How Morrowindy is Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind?

I will admit to a certain wateriness in my eyes when I heard the music. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was and is, I believe, almost more a state of mind than it is a roleplaying game. A strange and desolate place, built upon a foundation of distrust, it is almost aggressively lonely. As an RPG, the precursor to Oblivion and Skyrim is all over the shop, but that never mattered because it was a place to disappear into. The mist, the mushrooms, the menace. The music. Elder Scrolls games since have been playgrounds first and Other Places second, and I don’t know how they can go back now.

Going back is exactly the plan. Morrowind is a standalone expansion-cum-relaunch of The Elder Scrolls Online [official site] (ESO), Bethesda’s massively multiplayer spin-off of the series that gave us Skyrim. It’s due for release this June and I’ve taken a look.

ESO: Morrowind is designed as a clean entry point for new players, and also to dangle the juicy carrot of nostalgia in front of series veterans who have hitherto regarded ESO with deep suspicion. I was, I admit, unconvinced this could work. I’ve never spent any time with ESO, because from afar its initial release version seemed too routine an MMO for my tastes. Though I do hear it has made great strides since launch, there has been nothing to compel me to visit.

Then I saw Vvardenfell again.

Vvardenfell is the specific region of Morrowind that the game is set in. Vvardenfell is where I first saw towering, skinny-legged Silt Striders and towns built inside enormous crab carapaces, where I levitated over a live volcano and where I met the last dwarf in the world. Vvardenfell is a place of ash and fungus, blighted and desolate, lonely and low-tech. Vvandenfell is home.

A home, anyway. One of my many videogames homes – places I need to see only a screenshot of to recognise them, places that I feel I lived in rather than where I merely played tourist for a time. Age has not been kind to The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, though mods have provided reliable life support for quite some time. I always want to go back once again, but increasingly worry that, this time, the slings and arrows of outrageous technological advancement will have done too much damage and I will only ruin my precious memories.

Perhaps Elder Scrolls Online’s Morrowind is the answer. It is a meticulous recreation of Vvardenfell in a newer, prettier engine. While I do not expect 1:1 parity, it apparently covers the same “footprint” as the original game, with a flyby video showing Vvardernfell’s greatest hits. In a few cases, there was perhaps a little too much colour and life compared to the bleached and empty places of yore, but in others my breath did briefly catch in my throat. “I know that place. That is my place.” My place lavishly recreated, and prettier than ever. Perhaps a little too pretty against the murky, mist-choked lands of yore, although I am conscious of mounting rockist impulses that I should bat away for my own good.

And there is the music. An elaborate orchestral rendition of the comparatively skeletal original theme; sure, I prefer the simpler arrangement of the older version, but damn, take me home.

All of sudden, I want to play Elder Scrolls Online more than anything, although for Morrowind I must wait until June. The spell is somewhat broken when the videos switch to show action rather than landscape flybys, and the MMO-iness becomes unavoidable. A buzzing hive of exaggerated spell effects, the high-speed, puppety motion of third-person character models swiping at each other, gigantic Dwemer-tech bosses that seem straight out of the Blizzard playbook…

I won’t lie, it’s a far cry from the subdued Morrowind of memory. At least when the camera switches to first-person it looks significantly more restrained though, and it should be noted that the Team-America-does-Riverdance quality is far less pronounced in solo or small group play than it is in the PvP battlegrounds I know that I shall never play.

For stranger-danger types like me, thirty hours of story, split between main and side quests, is promised, in a Vvardenfell set 700 years before the events of TES3. There is complete freedom to explore if preferred, as, unlike its more WoW-like structure at launch, ESO now scales its zones and enemies to the player’s level – more comparable to how it works in mainline Elder Scrollses.

