I’m not trying to be facetious with that statement in any way. The truth of the matter is, I do need to play more Morrowind. And, thinking about it a little more, I might even want to amend that earlier statement, because you don’t really play the game like you would any other RPG. Rather, you experience this game, finding yourself getting enveloped and drawn into a massive realm with its own predefined standards and notions. You’ll also discover that your actions and decisions will change, redefine, or break these ideas, allowing you much more control over your own destiny.
This is not immediately apparent at the start of the game. In fact, your introduction to the realm of Vvardenfell is not the most comfortable or usual presentation of any character in any game, RPG or not. For example, you do not start with the creation or rolling of stats, determination of character class, or even an introduction of who you are and why you’re there. After awaking from a bad dream, you find yourself stuffed into the hold of a cargo ship headed for the small town of Seyda Neen like a piece of property. That’s right, no one cares about your character at the beginning, and will freely let you know how they feel. See, Vvardenfellers can be rather isolationist and prejudiced in manner, and will not hide their mistrust or apprehension about someone not born amongst their people.
Technically, they have a good reason to be skeptical. You see, Vvardenfell is a chaotic land, beset by feuding guilds and families, torn apart by allegiances, and beset by threats of impending doom and ancient prophecy. Years ago, the dark elves, known as Dunmer within their native tongue, fought a massive battle against one of their own who had aligned himself with the dwarves. The leader of the elves, a valiant warrior named Nerevar, tracked down and battled the traitor Dagoth Ur at Red Mountain. While he lost his life, Nerevar managed to imprison Dagoth Ur before he died. Of course, Dagoth Ur won’t remain imprisoned forever, like all bad guys worth their fire and brimstone. He, of course, is planning his revenge, not only against the dark elves, but all the people of Vvardenfell. However, with the prophesy of the imprisoned one’s escape was also the prophesy of the reincarnation of his nemesis, Nerevar. Known as the Nerevarine, this new hero would take up the old battle and finally defeat this evil being. (Guess where you come in, although you don’t know it yet…Isn’t that always the way with people who are the chosen one?)
Like Gozer from The Ghostbusters, the prophecy never said exactly what form the reincarnation would come back as. This loophole allows the player to decide from one of the ten different races they want to play as they start their quest. Ranging from the Elves and Humans to the lizard-like Argonians and cat-like Khajit, each with their own racial bonuses and special abilities. Many of these modifiers are augmented through a chosen character class, again left up to the player’s discretion. There are 21 predefined character classes, including the RPG standbys of warriors and mages as well as the Morrowind-exclusives of spellswords and pilgrims. If these classes do not suit the tastes of the player, they can create their own, selecting the skills and abilities necessary for their unique profession.
I continually bring up the player’s choice for a specific reason: advancement and strengthening of skills is completely dependent upon the person playing the game. Decide that you want a fast, agile thief? The more you practice your lock picking and pick pocketing skills, the better your rogue will be. Need an able ranger who has no need for civilized life? Working on your armorer skill will repair your weapons and armor without the need for a storekeeper. Hell, you can even create a magic user that likes adventuring with heavy armor. (Try that on for size, D&D!) Regardless of your choices, the skills for each character are broken down into major and minor skills. Major skills correspond primarily to the class you’ve chosen, while minor skills encompass any knowledge about other talents you may come across or possibly learn how to use during your journey.
Discerning between the two different skill sets is important to discover which skills should be worked upon for level advancement. To reach a new level, you have to advance a total of 10 points in any combination of major and minor skills for your character. While this requirement may seem to be a trifle low, the accomplishment of this task is actually much harder than it seems. Major skills, those traits that you might use continually, require a ton of work to actually advance their level because you’re already adept at their use. By contrast, minor skills typically advance faster because you don’t use them often. For example, a strong yet stupid fighter might be accomplished at wielding a sword, but would probably be inept at day-to-day communication.
While this is a very creative system of character advancement, primarily because it forces you to use your talents as opposed to arbitrarily getting stronger in them based off of a random experience limit, there are quite a few moments that undermine this system. For example, regardless of how good a thief you are, you need more equipment than a small piece of metal to pick a lock.
