soul or two so I can enchant a weapon. Of course, I'll want to learn a few new spells before that, but I'm probably going to have to do some trivial favors for a friend maybe steal something from a wealthy socialite. I need to repair my weapons and then assassinate an aristocrat (hopefully without being detected).
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, from developer Bethesda Softworks, often seems so much like a full days work that it's easy to forget its just a game. It is time consuming in a most unforgiving way, and there is always something to do: someone to speak with, something to find, something to learn. Despite flaws that restrain the game from reaching the vision of its developers, it is remarkably engaging and always interesting, even if its not always very enjoyable. Most importantly, Morrowind's foray into extremely non-linear gameplay reveals some of the strengths and weaknesses of the concept, and in the process elevates the art of videogame design.
The game begins with a minimal narrative setup: you control a slave who, for some mysterious reason, has been set free by orders of an Emperor and released on the island of Vvardenfall. You create a foundation for the character in-game, choosing sex, race, class, skills, and other characteristics that will make him or her creation unique. This character is then given a package and a "mission" of sorts. However, once this initial setup is complete, you are free to do as you wish. Rather than proceed predictably and mechanically through a tightly scripted sequence of events, you are free to chart your own course through the game. In fact, there is such an overwhelming sense of freedom that Morrowind often feels less like a game and more like an alternate reality where one can live and function.
Like any videogame, a players actions in Morrowind are limited by rules and boundaries; Morrowind simply does not guide the player through a strictly linear progression. You can choose where to go, what do to do, and when to do it. Vvardenfall is extraordinarily vast and intricate. There are numerous factions and guilds that can be joined, and each will give players tasks to perform, ranging from trivial fetch quests to complicated adventures involving deception, murder and thievery. A central narrative, involving a faction under command of the Emperor called the Blades, gives the game some direction and structure. The Blades are the only faction for which membership is required to further the central plot. Of course, there is nothing that says you have to follow the games plot at all. It is quite possible to simply live a fictitious life of sorts in Morrowind, stealing, adventuring, trading, and taking on any of the hundreds of random mini-quests scattered throughout the game. There are also hundreds of books found throughout the game that detail the history and culture of the land.
As with any role-playing game, your character will gain experience and become more powerful with time. Interestingly, characters in Morrowind conform to the actions of the player. To become skilled in magic, one casts spells; to become skilled in thievery, one steals, and so on. Such a system eschews any limitations on character development. There is nothing to stop a player from developing a character that is skilled in stealth, wears heavy armor, and casts powerful magic spells. There are all kinds of fascinating trades that can learned four different "schools" of magic, alchemy, numerous weapon and armor skill, conversational skills, sneaking and lock-picking skills, and so forth. This is one of Morrowinds greatest strengths if you become bored with developing one group of skills, you can simply take a break and work on developing others.
Unfortunately, the open-ended gameplay, coupled with the immensity of Vvardenfall, is a double-edged sword. With so little emphasis on the central plot and so many factions and random passers-by to dole out quests of varying degrees, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things to do. The gameplay may feel aimless or confusing. It is not unusual to spend hours on end in a daze of overlong peripatetic journeys that seem to have little purpose or value. While a departure from linearity is welcome, a more pressing importance on the central plot would have given the game a stronger sense of direction. Oddly, the central supporting characters seem to suggest that time is of the essence, yet the game gives no concrete incentives to further the plot. Additionally, the walking pace is exasperatingly slow until your character is significantly leveled up; some more reasonable form of travel (such as the horse in The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time) would have spared hours that are spent grudgingly wandering from one place to the next.
