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The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (PC) artwork

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (PC) review

"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.

Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (August 05, 2008)

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wolfqueen001 posted August 06, 2008:

You know, I really, really, really like this game. A lot. It's like my favorite game of all time, and as such, I want to talk some things with you.

Firstly, out of curiosity, is the PAL version all that different? I was reading your account of stealing that guy's stuff, which I've done several times in my games. But to me, he's known as the wood elf Faroth or some such.

There are other things I was reading in here, too. your experience sounds a lot different than mine in some places. For one, I've never had an issue making money. Did you know there's a Scamp in Caldera who'll buy almost anything from you for full price and has 5000 gold in his inventory? He's awesome. It's like getting money the cheap way.

I'd also like to inquire how you "worked to save up" in Seyda Neen. Whenever I played, there really wasn't anyone there who'd give me a substantial award for any missions or whatever. Really, the only way to make money from the start is to steal everything in that one room where you start out and sell it. Unless that's what you meant. Haha.

Character dispositions aren't random, or at least they weren't for me. Most everyone generally dislikes you at the beginning, but like you more as your reputation and personality increase. There's one House that'll totally despise you halfway through the game for some reason, but that's about the only inconsistency I had with it.

Did you really get a kindly greeting from returning to Balmora after stealing that potion? That's amazing. Usually when I commit offenses, my bounty's announced throughout the entire island and everyone knows I've done wrong so no matter where I go, guards will try to apprehend me. But it's usually no big deal since the fines are usually cheap. I just hate when they take all your stolen stuff - especially when not all the stole stuff was really stolen.

I never had any issues with how skills worked, either. I always tried to be realistic about it. I know I could boost some by just doing really easy tedious stuff, but always liked to boost them the more traditional way. Like jumping only when you really need to jump and stuff.

I wonder if any of these differences have anything to do with the regions or if it's just how we played the game... Either way, I still really enjoy this one. And I hope to review it some day, too, when I feel I can do it justice. The game's really too epic not to.

You did an alright job of it, though. I loved your intro - it almost brought tears to my eyes, remembering what you were seeing and feeling your passion for it. But then you kind of lost that pasion in places and started sounding a bit too explainy, maybe even dry (makes me wonder if that's what others mean about my writing being dry at times). And that description about 10/10 scores and what not seemed kind of superfluous, and kind of detracted from the review as a whole. At least to me. I liked your examples, though; that's where I really felt how you felt about the game. Still a good job.
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dagoss posted August 06, 2008:

This is the PC version -- region doesn't matter.

Personally, I could never give this game a 10/10 out-of-box. It is filled with bugs, it randomly crashes on most systems, the graphics are glitchy, the writing is terrible, etc. The product Bethesda released is atrocious and clearly not finished. However, community-made mods and patches can fix many issues and add new features. Therefore, I'm not sure how I would score the game. Unpatched, unmodded, I think I'd give it a 6. Modded, I'd give it a 10 -- but does it really deserve a ten since the community had to do most of the work?
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wolfqueen001 posted August 06, 2008:

Oh, right. I forgot about that.

Hm... I didn't really have that many issues with it when I played it. I agree that it does crash a lot... I thought it was just our disk, until the new one we bought started doing it, too. Granted, it doesn't do it as much as the other one did, but maybe that has something to do with being the game of the year addition.

As for glitches, the only I've encountered were ones where I'd fall through the floor and can't get out or I'd get stuck on something, but those are rare and overall not that bad.

I thought the plot and writing were great - or at lesat when contextualized with the fact that they give you so much freedom. That freedom is amazing, and I love how they made the world as in-depth as they did. They even gave it it's own history. How many RPGs - or any other game for that matter - write whole books describing past history and putting it into a game for you to read at your leisure?
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Lewis posted August 07, 2008:

Thanks to everyone for their feedback.

The thing I found about Morrowind was that it sucks you in incredibly well to the universe despite a lot of obvious shortcomings.

Notably, I experienced very few crashes or game-destroying bugs, and I've played through four or five times now.

The guards in Balmora still tracked me down, yes, but that initial greeting from someone I'd become friendly with still evoked such emotion that it seemed a shame to spoil the illusion by ending the review with "but then I got thrown into prison." I think the overall point I was trying to make, through giving the 'my little moments' examples, was that Morrowind feels more like a living, breathing experience than a game per se, and I hate using the word 'experience' usually. I wanted to draw out sections from the game that really created such an illusion that, just for a while, I was away from my room in rainy Leeds and in the wonderful, imaginitive world Bethesda had created.

I didn't have a lot of trouble making money, but on those occasions when I did, and couldn't necessarily be bothered to take on another side-quest, that was the sort of thinking it forced upon me. Do I risk walking, or do I spend my last pennies on the Strider? This was especially apparent early on when I spent most of my time simply exploring, rather than playing the quests as such.

With regards to the 10/10 thing... the discussion of that was more because I knew many people would disagree because, as I admitted, the game does have problems. I wanted to ensure everybody understood why I had put the game down in quite a few areas, yet still felt it warranted the top score. Morrowind isn't a universally-acclaimed game, and my opinion of it is, I know, higher than a lot of other people's. But even given these flaws, it remains one of the most fabulous games I've ever played. See also my review of Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, which drops a mark not because of any gameplay or bug problems, which it does have, but because of some uninspired level design in the latter third of the game.

