Review by beaker342

Reviewed: 03/29/04

Ambitious and Original, but Deeply Flawed

Set on a ten-square mile island populated by over 3,000 citizens and featuring more freedom than Grand Theft Auto III, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is not only one of the largest games ever conceived, it is also one of the most ambitious. This ambition is both the game’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. When Morrowind works, it is a beautiful, intelligent, and engrossing videogame. When the formula doesn’t work, Morrowind is confusing, glitchy, and downright boring. Players easily frustrated by glitches or players looking for instant gratification should steer clear. But the patient RPG fan will most likely overcome these flaws and appreciate Morrowind for its ambition and originality.

Players get a taste of that ambition right away. Starting a game in Morrowind for the first time is a baptism by fire. The game begins with a clever character creation system disguised as a prison release form. There are ten races, hundreds of faces, dozens of classes, and dozens of abilities from which to choose, putting the number of potential playable characters numbers in the billions. After character creation, Morrowind thrusts you into its world with little guidance as to what to do or how to do it. But in a sense, this is all part of the Morrowind experience. You play the role of a foreigner in a foreign land, so a little disorientation is only natural.

This experience may be daunting, but sets the stage for the organic way in which the rest of the game is played. That is, the game often rewards the player for thinking about problems in the game as if they were problems in real life. Is that dungeon too dark? Just pick up a torch. Want to make sure no one sees you stealing that priceless vase? Just shut the door. Don’t know what to do? Ask around. Just be sure not to be rude. People in Morrowind don’t take kindly to prima donnas.

Asking for information is how Morrowind is played. Dialogue is keyword-driven, meaning you will have to select what you want to talk about in order to get the appropriate response. For the most part, this works well. Characters give well conceived responses depending how much they like you. Rub someone the wrong way and you might have to bribe your way back onto their good side. The one downfall in the dialogue system is, for the most part, it doesn’t matter who you ask for information. Most people will tell you what you need to know, often with canned responses. To some extent this detracts from the game’s sense of enormity, since so many of Morrowind’s citizens are identical. Multiple responses would have gone a long way towards making the world of Morrowind even more believable than it already is.

But by and large, the world of Morrowind is an enormous, original, organic and believable creation, complete with its own history, races, languages, and religions. The citizens of Morrowind include old RPG standbys such as orcs and elves, as well as lizard and feline races. It is worth mentioning that the elves of Morrowind bear no resemblance to the noble and fair Tolkien elves. Morrowind’s xenophobic elves have grey skin, red eyes, and raspy voices.

The citizenry of Morrowind is further divided into factions. There are fundamentalists and secularists, natives and imperialists, thieves and wizards, and none is ostensibly in the right. There are real political and cultural battles going on in this world, and it is virtually impossible to play the game for very long without insinuating yourself into these battles. Thus, the game develops an ambiguous moral code. Few of the enemies you will fight will be the embodiment of pure evil.

This is definitely a refreshing experience, since many videogames offer a clear delineation between good and evil. In Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, for instance, the choice between good and evil is always obvious: the player can choose to help the poor peasant or choose to rob him of his money. In real life however, the choices between good and evil are always much more subtle, and they are in Morrowind as well.

If you have the time or the patience, you can bone up on Morrowind’s culture and history by reading the hundreds of books you literally pull off the shelves in the game. Reading can be a genuine challenge, as the books are written realistically, that is, for someone who lives in Morrowind, not for a gamer trying to learn about Morrowind. Some books have lots of information. Some have none. And some will have to be read between the lines. All are difficult to read. The game’s text can quickly become hard on the eyes, even on a large television.

The unique culture of Morrowind is also portrayed in its architecture. Each town has its own distinctive flavor. Wizards live in huge plant dwellings. Zealots dwell in enormous crab shells. Most natives live in adobe structures, while human colonists have built towns that resemble those of medieval Europe. Each building is laid out realistically and filled with dozens upon dozens of daily household items. While most of these items are of no use in the game, they do make Morrowind a more believable place.

Time also passes in these villages. Night turns into day and the moon changes phases. Although time passes, it does not factor much in the game. Stroll into a village at 4am and you will still find shopkeepers waiting attentively at their counters and people waiting in their homes eager to answer your questions. The game also takes note of the passing months, but apparently Morrowind lies in a temperate climate, for no differences in weather are visible. That aside, the weather in Morrowind is nothing less than amazing. In fact, Morrowind features perhaps the most realistic sounding thunderstorms this gamer has ever heard. The sky effects are also amazing, particularly on clear nights when the moons and constellations are visible.

For the most part, these and other graphics are well done. At their best, Morrowind's graphics are some of the best on the Xbox. The water is some of the best ever seen in a videogame. Unfortunately, the water effects are far less attractive when swimming, as individual waves become jagged polygons. Humanoid characters are nicely detailed, and feature all different types of clothing and armor. Sell a particularly nice piece of armor to a shopkeeper and you might actually see him put it on. Weapons and armor are also nicely done. Part of the thrill of buying a new piece of armor or a new weapon is getting to see what it looks like wearing it. Monsters are less impressive. Boring textures and terrible animations make for very unfrightening enemies.

