"Morrowind's atmosphere is so all encompassing despite the derivative high-fantasy setting that it's an enormous challenge not to be blown away at regular intervals. This atmosphere stretches beyond the realms of the delicious visual design, or the eerily fantastic soundscapes, right up to those little moments of the game where you simply can't believe what's happening."
The first time I played Morrowind, I walked between opening port Seyda Neen and the riverside town of Balmora, the first of the many locations the game requires you to visit. I'd spotted the giant Silt Strider on top of the hill, but didn't have enough money to pay its driver to take me to my destination, so a stroll it would have to be. Meandering across the beautifully drawn barren wasteland, littered with vicious wild animals to intersperse the breathtaking scenery, it began to rain as night drew closer. But as I reached Balmora's entrance bridge after a lengthy trek, the rain ceased and the clouds parted just in time for me to witness a beautiful sunset. I sat at my computer, open-mouthed in amazement - something I continued to do for the overwhelming majority of my time with this wonderful RPG.
Hats off to Bethesda for its design. Morrowind's atmosphere is so all encompassing despite the derivative high-fantasy setting that it's an enormous challenge not to be blown away at regular intervals. This atmosphere stretches beyond the realms of the delicious visual design, or the eerily fantastic soundscapes, right up to those little moments of the game where you simply can't believe what's happening. The obvious approach to this review, then, would be to tell you about the bit where this happens, or the time this character says that, but itís essentially impossible as a tactic. Morrowind isn't like that. This isn't a game that tells you what to do, and forces you to watch its story unfold. This is a game that asks what you want to do, and lets you create your own tale.
More than just an RPG, Morrowind could be more accurately described as something of a surreal life simulation. Indeed, the second time I played Morrowind, I found myself a place in Seyda Neen and stayed there for a couple of weeks, working for the locals to earn enough money to comfortably travel to Balmora on the Silt Strider. The next time, I stalked an odd fellow called Jiub until I found his secret stash tree, stole all his money, and used that to get me to my destination. The fourth time, I did the same, but decided I didn't want to go to Balmora. Instead, I set off for the gargantuan city of Vivec, and went shopping. That is ingeniously ridiculous. How many other videogames let you simply have a day off if you want one? Why aren't there more?
This is what I mean about the little moments. They aren't Morrowind's little moments. They're yours.
There's a main plot, of course. It concerns a twisted demigod who lives in a volcano, his quest to become all-powerful, and yours to stop him at all costs. If you want to. A lot of people won't. Even though the main game only lasts fifteen or so hours, many will find themselves drawn instead to the reams of side quests that populate the sprawling game world, the completion of all of which would be a near-impossible task without a lifetime to dedicate to them. Choose as well to earn an income by working for one of the selection of guilds in the game, and the result is enormous. Morrowind is huge. I've never seen anything like it.
Sure, the first two Elder Scrolls games had colossal landscapes to explore, with the overall environments in Daggerfall and Arena seeming infinite compared to the one on offer here. But that's because they essentially were. For the first time in the series, the world isn't randomly generated in order to give the illusion of a vast, meticulously designed universe. Before, it was smoke and mirrors. Here, everything genuinely is meticulously designed. It's breathtaking. I remember, having spent hours exploring the island, finding a little unassuming entrance to a cave. I could barely believe it, having been so amazed at the size of the topside world, when I discovered the underground network was equally gargantuan.
It doesn't have to be about long walks across the countryside. Those fond of a fast-paced lifestyle may prefer to take the aforementioned Silt Strider between locations: a giant insect-thing with a row of seats on its back. I wish you could see these fabulous creatures in motion around the world, but settling for using them purely as a 'fast-travel' option is no real loss. Paying the driver and stating your destination instantly zips you to your desired city, with longer distances costing more coins. It's a fantastic addition that forces you to rethink even your travel strategies based upon your resource management. You can buy this fantastic body armour, but with insufficient funds left to take the Strider, is it worth the walk when your new apparel may be damaged by a hungry critter en route? Even without that predicament, conserving cash is always likely to be at the back of your mind. It's the videogame equivalent of deciding whether to walk into town, or whether to catch the bus.
