By Joseph Bradford (IGN)
Stepping off the boat in Seyda Neen at the beginning of The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind brought back a flood of memories from 2002’s The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Seeing the plain wooden dock extend out in front of me toward the small hamlet made me feel as though I were 15 years younger, ready to tackle the world laid out in front of me. In every pixel, The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind strives to create this feeling. And the centerpiece island of Vvardenfell, coupled with a new interesting class and stellar writing, make this a great new expansion.
If there is a downside, it’s the fact that Vvardenfell is so faithfully recreated here that it diminishes the sense of discovery and wonder for series veterans. I pretty much knew where everything is located, and that costs it some of the luster that ESO brought when it first launched. That said, while you can find familiar locations, the ESO: Morrowind takes place 700 years before the events of the single-player game, and that allows for some differences that make it worthy of exploration. The Red Mountain volcano dominating the heart of Vvardenfell lies dormant during this time, leaving greener landscapes around its northern slopers. The labyrinthine ziggurat city of the demigod Vivec is still under construction, and the Warrior-Poet himself is more inclined to receive visitors than Morrowind players will remember. The giant mushrooms that pepper your view serve as a reminder than this is a wilder and more exotic place than the comparatively cookie-cutter fantasy settings found on much of the Tamriel mainland.
Morrowind’s player-versus-environment content took about 25 hours to move through, aside from the challenging new raid. That's on the shorter side for an MMORPG expansion, but it makes up for the slim quantity with the quality of its storytelling and writing. I found myself getting lost in the fiction while helping House Redoran find a long-lost daughter and solving the mystery of her disappearance. Coming upon slave workers near House Telvanni, I made it my mission to help free these helpless souls from their oppression. It’s so well done I actually cared about the people in the stories themselves - a feeling many MMORPGs don’t create with me. The writing in the main storyline of Morrowind instills a sense of urgency, which made me feel as though every decision I made carried real weight in the world. And some of the plot twists within the quest themselves, as well as some gut-wrenching decisions at the end of a few quest lines stand out in my mind, still make me question whether I made the right choice days later.
The gameplay formula for those adventures is the same in Morrowind as it has always been in MMORPGs of this style: long quest chains leading you from one place to another, with optional stops for sidequests along the way. However, thanks to the One Tamriel update, which removed level requirements from content and allows everyone to quest and explore as they wish, you are no longer limited in what you can do based on you level as you were during ESO's bumpy first year. As a result, One Tamriel really helps to make Morrowind incredibly accessible for both veterans and new players alike. You can start anew with a character in Morrowind thanks to an excellent new player tutorial, and existing players can travel to Vvardenfell (the wayshrine is already available to returning players) and continue their journey. This helps set Morrowind apart from other expansions in the genre. You aren’t forced to level through all the previous content before starting the expansion – you can simply pick up and go.
Another major addition that Morrowind brings is the uniquely versatile Warden, the first new class in ESO since its 2014 launch. It’s a jack of all trades – the Warden actually encourages you to use a mix of its three distinct skill lines: Animal Companion for summoning; Green Balance for healing and buffs; and the defensive bolstering skills of Winter's Embrace. It’s the first time in ESO that I’ve ever felt it was a good idea to have a mix of all three skill lines on both of my skill bars. Animal Companion brings me much needed damage dealing, while Green Balance and Winter’s Embrace help to keep me alive in long fights. Whether I’ve been soloing or running delves in groups, I’ve never felt as though my Warden has been holding me back – something I can’t say during the early days of leveling my Templar and Sorcerer at launch.
The drawback, though, is that the centerpiece skill – the bear companion – is a big disappointment. As pet classes go, The Elder Scrolls Online has always fallen short of its peers, and the Warden is no different. In fact, the bear companion is simply the Sorcerer class' Storm Atronach in another skin and comes with all of the same issues. As you have virtually no control over your pet beyond it attacking whatever enemy you hit with a heavy attack, it kind of does its own thing. And while it does help keep some enemies busy during group fights, the lack of direct control for a skill that occupies a precious ultimate skill slot on an ability feels like a handicap.
It’s actually to its credit that the Warden isn’t likely to become the end-all be-all class for any of ESO's traditional playstyles. Templars and Restoration Staff specialists can still claim the stop spot for healing, and many dungeon and trial groups still consider the Dragonknight class the go-to tank. But the Warden makes for a nice jack-of-all-trades class as its versatility can supplements group with whatever it needs: An off-tank, an area-of-effect healer, or someone who can simply provide just that little extra damage per second to bring a group over the top. It’s balanced so that it won’t supplant the existing order, just augment it. That versatility makes Wardens feel like the perfect class to pick if you’re planning to solo the expansion.
But playing solo brings up one of Morrowind’s central disconnects between its gameplay and its otherwise strong storytelling: the desire to live up to its Elder Scrolls single-player heritage in a multiplayer setting. ESO has struggled with this duality, and it feels further exacerbated within the confines of Vvardenfell.
One of the long quest chains in Suran, in which you’re asked to find out who is at the center of an illegal slaving ring, serves as an example. It’s a quest that continually makes the point that you – and no one else – are the hero. Yet every time you zoom out of the conversation with the quest givers, you’re presented with the image of crowds of other people, all identically costumed (as one part of the story requires you to dress up), all huddled around the same character being told the same story. It’s a feeling that came up more than once, especially in the main questline, as I worked through the PvE content. In a game that has always been more single-player or small-group focused like ESO, it’s not a huge issue. But it does sour the experience some.
This isn’t to say that Morrowind doesn’t offer plenty of multiplayer-focused experiences. The expansion brings with it an exciting new player-versus-player arena mode called Battlegrounds, which pits three teams of four against each other in deathmatch, capture the flag, and domination. The mode feels fresh – it’s a definite change of pace from the large, hectic and sometimes unfocused battlegrounds in Cyrodiil.
Unfortunately, Battlegrounds matches suffer from major balancing issues when setting up teams. While Champion Points (which bolster your abilities further after reaching the level cap,) are disabled during this mode, armor and weapon set bonuses (such as the Sanctuary set which adds to your maximum health and increases the healing you receive) are still in full effect. It’s gotten to the point where it feels as though the Battlegrounds mode is based more on what your opponent is wearing rather than how well they can play their character. Additionally, it’s frustrating to see lower-level players pitted against the many players who've reached the cap of 630 Champion Points – there is an obvious difference in the player skill there that should be taken into account during matchmaking. In one match, five different players (myself, as a Warden, and four others, including one from an enemy team) were all attacking a high-level Champion player at once and couldn’t even dent his health bar. Contrast this with the fact my character dies almost on command, and it makes for an incredibly frustrating multiplayer match.
However, when matchmaking manages to place you in a competitive group, the Battlegrounds can be plenty of fun. It’s a lot more focused than Cyrodiil, and the multiple game modes keep the matches from becoming stale. It would be nice if you were able to stay in a Battleground queue in between matches instead of loading back into the main game and then having to requeue. But it’s a start.
Morrowind adds a lot of good content to the Elder Scrolls Online library, with the fresh new look of Vvardenfell staring at the center of a great expansion. The storytelling and writing are taken to new heights, continuing a trend of improvement in each content release since Orsinium in 2015. The addition of the Warden class gives new and returning players alike a fresh and versatile way to play through the 25 hours of content. While the Warden’s bear companion skill disappoints and the Battlegrounds need work, what Morrowind does well has kept me enthralled in the world of Tamriel. Morrowind feels like it begs you to come home, and what a welcome it has in store when you get there.