If you do want plot, the major tale is that Vivec, one of the three ‘Tribunal’ mortal gods who govern Vvardenfell, is sickening. If he dies, Morrowind is doomed, for various reasons involving volcanoes and giant space-rocks, so quest-y type players will embark upon a mission to save him. Though chronology-wise this happens hundreds of years before TES3, it would seem that the broader demographics of Vvardenfell have not changed.

The main race is still the Dunmer (Elder Scrolls’ take on Dark Elves), the key cities at least remain (I saw Balmora, Vivec, Sadrith Mora and Ald’ruhn in the demos), the Telvanni, Dres and Redoran houses are still locked in cold war, and it seems there’ll be a big focus on insectoid monsters and spelunking into Dwemer/dwarf ruins.

So far, so Morrowind, although there are switch-ups here and there. For instance, the city of Vivec is still mid-construction and thus not quite as large, while the woken god inside the volcano, centrepiece of Morrowind’s main questline, is still counting sheep at this point in the timeline. I think I look forward to the subtle and not-so-subtle differences more than I do treading familiar streets – I want surprises, not a museum.

That is a lie. I yearn to stride along the short bridges that connect the two halves of Balmora once again.

I am relieved to hear that I will be able to play as a level one character, with no experience of the rest of ESO required. A clean beginning, with a new tutorial promised for those who are only here for Vvardenfell, though ESO veterans are just as able to bring their existent characters over, and will appreciate that their questing involves Naryu Virian, a long-standing and apparently beloved ESO NPC.

The developers talk about a new character class, the Warden, who combines group healing abilities with the option to summon various animals, including the notorious Cliffracers (temporary) and a magic bear (permanent), to fight for him. Like the new 12-man raid in Soltha Sil’s Clockwork City and the three new PvP battlegrounds (a quarry, a Dwemer ruin, a Daedric ruin), this is for long-standing ESO players rather than newcomers. I’m afraid I can be of little use to those people, for all I want is to be a lonely soul with a simple dagger and a predilection for burglary, not a walking Las Vegas revue.

Following an unusual close to the demo, in which the assembled journalists watch another journalist/self-described ESO mega-fan pose primarily PVP-related queries to the developers, I am able to ask a question of my own. “I want to ask about Silt Striders,” I begin, knowingly, and pause for an audience chuckle that does not come. “Are… are they in the game?”

I am bewildered that the towering, louse-like creatures used by Vvardenfell’s denizens to quickly travel along its waterways, have not been mentioned, and do not seem to be the first thought on anyone else’s mind. Morrowind is not Morrowind without Silt Striders. I am relieved when the reply comes – yes, there are Silt Striders. And yes, they can be used for travel. Only fast travel though, as in TES3. We will not get a sightseeing tour of the island from atop their chitinous backs. My heart sinks, just a little. Real-time Silt Strider travel is all I ever wanted from any Morrowind remake.

Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind is not a Morrowind remake. It is Morrowind’s land rebuilt inside a different game. I will go there, I will thrill to that music and I will walk across those bridges in Balmora. I will see towns built inside impossibly large shells, I will traipse through mushroom forests and I will feel lost in Vivec. I relish that prospect, deeply. Yet I do not know what I shall find.

The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind is due for release on June 6. It will be sold as both a standalone purchase and an add-on for the base game, and in either case does not require a subscription, although various in-game payment and subscription options will be available for those who desire them.

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44 Comments

  1. Rinox says:

    Just when I thought I would never play an MMORPG again.

    The prospect of returning to Morrowind is pretty damn appealing…

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    subdog says:

    Important litmus test: Do the dunmer have gravelly voices?

  3. RedViv says:

    Boy am I ever glad these heroes saved Vivec from dying and prevented a catastrophic crash of the Ministry of Truth and that certainly nothing like it will ever come to pass after.

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      Seyda Neen says:

      Skyrim’s main plot was also about merely delaying the inevitable. You can only save the world for so long, it seems.

      • Coming Second says:

        Rather as is the case in World of Warcraft. It’s almost as if game devs default to this kind of fluff, because it means a sequel can always be cooked up.

