Morrowind for the Xbox represents an unprecedented accomplishment. It's simply one of the biggest video games ever released. It exists today only because it's been in development for years, long before the Xbox system was ever unveiled. As the third installment in an ambitious and long-running computer role-playing series, Morrowind always promised to be a game of epic proportions. You'd be able to play it however you wanted to: go anywhere, do anything. You'd choose your own adventure and see everything through the eyes of the character you created. Make no mistake, Morrowind has next to nothing in common with Japanese RPGs like the Final Fantasy series, in which you're more of a spectator than an active participant in the storyline. There's a very different approach here. Open-ended gameplay is the lofty goal that many computer RPGs strive for yet unsurprisingly fall short of. But Morrowind doesn't fall short. Upon its release in May, the highly anticipated PC version received widespread acclaim from gamers and critics alike, who seemed to come up for air just long enough to sing its praises before delving back in. And the newly released Xbox version is identical for all intents and purposes. It's the first RPG for the system, and it's absolutely huge, which is both the most amazing thing about it and also the thing that means it's not the game for everybody.
It can't be overstated just how big the world of Morrowind is.
For the most part, Morrowind successfully brings many of the proudest traditions of computer role-playing to the Xbox, with all the slick production values you'd hope to see in a first-rate game. If you've ever played a classic fantasy role-playing game for the PC, then you'll find yourself in familiar territory here, at least figuratively speaking. The actual world of Morrowind is original, and no experience with the Elder Scrolls series is required. The game's main plot, though it's presented mostly in writing, is quite engaging, and it involves first uncovering why your emperor has ordered you to the island province of Morrowind and then fulfilling your destiny there. The hundreds or even thousands of characters you'll meet along the way aren't all completely unique, but there's enough difference between them that they help give you a distinct sense of the setting and even the culture of Morrowind. It's a place with a surprising amount of political intrigue and a long history, and that history is described thoroughly in the dozens of different books you can pick up and read in the game. You're on your own through most of Morrowind, which makes you feel adventurous, but sometimes lonely. That's also in part because interacting with characters is a pretty detached process that boils down to scrolling through a list of available topics of conversation. You'll also notice how nonplayer characters in Morrowind generally just stand there, doing nothing. Even when you come visit them in a pub or in their homes, you'll never see them engaging in any activities whatsoever, which makes the world seem less alive than it could be. Some hidden gags provide a refreshing bit of comic relief, but these moments are perhaps too few and far between.
The characters you meet will respond to you differently depending on who you are, and who you are is entirely up to you thanks to the great deal of flexibility you get in creating your own persona. There are more than 20 different character classes to choose from, including choices like barbarian, spellsword, and assassin. You can either pick one of these, or, in a nod to the classic Ultima series, you can answer a series of moral questions, and the game will choose a class for you based on your decisions. The third option is to create your own class, and that's the best of the three. After all, the premade classes are really just templates rather than truly distinctive character types. They're examples of what can be done with Morrowind's character generation system, in which each character class has five major skills, five secondary skills, and a core specialization: combat, magic, or stealth. Your specialization determines which skills your character will initially be strongest in and can improve in the fastest. There are nearly 30 different skills overall, and even those that don't fall under your major or secondary skills are still available to you, though your character will be slower to hone them.
You can create a huge variety of different characters."
You could go out of your way to make a purely combat-focused, magic-focused, or stealth-focused character, but in reality you'll probably use skills from all three categories. That's because some of the skills are pretty basic. For instance, the fancily named "acrobatics" only governs your jumping ability and how much damage you absorb from falling. Using various weapons or wearing various types of armor gradually improves your skills in using those types of equipment, and that is also the case with using the various schools of magic. Whenever your character runs, you're using "athletics," which is classified as a combat skill. The walking speed in Morrowind realistically represents a leisurely pace, but unfortunately, it seems terribly slow in game terms. So you'll run all the time, which is easily done just by moving the left analog stick all the way upward. But running drains your fatigue meter, leaving your character less effective than normal, and even the running speed in Morrowind is fairly slow. The controls themselves are quite easy to grasp; the game controls just like Halo.
The most interesting thing about Morrowind's skill system is that it's tied to how you gain experience levels. In most role-playing games, you gain experience (and thus improve your abilities) mostly by killing stuff or maybe by solving quests. In Morrowind, you gain levels by practicing your character's main skills. Some RPGs tend to cripple nonfighter characters by still forcing them to fight to gain levels. But in Morrowind, if you play as a thief, then you gain levels by thieving. If you play as a magic user, you gain levels by using magic, and so on. This is a clever system that makes perfect sense.
However, the experience system does have some problems, insofar as certain skills are much easier to improve than others. The playing field is leveled somewhat since skill improvement (through training) can simply be bought. However, you can't rely on this as a means of regularly improving your character, as the prices for such upgrades increase drastically as your skill levels go up. Sadly, you might not realize until after many hours of play that some of your character's skills just aren't cutting it. Your options are to suck it up or start over. Some of the skills aren't ineffective so much as they're underdeveloped. Speechcraft, a seemingly sophisticated ability, is overly simplistic in practice. You have the option to try to flatter, intimidate, taunt, or bribe any of the NPCs in the game. But in reality, these are just thinly veiled dice rolls based on your speechcraft skill rating. If you fail, the other character loses affinity for you, but you can just keep trying until you succeed several times in a row. It's as pointless (and can be as pointlessly addictive) as a virtual slot machine. It's also rather ridiculous, since when you repeatedly try to bribe the same character, he or she will alternate between being insulted by your intentions and gladly accepting your money.
Some of the scenery looks striking. It's fun simply exploring Morrowind.
The other issue with the skill system is that it doesn't give you a good sense of character development. You get almost no feeling that any of your skills are actually getting better, even as you build them up over long periods of time. When you gain levels, you can put more points into your core attributes (strength, intelligence, and so on), but even then, it's hard to tell that your character is growing in power. Instead, in Morrowind you get stronger mostly by finding better stuff. Even early on, and sometimes surprisingly so, you can get your hands on some powerful weapons, armor, and artifacts that will last you for many hours' worth of gameplay. Throughout the game, your character will be only as good as his or her items, or his or her magic, which must be bought, rather than discovered or learned from experience. Actually, the game not only allows you to buy spells, but it also allows you to make them. In addition, you can create your own enchanted items and make your own potions from reagents you can actually go scavenging for out in the wilderness. Constantly finding new things is one of the core appeals of all role-playing games, and it's certainly one of the more appealing aspects of Morrowind.
Some other aspects of Morrowind aren't as enjoyable. For instance, you could nitpick over the way the game treats the process of disarming trapped treasure chests or doors. Generally an important facet of traditional fantasy role-playing, it's handled clumsily in Morrowind because no matter what kind of character you're playing as, you'll clairvoyantly know if a door or chest is trapped. Then you just use gadgets called probes over and over until you successfully disarm the device. A low skill in "security" means your chances of success are slim, but there's a zero-percent chance of triggering the trap by accident. Locks are dealt with in exactly the same fashion, only using picks instead of probes. Unlike locks, traps are supposed to be dangerous and difficult to detect. You'll also notice how most of Morrowind's shopkeepers have little money on hand. This is interesting the first few times you find yourself having to sell back more than they can afford to buy. But eventually, you'll end up just abandoning a lot of perfectly good loot (some of it worth staggering amounts of money) for lack of a convenient way to sell it off or the ability to carry it in your overcrowded inventory. Too bad there's no auction block in Morrowind.