Morrowind

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Morrowind

Postby fable2 » Tue Jan 27, 2015 12:11 pm

(What I disliked about much of the game reviewing I did was the limits to length imposed first by print journalism--perfectly understandable--and then, for incomprehensible reasons, by magazines with a great deal of online space. I got to stretch myself with this Morrowind review. And although it seems too stary-eyed these days, and doesn't go heavily enough into some basic issues with Bethsoft games (the lack of genuine dialog, flags used to condition NPCs' reactions to you in the environment, to name but two), I think it holds up fairly well. Oh--and I didn't choose the subtitles before individual sections. I don't like to be unkind, but I think the editor who did that should be flayed alive and served with a spicy barbeque sauce.)

Don't get me wrong. I'm a dedicated Baldur's Gate II enthusiast. I've played through the main saga and the add-on more times than I care to acknowledge in public. But you can only repeat Korgan's inventive obscenities or Jan's barbed whimsy so many times without thinking there must be a newer game on which to waste your life. For some while I've wanted something new, something equally obsessive in its own, particular way. Though I strongly enjoyed Gothic's dose of attitude and Wizardry 8's great battles, spell system and sheer fun, neither triggered the need in me to indulge in interminable stretches of gameplay. Both are excellent RPGs, but they couldn't open the floodgates of my imagination and haul me into their respective universes.

Morrowind accomplishes this. For me, it combines impressive scope, depth of focus, and a vivid, self-referential world culture that doesn't fall back upon AD&D or any other playing system for its content. It's the first RPG I've played in quite a while that leaves me bleary-eyed and drained at some ungodly hour of the morning, when I'd just discovered that the time for dinner had come and gone. Exploration, character configuration, questing and in-game activities (alchemy, enchanting, pearl-diving, factional conflicts and rewards, etc) are the best qualities of Morrowind, and contribute to the high rating I give it, and which it deserves.

In the Beginning...

You start the game in the cargo hold of a slave ship. (Morrowind is played in first person mode. Pressing TAB let's you switch to third-person, but it's next to impossible to fight while using it, and the static view from behind and slightly above your character becomes annoying after a while.) You've been kidnapped, and everything except your simple clothing has been removed. Instead of being sold, however, you're dropped off in the sleepy port of Seyda Neen, on the large island of Vvardenfell. Your character is given a small amount of money and a packet for delivery to an Imperial officer in the large city of Balmora, a trip of several days' distance by foot.

Morrowind's developers have good reason to pat themselves on the back over the game's introductory sequence. It serves several functions at once, and does all of them well. It gives you a visual and auditory sense of the gameworld. It supplies a tutorial to the interface, as each action you're requested to perform is accompanied by subtitles revealing the appropriate command. Finally, it furnishes an excellent roleplaying vehicle for character creation, as various people you meet (a slave, an officer, a bureaucrat) require you to select a name, race, sex, birthsign, and skills configuration. You can design a character using one of three methods, answering a series of ten questions (which may bring back nostalgic memories to old Ultima game veterans), choosing one of twenty-one pre-figured classes, or completely creating your own class from scratch.

While for some players the ten-questions method may seem the best roleplaying option for character creation, I admit to finding the questions themselves (based on what-if ethical decisions) frankly blunt and superficial. Each to their own; personally, I'd rather design a character's life in advance in my head, then work out the details of building a statistical persona that matches my imagined past. For me, creation-from-scratch in Morrowind was ideal, but be warned: to get reasonable results, you should read the manual and think carefully about what you want your newly birthed character to be. There is a lot of detail to cover: race, sex, birthsign and skills all will have major effects on anything you'll attempt in your future life. For example, the Breton race receives a boost to their magicka (that's the amount of magic they can store at any one time), an innate resistance to magic, several boosts to magical skills, and the ability to cast the Dragon Skin shield spell on themselves, once a day. Combine that with the Apprentice birth sign (a weakness to magicka that cancels out the Breton magic resistance, and a major increase in the amount of magicka you get), and you have the beginnings of a very respectable mage.

