The stakes don't get much higher: Morrowind is the follow-up to Daggerfall, a 1996 role-playing game that is as famous for its incredibly ambitious size and scope as it is infamous for its bug-ridden release. Daggerfall is one of the best examples of love-it-or-hate-it gaming. Some players, either by luck or by willpower, overlooked the game's flaws and found in it one of the most immersive, longest-lasting RPGs to date. Yet others were disappointed and couldn't get past Daggerfall's problems. Given all the tumult over Daggerfall, you'd expect that Bethesda, the developer and publisher of the game, would narrow its sights for the next sequel in the Elder Scrolls series. It would be so much easier to make a simpler game, but rather than take the easy route, Bethesda sought to one-up itself with The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, a game whose size and scope rivals even that of Daggerfall.
We covered Morrowind extensively Morrowind Construction Set, the editing tools that will ship with the PC version of the game. Now the game is close to completion, and we've gotten our hands on a playable build, so we're bringing you some more important details on what you can expect. Is Morrowind going to be all it's cracked up to be? Is this truly the RPG to end them all? Perhaps more importantly, is it buggy? You'll soon find out.
Morrowind's production values are superb. While most gamers are quick to point out that great gameplay is far more important than great presentation, it's hard to deny that much of Morrowind's appeal comes from its impressive graphics, sound, and music--the orchestral score is provided by veteran composer Jeremy Soule. The game's fully realized, highly detailed 3D characters and environments aren't just for show--they're what make you feel like you're actually in the game's fantasy world. The entire game can be played from your character's first-person perspective (though you can optionally switch to a third-person viewpoint too). Because you control a single character throughout the game and are never taken out of the central role, Morrowind seems reminiscent not just of its predecessors Daggerfall and Arena, but also of the classic Ultima Underworld games. Like in those games, in Morrowind, you spend equal amounts of time exploring, conversing with nonplayer characters, and fighting--either with weapons or with magic.
That's putting it simply. Then again, Morrowind is perhaps a simple game at heart. It doesn't necessarily try to reinvent any of the fantasy role-playing conventions you may already be familiar with. In fact, if you've ever played a Dungeons & Dragons game, or just about any PC role-playing game for that matter, you'll probably find Morrowind to be highly accessible. This is clearly one of the game's strong suits--it does a fine job of getting you started and integrates some very simple yet effective lessons on how to play into the first few minutes of the game. Morrowind may bear similarities to other RPGs, but it's far more ambitious than most. Read on to find out how.
The Devil in the Details
It doesn't take very long to realize that Morrowind is apparently a huge game. Though you have a clear objective early on in the game, you soon realize that there's no particular reason why you need to get to it right away. You could opt instead to explore the town or head north, south, east, or west and see where the roads take you. It's a startling realization: Morrowind's scope is not typical of a single-player role-playing game but is instead more like what you'd find in a massively multiplayer RPG like EverQuest or Ultima Online--games people have been playing for years, partly due to the size of the gameworlds. Yet unlike in those games, none of the scenery in Morrowind is filler--it's all rich with detail down to the unique species of plant life that grow throughout the land's lush regions. Early on, you may be commissioned to bring back samples of local fungus or flowers--that's one occasion when it might dawn on you just how rich Morrowind's world really is. Morrowind has more types of mushrooms in it than some RPGs have weapons.
The details aren't all so mundane. Bethesda cites that the game includes more than 3,000 NPCs, more than 300 dungeons, more than 500 basic spells, and more than 200 types of creatures. The NPCs are mostly all unique, with their own faces, personalities, affiliations, and dialogue. Though most conversation in Morrowind is all in text--no surprise, considering the game contains thousands of pages' worth of dialogue--the game does make an effective use of some speech to give you a better sense of characters' personalities.
The design philosophy behind Morrowind is therefore apparent. It will have all of Daggerfall's best qualities--and Daggerfall's complete open-endedness should be retained intact in every aspect of the design. Yet Morrowind will also be far more accessible and approachable than Daggerfall ever was. Daggerfall was a very intimidating game, after all. And to be fair, Morrowind doesn't exactly hold your hand either. Minutes into the game, you're all alone and free to do whatever you want. But you do have a concise journal describing those tasks that have been set forth for you, and it's easy to get your bearings using the game's automap feature or the numerous signposts that you'll find throughout the world. Morrowind is also very easy to control. Considering the game's magnitude, it's remarkably accessible.
Bethesda doesn't wish to divulge the specifics of character generation yet, but suffice it to say that there's massive variety in Morrowind, just in terms of the types of characters you can choose to play as. There are dozens of different skills that you can learn and improve, either by paying to train in them or just by using them repeatedly. To balance this out, Morrowind does essentially place characters into one of three standard RPG character classes: fighters, thieves, and magic users. Depending on which of these basic templates you adopt, you'll be more or less capable at different skills, and you'll be able to approach the game's innumerable challenges in different ways. Expect multiple solutions to every situation--brute force is generally an option, but so is persuasion or subterfuge. Can Morrowind truly live up to all this? Find out next.
A Massive Undertaking
Morrowind has an undeniably ambitious design that rivals that of most other games in existence. Ambition is one thing, though, and execution is another. While we've known about the lofty intentions of the Morrowind design team for years, we've only recently been able to spend a considerable amount of time with the fruits of their labors--and in a word, we're impressed. The game isn't finished yet--though Morrowind is scheduled to ship in the weeks to come, the build we played includes a written addendum that has a laundry list of known issues currently in the game. And those are only the known issues. Given a game as vast and open-ended as Morrowind, one can only imagine how much of a painstaking task it must be to uncover all of the possible bugs and glitches that could crop up. For our part, we've experienced a few crashed to desktop and other glitches with this beta build, although by and large, it's been highly playable.
For Bethesda's part, the company makes every assurance that it will continue to work on Morrowind until it's ready. What else would you expect? Given that Morrowind has spent years and years in the making, it seems only reasonable that Bethesda would make absolutely certain that the game was in perfect shape before it shipped. Then again, the game's design does make bug testing somewhat of a laborious affair. Will the game ship absolutely, positively 100 percent bug-free? Arguably, there's never been a game that has. But the quality already evident in Morrowind is suggestive of the overall level of effort going into the project and makes us hopeful that Bethesda will follow through with Morrowind all the way till the end--and after.
As you may know, Morrowind will ship with a construction set that's designed to let you create any aspect of the game, including characters, dungeons, towns, quests, and more--or edit any existing aspect. As if the game itself weren't already enough, this construction set promises to give the game's player community more than just something to talk about. It's the combined potential of this construction set, together with the awesome potential of the actual game, that suggests Morrowind might turn out more than great--it could be downright legendary.
That's some bold prophesizing, but Morrowind deserves it. The game is clearly in its home stretch--it's feature-complete and already filled with countless great sights and sounds. All that's left is that all-important stage of fine-tuning, which has made or broken countless games in the past. Bethesda is no stranger to the fine-tuning process. Though Daggerfall gained some notoriety due to some of the serious bugs that affected the initial release, in the end, Bethesda fixed it up in a series of patches. And now Daggerfall is remembered with fondness--and the fact that it's remembered at all already speaks volumes. There's every reason to be excited about Morrowind, but a lot of people are excited about it because it's the sequel to Daggerfall. When you put that in perspective, and when you consider that Morrowind now stands poised to completely supersede its predecessor, it's hard to imagine just how much impact the game will have if it ends up like it's supposed to. But impact is one thing--we're excited about Morrowind not because it might just set a new high-water mark for role-playing gaming, but because it's shaping up to be a truly remarkable game in its own right.