'Elder Scrolls Online' Nails 'Morrowind' as Well as an MMO Can

'Elder Scrolls Online' Nails 'Morrowind' as Well as an MMO Can

The first true expansion for 'The Elder Scrolls Online' takes place in Morrowind, one of the franchise's most beloved settings ZeniMax Online

ZeniMax's MMO does an admirable job of recreating what is perhaps Tamriel's most beloved locale

ZeniMax's MMO does an admirable job of recreating what is perhaps Tamriel's most beloved locale

Let's take a moment to admire these words of wisdom written on The Elder Scrolls Online's forums by bertenburnyb16_ESO in the summer of 2014, back when ESO was just a season old and had taken a beating from critics and players alike. "They better not screw up Vvardenfell!!" Just above him, a poster named dwemer_paleologist asked why Vvardenfell, the "Black Isle" setting of the influential and acclaimed 2002 RPG The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, wasn't implemented "from the very start."

Bertenburny basically answered that question. Morrowind often commands an enviable spot on rankings of the best roleplaying games ever made, and very specific expectations come into play when you slap its name on a new project. Fantasy, whether it's in games or on the screen, needs more lands like the province of Morrowind and the island of Vvardenfell in particular. When it first dropped in the early years of the last decade, Peter Jackson's newly released The Lord of the Rings movies looked like unimaginative fantasy clichés by comparison. While Morrowind probably had enough requisite mages and knights jogging about to confidently call it fantasy, Bethesda had given us something far more fantastical: a world where giant mushrooms pepper the topography like sequoia in California – a world where purple-skinned elves with blood red eyes raised giant insects like cattle.

They were racist as hell, these elves, prone to hurling acidic epithets – and an even more ill-tempered sort roamed the northern ashen wastes and sneered at the elves who lives in cities and worshipped demigods. That's to say nothing of the noble houses that squabbled as brutally as any in Game of Thrones, or the mystic cult of assassins who keep them in check. It's to say nothing of how its storyline sometimes brilliantly tackled issues of imperialism, racism, or nativism. I'd always loved fantasy, but Morrowind showed me that games could create something unique and wonderful, and I wanted to be a part of that. In my own case, it's no exaggeration to say that all this wonder led me to where I am now, writing about games for a living. We can argue all day about the wisdom of that, but the fact remains: Morrowind inspired me.

And now here we are, with Vvardenfell serving as the setting of Elder Scrolls Online's first true expansion. The time is finally right. The Elder Scrolls Online was never a bad game, but its initial adherence to traditional MMO leveling felt too confining. It didn't feel like an Elder Scrolls game, people said. You couldn't kill random NPCs. You couldn't steal, and the law wouldn't kill you for stealing. Most damning of all, you couldn't quest anywhere you damn well pleased.

That's all changed now, thanks to the major game update from last year called "One Tamriel." You can now do all these things and more. Owing to the legacy of The Elder Scrolls III, Morrowind was the best possible title developer ZeniMax Online could have chosen for reeling in lapsed players or players who've never played before. And three years into the game's lifespan, it's arguably never been so important that ZeniMax doesn't screw it up.

Generally they didn't, or at least the studio pulled off the transition about as well as an MMORPG can hope to. Nostalgia drips from almost every pixel. Silt striders – essentially fleas the size of water towers – still ferry players from town to town. (Unfortunately, just as in the original Morrowind, you still won't see them actually, you know, striding.) There's little reason to fret about the map being too small or large, as ZeniMax reportedly used a 1:1 scale overlay of the map used for the original Morrowind. Even some of the old annoyances make it into the expansion, such as the maddeningly labyrinthine passages of the ziggurat-like cantons in Vivec City. I even laughed to find its wilds populated with cliff racers, the pterodactyl-like creatures that were so numerous and annoying that Bethesda later patched released a patch reducing their numbers, and a running gag in the follow up Skyrim was the story of Saint Jiub, who pulled a Saint Patrick and sent every last one of the beasts flapping away from Vvardenfell.

It may be a little too perfect. Name almost any element from The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and you can generally find its counterpart in the Morrowind expansion. This, even though Elder Scrolls Online takes place 700 years in the past. The approach robs the expansion of some of the wonders of discovery, particularly for veterans like me who already know these places well. That's not to say that it's without some nice little touches, such as the way it presents us with the sight of Vivec City being built or the the way Ald'ruhn, a village inside the hollowed shell of a giant mudcrab, is now an Ashlander outpost rather than a House Redoran stronghold. The Ashlands themselves are far less extensive, as the eruptions troubling the Elder Scrolls III have yet to occur. For the most part, everything is in its right place, right down to the cozy little customs house in Seyda Neen where Morrowind kicks off (and the Morrowind expansion does as well, provided you're leveling a new character with the brand-new starter experience).

