Morrowind is a great excuse to give Elder Scrolls Online another look, and maybe finally forgive it for being an MMO.
I once joked that you’d have to pay me to play The Elder Scrolls Online again. Perhaps Bethesda overheard, because when I totally ignored the unsolicited expansion early access key I was sent, the publisher upped the ante by inviting me to stay in a great big fuck off mansion in the country to be wined and dined out of what little sense I possess – and incidentally play a little ESO: Morrowind.
If you can get past the MMO wrapper – which Zenimax Online to its credit has made as inessential as possible – there is a pretty fun Elder Scrolls game in ESO.
I went, I admit it – I am not made of stone – and it was over the top fancy. A full disclosure of the many delightful and expensive things that occurred during my little vacation would take tens of thousands of words and embarrass us all. “Did you have to use up the ANZ budget before the end of the financial year or what,” I asked a Bethesda staffer. Surely The Elder Scrolls Online can’t be so far onto the rocks that this sort of luxurious excess is necessary?
No, of course not: if it were, Bethesda would already have trashed it; this is a cutthroat business. So why is the publisher marketing the heck out of ESO right now, and why had it brought a handful of press – and after we’d been bussed out, a follow up troop of influencers – on a sumptuous getaway, at what must have been breathtaking expense?
Probably because of attitudes like mine: I love The Elder Scrolls, but I don’t like MMOs and I didn’t enjoy ESO at release. The news of the Morrowind expansion brought nothing but scorn from me. “Give us a proper Morrowind remake,” I might have said. “Don’t leverage our nostalgia for your dodgy World of Warcraft knock off.”
This is not a fair assessment of The Elder Scrolls Online as it exists in May 2017, let alone when the doors open on the Morrowind content next week, but it’s a common one. Only the lure of a private chef and a house once featured in a 12 page Vogue spread got me to revisit my ideas, and I like The Elder Scrolls. It’s no wonder Bethesda is pushing the MMO on all fronts now that it has Morrowind as an excuse: it’s got a product it’s proud of, that plenty of people enjoy, but it’s battling uphill to get a slice of its core fans to even look at the blessed thing.
I still don’t like MMOs and all the mansions in the world won’t change that, but I do think it’s worth your popping that ESO disc back in and taking another look, which is something I never thought I’d say.
Before I even sat down to play ESO: Morrowind, I spoke to game director Matt Firor over Skype. Firor is an MMO veteran, one of the founders of Mythic and a lead creative on the legendary Dark Age of Camelot – so he naturally tends to speak to the hardcore MMO audience first, and everyone else second.
Nowhere was this more obvious than when he described solo players as “casuals”. I have a friend who plays The Elder Scrolls Online as a solo. She’d racked up over 220 hours at last count, according to Steam. She pores over the lore, explores each location at a crawl, and peers into every last nook and cranny, uncovering everything, and tackling Tier 2 bosses on her lonesome. There’s nothing casual about that.
If you want more Elder Scrolls right now, ESO is your best bet – and, honestly, it’s a better one than it gets credit for. Most non-endgame MMO content is absolutely rubbish. ESO isn’t like that.
Although the word put my back up, Firor’s comments did make it clear that Zenimax Online is determined and delighted to cater to “casual” solo players as well as those MMO veterans who locust through the quest content to get to the endgame, where their idea of real fun begins – veteran dungeons, Trials (raids), PvP, collecting the best gear – and also to everyone else in between.
This is important because it’s extremely unlikely Bethesda will ever remake Morrowind – or indeed any of the older Elder Scrolls games (the only reason we have Skyrim Special Edition is because Bethesda used Skyrim to develop a new generation engine to power Fallout 4). It will also be a long time before we get another core Elder Scrolls game.
So if you want more Elder Scrolls right now, ESO is your best bet – and, honestly, it’s a better one than it gets credit for. Most non-endgame MMO content is absolutely rubbish, to the point where some people describe filler open-world crap as “MMO quests”. ESO isn’t like that. It’s got full voice acting, some great writing, and NPCs that would feel perfectly at home in any of the core Elder Scrolls games.
I found all this a bit tiresome back in vanilla ESO, but it seems to have improved significantly since then; the quests I encountered in ESO: Morrowind were memorable and worthwhile. They felt designed for Elder Scrolls fans, not as XP grist for hardcore MMO players. They felt like something I could ... actually ... enjoy. I'm struggling to come to terms with this.
“This is the perfect time for players like you to get into the game,” Firor told me. “We’ve done a lot of work between launch and now to make it more accessible to a wider variety of players.
“We’re true to our roots – if you want to pull out that group-based, challenging content, you can do that – but we did a lot of work to make the game friendlier for those who just want to solo, and play the game as an RPG.
"We did a lot of work to make the game friendlier for those who just want to solo, and play the game as an RPG. In fact we encourage new players to do that."
“In fact we encourage new players to do that, so that they can go and meet other players organically in the world – and then it’s not so intimidating.”
To that end: Morrowind, which has been retroactively positioned as the first chapter of ESO chronologically, gave Zenimax Online the chance to craft an all-new tutorial. I’ve played it, and it’s a lot better than the first one – and there’s a lot more game waiting for you on the other side, too.