Thanks for reading and discussing.
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Lewis posted December 15, 2008:

Hilariously late update:

Shit, yes, it's Fargoth, not Jiub. Jiub's the Silt Strider guy. Feel free to edit, someone.
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wolfqueen001 posted December 15, 2008:

Haha. Have you started playing the game again and noticed that, or did you just read through the review/topic again?

It really is a fun game, though, yeah.

I actually feel somewhat bad for not saying anything after your response there, but I really had nothing else to say to that. Same as with any time I do something like that.
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Halon posted December 15, 2008:

Everyone seems to love this game but it bored me to death. So much traveling to accomplish so little. That and the combat was awful.

EDIT: I agree with 10 not having to be flawless. I would probably give Half-Life 2 a 9 (or maybe a 10 on a very, very good day) but it had as many flaws as some 7's do. It's just that in the end aside from the difficulty none of them mattered anymore.
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zippdementia posted December 16, 2008:

Sportsman, as usual, I agree with you completely, on both fronts.

But more specifically to this review... Morrowind bored me to tears. I still don't get what everyone loves about the game. Yeah, the opening takes your breath away. But after I'd played it for a couple hours, I was breathing just fine.
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zippdementia posted December 16, 2008:

That said, were I to review it, I would probably drop it a 6 or 7. It's not poorly made, and it does what it sets out to do... it just doesn't particularly grab me.
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Lewis posted December 16, 2008:

Review a title for what it is, not what you wish it was.

Morrowind has more atmosphere than any other straight RPG I've ever played. Including Fallout 3. I don't know why it did grab me particularly... I was just wholly unaccustomed for a game like that. I picked up Morrowind having not heard a lot of pre-release stuff about it and knowing sod-all about Bethesda. But I was reading PC Zone's UK exclusive review, in which they awarded it the highest score they'd given since Deus Ex, so snapped it up immediately.

And it just blew me away - aptly, more than anything since Deus Ex. Simply marvellous thing. Still love it.

Might install it today actually.

I quite like this review, reading it now, but I wish I could turn back time and not faff about with that bit about scores. As WQ says, it's a bit silly.
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EmP posted December 16, 2008:

We should swap Scrolls one day; I'll do Morrowind and you do Oblivion.
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overdrive posted December 16, 2008:

Currently, I'm doing Oblivion! Or will be in 30-45 minutes when I get out of the office!

I'm wandering around the Imperial City trying to find out about some shady businessman undercutting the prices of the other stores. Picking the lock to his shop and searching (with a minor bit o' theft for my troubles) hasn't helped me.
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EmP posted December 16, 2008:

You need to wait until he leaves his shop at closing time and tail him.
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Lewis posted December 16, 2008:

I'd love to review Oblivion, but there are already two staff reviews up. Might be a blog thing.
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EmP posted December 16, 2008:

Not every review has to fill a gap in the staff coverage. Not every review has to be staff. Sometimes, it's fun to just write for yourself. And slate Doom 3.

Yeah, let's all slate Doom 3.
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Lewis posted December 16, 2008:

My review of Doom 3:

"Yeah, it's alright, I guess."
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EmP posted December 16, 2008:

That's not slating -- it's mild indifference.
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Lewis posted December 16, 2008:

Probably because it's nowhere near as bad as you make out, while also being nowhere near as good as the idiot majority suggested.

I actually really enjoyed Doom 3 for about four hours. Then it just repeated the same tactic every room and grew incredibly dull.
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wolfqueen001 posted December 16, 2008:

EmP: If you ever get Morrowind (though I thought you already had it on the Xbox), you should get it for PC because that way you can get the awesome expansions for it. >_>

EDIT: Also, answer your HG mail.
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overdrive posted December 16, 2008:

EmP, actually humorously, if it's your active quest and he's in the garden area where he meets with his source, the green arrow will lead you to him. I've taken his quest to the source's house. And then got sidetracked a gazillion times over the 9-hour session I put in today which saw me do some good work in Chorrol and slowly progress to the Che---something city in the east for another quest and because I can get Fighter's Guild work there.

QUESTION: Is the fact I really struggle against Goblin Skirmishers (Fort Ash stockade on the way to Chorrol and part of the family farm invaded by monsters) and that fucking Highwayman near Ash Fort something to worry about or just kinda growing pains before your character gets better at various skills? Because I'm 0/1 against that Highwayman and have never beaten a Skirmisher without a good deal of help.

I can see why people say the dungeon designs get old eventually, but so far, this is the most immersing game I've played. Utterly incredible. I went from a 3-wave battle with goblins at a farm to doing an Encyclopedia Brown mystery in a castle to find a stolen painting. And then got hell from an invisible rat after talking to invisible people in a village. And then hung out with a patrolling guard to induce him to kill a few local bandit-types hanging around some ruins. Simply killer.

QUESTION II: Do monsters ever regenerate or is there a finite number in areas (at least areas that aren't quest oriented)? Wondering because when I go from one part of an area to another and back, I see dead creature bodies on the floor and no new ones in the vicinity.
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honestgamer posted December 17, 2008:

The Morrowind GotY edition includes the expansions and is available on the Xbox. Just FYI.
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Lewis posted December 18, 2008:

I've actually been playing Oblivion all day now, with the view of reviewing the thing.
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EmP posted December 18, 2008:

I'm an inspiration.

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