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.