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Morrowind: First Impressions

Turns out my brother had a copy of the Morrowind Game of the Year edition in his closet. Since I’m kind of getting bored with Skyrim, I figured it might be fun to give it a look. I’ve heard it’s leagues better than Oblivion and read arguments that it’s as good as or even better than Skyrim. This is a pretty high expectation to live up to.

The game doesn’t say how long I’ve played it so far. I’m gonna guess that I’m maybe an hour or two in, although I did have to reroll my character. I’ve completed the first two quests in the Fighter’s Guild in Balmora, if that’s any indicator. Now I feel like I’m supposed to talk about it.

Where do I begin?


It takes forever to get anywhere. No, I’m not complaining about the lack of auto-fast-travel. I actually like that. I like the idea of having to travel myself or pay for transit from city to city. I’ve always felt that the instant fast travel system of Oblivion and Fallout 3, while convenient, sort of undermines the whole “big epic world of exploration” thing. And I like having travel and survival as core mechanics. It’s why I’ve spent far more time on Minecraft now that they’ve added hardcore mode.

No, I’m talking about movement speed. This sounds like a petty complaint, but it really screws with the flow of the game and it’s incredibly aggravating. Athletics is one of my primary skills, and yet even when I unequip all my armor my movement speed is still eye-twitchingly slow. Even getting from the armor shop to the magic shop takes far longer than it should.

Also, in Skyrim you can walk at a slow pace, run at a reasonable speed, or sprint at a fast pace, which drains stamina. In Morrowind you can run at a slow pace, or run at a reasonable speed, which drains stamina. Considering you could run into a fight within a moment’s notice and it takes forever to regain stamina, the game is sort of encouraging you to walk everywhere, which is horrendously boring. Jumping also drains stamina, so if you want to be ready for a fight, you can’t even spam jump to level up your acrobatics.

Yeah, okay, maybe that’s more “realistic” than being able to run from city to city without breaking a sweat. On that note, I believe it was Benjamin Franklin who said, “He who sacrifices fun for an unfulfilled pretension toward ‘realism’ deserves neither.” Games thrive on an engaging moment-to-moment experience, and that falls flat on its face when you have to wait for five minutes while your character paces slowly back to town.

It’s also worth noting that the whole “big epic world of exploration” feel is really let down when the view distance doesn’t let you see more than 50 feet in front of you.

Wow, just look at that mountain! Erm…

The combat is a slog. This was back when devs hadn’t really figured out how to meld the genres of action and RPG properly, so you end up in a scenario where you see your character swing her sword directly into the rat, and yet the game tells you that you missed somehow. What? How? I saw that rat get hit in the face!

The system of missing and hitting according to the Dice Gods works in games like Fallout or Baldur’s Gate because those games don’t involve coordination or reflexes, and you’re not really in direct control of your character. If they didn’t have the dice rolling in place there would be no intrigue and no pass/fail chance in place (until you get to complicated Chess-like scenarios, but I digress). In an action RPG, especially one set in first person, you’re the one that’s determining whether you live or die, not your character. And when you miss because of something that was completely out of your control, that just feels like the game cheated you out of victory.

Beyond that, so much of the combat is spent spamming the attack button and hoping you don’t miss that it gets boring before you’ve even killed your first rat. Skyrim has a fairly elegant combat system in place for fighters, wherein you essentially play an ongoing rock-paper-scissors using attacking, blocking and bashing. Block counters light attack, heavy attack counters block, bash counters heavy attack. You have to constantly pay attention to your opponent’s attacks and counter appropriately, and it’s not exactly God of War, but it works. Morrowind, by contrast, is more sleep-inducing than Ambien.

Sneaking is horrendous. My first character was built to be a sneaky ninja, but once I realized how horribly unintuitive the stealth mechanics are, it was only a matter of time before I’d reroll as a warrior. In Skyrim you can see how close NPCs are to detecting you, as indicated by an opening and closing eye in the center of the screen. In Morrowind there’s no indicator of anything. You just crouch, steal the item and hope nobody spontaneously lashes out at you.

