Bethesda Softworks has spent a long time developing Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind, the third installment in their series of expansive single-player RPGs. Morrowind was released with a decent amount of hype and fanfare, and it easily lives up to most of what everyone has heard about the game. It comes at a price in bugs and imbalances, but that thankfully they don't even come close to ruining the experience.
You play only as yourself in a first-person view as an "outlander" to the expansive island of Vvardenfell. Everything is done in real-time, and there are many ways to get through to the end of the game's main quest - if you don't spend weeks doing the many hundreds of things Morrowind offers in addition to it.
Morrowind's game engine is an absolutely stunning affair, with quick (but sometimes often) load times and some pretty sharp special effects to back up the scenery. The game can bog down easily on even today's fastest computers, but it is mainly because Bethesda's artists and world designers have pushed this engine past the cutting edge.
Morrowind does have a bit of a limited number of graphics tweaks and features to mess with, as the only easy ways to increase performance on lower-end systems are to change to lower resolution video modes or reduce drawing distance. The game will only run in 32-bit color, with absolutely no choice to run in faster (and uglier) 16-bit color video modes. The main side effect of this is that the game is simply incapable of running all older 3Dfx cards, with the exception of the Voodoo4 and Voodoo5 chipsets.
Morrowind's game interface is fairly intuitive, and since the game is a bit of a hybrid of RPG and action games, the interface pretty much has to be slick. You can hotkey most spells and items you have onto the number keys, although some items wouldn't work in there. You can instantly switch items and weapons as much as you want, since bringing up the game's main menu screen (which includes the inventory, map, and "paper doll") automatically pauses the game.
The game's dialogue interface works great, and allows players to talk to almost any non-player character about many different topics. Depending on who you're talking to and how much that NPC likes you, many responses from them will be very different.
Morrowind is simply the best-looking game I've ever played. The style of art, architecture, and terrain are all unique, and the landscapes are breathtaking. This is one of those games that makes you want to upgrade just after looking at it for a minute or two. Characters are fully animated and lifelike, while the high-level weapons and armor are extremely menacing to look at. It's very satisfying to scrape together a whole set of some of the armor, just to see how cool it looks.
Just about every visual aspect of the game was taken into careful consideration. Books strewn about in a wizard's tower, a ransacked room in a building lost to blight creatures, and the first few steps into the game's many cities - all of these things are worth appreciating, just for the amount of time Bethesda spent getting it right.
But the main thing about Morrowind that looks so great is how it's all brought together in one cohesive form. Just about everything looks unique and precisely placed, no matter how far off the beaten path the main character is. It is this alone that makes Morrowind's graphics better than the sum of its parts.
In most RPG titles, character creation is a laborious affair of rolling imaginary dice over and over or adjusting stats to a minute detail. Morrowind, however, walks the player through character creation over a period of roughly ten minutes, teaching him or her the basic controls and other simple things about it along the way.
Character creation itself allows plenty of options, where you can just answer questions to shape your class, pick a specific class you want out of a list, or if you feel like getting technical, create a custom class with each skill specifically. These options give the player some of the most character creation freedom in almost any RPG.
While Morrowind's combat is done in real-time, making it somewhat of an action game, it'll really capture the RPG players' hearts. The game's story (especially in the main quest) is compelling and it motivates the player very well through the whole thing. There are also generally multiple solutions to most of the game's quests, which will allow the player his or her own style of play. Some of the quests, like being sent to raid a tomb, are of the simple combat variety, but many require you to get an item from an NPC. To get that item, you can steal it, kill the NPC for it, or talk him into handing it over.
Morrowind has literally hundreds of quests, some of which are menial, while others are sprawling and can take quite a while to finish. There's something for everyone here, and a character of almost any build can finish most of the game's quests - as long as they are of a high enough level to be appropriate for any specific one. NPC's will sometimes assess your power as well, especially during the main quest, so you will know ahead of time whether you need to go and level up elsewhere first. The sheer number of things to do, along with the many ways to complete some quests, make this game so hugely open-ended and non-linear that it's pretty much revolutionary. I hope more developers can learn from what Bethesda has done with Morrowind's non-linear nature.
Some of Morrowind's most interesting fun can be had in stealing items. This game has one of the most elaborate sneaking and thieving systems I've ever seen, where you can use several strategies to walk out of a shop with all kinds of loot that you didn't pay for. This didn't seem like a very fun idea when I first heard about it, but I'll say now - some of the game's most fun moments come when trying to steal the game's best items right out from under NPC's noses.
