(So I've been working on this Blog post for two years now and am happy to say that it is finally finished. Though somewhat dated, I don't think it's that bad. I decided to re-post it because I went through and edited it, added text, subtracted text, and overall tweaked the language. Though the writing isn't the most eloquent I've seen, I think the relevant points I'm trying to make are clearly conveyed. Please give me feedback...I'd love to hear what you think...)
Recently, I have seen MANY different comparisons between these two games. One person says Morrowind is better the next Oblivion and visa versa. Round and round this stuff goes, never stopping, always there...right THERE. Now I'm not going to claim to be an expert on either one of these games, but I will say that the very ample amount of time I've spent playing each of these games qualifies me to, at the very least, put my two cents worth into the pot.
Personally, I'd say that, no matter what, all ~200+ hours I've put into each of these games was worth every second. Although Bethesda was able to create two games that are both very much the same while being completely different at the same time, I think this transition made between Morrowind and Oblivion was for the better. If nothing else, Bethesda will be able to learn from any mistakes that it believes it has made in designing, or changing how Oblivion worked in relation to the previous games in the Elder Scrolls Series.
That being said, lets get on to the comparison:
The Vanilla version of each game was a groundbreaking feat at the time it came out. Each title had amazing graphics. Even I was pretty amazed at the quality of graphics when I first played Morrowind, especially considering the ability of the engine to render landscape at such "high" distances (I say "high" distances, because, at the time, the rendering distances in Morrowind were considered to be quite impressive). Of course, when making a direct comparison between the two games, it is quite apparent which game is the winner. Oblivion rules graphically, but this is merely because of the generational gap in system ability. One interesting point I would like to make about each game is the fact that the initial graphical presentation of each game was quite rough. Morrowind had many obvious graphical bugs, that were eventually fixed with numerous patches and graphical Mods (like Qarl's texture mod, etc). The same graphical problems were also noticed with the vanilla install of Oblivion. The grass was TOO green, the water was TOO opaque, the landscape just LOOKED prefab. It wasn't long, however, before graphical modifications were released for the game. In fact, one of the most recommended graphical modifications for oblivion is the BT mod, which I believe is holding at version 2.2 for the moment.
Just talking about graphics, however, would be like looking at just the top of an iceberg. There were many other differences between these two games that made them stand out from one another.
One of the first things I noticed when I started playing Oblivion was that the way cities worked had changed completely. Originally, in Morrowind, cities were entities completely fluid with the outside environment. These cities would behave normally, like cities, in fact, and would deal with roaming monsters like any population would, with extreme hostility. In Oblivion, however, these cities were closed up, cut off from the environment.
Personally, I believe there are many reasons for this separation from the outer environment. One is that the back story for Morrowind is that the Imperials were just beginning to get their foothold in Morrowind. The native peoples lived in open cities. They lived with the land. After all, the Dunmer were the original inhabitants of Morrowind, and they had a tendency to live off, and with the land. It was quite obvious, from the few settlements that they had strewn across the barren landscape of Vvardenfell, that the Imperials liked their walls. There was, however, no truly enclosed city present in Morrowind (I'm going to discard Mournhold as an "enclosed city" due to the fact that it was MADE to be closed off from the rest of the world. In fact, when playing the Mournhold expansion, I felt as if there was NO world around the city...). In Oblivion, the reasons the cities are closed off are for multiple reasons. One reason is cultural. The Imperials like their closed in cities. The safety and structure offered by these walled in fortresses reflects not only the feudal society of our own middle ages, but reflects the industrial and intrinsically imperialistic nature of the people living in Tamriel.
Another reason, I would surmise, is due to the fact the enemies in Oblivion have a tendency to roam over great distances (since the AI in Oblivion was programmed to look for food, etc). Having open cities, especially around Chorrol and Leyawin (places near great forests), would allow for enemies to gain entrance to the cities. At lower levels this wouldn't cause a problem. It would probably even be lots of fun to watch. The problem with Oblivion, however, is that it levels with you (something I will address further later on in this commentary). Thus, at level three, enemies would be a piece of cake for city guards. But what about at level 30? or 40? or 50? The game DOES stop leveling with you after a while, I think the cap is twenty or so, but there are certain creatures that are levelled. For instance, around Oblivion gates, monsters tend to be levelled above the 20th level. Also, consider that many of these oblivion gates tend to open around cities. Now imagine, if you will, levelled Daedra making their way into a city. Can anyone say massacre? Anyone?
Though the state of the cities in this game were a big difference between these two games, I won't complain. The closed in cities did give me a sense of security, one not necessarily obtainable in Morrowind. There has been a modification made that removes all of the doors from the major walled cities of Tamriel, but I refrained from downloading it. I feel that the doors present on the cities help to form a structured environment that wouldn't necessarily be possible with open ended city architecture. The many doors that are present help to maintain each city in its own personal biosphere if you will. Each of these "biospheres" essentially acts as a small community, flowing smoothly from day to day in game, giving a larger sense of intelligence (i.e. everybody doesnt' just mill around all the time outdoors...or walk in circles around on the sidewalks).