But don't feel limited to the tired AD&D stereotypes of fighter, thief, ranger, etc. Do you want your newbie mage to be experienced in wearing heavy armor, and wield an axe? They can, and without spellcasting penalties. Your fighter can wield a longsword, pick locks like a professional burglar, and cast spells of great destructive power. There are twenty-seven skills for various types of weaponry, armor, magic schools and stealth activities such as security (lockpicking, trap probing), speechcraft (successfully raising the disposition of NPCs you converse with) and sneak (go unseen; pickpocket; shoplift). Five are chosen to be major skills, with the highest ratings for your new character (on a scale of 1-100, they'll probably rate 35-45), five become minor skills, and the rest, with the lowest ratings, are miscellaneous skills. There are no restrictions on their ordering. In case you run out of ideas, the twenty-one pre-made classes that Morrowind offers for use (spellswords, assassins, pilgrims, healers, etc) give a pretty good idea of the range of options available, without exhausting the possibilities.

Skills rise with use, major and minor skills more so than miscellaneous ones. Effectively block with a shield in battle, for instance, and your Block skill will gradually increase. Each skill in turn is linked to one of eight attributes: Strength (carrying, fatigue, starting health, damage), Intelligence (total magicka), Willpower (resistance to magical attacks, fatigue), Agility (hitting and dodging attacks, fatigue), Speed (how fast you move while walking and running), Endurance (fatigue, health), Personality (how well you're liked and how much information people give you) and Luck -- which governs nothing, but I suspect acts like a combination Fairy Godmother and Murphy's Law, depending upon whether you've been blessed or cursed. Once you've raised any combination of your ten major and minor skills by ten points, your character makes a level. The next time they rest, you'll be given an opportunity to raise three of their six attributes by one point apiece. However, if you've especially used a set of skills related to a particular attribute since last leveling, you could end up being offered a multiplier for raising that attribute. Been working out those armorer, axe, blunt weapon, and/or longblade skills? Instead of gaining a single Strength point as your character sleeps, you could be offered a 3x multiplier, or even 5x.



Bethesda Softworks is straightforward but tricky in the manual when they explain what affects those modifiers. While you might think they rely upon only improved major and minor skills, that's never actually stated; instead, the text says, Certain attributes will show a bonus, which is determined by which skills you have increased since you last raised level. They mean this literally. I deliberately created one character whose Speed-related skills were all in my miscellaneous category, then ran him around a great deal, and used a tanto for a weapon -- both activities governed by Speed. Sure enough, when he leveled, he was offered a Speed multiplier. This is sweet, in my opinion, because it means you never have to worry about a character whose important skills are narrowly focused becoming unbalanced in their attributes. At worst, you'll always be able to raise a given attribute by one point, and very possibly more.

There are other ways to increase skills besides use. Morrowind throngs with NPCs of various levels, who, for a price, will improve a given skill: good news for players who prefer to pursue a more mercantile path to victory. You'll also find a host of books scattered throughout Vvardenfell, some of which, after a fashion reminiscent of Betrayal at Krondor, increment a given skill upon reading.

Given the enormous diversity of character possibilities you can create in Morrowind, are the skills themselves and the characters you can create from their combination well balanced? I find that more powerful weapons and heavier armor supplies a decided advantage right from the start in the many dungeons (more about them, in a bit) that dot Vvardenfell. Later in the game, though, when you advance through several of the guilds or pursue the main story line quests, stealth skills and/or a range of useful magical spells make progress easier. I still think axes are a trifle too fast and powerful, but the TES Construction Kit allows you to change those factors anyway you want. You can experiment to your fancy's content, even creating entirely new races, birthsigns and monsters, if that's to your liking. In short, it isn't a case of good or bad balance, though I find the current balance (barring a few cheat-enabling bugs) pretty good. Instead, you can make it as easy or difficult as you wish, changing statistics, prices, and relationships at will.