Second, the ability to succeed at certain tasks comes across illogically. To expand on the lock-picking example, each lock within Morrowind has a difficulty level. At first glance, it would seem you would need to be at least slightly proficient with each level to be able to attempt to open a lock. However, in practice, you simply need to continually try to pick the lock repeatedly until it decides to open itself, eliminating the need for any potential aptitude.
Third, as a beginning character, there are some abilities that you can acquire that can unfairly skew gameplay. Magic tends to be the greatest culprit of this imbalance. In most RPG’s, first level characters only know basic spells, acquiring more powerful ones through experience. The reasoning behind this is that basic magicians aren’t able to fully comprehend or control the immense power behind certain enchantments. As they become wiser in the ways of their conjuring, they learn the ability to harness stronger magic.
This is definitely not the case in Morrowind, where there are nine different schools of magic within Morrowind, each with its own individual skill level and set of spells. Instead of learning spells with each new level, or picking up a spell book, you purchase them from spell merchants. If you manage to save up enough money, you can wind up buying unbelievably powerful spells for your character, especially for inexperienced magic users. For example, I purchased a very powerful fireball spell for my character shortly after arriving in Seyda Neen. This spell never failed in its casting, and typically killed most monsters within a few fiery blasts. It really let me skate through a large amount of the battles that I faced in the beginning of the game without even so much as a scratch at times. And my character was not originally a magic user or particularly skilled in magic at the start of the game.
Character creation issues aside, the territory that your character inhabits is immense. From the dwarven ruins to the shell created city of Ald’ruhn, each town has its own regional flavor and style that influences the surrounding area. Don’t expect that you’ll be able to merely walk from one part of Vvardenfell to another without any difficulty. Not only are the uncivilized areas crawling with monsters, but the world is so large that most transportation between cities is undertaken by magical portals or by large, bug-like animals known as silt striders.
This might not seem like that big a deal, until you realize the amount of traveling that you’re going to be doing all over the countryside. See, the main quest clocks in at over 200 hours of straight game play alone, not counting the numerous side quests, explorations, and landmarks (What was that about needing to play more?). If you’re interested in the stereotypical dungeon crawl, rest assured that you’ll be able to find it within the more than 300 crypts, caves and grottos scattered through the land. Decide you want to become a salvager of items or scavenger? Shipwrecks and houses abound with items that are waiting to be pillaged.
If you decide that you’re going to deviate from the main path, or take on multiple tasks, you might find yourself getting lost amongst the numerous expeditions, deliveries, and rescues. But take heart, for your character takes a journal along with them that records all of your deeds, errands, and mistakes. It also takes down conversational topics to ask strangers about and a glossary of terms. There are plenty of times when you’ll refer to the journal for pointers or references. There is a downside to it, however, because it doesn’t create new sections for new duties or missions. This means that you’ll find yourself often scrolling through page after page of past information before you find the section you were looking for.
The additional diversions should factor into your mind because you are not confined to the main plot at any point during the game. For example, you can join one of the many guilds, associations or clans scattered throughout the world and affect regional or global life, ensconcing yourself within local lore. Hell, you can even become a vampire and walk on the side of darkness as a creature of the night. Inserting yourself in these events will require a slight understanding of politics, guild law, and personal judgment. Many of the guilds have personal animosity towards other organizations. While you are not restricted from being a member of multiple groups, making sure you don’t violate the rules of one society while completing the tasks of another can sometimes be a juggling act. This is especially true of thievery and murder, both of which are condoned in certain circumstances. While stealing is looked down upon by all people, there are moments when you will be dispatched to “borrow” or “acquire” items that you wouldn’t have access to. Similarly, murder of anyone who has not expressly attacked you first will get you quickly arrested. However, there are murder contracts and assassination plots that you can be engaged for by organizations that legalize your homicidal sprees.