On top of that, in Morrowind crouching into “sneak mode” is not a toggle and can’t be set to a toggle. You have to hold it down constantly. Who thought that would be logical? How often would a ninja attempt to sneak past hostile enemies and then find that his pinky is sore from all the crouching?

Like I said before, I like survival and I like travel. I want to like Morrowind. I really do. But the game is just not making it easy for me. Oblivion was a complete mess, I know. I agree. But I’m really questioning the idea that Morrowind wasn’t also a complete mess.


12 responses

  1. I had pretty much all those problems. Then I realised how much I use fast travel and hence, how much I missed it’s absence.

    It can’t be hard to program something like in Fallout where you see your character moving across the landscape and get stopped by random encounters every so often. I loved that system – it was convinient, immersive and every so often I’d find something cool.

    December 14, 2011 at 5:56 PM

  2. vukodlak

    So yeah, the combat mechanics aren’t as good as a game made nearly ten years later? True enough I suppose. It does have other mechanics in place which are very entertaining (e.g. unrestricted alchemy and enchanting – which can massively improve various attributes – including running speed, jumping, levitation, mark/restore) and were removed from subsequent instalments.

    Morrowind is fondly remembered for the story (Dagoth Ur is probably one of the most interesting villains in gaming and Vivec and Yagrum Bagarn are better written and more memorable than any character in Skyrim) and for the truly bizarre, yet somehow internally consistent setting. It is certainly not without flaws, but there are times where it shines.

    December 14, 2011 at 7:11 PM

    • JPH

      I talked about more than the combat mechanics.

      A lot of the issues in this game can’t be explained by technology constraints. Increasing movement speed would not have been hard, nor would giving the option to set sneak as a toggle.

      December 14, 2011 at 9:53 PM

  3. tengokujin

    I knew there’d be a mod for view distance!

    December 15, 2011 at 4:08 AM

    • There are mods for everything but the game doesn’t get points for it’s mod community. If it did it would win everything forever because Bethesda modders are amazing. Slightly creepy from time to time, but amazing.

      December 15, 2011 at 6:20 AM

  4. vukodlak

    I don’t think it’s technology constraints as much as it is lack of refinement. Over the last 10 years Bethesda have improved the various mechanics (e.g. your sneak toggle) based on experience and feedback. When I wax lyrical about morrowind, it’s mostly the setting, the story and the freedom to manipulate the system that I miss (although most of these have been improved again in Skyrim). That last one, for instance, allows to enhance your athletics to 400+ through alchemy and enchanting. Morrowind is not as polished as Oblivion and co. but it has a more minecraft-like feel of manipulating the world. This freedom does come at a cost as it is easy to completely break the game (e.g. constant levitation, 100% chameleon) and so was removed from the latter games.

    You may be right to say that Morrowind was a mess, but it’s the kind of ambitious, overachieving mess that I happen to like :)

    December 15, 2011 at 6:27 AM

  5. Mods! You need to mod. If you’re not modding when you’re playing Morrowind, you’re doing it wrong. Seriously, that’s probably one of the only reasons I liked it. Vanilla Morrowind is one of the most broken, mechanically flawed things ever.

    Then again, it’s probably good to have played the vanilla a bit so you know what’s broke so you can choose the mods that fix it.

    Here’s a mod I can’t play without, which fixes the stupid leveling system

    I personally recommend maxing out Speed when you make your character so it is less boring. Either that or using the console to buff your Speed.

    Although if you’d rather stick with vanilla as long as possible, at least eventually you’ll have fun breaking the game using enchantments. By the time you become strong, having low speed doesn’t matter because you’ll get to make your own Pants of Always Running that have a constant effect Restore Fatigue going.

    December 15, 2011 at 8:02 AM

  6. Resand

    Some good points here, but some of the things you complain about is just because the game is 10 years old.

    The view distance is so low because PC of that time needed it to be. Probably same with combat mecanics. I would think that real time and calculating if something is a hit or not, with all the different spells and attacks and such would be hard on FPS 10 years ago.

