I began my experiences with The Elder Scrolls series with The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. My boyfriend of the time saw the game when it came out in 2002 and immediately flipped out because he’d played the prior games and loved them. So, it was natural for him to buy it. Of course, I wound up watching him play and then playing it myself at length, for hours and hours. It was in fact the game that transformed me from a strictly console gamer into a PC gamer. Although I’d played other PC titles before this one, Morrowind arrested my attention entirely. I bought a laptop specifically to play the game. I’ve no idea how many hours I played, but I can safely assume I spent more of my time on Morrowind than on any other game I can think of. Ironically, I did not own my own copy until more recently when my best friend purchased it for me via Steam.
Time had dulled my reasoning for utterly loathing the next installment in the series, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, when it hit the shelves in 2006. I’d remembered that I’d completely adored Morrowind and abhorred Oblivion, but I didn’t recall specific reasons until I started a new play-through this month. Now, since my initial response to Oblivion I went back and played it several times over the years, and in fact played it a lot this year. I came to appreciate the game for what it is, and I do have a copy of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim awaiting me when I get a replacement computer (my old one died), but I still feel as though my heart will forever remain in Morrowind (at least until Bethesda releases an installment for the series that can match the feel of that game).
Now, I do in fact love retro gaming, but in a game like The Elder Scrolls that “retro” feel can get aggravating at times. And I don’t mean to pantomime that Morrowind is a perfect game, because it is quite far from it. However, there are certain elements in the third installment to the series that its descendants distinctly lack even though other things were dramatically improved with Bethesda’s experience and resources. Although there are probably more cons than pros in Morrowind, the pros are, for me, so worth it that I can’t help but prefer the game. It just left a remarkable impression on me. But, I will offer as fair a comparison of the two games as I can given my decided preference (Morrowind and Oblivion; as stated I can’t play Skyrim yet).
My boyfriend watched me play Morrowind recently, and in seeing the starting town of the game he made the sarcastic remark that “it’s Oblivion beta.” However, I feel that this is an unjust comment as he was shooting from the hip and judging from the only area of the game to resemble Cyrodiil. Moreover, what Morrowind did for the series in its heyday was a larger leap than what Oblivion took upon its release.
Morrowind and Oblivion share certain common ground, particularly in the beginning: you’re a prisoner from the Imperial City dungeon, and Emperor Uriel Septim has granted you freedom. In Morrowind, this plays out with you sitting in the hold of a ship; you’re in exile from your home in the province of Cyrodiil, and are released in Morrowind and given an “errand boy” task to start with. It’s a calm and slow introduction to the world and the controls, and gives the player the feeling of exploration and adventure. This is a new world that you’ve been thrown into, and you have to sort out what you’ll be doing with yourself from there. It’s rather like if you were a convict from England, who was exiled to Australia and turned loose. You can choose to start the main quest, or just ignore it and do what you please. Oblivion’s approach is considerably more action-oriented and grabs your attention immediately: you’re literally in the prison, and a Dunmer across the way is taunting you. The guards come in, ushering the Emperor himself through, and run off through an underground passage in an attempt to escape assassins out for his life. You get released in the process, follow along, and have to fight the Mythic Dawn assassins, rats, goblins, and whatever else you come across in the sewers. The Emperor tells you that he was dreaming of you (uh…) and that you’re the magical person who is going to save the world (more or less). So, Oblivion starts from the gate with a grander introduction which requires you to complete part of the main quest in order to progress. I will say that Oblivion gets the point for this category for that very reason, as in Morrowind I very quickly ran off to explore and quite completely forgot about the main quest, as it started out with “deliver this package to this guy in this city” – nothing earthshaking or world-rending. So Oblivion does get you going pretty dramatically and immediately. However, the downfall for me is that the main quest line in Oblivion just bores me to tears. I’m just not interested in it. At all.
