The loudest thought in my head has consistently been that, regardless of how good Morrowind is or isn't, the idea that any of it's more talked about criticisms about being slow, clunky, or baffling in other ways is due to its age, or is a product of some kind of age of video game antiquity, simply holds absolutely no water.
You can split hairs about what it means for a game to "age", if it even does, but most of the time, that's a fruitless game of semantics. However, at the same time, I feel it does a disservice to Morrowind in particular to hand-wave away these criticisms in the name of “Well, 2002 was a different time”; In addition to somewhat undermining the game’s own positive achievements as being merely “Really good, for, y’know, back then.” this mentality I feel ignores the actual history and greater context of the genre, or even The Elder Scrolls franchise itself.
Movement is slow, which I’ve heard has to do with making the game world feel bigger. Yet, the game world isn’t even that small land-mass wise, certainly and especially in the context of 2002 video games. And in Morrowind’s own Daggerfall movement is just fine despite fast traveling to every point of interest literally being a requirement in that game. There are things like potions or spells or enchanted items that can aid with movement speed, but when it starts to feel like investment in those is necessary to
What does feel… Well, “Small” might not be the best word, but “Limited”, is the actual range of emotions the landscapes evoke. Morrowind’s excellent art direction shines and is arguably enhanced by the graphical capabilities of the platform(s) at the time, and yet so much of that feels lost in the tedious stretches between destinations. I’ve often heard praise of Morrowind’s unique and alienating setting, but so much of it in reality is simply dull. I take no issue with the idea of empty atmospheric expanses in games, but there are so many monotonous game mechanics or lack of engaging ones to make those few moments of immersive atmosphere last an entire play-through. Cliff-Racers live up to their internet reputation as the most annoying enemies to deal with in video games, period. Many of the incidental quests you may stumble upon on your journeys around Morrowind are equally inconsequential and un-fun. The most rewarding parts of exploration are simply when you finally reach somewhere that’s a slightly different shade of brown-grey until another unrelenting horde of Cliff-Racers spawn, or you’re forced to deal with endless Slaughterfish while swimming.
To compound all of this, the world of Morrowind is set to a looping soundtrack of just a handful of songs removed from any context or artful placement that I was able to pick up on outside of the battle theme. The theme from Morrowind has sort of gone on to become the theme tune for the franchise as a whole, but I couldn’t help throughout my entire playthrough thinking that the Daggerfall, and somewhat by extension even the Arena soundtracks easily did laps around Morrowind in their sleep.
I like to think that I have a propensity for being able to take in the moments and the environments around me in video games, and often my favorite environments are ones that feel isolating, hostile, and unfamiliar, so I can confidently say my lack of patience with Morrowind’s world likely stems from a number of other external factors at play. I think one of these factors is the strained player agency throughout the rest of the game. In the context of a Morrowind review, that’s probably an insane sentence to read if you’re enthusiastic about the game, but I truly felt more limited in what I could do or who I could be than in either its predecessor, Daggerfall, or its later 2 successors, Oblivion and Skyrim. Outside of the Elder Scrolls franchise and around the same time, I also felt my agency being more strained than in a game like Knights of The Old Republic, which, to me, seems to be the grand point of all of these games.
To clarify, Morrowind technically gives you a sandbox of tools to do crazy stuff like leap across the continent in a single bound, a feat none of these other entries boast. In place of being able to climb on walls, it seems crafting flight spells and being able to use them in a variety of creative ways in particular is one of the big “You can only do this in Morrowind type things I regularly came across in my playthrough . This is neat, but doesn’t really make up for the rest of what is ultimately a narrow experience - I have never before in any RPG failed to make a character that actually felt… decent to play as, as many times as I have with Morrowind. Upon character creation there are a small variety of skills and birth signs you can take to mold and influence how you will play the game, and yet the actual array of starting stats and skills that are actually viable for the first few levels is so small that it makes me question why the game lets me do this in the first place as opposed to offering a few preset arrays. This is such a problem with this game that there are no shortage of guides or forum posts out there that exist solely to seek or supply help for simply being able to play the game in the first place. I don’t remember exactly how many characters I had to make before I was able to reliably kill one or two of the starting area monsters without getting killed, but compared to the… One attempt in Daggerfall I made without a guide, it felt like a silly waste of my time. I think there is an art to being able to fuck up your character sheet, but it shouldn’t be easier to fuck it up so consistently than it is to make something not even great - Just baseline playable.
