Game Over Online ~ The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

GameOver Game Reviews - The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (c) Bethesda, Reviewed by - Fwiffo

Game & Publisher The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (c) Bethesda
System Requirements Xbox
Overall Rating 92%
Date Published Tuesday, November 30th, 1999 at 12:00 AM

Divider Left By: Fwiffo Divider Right

From its rousing score to its breathtaking vistas, everything from head to toe about Morrowind speaks the language of an epic, in the same creative sense that led to Homer creating The Iliad, Miguel de Cervantes' comical scripting of Don Quixote or James Joyce penning the illustrious Ulysses. It all begins with a timeless, oft-repeated quest motif: the archetype of the hero in the search for self.

Morrowind begins its tale off the shores of a sleepy town called Seyda Need. You, the protagonist, emerge from a deep slumber on a slave ship. A fellow slave awakens you and through him, you find out that you have no recollection of what had happened during the voyage but before you're able to ask further questions, you're whisked off the ship to be released. Morrowind is a remote province of a human race known only as Imperial, who hail from the center of the continent from a place known as Cyrodiil. The Imperials possess no more brawn, no more technology, and no more spirituality than other races but like most empires, were gifted with the skill of good governance. However, their hold on distant Morrowind and its inhabitants, as the protagonist soon learns, is tentative at best. Conquest of Morrowind was apparently done by assimilating the existing residents, predominantly made of dark elves known as dunmer.

The dunmer great houses, Indoril, Redoran, Telvani, Dres and Hlaalhu are technically aligned with the empire. They continue administering the lands but are under the aegis of the emperor, Uriel Septim VII, who bestows a sort of Pax Romana or Pax Britannia on the land. But the emperor is purportedly in ill health, making the houses restless, especially in light of a disruptive sect emerging amongst the dunmer who owe their allegiance to a 'lost' house following an entity known only as Dagoth-Ur. Dagoth-Ur is clearly a nationalist cause that calls for all dunmer to overthrow the yoke of the empire, a prospect that the few Imperial garrisons scattered across Morrowind undoubtedly dread.

Dagoth-Ur prophesizes a champion born under a certain sign will come to Morrowind and restore it. Like all Delphic prophecies, the 'it' is particularly vague. That's where the protagonist steps in: he or she is the one born under the sign but will they restore Morrowind under the flag of the empire, cater to the nationalist dunmers or amass power as a private tyrant? That is the dilemma that is handed to the player.

Morrowind was released on the PC initially and then on to the Xbox. It is undeniably a different role-playing creature than what console players have thus far experienced. Forget about levelling up, forget even about specific levels, character classes or fixed story paths. Morrowind is a living, breathing world that is dynamic and so too is the role-playing aspect of it. Beginning with character creation, you're emancipated, really, from character classes, racial restrictions or perks and penalties of the D&D franchise. Mages can be fighters. Thievery can be mixed with brawn. The most successful characters are the ones who can do some of everything. Lacking a party system, hirelings, familiars or companions, this is as it should be. Furthermore, Morrowind tips its hat at the Ultima franchise, allowing you to create characters based on a set of moral questions. And in some sense, with its emphasis on skills and improvement of skills through usage, it loosely resembles more like the system used in Fallout. These two namesakes alone are testament enough that Morrowind is a role-playing title of the PC breed.

Visually, Morrowind is played from a first person perspective, giving you an intimate view of the action but most importantly, the landscapes. Your travels will take you from swampy marshes, to stalactite caves, to seaside coasts and barren deserts. Bethesda has had over a decade in crafting titles featured in the Elder Scrolls' series. The artists of Morrowind use a mix of real world architecture and fantasy influences to create a wholly unique world. On the one hand, Imperial settlements have a preference for stone, medieval style constructions with painted glass. On the other hand, towering cities like Vivec are awe-inspiring to behold but possess a distinct, foreign, dunmer feel to it.

Augmented by an equally impressive soundtrack, Jeremy Soule's score is always present, ready to comment. Leave the town on a starless night and his music chimes in ominously. Run up a hill to overlook a majestic scene and the soundtrack drums up stirring tunes. Like most modern scores, there are one or two memorable melodies. While Soule's work here is commendable, it's not as memorable as his orchestral work in Icewind Dale or the inimitable Dungeon Siege tune. Still, its tone is able to speak the words of an epic and capture the zeitgeist of the work.