Graphically I can’t fairly compare the two games, as Oblivion will of course win as it is the newer game. However, Morrowind’s environments are much more foreign and give a distinctly otherworldly feel whereas Oblivion is rather standard European fantasy with a certain uniformity regardless of where in the world you go. Morrowind’s cultures are distinct; Oblivion cities, while different from one another, have nothing on the breadth of difference between Morrowind’s Balmora and Vivec and their surroundings. The starting port town of Seyda Neen is Imperial-owned and rather literally looks like Oblivion’s Imperial City Waterfront; it’s obvious that Bethesda ported this area over into the architecture of Cyrodiil when they developed it. So, don’t be fooled by the first town you’re in; it’ll look pretty familiar if you are retro gaming the third installment from Oblivion. But Vivec, for example, is the home of House Hlaalu, one of the noble clans of the Dunmer (a member of the Hlaalu clan surfaces in Oblivion, if that name sounds familiar). It is comprised of Central and South American-style ziggurats, and all the houses, temples and shops are found within them. The guards in Vivec are also markedly different than anywhere else, as they are part of the religious order there. Outside Vivec you will find, most notably, giant mushrooms which dwarf the trees. That is just one example of the differing style of the regions. Another fascinating aspect of Morrowind are the Dwemer ruins, which are quite “steampunk” and Romanesque in flavor. They are mysterious and creepy yet full of treasure, and occur with low frequency. This makes your discovery of these ruins a special occasion, and all the more memorable. There is also another central region which a gorge with high cliffs on either side, where red sandstorms blow and scary flying creatures called Cliff Racers prey on you when the wind blows and you can’t see them clearly. There are sunken, haunted shipwrecks, the caves of the Kwama (an insectoid creature), plantations with slaves, and countless other things to see out and around the world. The town of Suran is home to skooma addicts, sodden drunks, and a red light district complete with strip club. I can’t even count the number of ways that the sheer variety of Morrowind’s environments are memorable, distinct, and full of adventurous flavor.
The graphics in Morrowind’s world are still pretty impressive despite their age, especially for the time frame during which it was released. The humanoids are ugly as sin, but admittedly The Elder Scrolls has never had attractive-looking characters. In Morrowind, the people are clunky, somewhat blocky, and awkward; you also can’t customize your own character past certain presets. Even so, the environments are still beautifully crafted, even if they look more realistic in Oblivion. Both games share the same issue of having a very, very short soundtrack for such an expansive game. Even so, the music for both games – composed by Jeremy Soule – is gorgeous, somewhat ambient, and never grows old (for me at least). The reason for the limited soundtrack is simply the expansiveness of the rest of the game: Oblivion’s disc was 2/3 voice acting according to the executive producer Todd Howard, and I’m certain that Morrowind’s graphics took up most of the available disc space for that game. Morrowind does not have nearly the number of vocal tracks that Oblivion has. There are the greetings from everyone you meet when you walk up to them or past them, and certain parts with voice acting, but most of the dialogue is found in dialogue boxes that you have to (gasp!) read.
“Fast travel” in the games work differently, and in my opinion is better in Morrowind. In Morrowind, there are giant flea-like creatures called Silt Striders, whose exoskeleton was carved into in order to make room for travelers to ride on their backs. For a small fee, you can fast travel. If for example you are trying to get from Seyda Neen (in the far south) to one of the northern areas, you have to ride a Silt Strider from town to town around the coastline (a total of 2-3 trips). Although this is not as direct and convenient as Oblivion’s simple “click-and-travel” method, it’s much more convincing for immersion and world development reasons and also encourages you to just go wherever you’re headed on foot. Moreover, the distance between towns is not ridiculous; you can get to where you’re going without too much trouble. In some instances it almost seemed faster (to me) to just walk there than to go looking for the Silt Strider. Additionally, Morrowind’s approach encourages you to fully explore the town you’re in before you hop off to the next one, since you have to pay to ride the Silt Strider.
Leveling in Morrowind is a slow process when compared to Oblivion. I remember that the first time I finally gained a level in Morrowind I rejoiced, and every time after that I also rejoiced. It’s an event, to be sure. Well, in Oblivion it’s a lot faster, and in my opinion this is detrimental to the gameplay. As you increase in levels in Oblivion, the monsters and guards you fight also increase in level; however, at a certain point the monsters are “capped” and nothing more challenging presents itself, thus leaving you rather bored and without a suitable challenge to your power. In Morrowind, the enemies and the guards do NOT level with you, which is a drawback; but in this case, it takes so long to level that it isn’t really an issue for awhile and the main quest keeps you rather challenged.
