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Giant Mushrooms and Bigger Volcanoes – Returning to Morrowind in The Elder Scrolls Online
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 03:53pm 30/05/17 | Comments
We revisit the iconic setting of Morrowind in The Elder Scrolls Online's latest expansion.

“It's different from the rest of Tamriel. It has a different feel.” That’s The Elder Scrolls Online Game Director Matt Firor talking to me about the allure of Morrowind. A sentiment that many long-time Elder Scrolls fans share.

When Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind released back in 2002, it represented somewhat of a seismic shift for computer role-playing games. In that its huge, sprawling, 3D world and freedom to explore in any direction felt entirely new. As someone who at the time spent most evenings with a Nintendo GameCube, the sheer size and scope of Morrowind was as daunting as it was exciting. And then there was the setting of Vvaredenfell itself, a land where elves of various skin tone roamed around in brightly coloured robes casting spells and creating elixirs. Giant mushrooms served as the backdrop to floating jellyfish. And a truly massive volcano filled the horizon.

It was fantasy done right, and one that brought the wonders of a truly immersive RPG to a console audience for the first time. With it becoming one of the best-selling titles for the original Xbox. Fast forward to today and The Elder Scrolls Online is looking to recapture some of that magic with its own Morrowind-themed expansion. When I asked Matt the obvious question of going back to the Elder Scrolls III to get a feel for the location, he reminded of that one aspect of Bethesda titles that we often take for granted.

“There are extensive modding tools for Elder Scrolls III, so we actually went in and used the tools to kind of remind ourselves how the quests worked, and how the stories were told.” he tells me, sparking the sort of sigh of relief one has when a developer understands that, 'Hey, it’s not just a game. This is something special'. “I don't know if anyone actually played through the whole thing,” he continued. “But we certainly installed the game and played around with it for hours. 15 years is a long time, so it was fun to go back and look at it, and then it was even more fun to kind of show the ESO version of that."

As an MMO set in the Elder Scrolls universe ESO has seen many changes since it was first introduced in 2014. After a successful console launch in 2015, one that arguably achieved the same sort of heights for an ‘MMO on console’ as Morrowind’s ‘RPG on a console’, the game has seen a number of improvements. In its current form ESO provides the sort of RPG experience that you can enjoy on your own, at your own pace, and at your own time. Whilst also including the sort of massive group content and PvP stuff that MMOs tend to have.

And sure, that’s a generalised MMO description if there ever was one. But it also rings true. Perhaps the biggest drawcard for The Elder Scrolls Online’s Morrowind expansion is how you can fire it up, create a new Warden, and right off the bat explore, quest, and battle throughout Vvardenfell. This is all possible thanks to the recent One Tamriel update, which lets players go anywhere they want, any time they want. “For Morrowind One Tamriel also gave us the chance to have a new entry point to the game.” Matt tells me. “So, it's a new tutorial, new story, new area, new quests, but once you are done with that, or in fact any time you want, you can go visit the rest of Tamriel.”

“We didn't want to make a product that only appealed to the high-level players,” he continued. “Because that limits the game to only high-level players and ESO isn't really about player levels anymore. It's not that kind of game. It's a much more, kind of modern RPG, in the sense that levels are meaningful to you, because it's how you make your character. They are not directly tied to the world so that’s why can go anywhere you want, walk across the world and group with whoever you want.” MMO’s often tout mechanics and features that ‘let you play how you want’, but in the case of ESO that sentiment often rings truer than most. Throw in the fact that as an Elder Scrolls fan you get the chance to return to an iconic location, Morrowind, the new expansion becomes a hard proposition to resist.

Going Back

Playing through the early moments of ESO’s Morrowind expansion it’s hard not to get swept up in the familiar yet very different setting of Vvardenfell. And even though ESO has included many other locations we’ve seen before, from Skyrim to Cyrodill, this is a Morrowind that has clearly benefited from over a decade of improvements made in graphic fidelity.

“With Morrowind, it's interesting, because everyone remembers the game from 2002, but that was still a long time ago, graphically speaking. And so, we kind of built it from the ground up,” Matt explains. “We went in and took the height map, you know, the actual graphical representation of the terrain, we lifted that from Elder Scrolls III, and then we kind of built it up from there, making sure that the scale was correct, and that it was not too big, and not too small. Then we used a lot of the reference materials for it, the huge mushrooms, and the creatures, and Vivec city and things like that.”

The results speak for themselves.

With a story set 700 years before the events of Elder Scrolls III, a wonderful setting, and a cast of characters and underlying mystery that covers the right Elder Scroll notes of political intrigue and magical stones of prophecy, Morrowind is ESO at its best. It’s only when you come across dozens of other real-world players crowding around a quest giver dressed in various garb dancing or otherwise digitally emoting that the illusion beings to break. And you realise that sure, ESO can tell a great RPG story, but it’s still an MMO.

And that’s more a comment on the genre itself than a critique of a game with Online in the title. Because that would be silly. And really, it’s only worth bringing up because the Elder Scrolls series, including the original Morrowind, has often been about immersing yourself in the world -- alone. On the flip side to that being able to experience a huge story and explore a rich fantasy world with others can feel like the modern-day equivalent of an age-old dream come true.

“It's hard to directly compare them,” Matt explains, talking about traditional Elder Scrolls versus The Elder Scrolls Online. “Because they are such different experiences. You know in Elder Scrolls III, you are out there alone, fighting the dangerous creatures and dust storms. In Elder Scrolls Online, you do that, but you see other players around. Which is why Elder Scrolls Online is so cool, you get to share the world with other players, and group with them if you want it.” For all of the quirks associated with the MMO genre it’s this sentiment that keeps you coming back.

Being able to share an experience.

Bear with Me

On paper Morrowind ticks all the right boxes for an expansion to an already expansive game, a huge new location to explore, a new class to try out, new skills, items, group content to tackle, dungeons to master, and so on. The list is probably as big as the volcano centrepiece of Vvardenfell itself. So only playing for a handful of hours has its drawbacks, but when those tend to err on the side of ‘hey, I need more time to get my fighting bear companion and figure out what exactly is causing all the crazy in this land’ you know that the team is on the right track.

For those that have played ESO the underlying structure and mechanics will feel familiar, but in a new and evocative setting. “Our artists were super happy that we were going somewhere different, because it gave them a chance to do completely different plants, and animals, and creatures. And cool lava, igneous rocks, and things like that.” Matt tells me. “And our quest writers got to delve into a society that was interesting, one that only recently had gotten rid of slavery, and still, some people, some Dark Elves hadn't gotten the message yet. So, it gave us a good chance to tell interesting stories, based on a strange culture, which is familiar to some people in Elder Scrolls, but only if you had really played Elder Scrolls III.”

In the world of ESO, the new setting of Vvardenfell feels perfect for these reasons. And lives up to the promise of a true expansion, new experiences alongside a game that you know how it works. Crafting is still there, exploring the world too, finding dungeons, and completing daily or weekly activities. Add in the One Tamriel mindset of being able to go in fresh and learn about all of that, if need be, and Morrowind becomes the next chapter in The Elder Scrolls Online – and the best version of the game to date.

Giant mushrooms tend to have that effect.
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