No, I’m not crazy and you have not misread the title of this post. I do think that The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is still, after 16 years, the best open-world RPG of all time. And this is after I’ve played the entire Witcher, Fable, Metal Gear Solid series, etc., as well as stand alone open-world titles such as Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn. Even within the Elder Scrolls franchise, despite not being my first game in the series (that credit goes to Oblivion), Morrowind remains to be my favourite.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is the third installment in the Elder Scrolls series developed by Bethesda Game Studios and published by Bethesda Softworks. The franchise is often known as the brain-child of Todd Howard, the lead designer. It is the result of a long 7-year development period following the second installment The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall (released in 1996) and was released in 2002 for Microsoft Windows and the original Xbox.
What do I love about the game, exactly?
Well…everything! If I have to go into detail about all of them in a single post, this would result in a product further away from an article and closer in length to a research paper. As an introductory post, I will only touch on various aspects briefly, which will be expanded upon in later posts. I have narrowed it down to 3 aspects.
1. The Setting: Morrowind, home of the Dunmer
I’ve talked about this before, in my posts examining Morrowind’s OST, but I can never mention this enough – Morrowind is very unique, even within its own franchise, in the realm of the world-creation.
The NPCs and enemies you encounter in the game are simply…alien. Skyrim is clearly the most popular game in the franchise, but in that game, you encounter wolves, sabre cats and bears in the dozens in the wild. Such generic enemies… But oh no, not in Morrowind. Instead, you have these…creatures.
The effect? Anyone who has played Skyrim and Oblivion know that feeling when you hear the battle music come on. “Oh,” we sigh to ourselves, clearly exasperated, “it’s another wolf. And it’s not going to let me fast-travel until I kill it.” That feeling: extreme boredom. You simply don’t get that in Morrowind, at least, not as much. Of course, the cliff-racers are annoying, but they at least look unique. The other creatures? Just imagine having one of those Daedroths come running at you around the corner. It’s forever going to be a “HOLY SHIT” moment, rather than a “you again” moment.
And the guards? Just look at that…weird dwarven armour they wear! Nothing like the god-awful, boring, unprotective…is that iron armour? How is that supposed to scare me?
Do not even get me started on the environment of Morrowind itself. We got a glimpse of some of those Telvanni wizard towers in Skyrim‘s DLC, Dragonborn, but that was only because it was set in Solstheim, an area in the province of Morrowind. Everything about the game screams alien. It is not inspired by the Romans, like Oblivion, or the Nords, like Skyrim. It is an entirely unique universe of its own.
2. The Fighting System: Creativity and Skill
Here is where the controversy comes in – I don’t think the fighting system of Morrowind is all that bad. Wait, wait. Before you bring out your pitchforks, let me explain myself. Yes, Skyrim‘s fighting system is more fluid and streamlined, but it’s too…easy. It also exacerbates that feeling of being all-powerful, which makes the game much less immersive.
If you are a character who has specialised in using axes for a while and switch to a sword, it can be expected that you won’t be proficient when you first pick it up. Skyrim only shows this effect through the amount of damage it deals, but in Morrowind, you can miss the opponent entirely. That is an element of immersion in itself. Your character isn’t some godly figure that can just pick up any weapon and become proficient at it instantly. In Morrowind, your damage dealt with a weapon class, as well as accuracy, improves as your skill improves. This reflects a process of your character learning, either through repeatedly using the same thing, or having a trainer teach you.
Don’t even get me started on weapon types being unique. Morrowind has far more weapon types and the differences between them are much more noticeable and immersive. Just take the examples below:
Within the iron weapons category, Morrowind has the dagger, tanto, wakizashi, shortsword, saber, broadsword, longsword, spear, halberd, claymore, warhammer, etc. There are many more to list. What does Skyrim have? Daggers, shortswords, longswords. Battleaxes and waraxes. Maces and warhammers. Bow and arrow. It’s that simple.
Furthermore, in Skyrim, swords and maces differ in 2 ways – its extra effect and damage-speed ratio. The former has extra critical chance and the latter has a chance to ignore armour. That’s it. Look at Morrowind. Depending on how you swing your longsword, for example, you can either lunge, chop or slash, each dealing different damage. Chop does the least damage, slash does the most. For tantos, despite both being bladed weapons, all 3 styles do the same. No such distinction is made in Skyrim or Oblivion! Only the damage-speed ratio varies between weapons of the same style (e.g. bladed, blunt).
Oh, and the magic system? Comparing Skyrim‘s magic system to Morrowind‘s is like trying to compare Science at pre-school to that in college – it’s cute. Oh, you can cast Fireball from your right hand while casting Icicle Spear from your left? In Morrowind, I can cast a spell that lets me levitate, I can combine a destruction spell with an illusion spell. I can do ANYTHING as long as I have bought/learnt the base spell. The possibilities are endless. You can enchant your dagger with invisibility cast on strike such that everytime you attacked, you would become invisible after. You can NEVER do that in Skyrim.
3. General Gameplay: Navigation
Yes, most modern gamers would die playing Morrowind since there are no map markers, but that is exactly what makes the game immersive. Instead of skipping through dialogue with NPCs and just relying on that stupid little arrow that shows up on your compass, you actually have to pay attention to NPCs and play little detective games. Information you hear from NPCs is recorded in your journal and you have to piece together little bits of information for yourself. That is true world immersion right there.
And how do you get there? There’s no fast travel.
You can’t just pull up your world map and magically teleport there. Of course, you can still walk in Oblivion and Skyrim, but it’s simply not the same. There isn’t that process of figuring out where you should go, following the signs and the true feeling of exploration. There are travel methods, but immersive ones. Look at the following:
It is almost like travelling in real-life, where you have to figure out which transport line connects in which town/city and transfer accordingly to get to where you need to be. You don’t just instantly defy space and reality, and teleport your ass over.