Look, Ma: No Interface

Well...nearly so. As mentioned above, you learn Morrowind's interface as you're starting up a new game, and there's frankly little to learn. Commands for forward, sideways and backwards movements are handled via [W-A-S-D], with a few other letters hotkeyed to un/readying a weapon, resting, un/preparing a spell, etc. Right-clicking on the main screen pauses the game, and lets you show or hide a series of four mini-screens by clicking on their buttons: a map, stats list, spells/magic items list and inventory display. (The inventory shows miniature representations for all items, alongside a paper doll of your character.) Pausing the mouse over any item, spell or stat causes a popup box to appear with everything you know about the selection. These mini-screens can be moved about and, in the case of the inventory and map, maximized for easy viewing. The map also has a button that switches between immediate vicinity and world view. Although you can't annotate it, the game adds identifying points onto the map with descriptions whenever you encounter important landmarks like caves, merchants, etc. One nice touch: you'll find some books in the game that provide information about distant cities. Whenever this occurs, the relevant landmarks will be automatically added to your world map. While none of these mini-screens are hotkeyed for easy access, they're still fairly simple to use.

Hitting [J] brings up the in-game Journal, which records important information you acquire through conversations. Important words such as people, herbs, and cities are hotlinked in red under other subjects, and can be clicked for direct viewing. While this is a useful feature, the only sorting in the Journal is alphabetical by topic. This means there's no way to bring up a list of active quests, quests that you've completed, or alchemical formulae that you've uncovered. The importance of the last is debatable, since there are literally hundreds of possible herbal combinations, but the quest lists would have been a real assist tracking important information in the game.

For the rest, I found Morrowind's method of temporarily binding any of the 1-9 numerical keys (not the numbered keypad) to inventory objects or spells in your repertoire a useful and handy tool.

A-Questing We Go

Having arrived in Vvardenfell, you may experience sensations of bewilderment, nervousness, dryness of the upper palette and even bouts of tears during the early stages of Morrowind over what you should do next. Don't panic. This is a perfectly normal reaction for RPGers who expect to immediately receive quests in the main buildings of any settlement: "Bring me the head of Ashur the Elamite, dipped in chocolate, and placed on a peppermint stick. I've got a sweet tooth, and you won't regret it." Nevermind that the bartender or blacksmith or aged anonymous candy store owner who gives you this quest in most games never heard of you before. To my knowledge, only BG2 offered ample justification to this blatant quest-in-your-face approach to gaming. (Your character had achieved renown in BG1 as both a Bhaalspawn, the child of a god, and the killer of another powerful Bhaalspawn. It's reasonable to assume that some people would seek you out for tasks, or a share in the glory and probable violence.)

Morrowind isn't like that. Somebody clearly is aware of your potential, or you wouldn't have been abducted, given a little cash, dropped off in a distant port and given some terse instructions. Everybody else, however, doesn't know you from Sheltem (and since this isn't part of the earlier Might and Magic series, nobody has heard of him, either). Worse still, you're an outlander, a foreigner in a place where being foreign ranks in most NPC's list of Top 100 Pleasures right up there next to a broken hip. They're no more likely to seek you out and give you quests than they are to marry you to their offspring and sponsor you for their bowling leagues.

So instead of hanging around taverns or official halls looking for quests, Morrowind furnishes you with the opportunity to join factions. There are thirteen in all, ten available from various cities and forts in Vvardenfell. As soon as you join you'll begin to feel the benefits, as other guild members, wherever you find them, display an improved disposition to you. (This translates into lower prices for goods and services, higher prices for goods you sell, and more conversational options.) You'll also be able to take advantage of some faction-based benefits, like those provided by the religiously inspired Imperial Cult; it gives all Acolytes (that's third rank members, for those of you schismatic heathens that haven't signed up yet) a Stendarran Belt, increasing several combat skills magically. Characters that join any of the three so-called Great Houses, Redoran, Hlaatu, and Telvanni, are also able to direct the building of their own private stronghold, which naturally enough involves several quests, as well.

You can join as many of the factions as you wish, though each of them maintains an established, unchanging relationship with the others. This means that becoming a member of any given faction will actually lower the personal dispositions of NPCs associated with their factional enemies, so a little forethought is wise. In addition, some quests involve murdering a member of another faction. If you also belong to a faction of your victim, you can expect the latter group to view your actions with something less than a cheerful demeanor.



