The Elder Scrolls III : Morrowind Reader Review
'Good luck. You're on your own.'
It's not lying. After the basic RPG-staples of character-creation, aligment choice and movement/menu control pop-ups, you're given this one last tip - a tip that will either send shivers of excitement tingling down your back, or, more likely, leave you bemused and bewildered.
Morrowind, Bethesda Softworks follow-up to the hugely-ambitious but deeply-flawed Daggerfall, just lets you get on with the job at hand. What job that may be is entirely up to you. You, much like your avatar, are dumped without explanation into the region of Morrowind (specifically, the island province of Vvardenfell) as a newly freed prisoner. This proves a suprisingly appropriate methaphor for your experience in the context of gamings collective consciousness thus far - unlike games before it, there is no path forced upon you - no big bad boss you're forced to destroy, no Princess In Another Castle to save; there is only the choice to take on such challenges.
The main quest itself is entirely optional and easily ignored, and you are quite free to pursue whatever objective you wish, whether it be Mage Guildmaster, honourable upholder of Imperial Law, skulking thief or master assassin - or none of the above. You can simply wander the wonderfully varied topography of Vvardenfell, exploring the scores of hidden caves and abandoned mines, taking on the odd mission of your own volition whenever the whim takes you. Many of these secondary quests are as deep and lengthy as the main story arc, and following even one or two of the larger ones could easily triple your play-time. The actual story-line at the heart of Morrowind, naturally involving reincarnated Gods, ancient propehicies and mythical weapons, is epic enough despite it's clichéd nature to engage any post-Lord Of The Rings fantasy buff, and while the resolution is certainly satisfying, the ability to continue your journey after the conclusion, tying up loose-ends and scaling ranks in your chosen Guilds, will remain a proposition irresistable to the ardent player, for at least months after.
Wandering the locales of Morrowind though, you can't help but feel a nagging sense of deja vu. While it's certainly understandable in such a large-scale and ambitious title, finding half a dozen identical twin guards in the same town speaking identical sentences breaks the coherence that Bethesda have gone to such pains to establish. The problems don't end there, though - you'll happen upon more than your fair share of bugs on your epic travels, and on more than one occassion you'll find them game-breakingly harsh. Broken quests, NPC's throwing out spoilers (too often and too early in your travels), missing treasures, are common, and while again understandable in a game of this scale, are still enough to break the illusion of immersion. A patch adressing these early issues will no doubt be forthcoming, but for such an ambitious title to be released in this state is more than irritating, and undermines the genuinely impressive heights Bethesda scale in their work.
The disappointments continue - the Gamebryo engine, while undoubtedly beautiful on newer machines, has a tendency to struggle on anything less than recommended specification - struggles to the point of ugliness. The various brown greys and reds that make up Vvardenfell can at times shine with ethereal beauty and the scale can be occasionally breath-taking - cities within giant mushrooms and floating temples stand-out in a genre of identikit straw huts and ebony towers - yet many a time a bland, empty wasteland will be all you're left to traverse on an essential lengthy journey (unless you take the time-saving but experience-skipping Silt Strider transports) and it does nothing to address that perennial flaw of the RPG; Lethal Giant Rat Syndrome. You'll find seemingly pathetic enemies a sadly prevalent threat in your early adventures, and even hunting the sparse non-hostile fauna can be a life or death affair. In fact, combat as a whole is a depressingly turgid affair, using pen & paper style rules to govern your hit/miss ratio rather than the infinitely preferable (at even the vaguest level) realistic concept of physics. It's depressingly easy to die fifteen-feet away from your Mudcrab assailant, despite the fact the poor fellows claw reach is little more than 8 inches. Quite why Bethesda chose such a traditional and ill-fitting system to sit alongside the advances they have made is hard to fathom. Perhaps a misplaced obligation to the D&D crowd has forced them into accomodating such an anachronism, or maybe it's an unwillingness to incorporate a complex physics model into an already bulging engine. Either way, it spoils the games undeniable sense of internal cohesion and makes your already-frustrating early level-adventures even more of a chore.
Similarly disappointing is a lack of extraneous challenges accomodating your increased strength. In fact, once you reach the upper levels of character development, you'll find little in the way of challenge, and though the fun of wandering remains, the lingering wish for a greater challenge remains unsatiated. Adding to that, the open nature of the game leaves the prospect of levelling-up as far as possible and breezing the main quest. Thankfully, the sheer enormity of such an undertaking would take countless hours more than simply attacking the storyline and could be considered a thankfully unnattractive prospect. However, while this is an extreme example, it does expose the relative ease in how the game can be distorted - a nervous player might plow through dozens of Guild-quests, levelling-up dozens of times only to find you've gone too far, and may inadvertently find the main quest, your one constant purpose in the game, entirely underwhelming.
Despite this criticism, Morrowind, like it's brethren, is an extraordinary game, a genuinely remarkable attempt to blow away the boundaries the RPG-genre that just falls short. Underneath it's deep failings - and they are deep - is a truly brilliant experience aching to burst out. The problem, as with all nearly-brilliant works, is whether this shining core burns brightly enough to blot out the murky and frankly stagnant flaws simmering under the surface. It could certainly be accused of innaccesability, yet attempts to cater for any ambitions you have once it gets you. It pushes the genre to it's limits, allowing unprecedented freedom of movement and complete choice of goals, certainly. Yet this praise sits uncomfortably alongside obvious bugs while the game engine itself relies on an archaic combat engine and suffers occasional 'dead-areas' devoid of any interesting landmarks of life, undermining and at worst embarrassing the amount of love and attention clearly laboured on the title. It begs for the highest praise, in many ways it deserves it...but it's let down by too many basic errors. It's a failed expedition to climb Everest - it attempts to hit the limit, but simply runs out of breath before the peak.
7 / 10