The Altered Scrolls: Morrowind (Part Two: Mechanics)

27 Aug


The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind has the best presentation of a unique, colorful, gripping milieu in the entire Elder Scrolls series–but we can’t talk about that yet. Because before we get to the good part of Morrowind, we’re going to have to do what plenty of people failed to do: suffer through its bullshit.┬áLike its predecessors, Morrowind was as approachable as the rotted feral zombie of a terrorist skunk.

And it really must be emphasized that Morrowind‘s problems were nothing new for the series. In many respects Morrowind was a significant step up from its forebears; it just so happened that in those same respects, it was about a half-step behind for the era. For example, the interface was busy and content-dense as it had ever been, but at least it was centralized (I’ll get into this a bit more later, and again when I cover Oblivion). The journal that tracked quests and conversational elements was a joke, but at least it was comprehensive and helpfully hyperlinked, unlike in Daggerfall and Arena where the journals felt haphazard, incomplete, and painful to sift. And yes, there wasn’t a lot of in-game instruction to teach players just what the fuck the difference between Absorb Health, Damage Health, and Drain Health was supposed to be, but at least now when you cast the spell you could sort of figure it out from cues in the health bar (admittedly patched in) and enemy noises. So for accessibility Morrowind rates a solid, “Shows improvement,” unless you aren’t an apologist fan trying to put your inability to criticize a good game into context, in which case it continues to rate the rotted feral zombie of a terrorist skunk.

Let’s talk about combat.

Remember that Arena and Daggerfall were both 2.5D adventures. Your weapon was a pixelated graphic that swiped awkwardly across the screen–an abstract gesture that meant you were rolling the dice to hit and it was time for them to roll to defend. The game had no further ambitions because it had no further resources; unless combat was to be a very straightforward and predictable slog, hitting and missing had to be as much a matter of probability was it was for every other RPG of the era.

But now was not the age of 2.5D and abstract warfare-by-accountant. Now it was 2002–the year of Two Towers and Wind Waker and Vice City and Jedi Outcast. Now, with the brand-spanking-new 3D engine, was the time to innovate the Elder Scrolls combat system into the kinetic bone-crunching slugfest the series is now known for.

Unfortunately, nobody in development figured that out. The bold new direction for combat in the 3D era was…you point your weapon in the enemy’s direction, you click to attack, and the game rolls a die just like it had before. It’s very possible to be pointing your sword or spear or bow right at an enemy, unleash an attack that clearly contacts their flesh–and get nothing but the audible whiff of a complete miss. And when I say it’s “possible,” I mean, “that is absolutely what is going to happen nearly all the time until you’ve got some points in a skill.”

And what if you go mage? Well, guess what: every time you try to cast a spell, you’ve got a chance of failure. Players starting as far along the magic track as possible will still encounter countless early-game situations where they will go to cast a spell, eat the (steep, in the early game) expense of Magicka, and watch the thing fizzle out entirely.

This stuff gets better when your stats and skills go up and the die rolls start botching less frequently, but it’s not a fun road to walk getting there. So many people’s first game went like this:

“So I can play whatever I want? Awesome! I’m gonna be a badass wandering knight in full metal armor who alternates between splitting foes’ skulls with a two-handed blade and roasting them with fire. And hey, it’s actually really easy to take all the skills and stats I need to make that build work as well as possible. This adventure’s gonna be awesome!

“So…wait, what was I supposed to be doing? Let me check the journal. This…is my journal, right? I think it wants me to click this–oh, no, that’s a list of topics. Uh…is one of these relevant to what I wanted to do? I can’t figure out how to switch it back. Well, never mind. I’ll go buy my stuff and then I’ll just wander around having adventures.

“Got my spells, got my armor, got my sword. Can’t really figure out how this map works, and I accidentally pinned it to my screen so it’s up even when I’m in-game, but no matter! The pressing issue is, there’s a big ol’ rat over there looking plump and lootable. Kind of a meager foe, but it’ll let me figure out the controls so I can move on to some real…

“Ow, okay, this rat is really nailing me. Okay. How do I get my sword out…? Oh, there we go. Now, taking a swing…did I miss? How did I miss? Okay, swinging again. *whhfff* And again. *whfff* And again. *whffff* And again–there we go, I hit it! But I did minimum damage, I guess, so it’s still–okay, now I’m dead.

“That…really didn’t take as long as I thought it would. I mean, I personally am not wearing any armor at all, and I’m pretty sure it would take a rat longer than that to bite me to death, but what do I know?

“Let’s try that again. Casting a firebolt at the rat…oh, the spell fizzled. Oh, he’s coming over. Oh, the spell fizzled again. And now I’m dead. Again.

“See, game, this is on me. It was my understanding I’d be playing a spell-slinging knight in armor. Not, as you have styled me, some gormles schmuck in tinfoil who doesn’t believe in magic and learned swordplay at the Surgeon Simulator Academy of Hamhanded Hackery. But now that we’re on the same page, I’m ready to have you fuck off forever and take my useless goddamn character with you.

We’ll talk about what the combat was good for next week.

Next: Strife, Infrastructure, and Specious Entomophage Moonshine.


Leave a Reply


  1. Nyctef

    August 28, 2014 at 4:07 am

    I have played the first two hours of Morrowind *so many times*

  2. Pyradox

    August 28, 2014 at 6:23 am

    Same. This is exactly my experience with Morrowind every single one of the probably almost dozen times I played it.

