Nostalgia is a tricky thing. Experiencing something for the first time is a unique moment, something you can rarely recapture. I have issues returning to games from previous generations because they don't always look or play like I remember them. There's a gap between my recollection of an experience and an older version of myself running through a game again. It's one of the reasons I enjoy remasters (or scalable PC releases) sometimes over the original game.
The latest expansion for Zenimax Online's The Elder Scrolls Online takes the game back to Vvardenfell, the setting of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Morrowind stands as one of the most loved titles in the entire Elder Scrolls franchise, frequently dueling with Skyrim for the top spot in many "Best Of" lists. To revisit the setting, even separated in lore time by around 800 years, is a tall order for Elder Scrolls Online.
Not What It Was
The Elder Scrolls Online launched in a state back in 2014. It was a well-executed, theme park massively-multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) wearing the skin of the Elder Scrolls series. It wasn't really an issue of execution as much as expectation: the "Elder Scrolls" name means something and that's more than just lore for most people.
Since then, Zenimax Online has been recreating its game from the ground up, culminating in the One Tamriel update last October. Most of these changes have been essentially setting the stage for the Morrowind expansion. Elder Scrolls Online no longer requires a subscription to play, switching instead to a single entry fee with additional microtransactions and an optional subscription. A first-person camera is now the default, providing the same feeling as Oblivion and Skyrim did from a presentation standpoint. (After some early play, I switched back to mostly third-person though.)
The old Veteran Levels system has been replaced with an open-ended leveling system using Champion Points. (Seeing someone with over 500 next to their name is pretty weird.) The old faction system, locking players into different regions depending on their faction choice, is gone. The new Justice System offers a take on the darker side of Tamriel, allowing players to steal items, avoid the law, and sell stolen goods at local Fences.
The biggest change has been the removal of hard level ranges for each area in the game. Now, everything in Elder Scrolls Online scales to your current level. You gain more tools as you progress, but the base level of every fight remains the same. Some enemies are on your plateau, while others are always going to be hard fights. Loot drops and quest rewards likewise scale for your current level, so there's always something useful dropping for you.
The level scaling has two benefits. One, you're always able to play with your friends, because the game is simply scaling the fights to provide a similar experience for every player. Anyone can jump in at any time on most content and the lowliest players can stand toe-to-toe with some hefty high-level players. Not to the point that those high-levels aren't powerful anchors, but enough to feel like you're contributing.
Two, you're unshackled from a linear level treadmill, so you can do quests because you want to, not because you're on a quest line. If you want leave behind the region you're currently questing in, you can ride in a direction until you find something more interesting. If Morrowind bores you, hop a boat to back to one of the game's previous ports like Wayrest or Elden Root. What you want to do is ultimately up to you, leading to a bit more exploration and wanderlust than many MMOs offer.
A Land of Swamp and Fire
When you boot up Morrowind for the first time, you're pushed into the new tutorial, with your character escaping a group of slavers before being dropped off in Seyda Neen. The port town was the first place you really saw in the original Morrowind and it stands as an example of what Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind is trying to do. If you went back to the original Morrowind, you might be struck at how much your mind filled in the blanks on Bethesda's first shot at full 3D. What the Elder Scrolls Online offers is Morrowind how you remember it, not how it was.
You're presented with the same structures and general layout, but the world itself has more life. Water laps at the shore, the pier and tavern lights shine in the night. Instead of a lonely tree, there's a multitude of vegetation: trees of various sizes, Morrowind's iconic mushrooms, scrub bushes, and more. Crates, carts, and piles of rope lie around, showing the place as a town with a healthy naval economy. The Elder Scrolls Online establishes its new environments, at least the towns, as places where people work and live. This is enhanced by the fact that the Justice System means certain homes and areas are owned by NPCs and are therefore off-limits to you, unless you want to pick a lock and sneak around.
This Morrowind is faithful recreation of what came before. Some of the region is currently missing-in-action, with the northern island of Sheogorad visible to questing players, but completely inaccessible. (If I had to guess, that region will return in a Chapter update for the game.) What's left is damned good-looking. There are some changes to account for the time difference, but most of the time, Zenimax Online leans on providing a near-perfect upgrade for major areas in the original Morrowind.
It helps that ESO is a good-looking game. The animations are a bit rough and the Elder Scrolls art style is a dry in many places, but the textures, lighting, and shaders combine to make a game that can surprise with some of its vistas.
Talking With Gods and Nobles
Morrowind's main quest has you as the errand boy of the Lord Vivec, a one of the immortal god-kings that rules over the region. Someone is slowly stealing Vivec's godhood, which is how he does all of the amazing things, like keeping the large moonlet of Baar Dau floating above the city. Godhood goes away, moonlet crashes into the island, returning the whole thing to the sea. As the anchor to the entire expansion, Vivec is a great character and interacting with him in-between multiple hours of wandering is a joy.
