I have been cynical from afar, which is a polite way of saying I’ve been privately thinking ‘aargh, kill it with fire’ about The Elder Scrolls Online‘s [official site] massively multiplayer recreation of revered singleplayer roleplaying game Morrowind. I didn’t want to be a snob, but the pairing of an MMO hamster wheel with the high watermark of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series read to me a whole lot like adapting chess into a match-3 game.
Two days into the closed beta, and I’m cautiously eating my unspoken words. Which is a mild way of saying that I feel that itch. That itch to spend my every waking moment in it.
Important proviso: this is after just a couple of days, with a focus on generally doing my own thing rather than following its storyline quests or setting myself up for raids. I can’t speak to whether this continues the experience I’ve had so far, or collapses into death by a thousand skillgrinds. I should also say that I’ve never played ESO before, which means both that there’s been a certain pleasure to slowly figuring out its systems and that I can’t say whether the Morrowind add-on improves or undermines the experience to date. All I can say is what two days of play have been like.
Which is… pretty good. Surprisingly good. Not Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind good (because what could be, says the old man in increasing danger of becoming set in his ways), but certainly not ruining any precious memories. Not yet, anyway.
My heart sank during the opening section. A rough tutorial on a small island, guided by a production line-made NPC (an ESO fan-favourite character apparently, but it was hard to understand why) and peopled by silent evil slavers waiting to die. Some of the visual hallmarks of Morrowind were there – the spartan boats, the mushroom-themed flora and fauna – but it could have been AnyRPG, AnyMMO. The mysteries of Morrowind were replaced by drab explanations and directives.
Then I was released from tutorial gaol, and instead found myself somewhere I knew very well. Seyda Neen, the gateway to Vvardenfell. I have been here before, several times. This is where TESIII: Morrowind begins. This is where I created my characters. This is where I choose a direction and run towards it in search of adventure.
A humble, rickety harbour town in TESIII, but more bustling and a little more colourful here. Given ESO is set several hundred years before Morrowind, this is perhaps appropriate even if it is a mite jarring. Still feels like home. It’s supposed to.
Weaponised nostalgia. ESO: Morrowind is that incarnate. Its primary purpose is to reel in people like me. I know what it’s doing, I’m not entirely comfortable with it because I don’t want to be PC games’ equivalent of a Q reader, but by God it’s working.
TESIII: Morrowind had something its successors, Oblivion and Skyrim did not, which was a palpable and near-constant sense of strangeness. That this was a truly alien land, not merely a set of artfully-realised fantasy tropes. It paired this with an admirably hands-off approach.
Sure, the endless in-game tomes full of dry lore were there for those who can stomach them, but otherwise it set out its stall carefully, spooling story in quietly from the edges rather than in-your-face and, most of all, revealing little about how to play and how to survive.
Oblivion and Skyrim retained these qualities, but both streamlined them and amped up the (still optional) central plot elements, losing the sense of uncertainty and of being an outsider in the process. ESO: Morrowind gets to use literally the same environments as Morrowind, which is perhaps a bit like cheating but, I feel, gives it a real edge. Just exploring with no particular agenda has been joy. Or maybe it is just the nostalgia talking. Who knows?
I’ve played ESO: Morrowind entirely as singleplayer game so far, and other than in the occasional appearance of other players I can effectively ignore, it seems to have aggressively gone out of its way to let me play it like that. I imagine things might be a little different once the add-on goes public, however, as this closed beta has only a limited pool of players. I suspect I’m going to feel sad if the whole place feels flooded with other people, because loneliness is key to a Morrowind experience.
That’s the thing: I don’t particularly want Morrowind: the MMO. I just want more Morrowind. The beta experience has been that, sort of.
Once I’m away from tutorial island, I am free to go wherever I choose, as ESO auto-scales its baddies to character level rather than gates progress to zones by enemy toughness, WoW-style. Wherever I choose, is, of course, Morrowind’s most renowned sights: the mushroom towers, the crabshell houses, the pyramids of Vivec, the canals of Balmora. All rendered in far more detail and with nicer lighting than ever before, and though the odd texture and particularly the characters don’t stand up to unblinking scrutiny, the overall picture of the landscape is frequently beautiful.
I’ve been taking an awful lot of screenshots, which is always a good sign that I’ve fallen under the spell of a game’s environments. Feels like home. Maybe a little too busy and without that weirdly stark quality, sorely lacking in the way of compelling conversations and sadly short on TESIII’s myriad ways of bending the delightfully wibbly-wobbly rules. But there is a Morrowindiness here for sure.
Mechanically, it’s not the same as TESIII, in which your character began as an almost completely blank slate, your skills improving depending upon the actions you took. It’s not as distant from that as I might have expected, however. I have to pick a broad class – wizard, warrior, rogue, druid archetypes – right off the bat, but my choice of equipment, playstyle and factional alignments as I explore unlocks a whole mess of other skill trees.
In that, it feels fairly Elder Scrollsy, though I imagine that raiding and PVP necessitates tedious min-maxing rather than experimentation. Me, though, I’m doing what I usually do – playing the thief, with a side order of haphazard crafting.
It’s a strange sensation, to be picking locks and pockets within an MMO. Both because other players can see me do it and because, with no save function in a living game, there are no undos if I’m caught. Stealth itself is a bit wonky – even more so than in a mainline TES – but I do like the risk of it.
Get caught nicking and you’ll end up with a minor bounty on your head. Refuse to pay it (and hand over any stolen items) if you run into a guard and you’ll end up with a major bounty on your head, and a death warrant to boot. There’s a choice between pushing this as far as you can for shits and giggles, or steering clear or towns and/or employing stealth to wait it out – the bounty expires eventually. All credit to ESO for pulling this off in an MMO – because, er, it lets me play ESO as if it weren’t an MMO.
Here’s the critical thing to all this: I’ve had to forcibly stop myself from playing more of the beta, because I know that all progress will be wiped when it moves to a release, and I don’t want to waste the time investment. But I want to keep playing.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s stuff I’m not keen on – I haven’t enjoyed the dialogue, many of the respawning monsters incline towards the generic, character movement and combat feels a bit artificial and there’s a distracting layer of MMO metagame and microtransaction guff throughout – yer archetypal ludonarrative dissonance, there (Drink! -Ed). For all that, I’m having a passably Elder Scrollsy experience in a prettied-up Vvardenfell, and right now that turns out to be exactly how I want to spend my time.
The Silt Striders look magnificent, too. Sadly, no real-time rides on them, but just the sight of them brings a certain sense of rightness to my world.
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.