Morrowind is certainly an ambitious game; the scale of the world is overwhelmingly large and its population is remarkably diverse. Within the rather broad boundaries of rules that structure the game, there are virtually no limitations on a players actions. You could be freeing slaves one moment and robbing an aristocrat the next. However, in the attempt to create such a wide array of cultures and characters, much of the believability of the characters is sacrificed. Dialogue is entirely text-based. Players are given a menu of subjects from which to choose that varies from one non-playable character (NPC) to the next. Each NPC has a disposition rating the higher their disposition, the more likely they will be to share personal or confidential information, sell items at low cost, and purchase items at an inflated price. It is even possible to offer bribes or use your characters speechcraft skill to increase an NPCs disposition. While the system itself is quite creative, the monotony of text subjects presented by the NPCs prevents them from portraying a believable sense of humanity. Additionally, the content of the dialogue rarely strays from factual information. Few of the characters are personable albeit in the most translucent manner (such as a friendly greeting). While developing intricate personalities for hundreds or thousands of NPCs is obviously impractical, it is an unfortunate side effect of a game of such massive scale.
To its credit, Morrowind is largely what the player makes it. It truly is open-ended. There are an amazing number of skills and trades to master, and nearly infinite ways to play the game. As incredibly long and involving a game as it is, it is virtually impossible to gain a real understanding of the freedom offered in Morrowind without trying multiple characters. Conflict may often be avoided through stealth or magic. When conflict does occur, there are almost always numerous solutions paralyze an enemy and run, chop them to smithereens with an axe, or drink an invisibility potion and vanish before their eyes, for example. Because the game is stat-based, it is also possible to exploit the level-up system to create an extraordinarily powerful character. While such power mongering can be very tempting, it is not necessary to fully experience the game and may in fact dilute the role-playing experience.
Morrowind is often the victim of its own ambition. In my review of Microsoft's first-person shooter Halo, I wrote, "I believe that the greatest achievement to which any game can strive is to create a world so lifelike, so logically implemented, that it allows players to feel a suspension of disbelief that is uninterrupted by illogical inconsistencies." Morrowind is filled with odd breaks in logic that hamper that suspension of disbelief. The world can seem very interesting and believable one moment, then feel very static and artificial the next. At one point in the game, for example, I robbed a merchant in plain sight. I had established a rapport with this merchant and had a very high disposition rating with him. To my surprise and despite the on-screen message informing me that my crime had been reported I lost no disposition points with the merchant. Crime is also handled illogically. Even if a character is alone when you attack or steal from them, your crime will immediately be reported and every guard in Vvardenfall will try to arrest or even kill you. All NPCs will be reluctant to speak with you. Simple monetary payoffs to a handful of seedy helpers in the game will immediately and completely erase not only the bounty on your head, but your reputation throughout Vvardenfall. The act of sneaking, which is integral to the game (particularly if you choose to avoid violence or master thievery), is handled in such a strange way as to rob it of believability. Sometimes it is possible to commit crimes by simply standing out of a characters view. I was able to steal from right under peoples noses and even kill in crowded areas simply by "hiding" behind a doorway or support beam. Bethesda was so eager to create a big house that they failed to give it a solid foundation.
Nonetheless, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is one of the most fascinating games I've played in recent memory. It is an ambitious but flawed game that is exasperating at some times, captivating at others, and always engaging. The quests are well varied and the world is full of interesting things to see and do. Bethesda's efforts to create truly non-linear gameplay are as much an experiment in game design as they are a realized concept. In their attempt to create a world so massive and diverse, Bethesda made a handful of key oversights in logic that sometimes paint a contrived, unconvincing world. Nonetheless, the array of skills is so interesting and the innumerable paths through the game so varied that Morrowind impressively displays many of the strengths of non-linear gameplay. Both its successes and its flaws will serve as important landmarks in the future development of role-playing games.
I suppose the best way to describe my time with Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is to say that I often had a love/hate relationship with the game. Bethesda has undertaken a monumental task in trying to create a role-playing game (RPG) that allows the player to do whatever he chooses, and while they should be commended for elevating the art of game design, Morrowind itself seems to be most fairly viewed as an ambitious, yet deeply flawed game.