    Run speed. Yeah you got a good point there :) It’s probably more realistic, but not much fun.

    December 18, 2011 at 9:24 AM

    • JPH

      Yeah, saying the draw distance should be longer is just wishful thinking on my part. I understand why it isn’t, but it’d be nice if they patched it at some point or something. I wouldn’t if I worked for Bethsoft, but hey.

      December 18, 2011 at 10:50 AM

    • Sumanai

      But it already calculates whether something was hit or not. First it checks (distance, direction etc.) to calculate if you hit it, then it generates a random number to calculate whether it counts. What Morrowind is doing is actually a little bit more demanding from the processor.

      Spells do however “always” hit, at least ranged spells. The detection is a bit wonky, and the only way to avoid is to use area-of-effect spells. But using spells in combat is a bit tricky since you have to specifically pull your hands up for that specific purpose.

      December 18, 2011 at 4:10 PM

  7. Gravebound

    If you want to make the graphics closer to modern games you should use the Morrowind Graphics Extender: http://sourceforge.net/projects/morrgraphext/files/

    it can be “fiddly” to set up properly, but it supports non-4:3 ratios, distant landscapes (like Oblivion), spoofed HDR, etc.

    And Better Bodies is a must: http://planetelderscrolls.gamespy.com/View.php?view=Mods.Detail&id=213

    …and any face mods. Doesn’t matter which, they are ALL better than vanilla Morrowind. :/

    Cliff Racer Exterminator (always recommended):

    On topic, I think people who love Morrowind (myself included) forget about their very first impressions of the game. I recall HATING how slow the movement was. Of course subsequent play-throughs mitigate that by knowing how the system works, where the good equipment is, which potions to make (one of the Imperial forts has a guy who sells infinite ingredients for Intelligence boosting potions. Make potions – take potions – make more – take even stronger potions – make more – sell for huge profits – break economy).

    You need more than ‘a couple hours’ of game time to really see the game for what it is. I mean, you can kill Vivec if you want to! That alone is awesome. :) You can romance a Khajiit girl in Pelagiad and get a house. You can find magic items hidden behind beds, on top of rafters, in troughs (or under troughs..I can’t remember) and they aren’t under-powered based on your level. Really, you have to go out and see the world, go dungeon crawling, get some high level quests before you dismiss Morrowind as “also a complete mess.”

    The fact that unique items are always as powerful as they are meant to be, you can stumble upon dungeons/characters that can absolutely destroy you if you are too weak or can rip apart like a death-tornado if you are powerful, and that there are so many interesting and unique settings means this game is already leaps and bounds above Oblivion; even unmodded.

    P.S. Get the Boots of Blinding Speed and you won’t have to worry about walking slow. ;)

    December 20, 2011 at 2:23 AM

  8. Ateius

    Morrowind’s mechanics often don’t measure up to those of the later games. That’s to be expected, really, as those later games are built in part upon the lessons learned in Morrowind. I love Morrowind to death, but quite frankly, all three combat styles (warrior, mage, sneak) are dreary and boring when they’re not outright broken. And you move too slowly.

    That said, it’s not the mechanics that people love and remember Morrowind for. It’s the strange and scary and alien landscape that you wander through. It’s the world packed full of lore, the factions at each others throats, the actually quite good central story (better than IV or V) and the wealth of detail shoved into every corner – along with the freedom to explore (and possibly get killed by) it all in any manner you please.

    Just as an example: Skyrim’s combat is far, far better than Morrowind’s. There’s really no comparison. However, one of the secondary Morrowind questlines, let’s say one of the Great House storylines, contains far more content than the entire Skyrim main quest. Heck, the storyline for just one of the several Thieves’ Guild quest hubs in Morrowind is longer than the entire Thieves’ Guild story in Skyrim.

    That’s why people still remember Morrowind. It was buggy and clunky and your character had lead feet encased in concrete but the depth of content was, and still is, astonishing.

    (Hi, I’m new! I was looking for your Fallout review and found this one and, being an unrepentant Morrowind fanboy, had to comment.)

    April 15, 2012 at 3:46 PM

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