Since I'm still talking about cosmetic and superficial changes to each game, I might as well talk about the vast change in landscape that was affected when transitioning from Morrowind to Oblivion. I must personally say that I enjoyed the landscape of Morrowind much more than that of Oblivion. While there is no doubt that Oblivion's landscape is absolutely gorgeous, the type of landscape present is limited to mainly two variations, forests and swamps. Morrowind, on the other hand, had a vast array of landscapes. There were plains, swamps, ashlands, island archipelagos, and mountains. There weren't really any forests in Morrowind due to the nature of the land in which the story was set (so Morrowind really can't be faulted for lacking forests).
The sheer amount of landscapes present in Morrowind, and the way the ground flowed from one type to the next was, quite frankly, elegant. I really enjoyed walking through the world of Vvardenfell. When first playing, it was a welcome surprise to see a new type of landscape. In Oblivion, all you really get is..."YAY!!! MORE forests..." Though forests are the key ingredient to Oblivion's landscape, one really cannot fault this game either. Tamriel IS a lush country. It is the central hub of the Imperial regime and, as such, should exude a feeling of incessant life and growth. Though this is annoyingly apparent in Oblivion, it is, nonetheless, a necessary evil, if you will. That being said, I still feel that Morrowind exuded more of a real-life ambiance due to its landscape design...(I would like to correct myself on the point of landscapes in Oblivion. I said there were mainly two variations, forests and swamps. The correction that needs to be made is the fact that Oblivion incorporates iceland wastes...northern reaches of the country covered in snow and sparse amounts of trees. This is a natural area of the vanilla version of the game that was an add-on for Morrowind in the form of the Bloodmoon Expansion Set. Furthermore, upon further investigation of the landscape variation in Morrowind, I have found that MUCH of Vvardenfell's surface area was covered in ashlands. These ashlands encompassed maybe 70% of the surface area of Vvardenfell).
Weather is another subtle change that was affected between these two games. Though the changes made between these two games in weather is rather minor, I believe that it is worthwhile to mention...at least a little bit. There were very few kinds of weather in Morrowind and usually weather specific to a region predominated there whenever you happened to be there. For instance, when did it ever NOT rain in Balmora? To my reckoning, I can remember maybe two to three times when I was in Balmora that it was actually sunny. In Ald-Ruhn it was usually Sand storming. The weather in Morrowind was usually always dreary and, after quite a few hours of playing, quite predictable. I started to play a little game with myself after a while: "what will the weather be when the area is done loading???" Most of the time I happened to be right. I guess my ultimate point with the weather thing is that, while Morrowind's weather system was dynamic and regional specific, it seemed to be somewhat contrived. While the weather in Oblivion is not nearly as depressing as the weather in Morrowind, it is more true to life. Weather is random and can be varied from place to place. Many a time I was surprised to pop up somewhere and find that it was foggy. In another city it was overcast. Personally, I think the Bethesda team improved the weather system for Oblivion greatly! I enjoy the weather and its extreme randomness from place to place. And I LOVE that it doesn't rain every damn day of the week in Tamriel....
This is where the comparison begins to get rather difficult. There were quite a few changes made between the content of both games. The cosmetic changes are relatively easy to pick out due to the fact that they are visually based. For those who spend lots of time playing games, these kinds of changes would usually be the first things to stand out. Non cosmetic changes to the game tend to be less noticeable. These functional changes to game mechanics and interface, while less apparent, tend to create more of a difference than we can possibly imagine.
One of the most noticable functional changes made by the Bethesda team was the player interface. Personally, I have had a rather hard time remembering what the vanilla version of the Oblivion interface looked like. Frankly, it was HORRIBLE. That being said, it was MUCH better than the Morrowind character interface. The character interface encompasses the HUD (heads up display) and the Character Menu screen.
In Morrowind, the Character Menu system was, quite possibly, one of the most ill contrived set of menu boxes that I have ever encountered. Though I did deal with them while I was playing the game (and you really had to if you wanted to play...and since I wanted to play, I did). The simple fact was that the little separated windowed thingy they had set up sucked. You were having to constantly move the windows around so that you could arrange shelves, pick up stuff, drop stuff, look at this, and that, and your magic menu, and your map, etc. I could go on and on about the problems that could arise from messing with this cumbersome menu system, but I won't. I'll just make the point that it was bad and hope that you guys take it at face value. The Oblivion menu system was a very large step up from the windowed system used in Morrowind, but was still cumbersome and unwieldy. The Vanilla version menu system of Oblivion instituted a tabbed system, organizing everything into neat little bars. This system, in and of itself, was a vast improvement over that of the one instituted in Morrowind (After writing this paragraph, one of my friends stated that the default menu system was like a console menu system and would be damn near impossible to play without a mod developed to make the menu system more streamlined).