Morrowind's gameplay is not without its faults, however. There are NPC's in the game that are vital to the main quest, and while they are not invincible, they will "break" the game's quest if you kill them. And while you do get a message after killing these characters, urging you to load a previous game, the message is easy to miss if the dialogue subtitles option is turned on. On top of that, there is at least one character I came across near the first third of my game that eventually completely ruined the main quest 30 hours further on down the road. I wound up having to start all over.
The next problem that I found with the game is that the player's running speed is extremely slow. For the first hour it was fine, since I was marvelling at the graphics, but coming originally from countless first person shooters, I soon wanted to double or triple my running speed. Luckily, there are small plug-in modules that can be found and downloaded to turn the player's movement speed up.
Another complaint I have about Morrowind is that it crashes somewhat often. It varies from one computer to the next, but the game will unceremoniously dump many players back to the Windows desktop fairly often. Some players have reported having it happen almost every time within five minutes of starting the game, although it seems the problem is very rarely that severe. In my experience, the game crashed on my computer about once every half hour to hour on average. Make sure to save often!
The game's difficulty will vary quite a bit depending on the order that the player does quests in - depending on your character, there's a fairly good chance you'll get sent on a quest that's very tough to complete for your character's power. It is these times that the game's open-endedness shines through, though, since you can leave, finish other quests and come back to the first one later on when you're more powerful.
It seems that by about half-way through a character's levelling, Morrowind gets easier and easier for many players. Once someone gets a grasp on how to put together lots of money, and figures out how to steal and/or "enchant" the game's best items, there's very little that can stand in his or her way.
Speaking of enchanting, this is a skill that, while is fairly balanced in the player's hands, can become extremely overpowered once the player builds up enough money to pay an infinite-skill NPC to enchant items for him or her. Enchanted items can cast all sorts of spells that are instantly activated and can be used as fast as you click the button. Spellcasters, however, have to go through an animation (as well as possibly fail at casting the spell itself) just to get some magic going. On top of that, the races and skills most friendly to casters means they'll have far less health and likely won't be able to wear the best armor, either.
Since there are no class-based restrictions on using enchanted items, once you have an arsenal of enchanted armor, jewelry, and weapons, you'll see that there's very little reason to actually make a character that primarly casts spells. In fact, items can be enchanted that make the player nearly invincible, and allow the main character to kill just about anything in only a few seconds. In the end, the player usually has to limit him- or herself in using these items to retain some sort of challenge.
If these are the biggest gripes I could come up with about the gameplay, though, that still leaves for an excellent game. I myself have spent 60 hours plus playing Morrowind, and I still haven't seen all there is to see. And I haven't even touched the game's extensive and powerful editor.
Morrowind has excellent voice acting in most cases, and there's an absolute ton of it. Each race sounds a bit different, and the many things each character says means it'll be a long while before you tire of their vocabularies. Sound effects are just as nice, although the ambient sounds, such as the thunderstorms and wind chimes, shine through as the best of any of the game's sound effects. Battle sounds are generally pretty good, with a few tinny exceptions.
Music, however, is another story altogether. I quickly tired of the game's short soundtrack, and while the main theme was exciting, it ceased to be after about the twentieth time that I heard it. The same went for the remainder of the music, and I wound up turning it off completely after about five or six hours of gameplay.
Morrowind is easily Bethesda's best game to date; they have spent an amazing amount of effort trying to get everything right, and while there a few game-killing bugs and crashes, the end product is overwhelming and amazing. There are many cities, houses, dungeons, and fields to explore, with hundreds of quests that will take you all over the island. The game's events all the while will keep you excited and motivated to continue on just about the whole way.
One of the most important things included with the game is the very well-done Elder Scrolls Construction Set, which is an all-inclusive editor. This allows the player to make or modify all sorts of things, from new quests, to a custom-built house right down to wall placement, or even to create a new character race or class. It's all in the one program, which is so solid and easy to use (relative to other editors; there is still a somewhat steep learning curve) that I'd consider it an evolution in games' mod-making capabilities.
Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind is an excellent game that should keep most players busy for weeks. Its open-ended gameplay style is revolutionary, and will surely be emulated by future RPG titles. The shortcomings are easily bearable, and the immersiveness and fun completely outshadow almost any problems I've had with the game. For RPG players, Morrowind is an absolute must buy, and for most other players, it's definitely worth a look.