But not all is well with the graphics in Morrowind. The frame rate and draw distance are mediocre and sometimes negatively affect gameplay. Choppy frame rates make for awkward combat against fast enemies. And because the game suffers from a short draw distance, it can be difficult to see very far into the distance. Had the draw distances been improved, not only would the game been made significantly more beautiful, it also would have been easier to play. The ability to see a central tower in a town or the convergence of two rivers in the distance would not only been an aesthetic improvement, it would have made it easier to place your location in your mind’s eye.

I mention the originality of the Morrowind world and the presentation of this world before discussing the actual gameplay because the former figure so prominently in the game. Half the fun in Morrowind is found simply exploring this strange and unique world. While Morrowind does an excellent job creating an original world to explore, other aspects of its gameplay are more uneven.

Controls are well suited for the Xbox controller. You move and aim with two control sticks like a standard FPS. The only problem I had with the controls was that it is sometimes difficult to tell if the computer has registered your command in battle. It is also difficult to double-click the control stick, which is necessary to crouch and steal.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Morrowind is its combat engine: it simply isn't fun. Much like the days of Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy on the NES, combat is of the “swipe,” “ugghh,” “swipe,” ugghh” variety. Although each weapon theoretically has three different striking motions (thrust, slash, or chop), the most efficient way to play the game is then to have the striking option optimized. Thus, we are treated to the same striking motion over and over again ad nauseam.

Another problem with the combat engine is the absence of any visual representation of enemy damage. This fails in two respects. First, it makes it impossible to assess the effectiveness of your weapons, thus needlessly adding guesswork to the game’s strategy. It also deprives the player of the visceral thrill of knowing exactly how much pain that new sword is bringing. In the RPGs of yore, I got a huge kick out of seeing “1265 HP” light up on my enemy. Likewise, I was profoundly disappointed when “miss” flashed on the screen. Morrowind deprives the player of both the thrill of knowing how much damage you are inflicting on your enemy and the information necessary to get better.

One of the strengths of Morrowind is the completely open ended experience it offers. You have full control over what quests to undertake and which factions to join. If you so decide, you can even completely ignore the primary quest. All said, there are thousands of quests to be completed. Unfortunately, many of these quests get boring and repetitive. Many missions are of the take-item-A-from-town-X-to-town-Y or kill-person-A-in-dungeon-B variety. Quests that require digging up some piece of information or stealing some item are substantially more interesting. The downfall of having so many quests is that it can become difficult to keep track of them all. The game offers a journal to keep track of your deeds, but its interface is cumbersome.

For the player seeking a little more structure, the primary quest follows a slightly more focused storyline. But don’t expect any intrigue or drama from it or any of the game’s other quests. Personally, I find most videogame storylines overblown and melodramatic, so I kind of liked the game’s lack of story. Morrowind’s story is mostly uncovered by reading documents and asking questions. Don’t expect boss characters to reveal major plot twists after spectacular battles. Real life has no such drama, and neither does Morrowind. Plot revelations come more often through mulling over long texts and exploring ancient ruins than through CGI movies.

Earlier I mentioned that Morrowind requires patient play. For certain, it takes a substantial investment of time to become immersed in this game. But you also have to be patient with load times. Morrowind has by far the longest load times of any game I have ever played. After each death, it takes upwards of three to four minutes to load a new game. Entering buildings and dungeons also leads to a small break in the action.

You also have to be patient with Morrowind’s sound effects, or lack thereof. Completing Morrowind takes hundreds upon hundreds of hours to complete, but only one theme song is heard throughout. Battle sounds are similarly repetitive and unimpressive.

Finally, Morrowind requires patience with its many glitches. With a game of this scope, glitches are eventually going to appear, and they appear frequently in Morrowind. In any given day of playing, expect at least one freeze or crash. Morrowind was developed for the PC. In the world of PC gaming, many of these glitches were fixed through the regular release of patches. Morrowind features no such patches. The recent release of the Morrowind: Game of the Year edition fixed many of these glitches, added a meter displaying your opponent’s health and two new areas to explore, so it is easily worth the additional $10 price tag.

If you are willing to turn a blind eye to the flaws mentioned above, Morrowind offers a rewarding experience. Morrowind features perhaps the largest and most unique world ever conceived in a videogame. With dozens of different races and classes to play and factions to join, Morrowind also offers virtually unlimited replayability. And with a $20 price tag, no Xbox RPG fan has any reason not to pick up a copy.

But like many truly innovative works, Morrowind is highly flawed. If you are easily frustrated by flaws such as those listed above, it would perhaps be best to stick to a more polished RPG experience such as Final Fantasy or Star Wars: KotoR.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

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