Scrolls, both new and Elder

A month out from Persona 5 and the funk persists, to the point where it’s unbelievable. I keep bouncing from game to game in search of something that’ll keep my attention for more than a day, and so far I’m coming up empty.

Rather than make any significant progress in parts of my backlog, I’ve just been resorting to comfort games that I’ve played through lots and make for good time sinks. Strategy games like Civilization VI and Master of Orion 2016 help me make a day disappear, and there’s been a frankly absurd amount of Heroes of the Storm played since the 2.0 update. But today I’m going to focus on one in particular that I’ve been returning to: Morrowind.

It’s said that a person’s first Elder Scrolls game is the one that they’ll consider their favourite, mostly because the concept and freedom their worlds offer is at this point completely new to a player. Later games may refine and streamline the process and generally be more “playable”, but their worlds and concepts aren’t original by that point, so it becomes a lot harder to completely lose yourself in it. Generally, those who played Morrowind first (like me) will still say that Morrowind is better to this day, even if most will grudgingly agree that it hasn’t aged gracefully.

Nonetheless, every attempt I’ve made at playing another Elder Scrolls game will at some point see me finally caving and reinstalling Morrowind. It’s been quite a while since that happened; the most recent time I played Skyrim, I went mildly insane on the modding front and found plenty of interesting content and updated mechanics to keep my attention. This time, the lures back to Vvardenfell were twofold: my playthrough of the Skyrim mod Enderal, and the impending release of Elder Scrolls Online’s Morrowind expansion.

In the interest of covering all these games equally, I’ll speak about those two before I go back into recounting my Morrowind adventures.

Enderal

There are plenty of mods for Skyrim that offer a wide range of both content and system redesigns, up to and including full conversions and total overhauls. It’s quite rare, on the other hand, to find a mod that does both to such an extent that you’re not really playing Skyrim anymore; you’re playing a new game in the Skyrim engine. That’s the scope of Enderal in a nutshell.

To put it simply, Enderal takes a lot of the core gameplay systems of Skyrim and proceeds to shape it into something more akin to a “traditional” RPG. Killing creatures and performing certain actions gives a set amount of experience, and certain thresholds level you up. Each level up gives you a number of points that are required to use training books to advance in your skills. The usual approach of “learning by doing” is completely absent.

Some might immediately think that this just limits the kind of freedom that Skyrim would normally allow, but that’s completely the point. With a more controlled level of power being dispensed, the game is immediately able to keep encounters scaled to be decently challenging. Things can get out of hand pretty quickly in base Skyrim, and since Enderal is very plot and main story focused, I can understand this decision.

Speaking of the plot, it’s quite an interesting one that the game encourages pushing towards. Effectively, you stowaway on a boat heading to the titular Enderal, get caught and get tossed overboard. You survive the ordeal, but start having all sorts of visions and glimpses of the future, alongside the ability to suddenly wield magic.

In trying to work out what’s going on, you end up meeting a host of interesting characters (both well-written and usually well voice acted) and get caught up in all the madness and troubles that are plaguing the realm. Nothing super original, but the execution is quite good, and it does a far better job of holding attention and compelling you to progress than Skyrim’s plot ever did.

That’s not to say that the major plot is all there is to it, mind — you still have a realm full of optional places to explore and side quests to find and sort out. It actually encourages you to go out of the way and look around, in fact, with permanent stat buffs and items that increase your carry capacity scattered around in hard to reach locations. I often found myself poking into places I might have otherwise passed on in Skyrim, though this usually didn’t last long simply because I wanted to see how the story would continue to unfold.

There’s plenty to like and talk about with Enderal, but I’m still in the comparatively early days and have yet to finish it, so that’s still on my agenda. I’ll get back to it soon and talk more on it then, but I can comfortably recommend it to anyone who’s been in the Skyrim mod trenches for a while and wants to try something different (and of remarkable quality and production values).

The Elder Scrolls Online

MMORPGs are, perhaps, one of my biggest gaming guilty pleasures. I’m something of a numbers and progress bar addict, hence why it’s often things like RPGs that draw my attention. Couple them with an interesting world and a diverse set of characters and narrative, and I’m usually sold. In theory, MMORPGs should be able to fill most of those requirements while also letting me develop my own character through countless hours of adventures and explorations.