  4. geldonyetich says:

    At least there will be no mob shortages with all the cliff racers.

    • Seafoam says:

      Lore wise, saint Jiub drove all the cliffracers out of morrowind (yes, that Jiub). ESO is set in the past so they can terrorize players free from plotholes.

      • Jinoru says:

        And I thought that guy couldn’t get any cooler. Reading his Wiki page makes me smile big. Amazing.

  5. badmothergamer says:

    I still jump in Morrowind with the overhaul installed along with abot’s silt strider mod which has real time travel, then just sit back and enjoy the view traveling from town to town. Morrowind was my first RPG and nothing has come close to matching the feeling since, so even though I have little desire to play through it all again, just admiring the scenery is still a great joy.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Qazinsky says:

    Having spent some time with ESO and based on the mention of burglary, I can just cofirm that, yes, stealing stuff is already in the game and also works quite good.

    Now, having EVERYTHING in the game pickupable as in the TES games would probably be too demanding for an MMO engine, but there is food lying or hanging around cities that you can swipe. Stores also tend to have display items to pocket, gear tends to be your current level, so stealing yourself some starter armor is possible.

    Mostly though, it’s about containers, there’s the standard type, barrels, drawers, they contain personal loot, so feel free to take that sword, the other guy looting wont see it. The other kind though, is lockboxes, those are oneshot, so one person unlocking and taking it will make it disappear. I am decently sure that only one person can have them open at the time though, so no sneaky ninja will take the content of your lockbox.

    The NPCs and guards will react poorly to you stealing stuff though, if they see it, looking is free, examine any barrel or chest you find, they only get angry when you TAKE stuff or pick locks. Stolen stuff needs to be taken to a fence or guards will take them off you if you get caught commiting a crime.

    All in all, while it might not be exactly like stealing in TES, I think they’ve made a great system for an MMO, and I usually make a circuit or two around town between quest sessions to make myself some gold and hopefully a coveted race style crafting book.

  7. cpt_freakout says:

    Great write-up, Alec! You made me feel a bit nostalgic for all those hours spent walking all over Vvardenfell, once upon a time. I gotta admit Skyrim came close for me, when it came to walking into memorable places. Anyway, you even tempted me to try this thing, even though I haven’t enjoyed an MMO for ages now… thanks!

  8. Dogshevik says:

    Feeling similar to the author. The longing for Vvardenfell is there. And strong. I would be lying if I´d say I am not tempted.
    (Hell, I do not even want to know how much time I have spent to collect and read all the in-game books in TES3)

    But as the author also says: It isn´t Morrowind, it is a different game. And that game is a MMORPG. I won´t hide my bias here. MMORPGs ruin everything that you love in your favourite IP.

    No matter how much time the developers invested in creating a dense atmosphere or a gripping storyline…it crumbles to dust in split seconds in face of constantly jumping, trash-talking and generally annoying “fellow players”.
    Paying customers this business model -needs-. That is what the MM in MMORPG stands for.

    The special effects galore I could close my eyes to. The jerky animations I could ignore. (Maybe) But not the immersion-breaking.

    Away with you, you vile mirage! I can see through your false promises and lies.

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      Seyda Neen says:

      It should be noted that you never have to hear anything any other player says, ever, in ESO. You can disable floating-above-head text and can immediately create your own private chat channel with no one else in it. The chat window disappears due to inactivity and every time you login it’ll default to that channel.

      You still have to deal with the other players running around of course, you just don’t have to listen to them.

      Edit – Total coincidence that I changed my name to Seyda Neen before this article. -_-

      • Dogshevik says:

        This is actually a step in the right direction for those who are easily annoyed by typical multiplayer shennanigans. At least it is a workaround.