Possibly one of the greatest improvements that Oblivion was able to make over Morrowind was the institution of an effective Quest Journal. In Morrowind, simply mentioning the Journal was enough to make anyone cry. The Journal in Morrowind was like a torture device installed by Bethesda. It was horrible. I would add quests to the journal and other entries in date order. When wanting to view a certain quest, you would have to sift through a quest menu, find the quest, then sift through the Journal entries to find the information you were searching for. Sometimes, however, the information you were trying to find was not present (or was not recorded in the journal). In that case, you would be forced to try and re-find the person who originally gave you the quest, and get extra information from them (which might or might not be recorded in the Journal). One other thing that made the journal horrible was its amazing ability to overlook the fact that you have finished certain quests. Let me tell you, after MANY hours of questing, those finished quests made it hard as hell to figure out which ones you have and have not finished. In Oblivion, on the other hand, the journal was seamlessly integrated into the game. You can choose which quest you would like to be active at any one moment and each quest has map markers associated with it. Furthermore, when you get another quest, you are notified of it and asked whether you would like to make it your active quest or not. Overall, the Journal system turned out to be one of the most worthwhile improvements from Morrowind to Oblivion.
One additional menu system update that was instituted from Morrowind to Oblivion was the item equip action. In Morrowind, there was that annoying drag and drop equip system. You'd have to drag the item on top of your character, then drop it there. The items would remain in the inventory, with a little box around them, signifying that they were equipped. This system got annoying really fast if you wanted to equip/un-equip lots of stuff really quickly, or refit your character. While this really didn't matter in the endgame (since, by that time, you could kill damn near everything), it tended to be somewhat of a nuisance during the earlier stages when new armor was often forthcoming. In Oblivion, the much improved click to equip system made me crap my pants. Though it really wasn't THAT impressive, the simple action of being able to click the equipable object without having to drag and drop was simply a god-send. This made equipping and un-equipping much easier, allowing for the quick removal of stolen goods if you happened to anger the guards or something like that.
Possibly the biggest difference between these two games is the story. I must honestly say, right off the bat, that I enjoyed the Morrowind main quest much more than that of the Oblivion main quest. While the Oblivion main quest did have the luxury of including Patrick steward and Sean Bean as voice actors, it didn't really pique my interest. Quite frankly, I had more fun with the guild quests.
**spoilers past this point**
The Morrowind main quest portrayed you as a prisoner released from the royal prison and dropped in Morrowind via boat. After your release you were free to wander Vvardenfell as you saw fit. You were, however, given orders to report to one Caius Cosades in Balmora. He was an operative for the Blades (the royal guard that makes a reappearance in Oblivion). His orders for you were to prove yourself as the Nerevarine by going to the Dunmer tribes and performing their rites. You eventually do, and have to decide for yourself whether you really believe that you are the resurrected Nerevarine. Ultimately, you are tasked with dealing with Dagoth Ur, a dark man-god who has returned from the dead with a plan to retake morrowind for his own...
In Oblivion, on the other hand, the story takes a different turn. You are cast as the prisoner who was in the right place at the right time. You begin the game in your cell, detained for some random crime never mentioned. Amazingly, Emperor Uriel Septim VII has to escape through your cell. And the amazing thing is that the blades don't close the door behind them after they go through. They leave it open for you to follow, then don't kill you when you run across them later. Eventually, the you catch back up to the Emperor and he gives you the Amulet of Kings to give to his hidden heir. He is promptly killed and you are tasked with finding this heir. You eventually rescue him from the ruins of Kvatch and go on this massive quest to try and stop this guy named Mankar Camoran from destroying Tamriel... (I'm deliberately not saying anything about the final showdown in the Imperial city...play it or look it up...very great ending)
Just looking at these two stories you can see that there is a BIG difference between the two. Personally, I felt rather unimportant after the conclusion of the Oblivion story. You finish it and the big-wigs are all like: "Good job buddy...come back in a week and we'll give you a suit of armor.". In fact, Martin manages to trump all of your hours of gameplay with one selfless act at the end. Morrowind, on the other hand, gave me a sense of pride and accomplishment for all my hours of gameplay. There is nothing better than walking past an NPC and hearing: "Y-you're the Nerevarine!". I wanted to keep playing after the conclusion of the story. I wanted to keep going. Why? Because I was a hero. A hero to NPC's, but a hero nonetheless. There is something to be said, even today, about the role the main character plays in a games story. While I enjoyed both Morrowind and Oblivion, I was given a grander sense of achievement from Morrowinds story. They truly let you BE the god if you wanted. They made the story about YOU, while Oblivion sets you up as an epic supporting character.
Overall, each of these games has good and bad points. I feel, however, that both games deserve our support and reverence. Each of these games was produced by a wonderful developer and managed to pull us in one way or another. Be it the game system or the story, each of these games has something worthwhile to experience. While I, myself, cannot say which of these games I would ultimately settle on, I hope that this comparison will help to put minds at ease. Though I am not an expert journalist or game developer, I touched on points I thought made each of these games intrinsically different AND characteristically unique.
It is not every day that we get the opportunity to compare such grandiose games, and I suggest we revel in such opportunities. Better yet, read and decide for yourself which of these games deserves your love and attention. After all, I'm just the messenger...
**Spelling corrected and weather paragraph edited on June 12, 2009 at 9.29 a.m.**