The wait is finally over. Morrowind, probably the most eagerly anticipated PC role-playing game this side of Baldur's Gate II, has arrived in Europe. And although it has its flaws, it's still an entertaining, addictive and time consuming game.
As Morrowind begins, all you know is that you are a criminal, released by Imperial decree for reasons unknown and sent to serve an agent on the island of Vvardenfell. Getting off the boat that has carried you there serves as a quick in-game tutorial, showing you how to move and look around, and interact with objects and people. Even more ingenious is the way in which your character is created by answering an Imperial census official's questions once you reach land, sidestepping the usual dice rolling that most role-playing games thrive on. Depending on your tastes you can choose from a range of player races, appearances and preset character classes, or you can create your own custom class by selecting the skills you want to focus on. You can even let the computer determine what kind of character you want to play based on your responses to a series of Voigt-Kampff style questions ("you chance upon a strange animal, its leg trapped in a hunter's clawsnare").
Whatever your initial choices, you can still develop any of your skills by using them repeatedly or by paying a trainer. Your speciality skills rise more rapidly as you practice them, and also contribute to your overall experience level, but there's nothing to stop you improving your other skills if you decide part way through the game that your barbarian warrior really needs to be able to speak in coherent sentences to get a better reaction from people. More leeway is given by the levelling system, which allows you to increase any three of your eight primary stats every time you go up a level. So if you decide that your manners and personal hygiene aren't all they could be, you can gradually improve your personality score as your character advances.
How To Make Friends And Influence People
Although Morrowind has a central storyline to follow, with core missions and objectives to complete, there are countless side quests along the way. Stray characters can be found wandering around in the wilderness in need of help, and several factions are represented in the towns you visit, from noble houses and the Imperial Legion to guilds for mages, thieves, fighters and even assassins. Once again the game offers you complete freedom to do what you want; there's nothing to stop you from joining several factions, as long as you meet their membership requirements.
Once you've signed up, each faction will be able to give you dozens of jobs to carry out, ranging from simply delivering a parcel to someone on the other side of town to killing rivals, collecting overdue fees and acquiring valuable objects. All of these tasks, along with important clues and snippets of conversations, are dumped into your journal. This should be the perfect way to keep track of what you're doing at any given time, but there's no real search system and no way to mark off the jobs you've already completed. By the time you finish the game your journal will sprawl across at least a couple of hundred pages, making it almost impossible to find the details of a specific job unless you keep a list the old fashioned way, with pen and paper.
As you develop the appropriate skills and complete tasks for a faction your rank and reputation with them will increase, and the more a character likes you, the cheaper they will offer their goods and services. If you want to shortcut this, you can also bribe, flatter, taunt and intimidate people to achieve your ends. This system isn't without it's faults though, the most obvious of which is the criminal system. Get spotted stealing something or launching an unprovoked attack and your crime will be reported, causing the city guard to chase you around. When you get caught you have a choice of paying a fine (equal to the value of the goods stolen, or around 1000 gold for murders), resisting arrest (utterly futile and liable to get you killed) or doing hard labour (which can sharply reduce your skills). Bizarrely though, if you get caught and pay your fine your reputation won't be damaged, but if you talk to a character while you're a wanted man your standing with them will drop sharply. Nobody seems to care if you killed a man or stole the entire contents of a shop, as long as you paid a couple of thousand gold pieces to get the guards off your back. Which is perhaps lucky, because occasionally the barter system breaks down and the computer decides that you've stolen back one of the items you just sold, leading to a small fine and a slap on the wrists.
Hack And Slash
When you're not fighting the law, there's a wide array of weird and wonderful monsters to kill. Morrowind is home to the usual humans, elves and orcs, but there are also more outlandish creatures such as giant flying jellyfish-like animals that dangle stingers beneath them, and the main mode of transport on Vvardenfell is a giant insect-like beast called a silt strider. Pay the rider the appropriate fee and he will take you to a distant town, saving you the hassle of running all the way on foot.
Combat itself is fairly clumsy and repetitive. All you have to do is hold down the mouse button to power up your attack and then release it to take a swipe at whatever you're facing. Sometimes the computer gets confused and hits a different target though, which can lead to friendly fire incidents and failed missions if you're fighting alongside another character. You do get a choice of slashing, swinging or stabbing your foe, moving the mouse forwards to stab or sideways to slash, but this is utterly pointless in practice. There's an optimum way to use each weapon, and it's the same for every monster, regardless of size and armour. Your best bet is just to enable the "always use best attack" option in the menu and leave it at that.
The AI can cause problems as well, with creatures sometimes getting stuck on trees, steep terrain and sharp corners. When this happens they have an unnerving tendency to twitch wildly and make sudden unexpected turns, which looks stupid and makes ranged combat a lot less effective than it perhaps should be. In confined areas the opposite is true, as sometimes a creature will get completely stuck, leaving you free to rain arrows on them from a safe distance for a minute or two before they get free. Luckily combat is usually fairly fast and furious, so fighting is more of a distraction than a major part of the game.
It's not just the creatures of Vvardenfell that look strange and alien, the landscape itself is beautiful and bizarre in equal measures. Huge mountains tower above you, trees grow alongside giant mushrooms and sharp rocks rise out of the ground. Towns vary from your stereotypical half-timbered medieval village to a cluster of tents in the desert or buildings made out of giant insect shells.
The graphics are amongst the best we've seen in a role-playing game to date, but all of this visual splendour has a price. Playing the game on a 32Mb graphics card (the minimum system requirement) is a painful and fog-shrouded experience, and even on a top of the range system with the draw distance set to maximum there is a worrying amount of scenery pop-up on the horizon. On misty days this isn't a big issue, but the sight of an entire building or mountain appearing out of a clear blue sky is disconcerting, and brings back memories of the Ultima Ascension fiasco. And as you look around, objects on the horizon fade in and out of view, because apparently the part of the world which the game draws isn't a perfect sphere centered on your character's head.
The game also suffers from a few bugs, the most annoying of which is the fact that the longer you play Morrowind, the longer it takes to exit the game and return to Windows. The first time this happened I thought the game had locked up, but if you leave it for a few minutes it does eventually manage to shut itself down and return you to the desktop. A rather more sudden return to Windows occurs when the game crashes, which thankfully has only happened a handful of times in a week of solid play. It's a pain when it does happen, but as long as you save frequently it shouldn't be a big problem. Other bugs are less obvious, such as a problem with the auto-mapping system which sometimes causes the game to forget to fill in areas you've visited on the local map. Overall though the game is relatively stable and bug-free, and certainly a big improvement on previous entries in the Elder Scrolls series.
Despite its flaws - over-ambitious graphics, dull combat and a poorly thought out journal - Morrowind is still well worth a look if you have the hardware to handle it. Having spent countless hours on the game in the last week, large sections of the island remain unexplored and many of the optional side quests and faction jobs have yet to be unlocked. Even when you have finished the game, there's still plenty of scope to go back and try again with a radically different character, to join a different set of factions, or to explore every nook and cranny of the ancient ruins that are scattered across the island.
Morrowind is role-playing on a truly epic scale, with an involving if mostly predictable storyline, hundreds of characters to talk to, dozens of tasks to carry out and several square miles of terrain to explore. If you want to lose yourself for a few months, Vvardenfell could be your holiday destination of choice.