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Over 6 years have passed since Daggerfall landed on store shelves. Even then my computer was low end for the time. Times never change it appears.
Morrowind, the sequel to the first infamous but now hallowed Daggerfall, is on the brink of being released.
While most previews start with the story, I'm going to begin with the accessible Construction Set which will accompany the game and then move on to how the game plays in detail, not that it is any less important. But first I'll introduce some astonishing facts that were included with this preview build. Take a look, they won't bite - unless you've already seen some of them floating around the 'net, in which case they'll only bite a little:
Chart of Astonishing Morrowind Facts
- Non-player characters (NPC's) in the World: 3,244
- NPC's in the world that you cannot kill: 0
- NPC's in the world that you can't kill if you want to finish the main quest: 1
- NPC's who begin the game being not alive: 63
- NPC's who start the game wearing no pants: 5
- Number of empty bottles per capita in Morrowind: 1.89
- Number of bottle recycling centers in Morrowind: 0
- Standard-sized novels' worth of text in Morrowind: 6
- Variations of creatures and nasties wanting to turn you into a fine paste: 217
- Hand placed objects in the world: 316,042
- Dungeons in the game: More than 300 (marketeering for 301... including basements, cellars and hobbit holes... just kidding - there are no hobbits, I looked.)
- Ninja Monkeys used in creating Morrowind: 6,404 (Ninja Monkeys are placeholders in the editor and represent random leveled creatures in which you specify what range of levels and/or possible creatures you want them to become when they are generated.)
- Polygon count for a fully armored Ordinator character: 5,000 (most games feature 2,000 poly characters... and of course, less)
- Polygon count for a skeleton: 5,000
- Total number of different characters you can create and play: 480 billion
- Total number of years to complete the game using every variation of character, completing it two times every single day: 657 million
- Total number of wonder women who's voices are used in the game: 1 (Lynda Carter's voice is used for the female Nord Characters in the game)
- Basic Spells in the game: More than 500
- Additional spells that can be created during the game using spellmaking: 150 billion (I won't go there)
- Talking crabs in Morrowind: 1 (now I have a mission!)
This is an immense game and that's being conservative. If Bethesda created an editor that was anything less than it is, it would have added a significant amount of time to the development schedule. Thankfully, it's a robust editor with options for tuning and manipulating every aspect of the game, while at the same time utilizing many built-in time-saving routines. I'll expound on that.
When building a dungeon, the walls will blend together seamlessly, often snapping into place with one another. The way the editor utilizes game physics is also amazing. Want water? Simply click the "Water" box, drag the land up above the water line, and water will rush in wherever it can. Take that, Trespasser. Objects on land such as grass can be randomly painted and appear naturally in place, with no adjustments necessary. With TES: Construction Set, tediousness is kept to a bare minimum and efficiency is exploited. Drag and drop objects into the render window, place them, edit their properties, create simple or complex scripts if desired using the built-in script editor - repeat and carefully wash hands when done. I'm not sure how creating such an expansive game could be easier than with this tool.
The editor uses the plug-in concept for adding new modifications to the game world. Based on a large master file which carries all of the object info, art, dialogue and AI for the game, the user simply takes from this the desired art and objects and creates their own world, be it a simple tavern on one end of town, or a massive fortress-dungeon in the sky (anyone remember Rygar?). These are created separate from the main game and can be a part of their own world or seamlessly added into Morrowind through the plug-in feature. Other players can download your plug-in and attach it to the game through a loading sequence, and in the off-chance they don't like it, can then remove it, leaving the game exactly as it was before the plug-in was added.
Developing your own worlds, buildings, characters or items in the Construction Set can be as detailed or simplistic as you wish, and with its relative ease of use, we should see an increasing curve of modifications begin to develop after the release of the game. After that brief but semi-in-depth peek at the editor, here's how the game looked in its nearing-completion stage.
Playing in Morrowind
Upon entering the game, you're taken into a beautiful (note to self: better not overuse this word early, because I'm going to need it later) intro music and dialogue text sequence, which danced into focus and then out of focus. It reminded me that only special games bother to do something unique and aesthetically pleasing for seemingly simple things like text. Touches like these that they didn't have to add, but did for detail, uniqueness and immersion, will adorn the game throughout.