That’s the theory. In practice, it doesn’t usually end up that way, and I get bored or disinterested long before I reach the part of the game that’s considered “interesting” by most, that being the endgame experience. Despite that, I still play a lot of MMOs and have played a lot more in the past out of boredom or curiosity in the hopes of them filling these quotas.

I’ve played years worth of World of Warcraft, often seeing the same small handful of characters go through multiple expansions of progression and rack up all sorts of achievements, notable accomplishments, and practically novels worth of headcanon and narrative development I’ve given to them. Twice I’ve picked up FF14 and played a character to the max level from scratch, having done so again more recently and finding myself extremely invested in that world. There’s also been stints into RIFT that saw a considerable amount of time and attention, as well as brief dabbles in Guild Wars 2, WildStar, The Old Republic, and even Warhammer Online or AION long before that.

So what about Elder Scrolls Online? Well, honestly, watching the reveal trailer was the most underwhelmed and unenthusiastic I have ever felt about such a title. Normally I’ll be at least somewhat interested about a new MMORPG, even if only vaguely curious and cautious, and then will usually end up feeling unsatisfied or disappointed upon beta testing or early release to the point of whether or not I would give it much time. Everything about the trailer just felt very… meh. It didn’t speak to me as a fan of Elder Scrolls games or as MMORPGs, and just felt very phoned in.

As such, I never played it until extremely recently, predicting that it would lose the required subscription payments fairly quick into its lifespan and go either Free to Play or Buy Once Play Forever With Cash Shop. Even after that inevitably happened, I still didn’t get interested in it until just recently, and only when a friend of mine was telling me about their enjoyment of it. Couple that with a significant Steam sale and a free week to test it, and I finally took the plunge.

So how do I feel about it? Well… in the time that it took me to first look upon a part of Final Fantasy 14 and go “Wow, okay, you’ve got me keen to keep playing”, I felt nothing but impassive about ESO. That feeling continued for a couple hours more, even experimenting with different characters and areas.

Eventually — eventually! — something clicked and the game resonated with me a bit better, probably around the time I wandered into my first public dungeon and started interacting with random people and fighting challenging encounters. It still doesn’t get the kind of pleased commentary you’ll hear any time I bring up FF14, but at least I wasn’t just outright feeling nothing.

…Unfortunately, not ten minutes after that moment, the Zone chat started lighting up with all sorts of stupid discussions about politics and social justice, and I was wistfully reminded that such global chats are thankfully muted or player created in FF14. I switched that off and stopped playing in frustration.

That isn’t the game’s fault and isn’t fair to judge it on, of course, and I was still having fun. I do intend to play it more. But it did take quite a bit of forcing myself to overcome the initial feelings of apathy and dismissal, which is never something I want to feel when I start up a game for a first time.

Again, I shall talk more of this on the coming days. For now…

Morrowind

Rather than loading the game up with mods or running the graphical overhaul packages, I tweaked only the barest settings before launching back into what was one of the more defining games of my adolescent years. It’s not the first time that I’ve done so, but it’s certainly the most… successful, I suppose? in many years.

Ask anyone who played the game when it was relevant, and most will tell you just how powerful the feeling was of stepping off the boat at Seyda Neen to Jeremy Soule’s fantastic score, beholding a landscape that very quickly is equally familiar and inviting as it is foreign and bizarre. Even now, it’s a place that holds a special place in many gamers’ hearts, myself among them. And those feelings came rushing right back this time.

Back in high school, I was loaned a copy of this game by my friend with no real idea of what it was or what I was getting into. I had a decent amount of gaming experience by this point, but I’d never played anything quite like the scope of this, and certainly not an RPG; by this point, I was still replaying Baldur’s Gate 2 or else dabbling in old SNES JRPGs.

I was no stranger to 3D games, mind — I grew up playing TIE Fighter, and I was a veteran of Super Mario 64 by this point. But no matter how big or open these games were, they weren’t just one big giant open world that beckoned… no, dared me to dive deeper within it. That was exactly what Morrowind was to me: an introduction to just how big and diverse video game worlds could be. If Baldur’s Gate had been the game that taught me of interesting characters and stories, Morrowind was the one that taught me of interesting worlds.

