Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind is scratching that itch

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.

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17 Comments

  1. jellydonut says:

    What is a ‘Q reader’?

    • Premium User Badge

      Mungrul says:

      Q’s an English music magazine for old farts with surgically attached rose-tinted glasses and a deep love of Eric Clapton.

  2. Daymare says:

    Look, I’ll be honest here: I had no interest in this game. But would’ve bought it if there was real-time silt strider riding in it.

    Btw, TESV Skyrim: Dragonborn scratched some of my Morrowind-related itch, I felt.

  3. mcnostril says:

    Those silt striders bug me way more than they should.
    The legs are all wrong and they don’t have that same passive mammoth feel. It looks like a silt strider designed by someone who has been told what they are but never saw them.
    It’s basically just a giant harvestman now.

    • Ushao says:

      For me it’s mainly the leg positions. They don’t quite give them that sense of massiveness. But also the general shape of the body doesn’t work for me.

    • Sin Vega says:

      I prefer the new legs. In Morrowind they always looked to me like they limply hanging off a hovering carapace and not (and were not even capable of) taking any of the creature’s weight. It wasn’t even clear how they’d walk on them, unless by gliding impossibly forward without taking any steps. Here they look like they have some mechanical strength.

  4. Your Envy says:

    I too have been playing this beta…so far…it’s more the same ole ESO. I even started a new character. Not trying to be hater, but it still seems like the same ESO quests on a new map. There are some nice things like new mobs to kill…and the artwork is awesome. It’s the underpinnings of the game that are still there – if you’ve played ESO and are curious about Morrowind – don’t get too hyped – you’ve already seen this…

  5. Furiant says:

    I’ll chime in to rant about my disappointment with ESO.

    I got a couple characters to level cap, but I just couldn’t dedicate myself to it long-term. My idea of fun is with a good group, and ESO seems to actively discourage grouping. Guilds are basically glorified chat channels. The leveling experience is 99% solo, and trying to level with a friend was frustrating, as it’s hard to stay in tandem with quest objectives. The dungeon group mechanics are also very un-team-like; more like a few people soloing beside each other.

    I’ve played progression raid healers for something like 16 years and ESO’s healer experience was the worst by far, missing fundamental UI tools like being able to quickly gauge unit status effects, the presence and time of your own buffs and effects, etc. There are clunky addons out there that improve it somewhat, but not nearly enough.

    I found the world building to be very well done — some of the best I’ve seen. But overall it was a single player game with trappings of MMOs, and being in a group was like escorting 5 insane, suicidal, glitchy NPCs with your UI turned off.

    I wanted to love it as ES-with-other-people, but it didn’t seem to want to be loved that way.

    • Arglebargle says:

      Bethesda’s big mistake was following the lead designer’s intent to have the game be Dark Age of Camelot with an Elder Scrolls skin. Unfortunately, the greatest player base were folks who loved Morrowind, Skyrim, (or even Oblivion); and weren’t interested in the procrustean bed style that the designers attempted to force into the game.

      I quit playing because it was almost impossible to organize simple play sessions with my friends. I understand ESO has gotten a little better about that now, but all my friends have quit playing as well. Oops.

      I’ll go back to ESO Morrowind at some point, but not now.

  6. poliovaccine says:

    This is one of only two MMOs I’ve ever been seriously interested in (the other being EVE) but I realize it’s just as the author here says – it’s not that I want a Morrowind MMO, I just want to revisit Morrowind. Gotta say, the idea that it can still feel and play like a singleplayer game is probably the biggest draw for me right now.

    All that said, one thing sticks out to me, and that is… seriously, no real-time silt strider rides?? Isn’t that, like, the first thing anybody ever wanted from Morrowind since it was *new?* I have a mod on for it of course (because I still have an active playthrough in the original Morrowind, of course), but seriously, I can’t even fathom a whole team of people getting to work on a Morrowind remake and not all collectively cheering, “Yess! Time to build the silt strider rides we’ve always wanted!”

    I think if that *had* been in the game already, I’d be in the process of buying this game right fuggen now. Even so, seeing that graphically revamped rendition of Seyda Neen has got my nostalgia gland swollen to the point of involuntary discharge!

  7. empty_other says:

    My biggest gripe with this game was the building scale. I feel like a miniature in the lands of giants. And judging by the second image in the article, this still holds true.

    • Person of Interest says:

      This is the same complaint that I had in mind when I uninstalled the free weekend demo. Every building is sized as if you’ll need to fit a full raid of folks in there.

  8. FreshHands says:

    Can it be? Revisit Vvardenfell?!

    Now how to get rid of all those other adventurers hopping around like decapitated chicken?

    Still really love that they finally tried.

  9. Dogshevik says:

    Alec, I got to say this is an excellent and very human article. I think you got it right when you guessed what a person interested in this game would like to hear about.
    Well done.

    As to the game itself:
    There are people who will get themselves a dog that looks almost exactly like their previous one. It sounds a bit like that.

  10. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    Ah, free speech! I can’t say much about the stuff that matters here (they lifted the NDA on combat balancing, and much whinging ensued, but I don’t personally have much to complain about), but I did find myself nodding my head quite a bit while reading this article, for some reason. I shall now return to playing videogames while queueing up songs off my old Morrowind game disk.

  11. defunct says:

    I haven’t actually played the Morrrowind expansion. I just started playing the base game two weeks ago, though. I always thought I wouldn’t like it at all, because generally, I do NOT like MMOs.

    I’ve been playing it as a single player game for the most part, though. There are group events, where you have to take down tougher bosses, but I do 95% of the stuff solo. I don’t pvp, and I don’t raid.

    I tried, once, to join a dungeon, and anyone that’s played any MMO ever as dps, knows what I experienced: A Very Long Wait. When I finally got a group, it was with one guy, where the other people had left, and he wanted me to run all the way to the end where he was. Through the respawn. I won’t be trying again any time soon.

    Other than that, I’ve been having a lot of fun running around helping people (NPCs), and harvesting crafting stuff.

    I’ll wait for the warden to come out and try making a healer. I don’t like any of these classes as healers. I’ll then try dungeons again, because they look moderately fun.

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