Thankfully, those that want an impression of how the game plays on a minimum spec machine will now get the chance to have it, for the game was previewed on my now 3 year old overclocked 464 Mhz Celeron, 256 megs of RAM, Radeon LE (yes, overclocked for maximum efficiency), but brand new just-bought-yesterday Sound Blaster Audigy. I was having DirectSound issues with Morrowind and the Diamond MX300 so it was because I wanted to experience this game I went out and bought a new card and played 6 hours straight last night without a hitch, as you'll see. Many of the screenshots come from a continuous single session, not at all saved since I was utilizing some of the included "console" features like toggleGodMode, purely for exploration purposes... at least, that's what I told myself and am sticking to. No other "features" were used... except, oh, Axe skill to 100, and oh yes, Security to 100, for those hard to pick doors. This was all after deviating from the 5 legitimate and completely fun hours getting into the game from the beginning, which I will detail first.
You've probably heard all about the character generation process in Morrowind, how intuitive it is... how you begin in the bowels of a rickety boat with no name or history, with orders to march into the debarkation building... how it's a mini adventure and tutorial where each person you meet will ask you a personal question which will in turn identify you and create your character... how in that same building you'll learn to move, open your inventory, fight and pick locks, and that finally at the end "show" your papers to the proper authority who then sends you off, a free person in a new world, with little money or equipment.... So I won't go into all that. It's an intricate opening where you'll undoubtedly spend some amount of time simply moving your view around, just to appreciate the realistic candle-lit or fireplace lighting and graphic detail before realizing, or caring, that there is something you can be doing... like admiring the hand-placed dinner sets, forks, cups, bowls, chests, baskets, sacks, carpets on the wall, and so on. You're crazy if you think I did that. I did, however, grab a single herb from a sack in the Captain's room, and he had no remorse about taking every other thing I'd thought they wouldn't miss in the building, away. Beware of thieving in front of others.
When you're let loose in Morrowind, anything is possible. Believe it or not, I had no plans to join the Thieves guild once in Balmora, the place the Captain says you should go as per the Emperor's wishes. Instead, this Dark Elven Crusader was intent on joining the Fighter's Guild. First things first - explore the town of Seyda Neen. Most of the inhabitants were helpful, if a little snobby for commoners, or "pleebs" as I like to call them. They would offer brief histories of the surrounding land, the conflict in Morrowind, and local gossip which was perfect for a few of the quests I decided on taking up before hitching a ride on top of the Silt Strider (gigantic insect travel package) to Balmora. One of them involved a man who wanted help getting back some money that was owed him, and I had to make my way up to the top of the lighthouse (that's it in the gorgeous pic) at night for a good view of the surrounding area to see if I could spot the secret hiding place of the culprit. It worked well, and I got a share of the profits. Another involved a group of smugglers that were hiding in a nearby cave in which I was given permission to freely dispense with their lives and collect any booty. Well, at level 1 I was dubious, but decided to try it anyway (that's what saves are for), after getting the hang of swinging a sword by sacking a couple of mudcrabs on the beach.
Before I continue, allow me to interrupt with a brief interlude on what the performance was like on my minimum spec machine... actually the minimum calls for a 500 Mhz PIII or Athlon. I figured with my fast IBM hard drive, decent video card and brand new sound card, I pretty much fit the bill for minimum. If you divide the distance slider, which is the most important determinant of framerate, into four pieces, then I found the perfect trade-off for viewability and performance to be a little under the 1/4th mark. Indoors, and in general inside of buildings, performance skyrocketed. It was only outside that the slider made the most difference. When outdoors in wide open spaces, performance was a bit better, and even setting all details to max wasn't too much of a hit to play. When in the towns, though, that bar needed to be at the 1/4th mark, except for screenshots of course.
The smuggler's cave looked like a normal house from the outside. Inside, I discovered a large cavernous area with a none-too-friendly man down a ways guarding a gate, who I was able to talk to. After the brief conversation, he attacked me. Taking that as a sign of aggression, I dispatched of him quickly, though not without 1/5th of my total health gone at the fight's conclusion. Looting his body I found the all important key, some nice new leather attire, opened the gate, and continued. My choices were to go further down or to the left toward a gate. To the left were some slaves that could be let out, so I did and they thanked me. Still level 1. Back toward the first gate, I continued on down into the depths to confront an aggressive Wizard who cast on me at sight, and a henchwoman, probably his wife. At this level, even with an Iron Longsword and three attempts, I could not dispatch of him, but did however spot a place back up near the slaves that I could explore over some rocks. So after the reload, I carefully climbed over large boulders and found a secret passage! What fun. Following it I found some more equipment, ring, and an underground river that eventually led me back to... the Wizard and his wife, and a large supply of crates, and a chest. Figuring it was probably too hard to climb back over the boulders I dropped down from at the beginning (due to their height), I had a plan. Zip over to the crates and chest, even while they go aggressive on me, loot them up, and RUN like this was my last life! Despite a little abuse on the way out, it worked. And I made out with a nice Katana upgrade to my longsword.