Being evil is a lot easier to do in Morrowind. As previously mentioned, nothing levels with you so after a certain point the guards are no longer a threat to your nefarious power. But also, if you attack a citizen inside a house where there are no guards, even if they scream for the guards to come they will not show up. While this is more realistic than the supernatural ability of the guards in Oblivion to just know when someone caught you doing something sinister, it can deflate the fun of it over time (even though when you start the game, common citizens can, frankly, take you down). Also, the AI for the NPCs doesn’t allow for them to run from you as they will do in Oblivion, so you can easily kill people and steal all of their stuff. And, you can store your goods wherever you want to as items do not relocate themselves as they do in Oblivion’s barrels and boxes. I can’t even begin to tell you how many homes I took over and redecorated. And guess what? There is no system of distinguishing “stolen” from “honest” goods, so you can sell anything to anyone. The game pretty much encourages debauchery and villainy. In that way, although Morrowind’s style is fun and exciting in a chaotic sense, it’s more thrilling to do evil in Oblivion where you might get caught and have to run from a swarm of guards and try to remove the bounty on your head via the Thieves’ Guild…provided you can actually get away from the tireless, superhuman authorities who all seem to be kin to Superman.
Something that I appreciate in Morrowind that is lacking in Oblivion is the sheer number of different types of plates. I’m not joking. Plates, cups, etc, come in myriad different shapes, sizes and styles, as they would in the real world. And everything has a value if you try to sell it. So, if you kill somebody in Seyda Neen and take all their dishes, brooms, buckets, candlesticks, etc and sell them, you can turn a nice profit. I found myself killing people, taking over their homes, and then redecorating the ones I wanted to “keep” with whatever plates, cups, silverware, etc that I found out in the world and took a liking to. I spent hours redesigning my new home on my initial play-through. While you can also do this in Oblivion, it’s not nearly as fun as the crap you have to choose from is pretty finite and uninteresting. Some of the unimportant household goods in Morrowind are just cool. I seriously would scour around looking for a sixth plate to match the five like it that I had in my home in Balmora. In Oblivion you just buy furnishings for a home that you purchase in each town (for a quest line no less!), but in Morrowind it’s do-it-yourself from start to finish. And it’s really fun, in a pointless sort of way. There’s no real reason to redecorate other than the fact that you can. But should you decide to scrap it all and sell your housewares, you’ll also turn a pretty penny!
A major difference in Morrowind is that you don’t ever gain map markers for the random ruins, caves, and other miscellaneous places you come across in the world. I remember distinctly that one time I was leading an NPC towards some destination she’d asked me to take her to, and saw a cave that I wanted to go into. Since you don’t get a map marker for these sorts of locations I had to go inside when I saw it, so I did. Only…I sort of misplaced my NPC and my quest didn’t ever show me where SHE was, just where the location I was supposed to take her was. Oops. Needless to say I never finished that side quest. So, Oblivion did a much better job with that particular dynamic, at least insofar as the quest objective bit goes. Even so, Morrowind’s style again encourages you to just jump in that cave while you still have the place in your sights since you won’t necessarily remember where it is later. But as frustrating as it can be, it nevertheless retains that “adventurer” quality because you have to try to remember and return there later if you can’t go in at the time for whatever reason, quite like if you were really roaming around some foreign land. If you could make your OWN map markers, it would have made this aspect of the game fairer, although perhaps not as fun in some ways. For me it’s a “love/hate” sort of thing. Sometimes I think this is pretty cool that these “optional extras” are not just handed to you on a silver platter like they are in Oblivion, but then at other times when I’m trying (unsuccessfully mind you) to locate a place I’d come across but not explored I curse the game designers for not having thought of marking the stupid map. But I like not having the game system lead you straight to everything because it allows you to discover (and rediscover) constantly.