Once you select a faction or two and get familiar with the cultural landscape, Morrowind becomes Quest Heaven. According to the developers, there are more than four hundred quests in the game. I've tapped into only eighty or so, but I'm sure they're not inflating that figure. Unlike Daggerfall, you won't find generic cookie-cutter tasks, here. Each faction usually has quest givers at several faction headquarters. Most offer in total anywhere from twenty to thirty quests. These are by no means your standard FedX style, kill-this-and-get-that tasks, but embrace an variety of possibilities. I've been asked to rescue people, buy things, build things, learn spells, convince people, locate anything from herbs to books to wine, steal items (a lot, as you might expect, by the Thieves' Guild), and lead a fellow guild member from one location to another. There are many twists en route; sometimes you have several optional methods for achieving a quest goal, several possible competing recipients who will reward you for requested information, or a goal that is other than you've been led to believe. I think I break no faction secrets by revealing that at least one quest giver in Vvardenfell is corrupt, while at least a few are obsessed, and one lets ancient grudges affect their sense of balance. Much of the fun involved comes from creatively researching a more complex quest, and seeing where your choices lie. I wouldn't have it any other way.

The main quest path awaits your attention patiently, but ultimately lobs more difficult and unforeseen challenges than anything else the game can throw at you. It's larger and more complex than the various faction paths, with unexpected curves that heighten the tension and one-of-a-kind threats. Best of all, even when it's finished, you don't have to stop playing. You'll find that most population centers, from tiny hamlets to large cities, have one or two quests to offer. So do some shrines, some of them hidden, that invoke the gods, and you'll also discover isolated quests in the forms of travelers seeking assistance in the countryside. For the roleplayer who lives to quest, Morrowind is an embarrassment of riches.

Flavorless Dialog

The generic feeling that hovered over Daggerfall has certainly been banished in Morrowind. While a lot of work clearly went into the extraordinary graphics, it's only one aspect of the overall game design that has made each faction, quest, race, city, environment and dungeon distinguishable from all others. There really is a complex, interactive cultural model at work, here, and I find it more impressive every chance I play and discover something new.

One generic element remains in place, entirely out of sync with the rest of Morrowind, and that's the repetitive dialog that you hear from most of the more-than-one-thousand NPCs in the game. Conversation is based on a series of highlighted subjects in a (quite literally) dialog box; click on a subject while speaking to an NPC, and it responds with written text. But the same subject, like little advice, appears for nearly every NPC. Writing that many unique responses was clearly out of the question.

The solution was to provide a very small number of responses -- or for some subjects, a single response which all NPCs would use. Since they repeat throughout the large population, these cloned responses tend to leech any given NPC of the individuality they may otherwise possess. This is especially noticeable when the NPC in question begins conversation a spoken comment indicating a lack of linguistic ease, or a culturally distinctive use of the language -- like some members of the Khajit race, who may quote a poetic and metaphorical phrase of welcome. Then before the written dialog box launches, and they rever to Fluent Vanilla Speech, meaning standard replies in standard language. Specific speech patterns should have been used as templates for new race-, profession- or area-related replies that contained the same basic information. An easier method of resolving this would have been to hide hotlighted subjects leading to cloned replies, and show them only when the NPC in question had something new to add.

I don't want to give the impression that every person you meet in Morrowind is a mere placemarker. None actually are, and some, like sarcastic Larrius Varo, quaint Sugar-Lips Habasi, and bumbling Trebonius Artiorius, convey well-defined personalities. But there's no real dialog tree, just statements of information or offerings of quests. I'm not suggesting this aspect of the dialog issue has any easy remedy -- not when you consider the number of dialogs needed to make an impression in such a heavily populated game. But the lack of conversation or even predetermined conversations between NPCs (as Baldur's Gate II manages so very well) has some deadening effect on character differentiation.

On to Battle

Life is full of struggle, and Morrowind gives you many chances to take out your aggressions on a ton of unusual antagonists. No standard enemies, here, if you discount the rats. (Most people do.) Instead, you'll face elemental Atronachs, crocodile-headed Daedroth, and Kagoutis with tusks longer you're your favorite model's legs. You'll encounter a horde of distinctive undead, like the Ascended Sleeper, and Dwarven artifact monsters like Centurion Spheres: large, metallic balls that temporarily "hatch" into powerful fighters when intruders approach.

Combat itself is a relatively simple affair. Each weapon is rated for chopping, slashing and thrusting, and each of these actions is associated with a specific movement: for example, sliding sideways and hitting the left mouse button causes a readied weapon to slash. It's admittedly not much of a choice, since most people are unlikely to choose the weakest form of attack in a battle. Fortunately, you can turn it off in the Options window, whereupon weapons default to their best attack.

