Seeing TES: Oblivion in newbreview.com’s Massively Overrated Games You Should Probably Avoid list set me to thinking; about not only the sequel, Skyrim, which is due later this year, but the prequel, Morrowind. I’m not sure I’d put Oblivion in the overrated pile myself (deeply flawed, sure) but Morrowind is my absolute favourite game that received a lukewarm reception on release.
I can understand the hate. Like Acid Golf or Stabby Tetris, Morrowind is a hard, hard game to love. One reason for this is as follows: when you start a new game in Morrowind, you are stuck in a horrible boat with an ugly man. You somehow find your way out of the horrible boat (by clicking on a bit of the ceiling which is apparently a hatch but is virtually imperceptible in the gloom of the horrible boat). You get out on deck, and it’s quite nice in a sort of turn-of-the-century PC way out there, but everything’s very brown. Then you go into the local customs and excise office where you get a load of boring old shit from the town officials.
The game starts off like a bad travel experience, like if Ryanair did sea travel. Your character is a slave being released from bondage at the game’s start, so presumably doesn’t have any luggage to lose, which would have been a great first quest. You finally escape the neon claws of the customs jobsworths and emerge into the world (hello loading times!). The first thing that then happens is that an awful awful little creep called Fargoth comes up and starts giving it all this. We hate Fargoth, but disappointingly, there is no option to tell him this. You try to intimidate him but you don’t really understand why this is somehow failing. You try to punch Fargoth but he fights back and then the fantasy world police get you and you probably load your last save.
So you walk away from the odious little prick this time, and that’s when the game begins to wield its brown, sultry charms. You have a vague quest – go and meet a guy a couple of towns over – but that’s all. You’re in this little swampy shithole called Seyda Neen (that doesn’t really seem to be hopping in this season) but you’re on your own.
Maybe we’re more used to this sort of thing now. Rockstar revolutionised the sandbox approach to gaming, creating a sort-of genre all of its own with GTA and later, Red Dead Redemption. The feeling of being let loose in a world isn’t as boundary-breaking as it used to be. And yet.. and still, there’s something about the way that Morrowind just says “well, there you go; get on with it.” There’s no grand plot in the air (not at the outset, anyway), no glowing trail of breadcrumbs telling you where to go, and – crucially – the world is bloody brutal. Your character is a snivelling wimp to begin with; wander too far outside the damp, presumably-stinking streets of Seyda Neen and you’ll be slaughtered by rats and these.. these, well, penis-monster things.
Actually, and the combat’s rubbish. Really rubbish; you press the button, your guy (or gal) swings his weapon of choice at the penis monster, and if your stats are high enough, it hits. It looks ridiculous. Hilarious. You can use magic too, but again, at low levels, you’re no match for even the gentle, sedate-looking crab-guy-things that wander peacefully on the nearby beaches.
Oh, and the levelling up is arcane and absurd and awful and sort-of brilliant; you level up in each of your skills individually, and when you level up enough skills your character levels up and you get skill multipliers based on whether you levelled enough of your major or minor skills and you don’t really want to hear about any of this and I’m just going to stop talking because a few hours in you’ll be powerful enough to stomp most things into the ground anyway.
Right, so you’ve mastered the awful combat, and started making short sorties away from the town; you’re starting to get the hang of it. You pick up a couple of quests around the town (including a really distressing one where you have to watch Fargoth doing his weird Night Time Things), scope out a few caves nearby, hell; you’ve even killed a giant dismembered penis or two. Go you! Morrowind’s scenery is beautiful, even at these early stages, and that’s a result of some nice imaginative art design despite the low-tech graphical oomph available at the time, and the game’s visuals scale quite nicely despite its age. With that said, it’s far behind Oblivion, and the character models especially look ropey in the extreme. A bit of modding will sort that out though; with some time and effort you can get Morrowind looking quite reasonable indeed, and even add some fancy new fangled graphical effects.
And at some point, you decide to get started on your original quest, and head to the town of Balmora. You can get passage there on a big insect guy for a price, but that’s no fun; be a man and walk, you baby. You big man-baby. This is the equivalent of being asked to walk from Bognor Regis to Portsmouth or something, and you find yourself saving up to buy supplies to take you out into the unknown. And as you turn up to Balmora, probably with a horde of bloodthirsty monsters and wailing birds following you, you feel like a country bumpkin in the big city for the first time; it’s a warm, evocative place, that will eventually be the closest thing you have to a proper home in the gameworld.
You meet your contact, who turns out to be a strange shirtless old man who hangs out in his dirty flat and gives you tasks, and the world flowers open again as you gain access to the guild quests. You play on, you range further outward, into beautiful, ugly, silly landscapes; unimaginative rocky passes filled with those bastard birds; gigantic cities carved from fungi; nomad camps on desolate plains where the sound of wind chimes hangs in the air; a town carved from a great chitinous beast, perpetually shrouded in dust storms; tingling, dangerous ruins of dead civilisations.
There’s too much to talk about really. Some of it great, lots of it tedious, even more of it pointless; but always tinged with a unique and odd atmosphere. There are long, long periods of walking; without the fast travel system of Oblivion or Fallout 3, sometimes you just have to wedge down the ‘forward’ key and get going. Quest objectives are often laughably opaque, and whereas modern games would give you a magic compass or map marker to send you to that special cave containing Fargoth’s Enchanted Nightwear of +2 Sexy, in Morrowind you usually have to make do with a vaguely worded description. Oh it’s between the rock that looks like a bunny and the tree that looks like Richard Nixon? “Well, I guess it kind of looks like a bunny..”
But it somehow feels solid, and real, and perilous; Oblivion actually managed to ruin this feeling of real danger by introducing enemies that scale with you, thereby eliminating the feeling that you might run to real trouble at any second. Not Morrowind: as I said, it’s absolutely brutal. And what I think I love the most it that the world is stupid and a bit broken. You can fly (like an idiot)! Enchant yourself to move at ridiculous speeds! Incite any character to attack you (therefore avoiding prison when you batter them senseless)! Break into homes! Murder the inhabitants! Steal their clothes! Fill their shelves with a collection of enchanted, glowing shoes! Kill God!
And while I would love to end on that note, I have to say a word or two about the Bloodmoon expansion, which is one of the most wonderful environments of any game that I’ve ever played. The island of Solstheim is a desolate, snowy wasteland, possibly a bit kinder to the ageing engine than the main game itself, containing the Morrowind’s most innovative, odd, and funny questing. This is the best reason that I can offer to play Morrowind; to experience one of the finest senses of ‘place’ in a videogame. Many people cite Halo’s Silent Cartographer as King for this; for me, it doesn’t come close to the deadly, eerie, silent island of Solstheim.
- Gareth Lloyd