The Elder Scrolls Online retains the hub structure of many MMOs, with most quests centering around specific large towns and outposts. In fact, these places have a specific tale to them, with most quests feeding back into the local color. In Balmora, you'll help a noble father try to win back his daughter from a life as an assassin. In Sadrith Mora, you'll help to free local slaves from their Dunmer masters. In Vos, you seek to dethrone a cruel Telvanni magister and return the region to some proper authorities. Suran's local quest has you helping The Scarlet Judge, Elder Scrolls' own version of Batman, to take down the corrupt police force.
The quests tend to feel rather meaningful when they're all funneled back into a main storyline. It also helps that the voice acting in Elder Scrolls Online is top-notch, with very few instances of someone sounding off or phoning it in. Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind wins in the writing of its stories, even if the basic dialog window can feel lifeless at times, hurting the overall presentation. Zenimax Online has learned well from the Bethesda team, crafting some solid and interesting stories for online players.
The War Never Ends
In-between all of that storytelling is a lot of fighting though. The responsiveness of the combat has improved since launch, leaning closer to the combat of Skyrim and other Elder Scrolls games, but I'm not a huge fan of the combat in Elder Scrolls games. I'm sure folks get a kick out of it, but it's not my cup of tea. It's the thing that I do between all of the interesting stuff.
Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind carries the standard MMO expansion expectations with an all-new character class. The Warden is a hybrid class, built to deal damage, heal, and even tank depending on how you build out your character. The class is anchored visually in the D&D Ranger motif, an armored warrior with animal companions. Warden has three trees of skills: Green Balance, Winter's Embrace, and Animal Companions.
Green Balance is full of localized and area of effect healing spells calling on the wild growth of nature. Winter's Embrace taps into the icy winds to protect you from physical and magic damage, while also freezing your foes in place. Animal Companions - outside of the Feral Guardian Ultimate ability that summons a ghost bear - is kind of lackluster in comparison. Most of the active abilities feel like Sorcerer skills with a new animal skin over them instead of brand-new class-defining skills.
If you're buying Morrowind purely to pick up Warden, I don't think the new class is that great a draw. The Elder Scrolls Online offers a ton of skills in various unlockable trees, and unlike most games, armor and weapon abilities aren't tied to your class. My Warden flip-flopped between dual-wielding, bows, magic staves, and massive two-handers as needed. I kept rolling forward, but I admit that I longed to go back to my Templar after a while.
Zenimax Online also took a look at PVP again. Elder Scrolls Online at launch felt like a return to the gameplay of Dark Age of Camelot, with leveling acting as a prelude for the huge three-faction PVP Alliance War in Cyrodiil. With Morrowind, areas around the Red Mountain act as an entry into the new small-scale PVP content.
Split into classic Deathmatch, Dominion, and Capture the Relic (CTF) modes, these Battlegrounds are meant to be over in around 10 minutes. You can queue up, enjoy a game, and then get back to questing. I tried a few rounds of Battlegrounds, but found myself at odds with the mode. I kept getting added to already-losing teams and even when that wasn't the case, players far more versed in PVP just rolled me. It's an great addition for PVP players, but I wasn't a fan of it.
Come Back To Morrowind
If you're new to Elder Scrolls Online, it might be difficult to work out the best way to get everything and jump in. Morrowind is sold as a $39.99 upgrade to Elder Scrolls Online, or at $59.99 if you buy the standard edition, which comes with the base game, Tamriel Unlimited. TU costs $29.99 on its own, so there's a savings of $10 just from jumping in. The $39.99 for the upgrade feels a bit steep, but that's ultimately up to you.
There's also the DLC packs - Imperial City, Orsinium, Thieves Guild, Dark Brotherhood, and Shadows of the Hist - which cost $15-20 each in in-game currency. Your best bet though is grab Morrowind for $59.99 and then an ESO Plus subscription, which gives you access to all of the DLC as long as you're subscribed and a bunch of other perks. It's nice to have a subscription fee that feels a bit more worthwhile.
I'm impressed at how much Zenimax Online has improved The Elder Scrolls Online since launch. I admit, that part of this review is about the improvements in the One Tamriel update as much as what's in this expansion itself. It's easy to say that it's a very different game, much closer to the promise of a game carrying the 'Elder Scrolls' name. The new Warden class feels lackluster and the small-scale PVP Battlegrounds aren't my jam, but otherwise, I found myself drawn in more than I expected. Returning to Morrowind has been a treat and ESO still holds up with some great writing. It's not reliving nostalgia, but it's the next best thing.
All of the changes Zenimax Online has made to Elder Scrolls Online since its 2014 launch culminate in the Morrowind expansion. Returning to a classic Elder Scrolls region, the expansion stands a great update to old environments. The writing is excellent, though the overall presentation can feel a little dry at times. The new Warden class needs a second look as well, but overall Morrowind is an excellent welcome mat for new and returning players.