The longer you hold the mouse button before releasing it in combat, the more powerful your attack. There are some excellent tactical tricks available for battle, as well, such as characters developing high Strength in order to knock opponents down; while those who possess a high sneak value can backstab enemies. Then, there's my favorite, levitating above an outdoor landscape, and shooting arrows at bestial monsters below with melee skills, only, who are too stupid and enraged to flee. Note that many of Morrowind's creatures are smarter than this, though. The AI is very good -- or appropriately enough, very bad, depending upon the level of intelligence and skill you are facing. An idiotic Kwama Forager (which looks like a 2' long segmented worm) simply attacks on sight, begging to get chopped, sliced and diced, but a Hunger will disintegrate your armor and weaponry, while a human foe may dodge around as it attacks, consume health potions, and even punch you suddenly to increase your fatigue.

I wish that Morrowind had targeted combat shots, at least at higher skill levels. But my only real displeasure with the combat system is the puzzling absence of any way to measure damage on an opponent. You get a red mist of blood with a hit, but no indicator about what you've hurt, or how badly. If the developers couldn't show us progressive damage, they should at least have placed a symbolic health bar over each enemy to give a sense of how the battle was going. Still, this is the kind of thing that can be changed by a patch, and I hope Bethesda Softworks pursues that course.



The Non-AAA Guide to Morrowind's Graphics

First, a simple statement: In my opinion, Morrowind's graphics are the best thing I've seen in the PC gaming world to date. The engine has its peculiarities, and we'll be examining those in a bit, but for now, let's just focus on the wow factor.

When I interviewed Morrowind's Lead Designer Ken Rolston while working on a beta-stage preview of Daggerfall many years ago, we briefly discussed the general concept of Morrowind (yes, it was tentatively known by the title, even then). Rolston knew that, huge as Daggerfall was, much of it looked and felt generic. One major question at the time was how large to make the geographical territory covered by its successor; and initially, at least, one possibility under consideration was a game centered entirely on a relatively small island. Fortunately, the harder, more rewarding path of development leading to a large fantasy world was chosen. Morrowind may seem compact compared to Daggerfall's epic, continent-sized scope, but that's relative. It's still vast when compared to just about anything else that has appeared in the RPG genre, and every detail in Vvardenfell has been specifically placed, rather than randomly generated.

Morrowind supplies us with an enormous world where whatever you see, from a skyscraper-sized mushroom to a table fork, is a separate 3D object. The level of conceptual detail is at times remarkable for a computer game, nowhere visibly more so than when you take a little backpacking trek through the outdoors. Try swimming to the tiny islets off Vvardenfell's coasts, dive for oysters and check for pearls, or examine shipwrecks and fight off the rapacious slaughterfish. There are more than seventy alchemical ingredients you can gather in Morrowind, most of them from plants and mushrooms growing in specialized locations. You'll also find more than three-hundred dungeons, ranging from simple (but beautifully atmospheric) caves and tombs with a few rooms -- playing host to some local bandits, or a few annoyed skeletons -- to more than seventy complex prisons, shrines and mines occupied by gods, false gods, and creatures that look like they were dreamed up by Salvador Dal¿ after a particularly bad fried dinner. These latter dungeons are frequently multi-leveled, and can include caves within buildings within ruins. Relish the experience.

I'm fond of Morrowind's architectural display, as well. It's cleverly done and feasible in realworld terms, given the idea of a single dominating culture (Imperial) displaying minor local variations. While two out of the three politically powerful Great Houses try to blend in, making diplomatic use of Imperial buildings, the haughty, amoral spellcasters of House Telvanni have arrived with their own architecture intact -- a symbolic middle finger raised to the rest of the world. Telvanni's distinctive organic structures (they literally grow their buildings) and fancifully designed interiors can be seen in Sadrith Mora on the eastern Vvardenfell coast, provided you pay for a letter of privilege that permits travel outside a castle-like cordon sanitaire. Even Telvanni slaves are rude to everybody who isn't part of their culture. (It's not unlike touring New Jersey.)