        But telling from experience in other MMORPGs as long as other players can interact with you or the world around you they will find a way to get on your nerves. You can count on that.
        If everything else fails then by incessantly pulling levers, locking or slamming doors into the faces of other players or purposefully littering the ground to paint private parts. (Yes, I laughed at the last one, too.)
        Behaviour like this seems to be a natural byproduct of the medium. In the end I guess everyone has to decide for himself if a game is good enough to put up with stuff like this.

        On a related note I do wonder if any of the modern MMORPGs actually offer to rent a private server/instance so you could play them with your friends only. Haven´t been following the latest developments, to be honest.

        • cqdemal says:

          None of that has happened in my 50 hours so far in ESO.

          In fact, the main quest actually requires solo play. The guild quests are also solo-only.

          The most immersion breaking thing in ESO for me is the overly colorful getup some high-level players have. It just looks a tiny bit too fancy and tips over into generic fantasy territory sometimes.

          • funky_mollusk says:

            I found that actually partying up was harder than soloing. I was playing with a friend and I accidentally took a crafting quest and we were suddenly in different instances (no longer grouped together).

            Player shenanigans aren’t too bad actually. there’s a lot of people RPing. The immersion-breaking stuff came in different ways.

            If you think of it as a really polished, 3rd-person diablo-style game you’ll probably enjoy it a lot more. it’s not really a TES game.

          • cqdemal says:

            It’s both true and not true when you say “this is not really a TES game.” I mean… mechanically it’s all wrong but they got enough of the art right, and the flow from one quest hub to another is very much reminiscent of what I spent hundreds of hours doing in Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim.

            It feels like the charm of Tamriel wasn’t entirely lost in translation, and that was enough to keep me hooked.

  9. Ghostwise says:

    “Team America does Riverdance” unreasonably cracked me up.

  10. Chaoslord AJ says:

    Morrowind is one of the few games where you really enter a foreign people, their language, weird politics and culture other than on the shallow base of well they are elves and live in trees and so on like cheap Tolkien copies (and then there are dwarves living in a mine and so on)
    Never really been done that good again. There are small termite creatures and then they produce edible stuff and the dunmer mine them like in an industry and poach their eggs and so on, splendid.
    Or the Nerevar backstory with the two conflicting reports and the tribunal church of Nerevar. The three ruling houses.
    Lore is really good not that derivative standard fantasy fare bs.
    Or the ash storms. Or the bad way descriptions. Or levitation. Or the way everyone is killable like Vivec. One of my favorite gaming memories.

    While ESO is pretty good, it also gets boring and grindy playing as single player so I won’t go back for nostalgia.

  11. Sin Vega says:

    I tried to install this but every time I clicked on the button it kept counting it as a miss

  12. Someoldguy says:

    “Team-America-does-Riverdance” What a glorious turn of phrase!

  13. Vedharta says:

    But does it have books?

    • cqdemal says:

      It does. The base game already has plenty of books. Each bookshelf counts as just one book though.

      In fact, you “level up” in the Mages Guild not by fighting baddies but by finding lore books scattered in the world.

  14. Rosveen says:

    “gigantic Dwemer-tech bosses that seem straight out of the Blizzard playbook…”

    You’re trying too hard to find flaws in this game. If you’re referring to 1:19, it’s just a larger centurion, most likely a trial boss. Perfectly lore-friendly and in line with other Dwemer constructs, which range from commonplace small spiders to a gigantic god-golem capable of breaking time itself.

    • Rosveen says:

      Also,
      “the Telvanni, Dres and Redoran houses are still locked in cold war”

      It’s Hlaalu, not Dres.

  15. frobishlumpkin says:

    I’ve found ESO a lot less MMO-y than it looks. The sharpness of writing and voice-acting go a long way toward that.

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    particlese says:

    Thanks so much for asking about the silt striders! I guess it would be fun to see them in action, but the travel was always something I was content to leave to my imagination, and I don’t feel any differently now. I’m just really glad they’re in and presumably making their voices heard a mile away.