Some of this is amplified by the feedback of combat in general just being shit - How you reconcile tacking on dice rolls to a real-time action game without having robust animations or sound design is beyond me, but again, this is something that I didn’t really struggle with all that much in Daggerfall, going to show that this sort of thing isn’t “bad because it’s old”, it’s just… Bad. Up until this point, Bethesda had done better.
There are plenty of other sore areas or instances to be found in Morrowind, some of the most frustrating being losing hours of progress to Brown Rot, a mechanic the game hadn’t properly warned me about or prepared me for, or the layout of Vivec city being so pointlessly confusing that even the in-game NPCS comment on it, but these are just incidental dogshit moments that are more nitpicks that are amplified with bigger issues found in the game, or are only caused by said bigger issues to begin with.
Attempting to stay on track just a little bit with the idea of limited player agency is the near complete absence of any roleplaying. Sure, there’s no shortage of dialogue options with every NPC in the game, the world is populated with plenty of quests and factions to join up with, and the lore/setting are interesting, but none of the dialogue really allows you to approach situations in different ways, and the vast majority of NPC dialogue are generic lines that are seldom actually useful when you really want them to be, for as much as this game is about reading the information and acting on it instead of mindlessly following markers on your HUD. The quests and factions themselves are also very one note, repetitive, and involve very little in the way of story or narrative flair. While the world-building of the game makes for cool youtube videos to listen to on another tab while working, it unfortunately doesn’t seem to inform too much of what you can actually do in-game. I keep reading that entering family tombs and disturbing them is strictly forbidden by law in the region of Morrowind, and yet I still don’t know firsthand what the consequences of that really are. I’ve killed handfuls of slavers and have freed their captives, but I haven’t really faced any consequences for that, nor have I really been able to follow up on the liberated NPCs.
It’s as though in Morrowind there are so many different things you can technically do, and yet it rarely feels as though I’m doing something different, one moment to the next. There’s no reactivity or drama to really sell the agency that the game chooses to afford you. It all makes for a really underwhelming messiah story. I immediately played Starfield upon its release after my time with Morrowind, and while I have yet to write that particular review, I’m coming to realize that this idea of breadth over depth is not a new concept for Bethesda.
But perhaps Morrowind needn’t be all that deep. While less complex than Daggerfall, I don’t know that I would go so far as to say that Daggerfall is deeper. The story, quests, dialogue, and reactivity are basically at the same level as Morrowind’s, but I’m able to accept that as there are in general less gameplay annoyances, and its focus on being a medieval fantasy life simulator seems more clearly realized. I don’t really know what Morrowind is supposed to be good at; Its greatest strength is its art direction, but that hardly makes a great game.
Maybe the leap to a 3D modeled world from 2D sprites was too big of a technical challenge on a financially strained studio on the verge of closing? There are seeds planted in this game not present in Daggerfall that you can see blossom in later entries, and there are improvements from Daggerfall, with the vastly simplified dungeon layouts that, for the better, don’t feel ripped out of someone’s basement game of Dungeons & Dragons circa 1983 and go on forever.
The main quest does have a slight bit more going on mechanically every now and then compared to the many sidequests of the world, which also could not really be said of Daggerfall.
For the sake of evaluating this game on its own, and experiencing the game as it was intended to be experienced on release, I had originally set out to not yet play any of the DLC, and still have yet to really dive into any of it. However, I did manage to wander onto a DLC island and was treated to my favorite quest in the game - A sidequest where you have to promptly memorize lines to a play happening in a shopping center square, only for some slightly off-color political joke to go off the rails and incite being attacked by some extremist audience member. For Morrowind, this was a really inventive and tightly paced quest that felt cleverly written and utilized the game’s text-only dialogue system as a core mechanic that was fun to engage with. This was one of the few times I had a stupid grin on my face because of something that the game did. One of the others, also found on this DLC island, was being able to have a pet rat that doubled as a beast of burden.
This review of Morrowind probably contains the word “Daggerfall” way more than it should, but I think that if it's impossible to evaluate this game without some greater context, it should be in an actual context of its contemporaries and predecessors and not some vague “long time ago”, as if video games before the year 2007 are simply “too old” to be accessible by modern audiences. These contemporaries and predecessors, in addition to the faint whiffs of Morrowind’s own DLC to me show that a better game was absolutely within reach in 2002. Morrowind carries with it just enough charm to be a memorable experience that despite my nonstop whinging, I did in fact enjoy an OK amount. Its mountain of shortcomings were simply too much of a hindrance for me to love it, which is regrettable.