A lot was spoken pre-release about the hefty system required to run Morrowind and, to be fair, it can be a bit of a hog on older machines. But the result is clear from the outset. It looks gorgeous. It's the result of brilliant teamwork between technology and design: breathtaking water reflects stunning architecture; otherworldly characters cast long shadows over the environment. The whole world has its own incredible, distinctively organic visual style, and yet it's in the variety of locations that Morrowind really shines. From the little seaside towns, over the rolling hills, through sinister dungeons, into astonishing temples and out into bustling city streets, Morrowind creates an astounding optical feast. The soundtrack, voice acting and ambient effects are all of the highest calibre as well. Itís absolutely marvellous.
As a pure RPG, some genre enthusiasts will find it a little lightweight, despite the sometimes-overwhelming scale of the environment. Skills are somewhat undeveloped, and - aside from your actual character class - design choices at the beginning of the game are often too easy to alter later on by cheating the system. For example, it's quicker and easier to tune your character well to agility by jumping up and down on the spot for ten minutes, than it is to gain that ability from your actual gameplay choices, such is the failing of the auto-levelling system. Charisma and intimidation feats seem to rely as much on the NPCs' seemingly random moods as they do on your own talents. The amount of dialogue and text in the game, while large compared to most, pales in comparison to the heaviness of Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment - but even so, the clumsily designed journal manages to make an incomprehensible mess of most of it.
Perhaps most significantly, especially since this is essentially a combat-RPG, fighting your many foes in Morrowind displays the game at its weakest. While enemies are often fast and blisteringly accurate, your own abilities feel clumsy, unfocussed and sluggish by comparison, even at higher skill levels. A strong swing of a sword, for example, requires a few seconds of 'powering up' to be effective. Enemy combatants seem not to suffer from this problem, and as a result players will frequently find themselves running backwards and forwards frantically in an attempt to land a hit while evading that of the opponent. Magic is handled marginally better, but in the heat of battle it's often too difficult to apply alongside weapons for full effect. It's a shame, because a more fluid system would have really kept Morrowind flowing in a way that, just occasionally, it does fail to do.
But you've seen the score. It's the big one, the one we awarded to such groundbreaking titles as Deus Ex and System Shock 2. How can a game that warrants a whole two paragraphs of flaws be worthy of such an honour?
Well, firstly, in the same way that 1/10 wouldnít equate to a literally unplayable game, 10/10 doesn't necessarily equate to a perfect one. Have a look at the ratings guide. A ten refers to something 'remarkable in almost every way, and brilliantly executed' Ė basically, an expertly designed game that astonishes at practically every turn. A game like Morrowind. But that's just theoretical nonsense. Why does Morrowind really deserve the elusive top score? Remember: live your own life; create your own moments.
I'll give you another one of mine. About halfway through the main quest I managed to upset the entire city of Vivec by nicking some rare magical potion from an alchemistís shop. I was poor, and I desperately needed to save the province of Morrowind from the evils of the volcano demigod. No one would listen to me, and it was too late for apologies. I fled the city, running from security, but the owner of the docks recognised me and wouldn't let me take a boat, instead calling for the guards. The Silt Strider was on the other side of the city, and the same would probably happen there anyway. My home, which had been firmly established in Balmora, was a half-hour run away.
I set off, guards in tow. I lost them, eventually, but now even the island itself seemed to be against me, throwing hoards of wild beasts and winged nightmares to halt my progress. After what seemed like an eternity, there it was, my home, looming in the mist ahead of me. As I crossed the bridge once more, the staggeringly beautiful main theme tune began to play, and one of my friends came to greet me. "Welcome," he said.
Sitting at my computer desk, emotionally drained and beyond relieved, I had to fight back tears.
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (August 05, 2008)
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