Speaking of combat, you’ll find one of three different ways to resolve your “disagreements” forcefully: You can use a handheld weapon or you can use a magic spell. The third, of course, is to turn tail and run, but how are you going to get any better if you do that? If you decide to take the first option, you select your weapon and prepare to swing, with the exception of missile weapons, which are simply fired. The amount of damage delivered is based off three factors: 1) How long the mouse button is held down before it is released, 2) the direction of the blow, and 3) how fatigued your character is. A greater level of fatigue will continually force your character to miss their attack every time.
If you decide to use magic, on the other hand, you choose your spell and cast it at the target. If your aim is true, you have enough magicka stored up, and the spell is successfully cast, the amount of damage caused is randomly decided. There was one gigantic flaw with the combat system, which was that there was never an indication as to how much damage you were doing to an enemy. They would swing at you, and you’d be able to tell how hurt you were by your health bar, but if you returned fire, they would stagger but otherwise seem fine. Thankfully, this, as well as some other flaws, has been fixed with the latest patch released by Bethesda.
The graphical quality is one of the most impressive features within the game. The first person perspective that it uses to draw you in the story also shows off the exemplary work that the artists have done. From the landscapes to the items in homes to the monsters, everything within Morrowind is rendered in 3D, making things feel much more tactile in its interaction. Even when you switch over to a third person view, the camera sweeps around to show off the power and realism your character carries in their body. Similar emphasis is placed in the common people found around the cities, providing a sense that the people of Vvardenfell are a tough, hearty stock. Leaving the cities behind, you’ll also notice details all around the countryside. For example, plains give way to rising mountain passes with steep cliff faces, and islands peek mysteriously out of lakes and seas. This isn’t counting the sweeping views of sunrises and sunsets or driving rains that turn into sweeping thunderstorms, complete with thunder and lightning.
The immediate impact the graphics have is to relate the technical limitations that your system might have. The system requirements quoted may run the game, but to fully experience the game, you’ll want a powerful system with a very good graphics card to enjoy the texture work and effects. If you have the means and the system available to run it, a GeForce 4 with a ton of system RAM will make the game run beautifully. However, if you don’t have that, I’d seriously suggest getting an earlier GeForce card before running this game. This isn’t a shameless endorsement of Nvidia; rather, most of the tech support for the graphics seems to support this chipset better than that of ATI. Even with higher end cards, there are still massive clipping issues that you’ll find throughout the game, from movement in town to the heat of combat. Additionally, you’ll find that there isn’t much facial variation or physical variation from characters, betraying their nature. For example, if a character gets angry, their face should hopefully portray that, but most of them have the same expression regardless of their emotional state. This really doesn’t work when you’ve got someone like a guard attacking you with the same bored, bemused face they have when you ask them a question.
Aurally, the sound effects work nicely within the context of the action onscreen. For example, sheathing and unsheathing swords gets a nice, reverberating ring as the blade enters or exits the scabbard. Similarly, your footsteps will change based upon the terrain you’re moving through. Softer, padded sounds rise from thick grass, while harder, echoing clomps bounce from stone or wooden floors. Battle also comes alive with vibrant textures, including heavy thwacks from landed blows, swishes from weapons moving through air, and the crackle of energy before a spell is unleashed. But the king of the sound effects has to be the environmental effects. Ranging from the chirp of crickets to the loud, booming cry of indigenous animals, the wilderness is truly alive with the sounds of fauna. You’ll also love when storms come, because the crashes and claps of thunder and lightning, not to mention the downpour of rain, will be enough to make you want to seek cover for yourself until the tempest subsides.
I haven’t even gone over a twentieth of what you can do in this game. For example, there are thousands of pages of in-game literature that you can read that provides additional information on the region of Vvardenfell. There’s an incredible amount of depth and freedom available to anyone who plays the game to have a completely unique experience, and with the inclusion of the construction set with the game, the potential for additional quests, items, and adventures of the game is greatly increased. However, with such an expansive game, it was bound to have multiple technical issues. Not only did I, and other people, experience these problems for quite a while before the game finally worked, but even after a patch was released, random crashes and other problems still occurred. Technical issues aside, this is still a great game, one which has definitely redefined the concept of RPGs. If you have a computer whose system requirements can handle this game, I’d recommend checking it out. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some daedra I need to defeat.