“We have two years plus of adding content. You start the game now and there is literally years of fun in front of you,” Firor said.
“You can play the solo story quests you know and love, we’ve added five DLCs of story quests – and of course Morrowind is based around that.
“We also have world bosses you can group organically with other players to take down. There are dungeons, veteran dungeons, and of course Trials – 12 player raid type things – and we haven’t even talked about PvP yet. ESO has a huge PvP system, which on any given evening has thousands of players participating in. We just added a new PvP mode called Battlegrounds in Morrowind.
“It’s a big game, it’s a very, very big game, with lots to do for everyone.”
Everyone, huh? In my mind, potential ESO: Morrowind players come in two flavours – RPG and endgame MMO fans, with the emphasis firmly on the latter. I expected Zenimax Online to be pushing hard to get its “casual” solo players to convert to hardcore MMO beasts, but while he admitted that “it definitely happens”, Firor seems really happy to provide space for all sorts of Elder Scrolls fans, as they are.
“We have players who very happily go in and play the story content, and come back when we add new things. We have players who just craft and make things for other players,” he said.
“It’s a real virtual world of players that find things in the world that they like to do and do them.
“And yeah, you’ll often find that people who aren’t so experienced with multiplayer games, and especially RPGs, will come in join a guild – it’s very easy to join a guild and it’s very social – just to have people to chat with, but then get drawn into dungeons and then into trials. It definitely happens.”
The illusion of exploring Bethesda’s grounded fantasy setting comes apart pretty quickly when someone rides past you on a bear wearing what seems to be three teaspoons made of purple Gak and trailing a glittering fairy straight out of Disney.
A big part of ESO’s accessibility to all kinds of players comes from the One Tamriel update of June 2016, which opened a lot of doors for those of us who don’t like MMOs by removing all level restrictions and scaling enemies and rewards to all players individually.
That means no getting whomped by mobs by walking the wrong way out of the starter towns; no boring grind to get to the things you want to see; no unrewarding baby content for your high level friends handhold you through; and plenty of players willing to have a go at whatever queue or finder you line up for, should you care to tackle group content. If you’re playing more recent areas, you’ll find randos to help you through every delve (whether you want them to or not); if you prefer to adventure alone, just wander away from wherever’s fashionable (Morrowind, these days) to explore ghost towns inhabited only by NPCs.
This last is going to be my strategy because, as I have mentioned multiple times already, I don’t like MMOs. Playing Morrowind during early access reminded me of this, because it meant being constantly surrounded by other players.
Every questgiver and important NPC stood in a crowd of Vestiges all emoting and parading their endgame gear. I’m not one to clutch and my pearls and bleat “immersion”, but it must be said that the illusion of exploring Bethesda’s grounded fantasy setting comes apart pretty quickly when someone rides past you on a bear wearing what seems to be three teaspoons made of purple Gak and trailing a glittering fairy straigyht out of Disney. When ESO is at its most MMO-y, it’s at its least Elder Scrolls-y. There are two extremes here and I struggle to believe anyone likes them both at once.
While I’m tempted to dive in and explore the world of ESO “casually” for 200 hours, like my pal, a single hour of trying to play with a group of people in the same room as me has convinced me I’ll never be able to muster the enthusiasm for the group side of it all. Clearly I am a misanthrope, but nothing takes me out of a game more than having to try to get everyone to the same stage in a quest when nobody’s listening to anybody else, unless its watching the “WTB BIG SHIELD” messages scroll by in zone chat, or having someone come sashaying through my field of view as an NPC is trying to have a heart to heart about slavery with me. Nothing will ever convince me that MMOs were not a Mistake.
But if you can get past the MMO wrapper – which genre fans seem to think is pretty good, and which Zenimax Online to its credit has made as inessential as possible – there is a pretty fun Elder Scrolls game in ESO. You can play it alone. You can follow some great stories. You can leverage a use-based skill levelling system.
You can play it alone. You can follow some great stories. You can leverage a use-based skill levelling system. Also, you can go to Morrowind – without your eyes bleeding.
Also, you can go to Morrowind - without your eyes bleeding. This is something a lot of us want to do, and that fact that it’s only happening in an MMO, well – it feels a bit cheeky, to put it mildly, and like sacrilege, to employ hyperbole. Zenimax Online is perfectly aware of what it’s taken on with ESO: Morrowind.
“It was intimidating, I will say – but we had a great blueprint, because we had the original game,” Firor said.
“We started with the actual graphical map from Elder Scrolls 3, and since we’re set 700 years before Elder Scrolls 3, it gives us leeway to tell our own stories, have our own characters. But 700 years isn’t very long in The Elder Scrolls world, so you’ll find people who are young in our game, who are very old in Elder Scrolls 3. You’ll find lots of situations that callback to things you experienced when you played Elder Scrolls 3 in 2002.
“The map of course is very similar with maps in the same place – there are some differences just based on time. Our version of the island of Vvardenfell is a little bit more lush and has a little more life in it because the volcano hasn’t erupted quite so many times.
“But really we used the 2002 game as a blueprint and I think we did it justice. It’s a lot of fun. And very, very nostalgic.”