Is it possible to enjoy The Elder Scrolls Online's Morrowind expansion if you're a fan of the original game who hates MMOs? Is it folly to even try? Either way, I loved Morrowind too much to ignore the arrival of its multiplayer-focused quasi-prequel.
The handful of readers who recognise the by-line will know that my Morrowind obsession is the running joke of my career. There goes Jim Trinca, the Morrowind Liker. Compares everything to Morrowind. Never shuts up about it. Go on, ask him about Morrowind. Go on.
It's true that I'm obsessed with it - although not in the sense that I play it all the time. In truth, the last time I played it properly we still had a Labour government. Fifteen years on, it's very nearly impossible to recommend without also providing a long list of overhaul mods to install first, and definitely exactly impossible to convince anyone to go to that sort of trouble. You had to be there.
What I'm obsessed with is the idea of Morrowind, as it exists in my head. The Morrowind that bestrides the BC to AD transition in my personal gaming history. I already loved and craved it before it even existed, when as a strange 11-year-old boy I developed a comparable obsession with David Braben's Frontier: Elite II. The two games couldn't be more different on the surface, but they conjure much the same magic; a portal to a different reality, a chance to live another life in another world. (Braben is also to blame for my lifelong Grand Theft Auto fixation. He's probably directly responsible for several thousand divorces.)
Morrowind occupies the same landfill in my heart that one reserves for moments you spend the rest of your life fruitlessly trying to recreate. Your first ride. Your first Big Tasty. Your first... finding the Dwemer puzzle box. With every new Elder Scrolls game, the hit becomes diluted. Oblivion wasn't abstruse enough. Skyrim didn't have mushroom trees. Like switching from tabs to patches, the modern alternatives didn't compare.
With Elder Scrolls Online, the hit didn't even register - an Elder Scrolls game with other players? Running around, jumping and dabbing and (heaven forfend) chatting to each other in a little box? Surely, that's an Elder Scrolls game in name only. Transplanting the Morroblivion experience into an MMO framework would surely require too many compromises to still be recognisable. A curious dipping of toes confirmed it, and TES:O inevitably dropped off my radar forever.
Then the bastards made Morrowind. And just to add insult to injury, it isn't half bad.
For the nostalgia tourist, TES:O's latest expansion kicks off spectacularly. The music, a re-worked but effortlessly familiar version of the original Morrowind score, coaxes a lump up into the throat. Then, a micron-accurate rendition of Seyda Neen, the original starting location, punches it straight back down into your gut.
Arriving at Seyda Neen does much to cool cynicism. Entering the port is like slipping on an old pair of socks. A succession of tasteful in-jokes calm the nerves. So far, so good: this is Morrowind alright. The sights, the sounds, the imagined smells are all present and correct. It looks just like Morrowind does in your memories, if not at the time - beautiful, beckoning.
Checking off the big towns to see how they've changed, or rather how they will change, becomes a delight all by itself. The grand cantons of Vivec City tower smugly out of the sea as they always did, but in this time, half of them are still under construction. The Mos Eisley-upon-Tyne hamlet of Balmora feels unmistakably like the same place, but its layout is almost totally different, sporting a new emphasis on verticality and seeming bigger and more bustling than its classic equivalent. Some license must be afforded the artists, who are after all recreating a 2002 game world for a 2017 audience - although it's not that much of a stretch for Balmora to be a swinging hip town now and a deserted shithole later. Just imagine what London's going to be like after Brexit.
This new version of Vvardenfell is cleverly designed to grab you by the nostalgia gland at first, then gradually ease you into the new order. The signature starter towns contain subtle divergences, enough for you to expect bigger ones later. By the time you reach Ald'ruhn, one of Morrowind's most distinctive haunts on account of it having been carved into the shell of an enormous dead crab, very little attempt is being made to tap your tinted rosé. The town has yet to be properly founded; in this era, it's just some makeshift tents dotted suspiciously around a giant crab corpse.
Exploring Vvardenfell further reveals that, contrary to the draw distance, the marketing, and even the map screen, a good third-to -half of the island is out of bounds. Places like Dagoth Ur and Sheogorad exist in some form, because they're visible, but you cannot go to them. This is naughty. Add to this the fact that many of the buildings are unenterable, and it becomes clear that New Morrowind is not a pound for pound recreation of the original, stand-alone game. It is what it is: an expansion pack to an MMO. Obviously.
Those looking for something like a TESIII sequel or remaster will be disappointed. I don't suppose anyone with half a brain is expecting such from this. But, if you're in the market for a new experience that evokes its spirit, Morrowind 2017 does an admirable job against some pretty hostile odds.
Plenty of side-quests concern the running of mines, for example. Solving trouble down't pit accounted for a significant portion of the original's mission content. As did navigating the labyrinthine politics of the great Dunmer houses, the local slave trade, and tensions between the island's major religions. The main quest contains a number of clever throwbacks to the events of the original game and beyond. Without spoiling anything, for those brushed up on their Tamriel history, TES:O neatly closes a circle with regards to the island's story. Skyrim, and its later expansion pack Dragonborn, would detail Vvardenfell's ultimate fate. TES:O provides some delicious symmetry, expanding the legend into a gorgeous 900-year arc like some kind of mad Babylon 5 expanded-universe novel that only saddos and virgins would admit to even knowing about. You know, like the Bester trilogy or something. You know.
As impressed as I am with TES:O's interpretation of Morrowind's visuals and themes, I can't help but feel like a sucker. ZeniMax knows fine and well about tossers like me - the Morrowind gits, the ones that won't let them leave 2002 in 2002. I know they know about me, because every new game has another couple of thrown bones to keep us on-side. With Oblivion, it was the giant mushroom trees of the Shivering Isles expansion, because they knew we were weak. With Skyrim, they sequelised Morrowind's largest expansion pack, because they knew we were desperate. And now, with Online, they've sort of taken us back to Vvardenfell, a bit, because they know at this point we're licking the backs of the nicorette patches and begging our ma's to give us a lift to the garage for one last packet of Amber Leaf.
To answer the question posed at the start: yes, you can play 2017 Morrowind approximately as you play 2002 Morrowind. That is, as a nostalgia tour, enjoyed solo. It doesn't translate perfectly, but the fact that it works at all is a testament to just how good ZeniMax Online is at what it was created to do - fitting the square peg of The Elder Scrolls into the round hole of MMO.
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