I’ve been “replaying”* Morrowind lately and it’s different than Bethesda’s later titles. Some ways good, some not as good. Treating as the start of their “modern”** era is fitting so let’s take a look at what made Morrowind what is and how these features have been treated in future games.
The setting: Morrowind would not be so beloved if it did not have the setting it does. Vvardenfall is a truly unique place with its own mundane yet fantastical creatures. The architecture is its own and is diverse: the Dunmer-Empire fusion of Hlaalu, the more traitional Redoran buildings designed to withstand the ash storms, the plant like wizard towers of the Telvanni. Daedric ruins, Ancestral tombs, Dwemer Ruins, Egg Mines, Dunmer fortresses. There is a lot of different stuff to see and interact with.
How does it stack up?: This is one of the reasons why Morrowind is so beloved and it hasn’t really been usurped. Oblivion had the cities be the same, Ayleid Ruins, dungeons and Oblivion gates in generic fantasyland. Fallout 3 was diverse yet samey; although I think is more a function of the graphical settings I had. Skyrim is very pretty and is fantasyScandanavia and has differing climes as well as dungeon set ups.
Story: Yes, the main plot is basically taking Frank Herbert’s Dune and tweaking it. But that ignores the backstory, which is different, as well as the execution. All in all it’s very well done. Tribunal’s main quest is dumb and immersion breaking*** but Bloodmoon rebounds.
How does it stack up?: Oblivion and Fallout 3 are both dumb but not Tribunal level dumb. I’ve never played the Oblivion DLC but I’ve heard good things about it. Skyrim’s Civil War is just really unpolished and according to modders theree was a lot more they wanted to do with it. I haven’t actually finished Alduin’s plot due to limitations of having access to Skyrim but so far it’s been fun. But the backstory is really, really engrossing. It cleans away most of the contiunity lockout that was building up and is compelling in its own right. The problem is that I want more of it, and it’s not forthcoming at any point in the near future.
Factions: 3 Great Houses, 3 Guilds, 2 Religions, 3 Clans, the Legion, the Morag Tong, and the EEC in Bloodmoon is just a list of the joinable ones. The Blades, Skaal and Ashlanders use the faction system to convey something during the Main Quest. There’s also House Dres, House Indoril, the Cammona Tong, the Dark Brotherhood, and the Twin Lamps that still impact the game but aren’t joinable.
How does it stack up?: Winner by a clear mile, Oblivion had 5, Fallout has none and Skyrim has 4. Nor does that get into how annoying Skyrim is with its factions and tying them to Daedra. The plots of the factions are all engaging, with the exception of half of Oblivion’s Dark Brotherhood, and they drop the attribute/skill requirements. Which on one hand is good, but on the other hand does remove a layer of you’re moving up in the ranks.
Magic: Is fairly diverse, plenty of spell effects. the problem is that a good chunk of Illusion and Mysticism are basically useless.
How does it stack up?: I can’t tell you anything about Oblivion outside of spellmaking was locked to the Mage’s Guild, which was dumb and immersion breaking if you wanted to not join them. Skyrim really fails here, between Destruction not scaling with weapon damage and the effects being reduced to the bone, it’s underwhelming. Most of the interesting non-mundane effects are locked off in Shouts. They all have their problems, I think TES Six has a good foundation if they take the Shouts and make them magic. Levitate I think I’m mixed on. On one hand, design can make more organic worlds and use the spell’s existence to be more diverse. On the other hand, Levitate is just as often used by me as a get of this damn ditch then any legit exploring. The former is good, the latter is not good.
Fast Travel: An interweaving series of guild guides, silt striders and boats cover most of the province. Otherwise you have Mark and Recall for one location. You’re more often tahn not forced to explore the wilderness to get to places and often stumble upon things.
How does it stack up?: The biggest problem with Oblivion’s system was that you could fast travel to all the cities by default. There was so little incentive to go exploring out beyond the next quest. Fallout and Skyrim were better in that you have to discover the place first and Skyrim has more emergence in that fast travel still exists for other people. Mark and Recall would be good for specific points and its original use of one location would be fine.****
Character Progression: On the surface it’s rather straightforward, raise skills that matter to your character. Level up, raise your stats. The problem is that the system is counter intuitive and leads to sub optimal characters at higher levels if played normally.***** In terms of gear, you can find the common stuff with no problem, the rare stuff with varying degrees of difficulty and the high tier stuff is only in the wilderness or on important NPCs.
How does it stack up?: Oblivion is terrible, Fallout 3 is fine. The gear doesn’t really stand out that much, especially if you have DLC and do Operation Anchorage soonish. Skyrim is functional but your character lacks some measure of identity in this set up. Skyrim still wins though. Crafting being the great equalizer does give some justification to customizing appearance at hte cost of you needing to be heavily invested in smithing and enchanting.
Overall: Morrowind had the more engrossing sandbox to play in, Skyrim has far more refined gameplay. However the gamplay comes at the cost of not really defining the character and making them interchangeable. Hopefully TES 6 will have the same world building as Morrowind but with far more mechanical polish.
*Given the factions and self imposed restrictions I have on this playthrough, it is a different game in some regards but given how much I’ve played it, it’s replaying.
**I’ve never felt a great need to toy around with DOS to get the earlier games to work and considering how their popularity really took off with Morrowind I think this is fair. This also means that I’m including Fallout 3 cause it can be fairly described as Oblivion with guns.
***The sheer nonsense of it really reinforces the sort of ambiguous everyman your character essentially is and the difficulty of roleplaying.
****There’s a reason why multiple Mark/Recall is one of the must have mods.
*****GCD mod fixes this nicely.