We haven't previously enjoyed structural interiors as detailed as those Morrowind provides us, either. There are paintings and wall carpets, though these are untouchable. Nearly everything else you see is an object which can be opened, taken, or dropped: bottles, plates, chests, beds, candles, cups, pitchers, sacks, books, all of many kinds, each with its own weight. Not moved, however; Morrowind regrettably doesn't support barricading dungeon doors with loose furniture, or chopping wine racks to pieces to reveal secret passageways. Ranged weapons (both loaded and thrown) are supported, and an extremely good acrobatics skill rating turns an average citizen into a roof-hopping Ranma -- so there are realworld physics in the game. Of a sort. (One of the more tartly amusing events in Morrowind involves a mage whom you find, dead, in the middle of a field. His diary reveals that he'd tried to develop a spell permitting easy long distance travel through jumps, and it worked¿briefly. It raised his acrobatics to the mindnumbing, Olympics-conquering figure of 1000 -- 100 being the usual skill maximum. It worked for seven seconds. Then it cut out, as he was on the way down. Poor idiot. Words probably couldn't do justice to his feelings at the time.)

Graphically, Morrowind and Might and Magic IX set out to accomplish some of the same goals. Both offer realistic-seeming cities, though in M&M's case, most of the exteriors are bloat: false fronts you'll never enter, added only to give a false sense of size. Similarly, most of M&M's interiors consist of large, bleak rooms with no purpose or interactive objects. New World Computing's latest Lithtech graphics engine takes the lead briefly in its ability to load exteriors and interiors as a single area, which means NPCs can enter and leave buildings, light can shine in through windows displaying room contents, etc. By contrast, Morrowind loads a new area every time you enter or exit a building, and the one never references the other. This translates into no windows; how could there be, if the area on the other side of the glass or waxed paper (to be completely medieval about it) doesn't exist until you leave? It also means that sounds can't travel through walls. Quaint Ald'ruhn has wonderfully intense sandstorms, but you'd never know it when you're inside one of its buildings. Too bad a check for weather couldn't have been included in the code to trigger a soundfile. I suppose we'll just have to chalk the silence up to a remarkably good grade of home insulation.

Like M&M, again, Morrowind's NPCs don't change expression at any time, though as two-thirds of the races are non-human, it's a little less eerie. Both games reuse faces on many NPCs, though Morrowind has the excuse of more than a thousand NPCs to portray, while M&M has considerably less; even so, there are far more facial types in Vvardenfell than in Chedian, where it sometimes felt like a horde of alien clones had taken over. Combat animations in Morrowind are excellent, smooth and efficient in conveying the onward rush of an enemy and the movement of a weapon or shield. Spell effects are sparingly used (you won't ordinarily see enchantments on objects) but good, and sometimes spectacular.

Morrowind's larger cities like Balmora and Vitec feel very empty, but it's not for lack of inhabitants. People live in all of Vvardenfell's residences and occupy all the businesses -- but they never leave. Most of them never even move, and that's 24/7, long enough for most sitting denizens to put out rudimentary feelers. Since many two-level workspaces also act as homes (a reallife tradition that was actually common in the heyday of both Imperial Rome and the early European Renaissance), why couldn't these shopkeepers open/unlock and close/lock their shops, retire to bed, and even move visible inventory around a bit while awake? Daggerfall supported shop hours, and it was probably the only RPG element in which it surpassed its successor, adding to the feeling of a unique rhythm of life within each community. I'd hoped Morrowind would give us nocturnal Thieves Guild shops, and maybe taverns that closed down during the day. For that matter, it's annoying to find the same tavern habitu¿s rooted to the floor all the time. Where is the ebb and flow of traffic, the occasional new visitor with news from afar, the dancing girls and musicians?

On a positive note weather in Morrowind is more than just pretty sunset or a spring shower, though it certainly has sublime visuals to offer. It can have a dramatic effect if you're facing a vampire or, alternatively, have become one, yourself.



Vampirism 101

Yes, becoming a vampire. That's right: an untreated bite in Vvardenfell will do more than give you a few days painful swelling and itching, like the fallout from that brief fling you had with the coffee shop waitress last year. Although you can't become a werewolf, as you could in Daggerfall, you can fall prey to the spiritual malady of vampirism. The actual likelihood of encountering vampires is relatively small, unless you're actually looking for them; which is, of course, what Daggerfall veterans will do. This feature is clearly a nod to them, but Bethesda Softworks' dev team has done themselves proud with the results.