What do you do in an epic though? Actually, that touches on the piece de resistance of Morrowind. You're able to literally do anything. While you're initially told to visit a man known as Caius Cosades in Balmora, there's no stopping you to go pillage the countryside for loot. You can join a guild or a cult to achieve prosperity, fame, respect or all of the above. Or similarly, you can follow the clues to discover your identity and ultimately, your destiny. What you do is truly up to you. Have trouble getting an item from someone? Perhaps, you can pay for it, barter for it, sweet talk someone, kill for it or outright steal it. Morrowind grants you free will but it's not the free will where path A will take you to ending A1, A2 and A3. It's much more fluid, dynamic and therefore, complex than that.

Many of the initial quests you receive are just that; quests, tasks or what we call in the PC world, Fedex-style quests where you get item A to character B. Often, it's something as trivial as taking something from one end of town to another. There's a reason for that because when you begin, you're incredibly weak, in combat and in skills. But as you progress, you'll encounter tasks that are increasingly multifaceted. They're predicated on allegiances to other political groups, races or guilds and you'll be waylaid by circumstances of the situation. One task was from the Thieves Guild to collect payment from someone in a remote seedy town. I quickly found out the Thieves Guild is not highly respected outside of Imperial settlements and through searching for this person, I came across a slave whom I felt obligated to free, thereby igniting a mini-mob war.

The excessive number of guilds, races and political groups is actually one of the key factors of success for Morrowind. They not only dispense a tremendous amount of quests, they also encourage replaying because at higher levels, it'll be progressively tougher to toe the line as a mercenary or journeyman for all. It also reinforces the role-playing aspects. As an assassin in the Morag Tong, you'll perform politically sanctioned assassinations or hits with a strange emphasis on honor. And as you move away from your base of operations, you'll find your identity with that group will do disparagement to others but because the group offers so many amenities to you, you'll develop a sense of protective pride in your character's identity; role playing, par excellence.

There's clearly so much to do in Morrowind that it's impossible to cover all aspects of it. True, there are mishaps with Morrowind on the Xbox. The lack of a health point indicator for your enemies has yet to be rectified on the Xbox. Combat is simple, perhaps to encourage non-violent solutions. The journal can often be a mess, especially when looking for uncompleted quests. The art of persuasion is hackneyed at best. You're able to persuade someone incessantly until they agree. Finally, for a living world, citizens wander the same paths they do from day to night and shops remain unceasingly open. But in light of the magnitude of the story presented, these details become irrelevant.

In some senses, Morrowind reminded me of Star Control II. The best fantasy or science fiction works are those that are reflections of our own world. The mentions of Imperial, provincial governors, tax collectors, the Imperial Cult and history of imperial dynasties are unmistakably lifted from the pages of history; the Roman Empire or loosely speaking, the British Empire. There are countless tomes of books to flesh out the backdrop of the empire, the dark elf world and local histories. They are attractive because they dazzle us with fantastically new things but also because in them, we see slithers of our past. Imperial books on the empire are jingoistic, almost like nineteenth century British attitudes.

What both Star Control and Morrowind shared in common was a love for conversation and a love for the written word. Only through these could a world so vivid and appealing be truly shaped in our minds such that when I walked up with my character to a barbaric tribe in the middle of a barren desert, I said to myself, "I'm an Imperial." Ironically, for such a good-sounding and great-looking title, the creators still thought the imagination of the human mind was most crucial.

This will probably remain the magnum opus for Bethesda for many years to come. Even with the pending release of Bioware titles on the Xbox, I see very few titles that are going to approach the scope, grandeur and majesty that this one is able to exude so naturally. It has all the requisite components of an epic and when they play together, the individual instruments meld into a mesmeric symphony. Critics will assail that this title is missing a rigid plot line. Its combat is deficient and the action will tempt people to ask, where is the joie de vivre? Everything is here for those who are willing to look for it.


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