This familiarity carries over to the new Warden class, a fun and powerful vocation that wraps up elements of traditional ranger or druid classes in one tidy package. Thing is, Wardens seem like they'd be best associated with races like Wood Elves or Nords in the in-game lore. But because this is the Morrowind expansion, the creatures they summon, aside from a hulking bear, all call Vvardenfell home, whether it's the aforementioned cliff racers you can call down to swat enemies, or the floating Metroid-like netches that provide healing. To make them more appealing to nerds like myself, ZeniMax would be wise to allow for different "skins" for the various abilities, thus allowing that cliff racer to turn into, say, a hawk.

But otherwise, the Morrowind expansion shows ZeniMax Online gets Vvardenfell. Even spending only a couple of hours in The Elder Scrolls III was enough to come away with the impression that the Dark Elves are kind of assholes, and Elder Scrolls Online uses that foundation to tell some fantastic stories. This is not a happy place, but happy places rarely tell good tales. It's a place where House Telvanni mages flaunt the anti-slavery laws on the mainland, to the point of arresting visitors on phony charges to force them to toil away in their fields; a place where alchemists concoct potions to turn miners into the very obsidian they're hired to harvest.

One of the great strengths Elder Scrolls Online is that its One Tamriel overhaul ensured that you're not under any real pressure to rush through this. You're allowed to savor the story, and you should definitely do so. It's the main reason to play this game, and the writing shows ESO reaching highs it's generally maintained since the Orsinium DLC in 2015. Other games often say much the same things in their marketing, but they're usually designed around an endgame that players are encouraged to rush toward. Here, unless you're one of the few people who wants to run raids (or "trials," as they're called) there's little reason to. Elder Scrolls Online seems to have captured a playerbase that's most interested in playing alone or in small groups, which fits well with the traditional Elder Scrolls experience. When I tried to get a group for the new trial, the Halls of Fabrication, the groups I joined failed on three occasions to attract enough players.

In fact, if there's a problem, it's that the Morrowind expansion plays a little too similarly to the way Elder Scrolls Online has played since One Tamriel. You do some long quest chains, you kill a few world bosses, you run around collecting skyshards for skill points, and you run a few soloable dungeons. And that's about it. I finished the entirety of the player-versus-environment content within around 20 or 25 hours, but it's good enough that I've already started leveling a second character through it. Still, by the standards of an MMORPG "expansion," that's decidedly on the short side.

Fortunately, it's not all there is to offer. The Morrowind expansion also introduces Elder Scrolls Online's first structured player-versus-player battlegrounds, in which three groups of players duke it out in carefully designed arenas with modes for deathmatch, capture the flag, and domination. It's fun, in theory, at least when you can get in it. As of right now, the queues still drag on forever and then you'll often get a notice that someone declined the invite. The other day, this went on for an hour, and I still didn't get in. And then, once you do get, balanced fights are by no means guaranteed. In a recent session, I found myself facing two preorganized teams with gear designed for quick kills, which made quick work of my disorganized pick-up group. Sometimes, I'd barely last two seconds in a fight, even though I'm at the level cap and well above the 160 champion points needed to wear the highest quality gear. It's rough. Fortunately, this is still technically early access (although in this case, that's a literal term rather than a Steam one with its beta associations), and there's still time to fix all this before the official release on June 6

So there you have it, bertenburnyb16_ESO. Some things are, well, less than ideal. Yet it's hard to play through everything on offer here and walk away with the conclusion that ZeniMax "screwed it up." I do have some remaining quibbles, such as the way multiple NPCs seem intent on herding you toward seeing the demigod Vivec as though he's the Tamrielic Santa Claus even though they kept him walled off until the climax of The Elder Scrolls III for greater effect. Who knows? Maybe the span of 700 years made him grumpy. Other differences only served to make the experience better; nostalgia has its limits. Nothing would have felt so "Morrowind" as forcing your adventurer to jump up and down 100,000 times just to level acrobatics, but nothing else would have sent modern players weeping into the arms of another game.

For an MMORPG, it does well. Welcome back, Morrowind, I've missed you.