    Except for the one time where I just cheated my way into having all the best items in the game, played around for a bit then I realised I had lost any semblance of motivation or context about an hour ago and there was no reason for me to be doing any of that if I had no inclination to put my cheating to good use.

  3. Cuthalion

    August 28, 2014 at 8:53 am

    Yaaaay series is back. Yeah, it took me awhile to realize that, not only do weapons randomly miss, but they had different lengths, and if you were to far away OR TOO CLOSE, you would also miss. And it was not obvious which was the dice and which was your aim and distance. Ugh.

    Still liked the game though.

  4. Grey Cap

    August 28, 2014 at 11:00 am

    There’s a mod that removes the dice from combat, but after having put up with morrowind for several hours, I was too sick of the place to go back. I’m hoping to get my Morrowind experience through Skywind.

  5. TMTVL

    August 28, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    For me it’s not the first 2 hours of Morrowind what turn me off, I lose interest between 5 and 10 hours in. I don’t mind grinding, but I want to run into interesting characters.

  6. Horfan

    August 28, 2014 at 1:29 pm

    Loving this series!

  7. Aezart

    August 28, 2014 at 7:30 pm

    I wonder if having a little dodge animation for the enemy if your attack misses (stepping back or to the side maybe) would make the dice rolling a bit more bearable.

  8. Nick

    August 28, 2014 at 10:41 pm

    And this is why I never got past about the first hour of Morrowind, and never picked up another Elder Scrolls game. It didn’t help that I gravitate to mages in this kind of game, and they really, really suck in the early game at least…

  9. Neko

    August 29, 2014 at 12:38 am

    To be honest? I was okay with it. Feeling like a powerless mook straight off the boat and running away from Nix Hounds on the way to Balmora was good, because when I did level up and get stronger, I *felt* stronger. You can have a game that puts you in the shoes of a badass from the start, but you won’t feel like a badass. You have to build up to it.

  10. Akri

    August 29, 2014 at 7:24 am

    Every rating system should have a “rotted feral zombie of a terrorist skunk” as an option.

  11. Hal

    August 29, 2014 at 7:32 am

    Almost as bad is the stamina/athletics conundrum. When you start the game, you’re SLOW. Leaving that first little village and heading out to visit Caius (or whoever your quest giver is) was an arduous journey because you end up plodding along, unable to run because all your stamina bleeds away like it was nothing.

  12. The Rocketeer

    August 29, 2014 at 6:19 pm

    You take back those true things that you said!

    Nah, I really can’t defend it. The only thing to be said in its favor is that Morrowind lets you get much more powerful than its descendants would, and the contrast between a seasick outlander and a seasoned Nerevarine is incredible.

    For melee types, its best to just run to Balmora, get into a few quests for quick cash, and train up your primary weapon and armor skills to at least fifty or sixty, and past that, things tend to work themselves out. For mages… well, sorry. Combat magic is ass. At the same time, as it has often been pointed out, magic in Morrowind was cooler and more valuable than it ever would be again, and I can’t imagine any character not knowing or having access to a handful of the most useful spells, whereas in Oblivion and Skyrim you may as well not bother if it isn’t your primary skillset.

  13. Zastrick

    August 30, 2014 at 4:50 am

    This post pretty much summarizes my initial playthrough of Morrowind. I banged my head on the initial difficulty cliff for who knows how many hours, experimenting with rolling different characters because I was convinced I did something wrong for the game to be that brutal starting out. I eventually got fed up with the game handing me my ass and shelved it for a year before coming back, determined to “solve” Morrowind. That said, peeling back the layers of obtusion to finally understand game mechanics and then master them is among the most satisfying experiences I have with games.

    It’s also amusing how easily this portion of the game can be skipped if you’re not averse to theft, or if you happen to have tribunal installed. Fending off a Dark Brotherhood attack early on escalates the character to a silly level of wealth that’s difficult to not abuse.

  14. Brian

    August 31, 2014 at 3:35 am

    It is amazing how haunting this game actually is, in terms of setting. I had exactly the experience you describe in your first post, it has stuck with me more than almost any RPG I have ever played.

    My favorite insanity of the combat system, however, is crafting v. spellcasting, wherein being a master magic smith makes you godlike as compared to a master mage. Wand of fireballs firing like a machine gun and a 5 second flying ring with hundreds of charges (from what I remember) was very cool… and after a very long time as a weakling very satisfying.

  15. Mersadeon

    September 4, 2014 at 9:42 am

    Wait what? Are you shitting me? Wind Waker and Morrowind came out the same year? Oh man. I mean, I played both of them at the time (I was around eleven), but I always thought Morrowind was a few years old at the time.

  16. Bubble181

    September 4, 2014 at 6:44 pm

    Pfah. I know I sound my age (and more), but I *liked* the dice nature of the game. I *like* my RPGs like I like my RTSes: number crunchingly. What’s the point of increasing my fighting skill if, in the end, it still depends on my actual, physical skill after all? My “skill” is in choosing the right in-game skills, and finding a build that works.

  17. Francis-Olivier

    September 14, 2014 at 7:31 pm

    Well some people are horrible at number crunching or just don’t like it but they don’t have any problem with figuring out solution intuitively. It depends on the type of player you are I guess. There’s more to be said on the subject but I’ll let someone else have a say first.