This replay saw me dredging up paths and secrets that I still have compartmentalised in my mind somewhere. I know exactly what to do in Seyda Neen to maximise my start and clear out all the beginning quests pretty much by heart. Observe:

Proceed through the tutorial building, immediately talk to Fargoth, give him his ring, go to the tradehouse and get what I need, talk to the Nord upstairs who wants me to find Fargoth’s stash, leave town until I find the man plummeting to his death and take his Scrolls of Icarian Flight, go find the body of the tax collector, return to Seyda Neen and report it, talk to his girlfriend in the lighthouse (but not before retrieving the enchanted axe from a stump nearby and reading the skill book at the top floor), fast forward time to 10pm and watch Fargoth from a distance to find his hiding place, raid it, go to the right hut to attack the guy who murdered the tax collector, turn in all these quests and then go clear the smuggler’s cave for more loot, take the silt strider to Balmora.

I could elaborate on details and names, as well as repeat the process for a questing path that will take me through all of Balmora and into chunks of Morrowind proper… but I think I’ve made the point clear. The point is, I could set this up as a routine and do it in my sleep if I want, yet at the same time my skill and awareness as a gamer has grown greatly in the ensuing years.

Previously, there were a number of systems in the game that I never really dabbled in fully. So many people coming to the game now decry the rate at which fatigue drains, but I simply crafted a pile of potions that trivialise that and pop one before each combat encounter. I was more savvy about using scrolls, enchanting, and special items this time around, as well as maximising my level ups. And in doing so, I’ve found new and interesting ways to play Morrowind, as well as more things to love about it even over a decade since I first ventured within.

There’s a number of big differences between Morrowind and Skyrim, let alone Oblivion, that make it harder for me to get completely swept up in my frozen Nordic adventures despite hundreds of hours in both modded and unmodded versions. Better people than I have written about it at some length, so here’s my attempt at condensing it as best as possible.

Skyrim is a fantastic framework of a game to build from… but sparse as an actual game. I cared very little about the affairs of the world, the Civil War, the dragons and Alduin, the various guild factions or anything (or anyone) else within it. That said, the core gameplay systems and loops allow for a lot of adaptability and customisation for mods to make use of, leading to better written and produced content… such as Enderal.

By contrast, Morrowind is a much better game with a huge, diverse framework that is tricky to build mods on to, but is so intricate and offers so much flexibility that it doesn’t need them, not to mention contains enough structured content that feels more enjoyable to play through. The systems have aged, and not particularly gracefully, but coming to terms with and learning to master them offers a sandbox experience so intricate that it borders on ridiculous.

Yes, not being able to run and jump everywhere for fear of draining your stamina prior to combat is a hassle, but there are so many ways to circumvent it. The fact that stamina is actually important in the combat also belies the number of systems working underneath it all. Yes, your attacks won’t always hit, but every single one has a number of equations and dice rolls happening to determine its effects, damage, fatigue drain, angle of attack, which armour piece it hits (if any), strength, weapon durability… all of which you can learn to tune to make yourself a monster in combat however you like.

It’s entirely possible to make yourself physically untouchable in Morrowind. You can craft potions that make your alchemy better, allowing you to craft better potions that make your alchemy better, proceed as high as you want to. Or you can dose yourself on 600 bottles of skooma and see what happens. Even without all these ways to make yourself broken, there are so many different ways to play the game.

Finally, to top it all off… Skyrim may be a cold, relatively inhospitable wasteland, but there are very few times where it truly feels cold and inhospitable. I might enjoy roaming it, but it never quite matches the feeling of stepping into an entirely new, alien, and bizarre world the likes of which I could never find on Earth.

But stepping off that boat into Seyda Neen and beholding the swamp I’m in? Digging into the mines of giant insect creatures and harvesting the eggs that the population eats? Mastering levitation just so I can look around inside a giant mushroom tower home to a mad wizard? Navigating my way through a storm of volcanic ash to kill the vampires that reside in the tunnels below?

That’s the kind of thing you can only find on Morrowind.

I do hear positive things about how ESO is handling their upcoming inclusion of the zone to the game, but it’s also mixed in with wistful and lackluster commentary in places. I guess I’ll see for myself before too long. Until then, I’m going to keep playing through the original and seeing what more secrets my teenage self was never able to fully uncover.

This post has gone on for long enough, I think — that’s what happens when I try to wax poetic about three games at once. I imagine I’ll have more to say on all three games in the coming days.

For now, I’d better go write a review on a visual novel I played on a dare! Coming soon!

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