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Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind


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 Thursdays are Game Day at sffworld, so we thought we’d start by celebrating this week’s big release while also looking back at its precursor. We can only be talking about one game – The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, of course.

Lucky American readers may already be exploring the forested world of Cyrodiil, which means they almost certainly won’t have time to pause and read sffworld. For the rest of us that are still impatiently waiting, this is a perfect time to return to the previous chapter in the series, Morrowind, which brought the Elder Scrolls to the mainstream.

Amalgam

Released in 2002 on both PC and Xbox, Morrowind amazed some and mystified others with its massively freeform structure and mixture of first-person action with RPG mechanics. Other than Deus Ex (and, of course, the first two Elder Scrolls games) there hadn’t been many games that attempted to meld so many genres together – even today there’s only been a handful.

For some the experience proved to be frustrating, awkward and unplayable, with a clumsy interface, unresponsive combat and an overly-simplistic stealth system frustrating them before they’d even left the first village. The game’s huge hardware requirements didn’t help matters, with dubious coding resulting in a choice between view distances of a few metres or crippling framerates.

Given all its faults, Morrowind is a perfect example of a game being greater than the sum of its parts. All of the above criticisms are true but, to those who understood, none of them mattered one bit. Sure, the stealth wasn’t as good as Thief. The combat wasn’t a patch on Half Life. Hardcore role-players would claim that the stats weren’t as comprehensive as Neverwinter Nights or as involving as Fallout or Baldur’s Gate. But put all these disparate elements together in a single game and you had something truly special.

Silt striders on the horizon

The triumph of Morrowind becomes frighteningly clear about 15 minutes into the game. You’ve been through the cleverly interwoven character creation process, which saw you paraded before the bureaucrats of the Empire before being shoved unceremoniously out the door into Seyda Neen, a small fishing village.

Across the water you can see a gigantic insect on long stilts, and beyond that hills are dotted with exotic plants and trees, while clouds move slowly through the blue sky overhead. Suddenly you realise that you are free to do anything. You could deliver a package to another town a few miles away, as ordered. Or you could break into somebody’s house and steal their food. You could talk and barter with the locals, pickpocket them or simply stab them in the arm. If you felt like exploring, you could run to the hills and get into trouble. You could go diving for pearls, or collect plants for spellmaking. It was as much freedom as had ever been seen in a game.

Tamriel’s library

Morrowind was all about the experience, of being enveloped in a world. Given the technical limitations, the developers achieved this through detailed dialogue and a huge number of in-game books rather than flashy graphics. The wealth of literature available to read in the game creates a social, political and religious depth rarely seen in the medium – the architecture, the clothing, even the level design and world map all resonates and makes sense, given the larger significance of the Elder Scrolls’ fictional history.

The size of the game’s literary universe is rivalled only by the amount of game content, which is estimated in the hundreds of hours. Having bought it more-or-less on release, I have barely explored even half of the world map. This shouldn’t be mistaken for an unsatisfying experience, though, as the sense of achievement is strong, thanks to the carefully structured quest lines. It means that you can play the game for as long or as little as you like – ideal for role-players.

At the gates of Oblivion

Which brings us neatly to 2006, and Oblivion. While Morrowind came largely out of nowhere to surprise gamers, Oblivion has found itself one of the most anticipated games of the year, with both PC and Xbox 360 players regarding it as a must-have title. From advanced word and early reviews, it would seem that Bethesda has taken careful note of the criticism aimed at their previous work.

The graphics have had a major overhaul, now sitting comfortably next to the premier titles on either platform. Stealth has been vastly upgraded thanks to input from one of the designers on the Thief series. Combat is now a more direct and visceral affair, melding both the action sensibilities of a first-person shooter with the cerebral, strategic elements of a stat-based RPG. The population has been imbued with what the PR people are terming ‘Radiant AI’ – in practise, it will hopefully mean that everybody you stumble across behaves in a mostly interesting manner.

Just about every aspect seems to have been tweaked or overhauled entirely. Presuming the solid elements of Morrowind have been retained intact, there is every chance that Oblivion could be something very, very special indeed.

We’ll all find out soon enough and you’ll see an official sffworld review of the game in the near future. Given the immense scope of Elder Scrolls games we’re intending to keep an eye on this one for a while after release, observing how the gameplay evolves over time with a series of articles. So be sure to check back on Game Day as our Journeys through Cyrodiil series kicks off in a couple of weeks!

Simon 'Tarn' Jones © 2006

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