By trying to give the player the freedom to do whatever he wants whenever he wants, Bethesda has certainly pushed the envelope for what can be achieved in terms of non-linear game design. Unfortunately, in the process, theyve also highlighted most of the major flaws with this style of gameplay.
As Mike points out, its easy to forget that Morrowind is a game. It eats up hours of real world time in a way that I havent seen since EverQuest, which can be either a good or bad thing depending on your perspective. Occasionally, the game itself is a chorenot unlike a job in the real world. It was in these moments that I hated Morrowind the most. Sure, the game design may allow you to go wherever you want and do things in any order you choose (even to the point of avoiding the games main quest in its entirety), but that doesnt change the fact that the bulk of the games quests are all versions of the same three thingsescort someone somewhere, kill someone and steal something, or find an ancient relic. There are literally hundreds of quests in the game, but the vast majority of them never stray beyond the three objectives mentioned above.
What saves Morrowind (and pushes me back into the love category) is that the game allows the player to complete the majority of the quests in any way he sees fit. Much like the shooter/role-playing hybrid Deus Ex, Morrowind presents a large number of options in how to handle each and every situation. Players can kill people, bribe them, soothe them with some smooth talk, or simply steal whatever it is they need. The game thus often feels quite lifelike, which only adds to the immersive quality of the experience as a whole. This is where Bethesda has really improved upon standard game design and structure.
Perhaps the biggest flaw with the game is that it can often be incredibly overwhelming. Vvardenfell is a massive world, and traversing it from one coast to the other is no small undertaking. Couple that with the fact that almost everyone the player talks to will have some kind of quest for him to do, and gamers will often find themselves spending hours fulfilling menial tasks that seem to have little in the way of value. As Mike mentions, placing a little extra emphasis on the main quest would have certainly made the game more playable, and still wouldnt have sacrificed any of the non-linearity that Bethesda seems so devoted to.
One area that Mike didnt get into is the graphics. Morrowind is a taxing game for even high-end PCs to run, and it certainly gives the Xbox a workout as well. While the Xbox version looks good, it still doesnt compare to the PC version of the game running on a top of the line machine. The Xbox version is hampered by quite a few aliasing problems (where objects often have jagged edges instead of smooth ones), some pop-up (where items in the distance just pop into view) and a little draw in (where the player can see an item in the distance being drawn into the frame line by line). Worse still is the slowdown that will plague the game anytime you have three or four characters on screen casting spellsthe framerate takes a pretty big hit in those instances. Still, the game looks good for the most part. Those obsessed with graphics will no doubt want to pick up the PC version, though.
As Mike says, what you get out of Morrowind is proportional to what you put into it. Its quite the interesting dichotomy as far as videogames goon one hand, theres no denying the ambition of the game design. Bethesda set out to make a game that gives the player free will, and for the most part they succeeded. On the other hand, gamers have free will in real life, and few of us are using it to go on any great adventures. Morrowinds quest to give the player complete freedom is ultimately a double-edged swordwhile gamers will certainly be able to proceed as they see fit, many will become completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of options and give up in frustration. There simply has to be a happy medium between the heavily scripted and linear RPGs of series like Final Fantasy and the sheer open-endedness of a game like Morrowind. Bethesda is beyond that balancing point with this game, but they certainly have earned my respect by striving to take gaming to a different level.
According to ESRB, this game contains Blood, Violence
Parents take note: although there is mild violence but overall little in the way of objectionable content, this game has the potential to be extraordinarily time consuming for even a seasoned adult gamer, much less a younger gamer.
Fans of console RPGs in the vein of Squaresoft games should take heed that this game is quite a different (read: nonlinear) experience. However, fans of PC RPGs should feel right at home (note: this game is available for the PC as well).
Xbox owners have this as their only true RPG, but its definitely worth checking out. Ironically, I think that players with busier schedules will likely have a more enjoyable experience with the game, as it is best played in shorter spurts than the long sessions that so persuasively beckon.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing Gamers will miss out on the nice score, but nothing critical to gameplay.