Why The Elder Scrolls Series Has Yet To Top Morrowind
Morrowind truly punished anyone who played it and it was absolutely amazing for it.
There are few games that I like more than Morrowind. A game that threw you into its large, intimidating world with no tools and nothing to go on other than you needed to head to a place called Balmora.
After leaving the town hall where you selected a class and ability from long lists, you walk through a small, dusty town, passing a giant, seemingly docile bug creature and head out of town towards the destination. If you go down the wrong route or head off the beaten path, you will either have to be incredibly aware or gifted with luck. Morrowind gives no fucks about killing you or leaving you lost in the wilderness.
I loved it.
Twenty minutes in, I encountered an individual who had fallen to the earth carrying an advanced jumping scroll. Apparently, he had been meddling with spells, leading to his unfortunate death. Not one to shy away from twice burned, I cast the spell, jump a thousand foot into the air, land half way across the map and die.
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No regrets, but a lot of time wasted. Morrowind regularly dropped these large side quests out of nowhere that could easily kill you. Experimentation is not just invited, it is thrust upon you, even if it kills you multiple times in the process.
On the next playthrough, I saved not long after the start, took note of my surroundings, picked up the scroll and headed towards my destination.
During my first twenty or so hours, I had to spend a lot of time looking back at directional instructions in a journal, backtracking to check road signs and keeping track of my location. Getting lost is incredibly easy, especially when you can become side-tracked or pushed off track when fighting nearby foes.
Yet, for me, a large part of the fun of any open world RPG is becoming immersed in the world, following the stories, understanding the characters. Take this away, and it becomes less of an adventure and more of an action game.
The two sequels that followed, Oblivion and Skyrim, were more focused on offering streamlined game mechanics that were easier to understand and less demanding. For many fans, these changes diminished from the experience.
One of the biggest areas that was changed in the sequels was allowing free exploration. Even fifteen years on, Morrowind’s open world environments are just as inviting as they were back in 2002 and the player is free to roam however they please: flying, jumping far distances, teleporting or sprinting so quickly that you cause screen tearing.
It didn’t matter if you wanted to do something broken; this was your sandbox and you were free to explore it however the hell you please.
Sadly, the two sequels were not as willing to allow such exploratory motivations, bounding gamers to a more reigned in set of abilities. No longer could you reach the summit of the highest mountain through levitation, make a spell that would kill everyone within a 50-metre radius, or jump across the ludicrously large map in a couple of seconds.
Setting the scene
In both of Morrowind’s sequels, the number of specialised skills you could train decreased as more focus was placed on streamlining the core gameplay, making it less intimidating for casual players. Reducing the previously large pool of character types, magic classes and weapons you could train.
This was annoying as I liked that I could be an expert in shorthand weapons, acrobatics and various other abilities. When you are only allowed a limited ability to customise magic and weapons, the line between RPG and adventure starts to become blurred.
Variety variety variety
I loved that the developers made each race not just aesthetically unique but also have their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Lessening the importance of this attribute in the two sequels feel less challenging and enjoyable to replay.
Every time I play Morrowind, I always choose a race that I previously haven’t used and attempt to master them. There is a real sense of reward of completing the game using different races to the ones I feel comfortable using.
In my last playthrough, this was High Elves, as I tend to be a physical run and gun type of guy, so dealing with not only being weak to physical attacks but also numerous magic ones made the gameplay for more challenging.
Lucky number six
Another quality that I liked about Morrowind was that your chance of hitting an opponent was mixed with an algorithm that calculated based on your current skill level with an ability. At lower levels, your chance of missing with a magical ability, conversational persuasion, or weapons is high and, as you progress with a skill, the chance of failure decreases.
To an extent at least. Sometimes you could defeat an enemy by landing four or five successive blows, then a critical and it is good night for that foe. On other occasions, you would miss every time and would die an unfair death.
For me, this is part and parcel of playing an RPG. You know you occasionally suffer from an unfair situation so you accommodate by training your honing your abilities to lessen these unfair situations, carry an extra potion and run like hell when required.
To take away this quality strips away an inherent quality of RPG and made the two sequels fights feel progressively similar to one another.
Oblivion’s auto levelling
Perhaps more baffling than anything else, Oblivion included an auto-leveling mechanic that ruined my ability to enjoy the game. As you level up in any RPG, one of the joys is slowly becoming more powerful than the units around you.
You can go back to previous areas and slay enemies with ease if you needed to head to a particular goal. Not in Oblivion, though, as creatures become more powerful as you level, meaning that if you chose to focus on classes such as thief or conversation, you will be at a huge disadvantage in battle, potentially ruining the experience.
Architecture and environmental design
This was another biggie for me. Yes, Skyrim is beautiful to look at and watching dragons fly above is a spectacle, but I never felt the same sense of awe of the overgrown tree root spires in Vos, the floating castle in Vivec City or floating up through a long cylindrical tube in Sadrith Mora.
Not only were these places beautiful to look at, but you can see those who inhabit these environments as you float casually up to the next floor.
Variety was key and exploration was a necessity. If you lent against a certain wall, it may open, revealing a secret passage. Stand around in a corner of a city and you may encounter an invisible person who can not undo a potion requiring assistance.
This may be the biggest reason why you can find thousands of videos of HD Morrowind or Skywind (Morrowind bumped up in Skyrim graphical engine). Morrowind was magical from start to finish. The world felt like a place inhabited by numerous different races, unlike the drab, overly familiar locales of Oblivion or Skyrim.
I don’t recall using teleportation. Yet, there I was. Alone. Naked.
Fifteen years on, no other RPG has left such a strong impression in my mind. The world was beautiful; the story was rich and detailed, and the RPG mechanics were expansive and well thought out.
Quite an achievement, especially since the game only received 80 to low 90 percent from most critics at the time.
This is not to downplay either Skyrim or Oblivion as they are great games, but it is just that I never felt them to be as impressive due to them being less imaginative, as an RPG fan, the limited attribute system was less appealing.
Morrowind is a game that I can replay time and time again without becoming bored. As much as I love Skyrim, I have found it becomes less rewarding with each successive playthrough and, as for Oblivion, it is a fun game if you can ignore the auto levelling mechanic. For me, I’d rather fight a thousand Cliff Racers than replay Oblivion.