Another small and sort of random thing that I like about Morrowind are the books. They’re not nearly as plentiful as they are in Oblivion, and there is a wider variety. They’re actually interesting to read. I found myself actually gleaning some information from them, versus how it is in Oblivion where you find five hundred billion copies of The Lusty Argonian Maid and don’t even bother reading any books at some point other than to open them to see if they will grant you skill increases. In Morrowind you start to learn more about the lore of the world and find yourself immersed in it without the complete inundation of volumes found in the later games.
The world outside the towns does not include random monster encounters to the same frequency as Oblivion. You do come across creatures which will attack you, but you can actually walk from one town to another on foot and not have a single fight. In Oblivion it gets rather repetitive and irritating to keep fighting whatever happens to attack you, but in Morrowind it makes the battles more significant. Also, the programming for Morrowind did not include highwaymen out on the roads trying to steal your stuff, so you only really encounter bandits inside their hideouts. This was better done in Oblivion, to be sure, but even so I felt more excited to roam EVERYWHERE in Morrowind because I wasn’t having to stop every two seconds to fight something. I feel that Morrowind’s less frequent battles add to the game tremendously.
The weapons and armor and their corresponding skills have a bit more specification in Morrowind. There are light, medium, and heavy armor categories (versus Oblivion’s light and heavy), short and long blades (as in, there is a “short blade” skill and a “long blade” skill), and so forth. This makes a lot more sense to me than the simplification in Oblivion as someone who typically uses a dagger should not have the same bonuses for using a claymore, and there is unquestioningly a stratification of armor that is neither light nor heavy. Although the reduction in specifications allows for broader gameplay and faster leveling in Oblivion, it’s a lot more significant when you find or purchase new equipment in Morrowind.
Although potions in either game are useful, there seems to be considerably more types of everyday beverages which have different useful effects in Morrowind. I found myself hauling around Skein, Mazte, and other such premade drinks because they really, REALLY came in handy when fighting monsters as most of these are easy to acquire in town and raise your Strength or Endurance stat tremendously. Drinking them when fighting a formidable enemy (after you exhaust your magic as it depletes your Intelligence significantly) can really turn the tide of battle, or allow you to haul out some goods that you couldn’t carry normally. Despite this, the Alchemy skill use in Morrowind is a painstaking process – but allows you to do something that Oblivion does not. In Oblivion, the process is streamlined: you pick an ingredient and then the ingredients that match effects with what you picked are the only ones you can combine to make potions. You know instantly whether something will have an effect or not and what that effect will be. However, with this system you can’t “experiment” and combine ingredients just to see what happens. In Morrowind, it is possible to create potions out of ingredients that have unknown effects. That is, if your Alchemy skill only allows you to see two of the four possible effects of an alchemical component, you can combine it with something else and generate an effect that is hidden from you. It has a sort of “wildcard” tinge to it, and thus makes the entire process incredibly laborious (particularly as there are no recipes listed in the game), but also considerably more rewarding and adventurous.
Now, Oblivion does of course have many memorable characters which Morrowind does not have. These things give Oblivion a little more flavor, which balances out the “dime a dozen” setting of Cyrodiil. A few examples:
- The Adoring Fan
- The Grey Fox
- Sheogorath/The Shivering Isles DLC
I’m sure there are a lot of things I’m forgetting, but above are some of the ones that I thought of off the top of my head. I would recommend either of these two games to someone to play, but regardless of Oblivion’s improvements I still love and overall prefer Morrowind, which consistently makes all events in-game feel more noteworthy and wondrous. Depending on your play style and preferences, you may feel Oblivion (or Skyrim, but I haven’t played it yet so I can’t rightfully compare it) is better for you. Morrowind is by far the more interesting environment to me even prior to playing Skyrim. I really wish that Bethesda had NOT chosen to focus on the Nord area next as by this point I’ve seen so many Norse/barbarian-inspired things cropping up that the setting itself is already trite to me. I’d have been more interested in the Black Marshes or Elsweyr over Skyrim anyday.