Since its release in 2014, Elder Scrolls Online has rewarded faithful players with a steady stream of new content, game fixes, and improvements. In addition to four, substantial -- and free -- DLCs, changes were made to the leveling system, player housing was added, a move to a free-to-play model, and of course there have been the usual tweaks to balance, graphics, and more. Still, while ESO was considered a relatively successful translation of the franchise into the long-in-the-tooth MMORPG genre, it was greeted with a bit of a yawn.
Now we have the Morrowind chapter of the story, which at $40 is decidedly not free, and aims to cash in on nostalgia for the 2002 original, a game which moved the Elder Scrolls IP and the open world RPG genre significantly forward. It largely succeeds, making Morrowind a painless entry point to ESO and a faithful recreation of the world and characters that captivated gamers fifteen years ago. Where it doesn't succeed is in advancing the MMO genre.
Morrowind takes place on the island of Vvardenfell, hundreds of years before the events of Skyrim. Vvardenfell is not a huge landmass but it is beautifully diverse, with exotic flora and fauna that distinguishes itself nicely from the base game. Giant mushrooms dominate the landscape and silt striders make their return as insect-enabled transportation. Graphically and artistically, the Elder Scrolls Online is at its best when building interesting worlds and imaginative architecture, filled with detail and consistently arresting scenery. It never reaches the photorealism of Black Desert Online, but Vvardenfell's thriving cities and small villages have a sense of lived-in reality in the world. Character models, on the other hand, are miles behind Black Desert's impressively rendered figures and even pale beside those of Final Fantasy XIV.
Happily, the Morrowind expansion allows players to jump into the new content without playing the base game, and it introduces a new class, the Warden. Wardens are a "balanced class" with abilities distributed over three skill trees (tank, healer, and high damage dealer). The Warden can summon animal Companions but they can only be minimally controlled, and some of Warden's abilities seem only slight, cosmetic variants of existing spells. The Warden's look, lore, and abilities fit well into the Nature-worshiping culture of Vvardenfell
No one has ever fallen in love with the Elder Scrolls games because of their visceral combat, and this has been true of the ESO since launch. Despite the variety of upgrades, weapons, armor and spells that look colorful and impressive in action, the feel of fighting in these games is floaty, imprecise and disconnected. Whether slicing through giant spiders in first person mode or hurling spells at cave-dwelling denizens in third-person view, there is rarely any feeling of impact to the combat.
While the forty hour main story that centers on the dis-empowered ruler Vivec and the discovery of a secret society (and of course, saving the world) is interestingly told, written, and performed there is a sense that Morrowind comes from an earlier age of MMOs and RPGs. Too many unimaginative text trees and bland, rote quests paired with the disappointing reality of dozens of other singular "heroes" all performing the same, non-instanced actions quickly disperses the gravity of the story. The reality for most players is that ESO is a massive single player game disguised as an MMORPG, with an entirely solo experience probably being the norm. Morrowind introduces the new PvP Battlegrounds and several modes of competitive play for those inclined to pit their characters against other players'.
First and foremost, Morrowind is a captivating place to land and an interesting island to explore, rich with lore and content but hobbled by some dull writing and bland storytelling. Like the Elder Scrolls Online base game, Morrowind feels static, lacking imagination in its mechanics and design. Fans of the 2002 RPG will enjoy the visual upgrade to what is now a very old game and current players of Elder Scrolls Online will certainly appreciate the new content as well. Gamers who became disenchanted with formulaic MMOs will have their disappointments confirmed in Morrowind, and should probably set sail for Vvardenfell with modest expectations.