When One Can Go Anywhere
Lest this become a walkthrough, I'll sum up the rest of my legitimately spent hours and briefly go into how I spent the next several hours exploring the wilds of Morrowind. It was time for Balmora and I was going to take the easy way: Silt Strider. Getting a discount for mentioning the name of someone in town, I hopped on the back and landed in the second largest city in Morrowind. After some exploration and profitable gathering of coins in the many scattered crates, I found the man I was supposed to see. He partly let me in on why I was sent there, and then sent me to find some comrades-in-arms who gave me some nice equipment and sent me off on another mission. Things were starting to unfold, and I still hadn't yet joined the Fighter's Guild of which I heard many good things about. It was about this point that I cranked up the detail in the graphics, and went exploring... and what I did find!
One can go amazing places when invulnerable, which is why I don't recommend it if this is still in the game when it ships. I would say over the course of the next several hours I explored about 1/70th of the land of Morrowind. On the world map, you start near the bottom left of a humongous map. When I accidently (after all that time) hit the "quick load button", F9 - because it was dark and I was fumbling for the F12 button for taking a screenshot high in a tower somewhere in a Mage's well-organized room - I saw everything I had accomplished flash by. At that point, I was on a small island at the very north tip of the world map.
Here's some of what I found: At least 5 fully functional cities, all different in architecture and style... all wanting a piece of me after I innocently defended myself on several occasions. Underwater oysters spread out on the seabed that contained pearls. I went pearl diving! A multitude of large and distinct solitary buildings, hidden throughout the land. At the end of one swimming excursion I came across a lone shipwreck in a small alcove. When I went inside, there was a skeleton with a large sword there to greet me and some extra booty deeper within the ship. Upon entering one seemingly abandoned city, I went into a house door, which of course led to a cave entrance (hehe they don't usually, but it's funny nonetheless and I don't mind it a bit), and to the following screenshots of this part of the adventure. I considered showing you the stats of the Battle Axe I found at the end of the cave adventure, as I snapped off a nice full profile character shot along with its details (including worth), but instead I'm just going to show you what it looked like as I don't want to spoil the fun. From then on, I had no trouble mopping up any creature that stood in my way in a few hits. Of course, I haven't explored but a sliver of the game... and my axe skill was at 100 at that time... and, I was invulnerable. The most magnificent places I went to were the Shrines. Incredible stoic statues stood tall inside of enormous intricate buildings, bathed in glowing light from a magic cauldron above... guarded by powerful beings that also didn't seem to like my company. The shrine statues themselves didn't look like they wanted the offerings of diamonds and rubies given to them at their base... else why would they still be there? So I decided to do the statues a favor and clean up the area. Moments later my Battle Axe was swinging.
After all of the above, one might think I would mention how it sounds on the state-of-the-art sound card purchased just for this game. However, despite being thrilled that I no longer had any issues to deal with on the sound front, I only want to touch on this subject. It's apparent there is still some fine-tuning left to do. The short of it is that the game delivers much more than I had hoped for aurally. The composer of the music did a wonderful job. It's thematic and symphonic, and fits each situation almost surrealistically. The sound effects are all superb, and though there are some volume and mismatch issues, the QA folks at Bethesda assured me that sound is a top priority at the moment.
Morrowind is set to shatter many of the boundaries of what single-player RPGs have been like up to this time. It's going to set standards in immersiveness, graphics, and bring back that "Ultima" feeling that everything is hand-placed and interactive, even though you can't attack successfully with a fork. Most every item has a name, a weight, can be picked up, and the land is very rich in lore. There are countless small books you can pick up and read, areas that don't appear necessary to finish the main quest, and realistic, often stunningly attractive cyclic night-day patterns. The game has a very organic feel to it. Lost are the straight symmetrical buildings of the past, and ever present are the curved, soft, natural-looking structures that one might realistically expect to find in a fantasy world such as this. And this is precisely what they were aiming for at Bethesda... this is the game they intended - a rich and deep, very satisfying diversion from reality.