When vampirism takes hold, several of your attributes (like Strength and Speed) rise drastically, and some of your skills (like Sneak, Hand-to-Hand, and the spell school Destruction) increase even more spectacularly. You gain an insanely high resistance to normal weapons, and a vampire touch spell that drains an opponent's health into yourself. This makes you capable of killing just about anything the gameworld can throw at you individually. You'll find a few groups of new quests awaiting your newbie throatmuncher, as well. (That's right: groups. There are actually vampire clans in Morrowind, each with its own additional stat enhancements and quest paths.)

On the other hand, human civilization will show a disturbing tendency to either shun you or attempt to destroy you. Most factions will become off-limits, and sunlight can wreck your health even worse than that of a jazz musician. Cloudy skies or rain during daylight hours still provides a degree of lesser but continuous damage -- which means you don't dare sleep without securing a good place to hide from those tanning rays. It also becomes extremely difficult to follow the man quest path through the game, since many of the people involved along the way are going to be repelled by your appearance.

There may be a sardonic thread of humor from the developers in all this, something along the lines of, They want to play super-characters? Sure, let's give them super-characters! And let's make it so that the super-characters have the hardest time finishing the game successfully, mu-wa-HA-HA-HA-HA¿! But you can get cured of vampirism; and I like to think of this element in Morrowind as just another example of the product's considerable breadth of field and depth of gameplay.

A Question of Performance

With system requirements as high as they must be to power the visuals and number crunching in this game, you just know performance is potentially going to suffer. And, as usual, you're correct. Although minimum requirements mention 128 MB RAM for Windows 98/ME and 256 MG RAM for Windows XP/2000, I wouldn't advise running Morrowind with anything less than 256 MB RAM, regardless of OS. A 500 MHz processor is required, too, but I think Bethesda Softworks' recommendation of 800 MHz is solidly on the mark.

They also should be taken seriously when they recommend an NVIDIA GeForce 2 GTS, or fast ATI Radeon video card. This is the bottleneck for most systems that meet or surpass the requirements in all other respects; so if you purchase Morrowind and it's running sluggishly, check online for the latest video drivers. In my case, I was running a Radeon 7200, and ran into clipping issues. Amusingly enough, Bethesda Softworks has been working with ATI to develop a general driver update, and when I downloaded the results a week ago, it completely solved my problems. Another thing to consider: set the hardware acceleration in your Control Panel to "none." I've found over time that this aids a range of graphically advanced games.
What did you think of Morrowind?

I wouldn't suggest running Morrowind in anything less than 1078 x 768 resolution, since you'll lose information on the extremely detailed screen. When framerates are poor and the system seems sluggish, try instead lowering some of the settings on the Options panel. (Note that there are numerous small game pauses--no more than ten seconds, at worst--as you move physically through geographical areas, to accommodate the loading of new data. When this happens, it isn't a system issue.) While still playing under the old Radeon drivers, I found that cutting back on the View Distance and Real-time Shadows controls helped, although they were only reduced part of the way. (I would not give up all ability to see those distant, 3D views.) Looking down at the ground before right-clicking helped prevent a slothful mouse in the mini-screens, which was also a problem.
The Verdict

There are bound to be people who read the review and rating I've given Morrowind and say to themselves, Ah-ha, yet another toadying hack salivating before the boots of his master. So I should make clear that although I've been reviewing a variety of computer software and hardware since 1986, I've never betrayed my opinions on a product by printing something different at the behest of an editor or a software company. In fact, I once persisted in giving a thumbs-down to a game despite the general opinion that it was pretty good. I gave my reasons, stuck with them and can now look into a mirror every morning without seeing the rear-end of a horse staring back.

I mention this only to provide some perspective; when I give a game a 9.4, it's because I believe that game deserves an "A" on its report card. Morrowind isn't perfect and its system requirements are huge; but its accomplishments outweigh any reservations, in my opinion. It isn't for everybody, but then what game is? This one shows more planning, talent (aesthetic, programming, and design) and creative vision than anything I've played in a very long time. And I'll stand by those words.
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