    ***

    I think I said something similar upon seeing the cinematic trailer, but so much moreso after watching this new trailer: I plan to just hit the walk button and go back to slowly exploring ESO. Slowly exploring a younger Vvardenfell! I’m already enjoying ESO immensely for many of the things it has to offer, and exploration is one of those things which really worked well for me in this game. (N.b.: The presence of people bouncing about and shooting down netches willy-nilly is something I find tolerable and occasionally entertaining, depending on the circumstances, but others will not. Here’s hoping Zenimax’ll do another free weekend on or soon after release so prospective players can decide based on first-hand experience.)

    • funky_mollusk says:

      re: silt-striders

      I love the fact that they “drive” them by manipulating their exposed nerve-endings in the hollowed out bit of carapace where the passengers ride.

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    distantlurker says:

    Gorram it Alec! I’d just convinced myself to stay away (thank you commentor ‘williamarthurfenton’ over on the Eurogamer article for explaining the game only feels Morrowindy in 1st person, but the MMO mechanics work poorly in 1st) and now you’ve gone and got my nostalgia gland all swollen and leaky.

    Swollen and Leaky Alec! and it’s all your fault!

  18. GCEism says:

    Great article.

    Also was that ‘Other Places’ a cheeky reference to Andy Kelly’s video series?

  19. Neuromancing the Boil says:

    Inclusion of silt striders is great (and I definitely would’ve laughed), but there’s another important question: Are silt striders the only way to fast travel besides magic? Because if you can just click on your map and zap there, then this ESO thing needs to get off my damn lawn.

    (If they had a version without level scaling, this would definitely be my first MMORPG. Alas!)

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      Seyda Neen says:

      Judging by the shot of Vivec Temple in the trailer, there’s still the waypoint system where you can travel to any waypoint from any other waypoint (they’re all over the map in other zones), or travel to any one from wherever you are for a fee. But they may have reduced the amount of waypoints in Vvardenfell for the sake of other travel methods, I’m not sure.

    • Rosveen says:

      The level scaling actually made ESO much more similar to other TES games than it was at launch. Instead of following a linear path determined by your level, you can freely explore and move between zones. This is what Elder Scrolls games are about. If you want a solo challenge, you can still find it in some world bosses, Craglorn or group dungeons (the easier ones can be soloed).

  20. Lachlan1 says:

    Oh no…now nostalgia for morrowind will keep this PoS running for even longer and delay elder scrolls 6 further. Yes I know it’s different studios but, based on previous release intervals, ES6 is already overdue, and it won’t be out until they’re done milking this thing. Source: Warcraft 4

  21. Kala says:

    “A strange and desolate place, built upon a foundation of distrust, it is almost aggressively lonely. As an RPG, the precursor to Oblivion and Skyrim is all over the shop, but that never mattered because it was a place to disappear into. The mist, the mushrooms, the menace. The music. Elder Scrolls games since have been playgrounds first and Other Places second, and I don’t know how they can go back now.”

    Very well-put. Mirrors my feelings exactly.

    “I always want to go back once again, but increasingly worry that, this time, the slings and arrows of outrageous technological advancement will have done too much damage and I will only ruin my precious memories.”

    Also my worry =(

    (Particularly having my home overrun with fools, like EmperorEpicDongIII and so on ;p)

  22. caff says:

    I’m intrigued. Lost interest in my character when I played this at launch way back when, but saw enough to realise it had promise. Starting again in Morrowindland might be enough to draw me back.

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    zigguratvertigo says:

    “Morrowindy” is a beautiful adjective.

  24. ZippyLemon says:

    This trailer exemplifies why The Elder Scrolls has sucked post-Morrowind. Only a few writers ever gave a shit about the world they were creating; the mentality at Bethesda seems to otherwise be “draw them in with whatever the fantasy flavour of the month is”.

    I mean when they had zero ideas for how to realise Skyrim, they tried to spin dragons into something revolutionary. DRAGONS. Bunch of utter mugs.