Beta Preview: The Elder Scrolls Online Morrowind Expansion is Vvardenfell Reborn

We're revisiting Morrowind for the first time in over a decade. And in ESO, it feels like home.

The name Morrowind spurs pangs of nostalgia for many long-time RPG players -- myself included. My gaming career did not begin in earnest until I stepped off the boat in Seyda Neen and explored the world of Vvardenfell for the first time. Though the game freed me from prison in the first few minutes, it bound me up in an incredible adventure that's kept me under lock and key even 16 years later. 

Aside from the occasional boot up to revisit an old character and wander about the world, I haven't really set foot in Vvardenfell for years. Though I moved on to other games, I still held out hope that one day we might see an Elder Scrolls III remaster -- or that the Skywind project would make serious headway. Neither has happened just yet. But when Bethesda announced the Morrowind expansion for Elder Scrolls Online, I knew I would be diving back in once more. 

I got to demo the expansion at PAX East, and was fairly intrigued by what little I saw. But after spending hours upon hours playing the closed beta, this old TES III veteran has things to say. The ESO iteration of Morrowind may not be quite the sui generis experience that the main series game was, but it is an excellent expansion for the MMO that brings Vvardenfell back to life in its own way. 

ascadian isles eso morrowind

Your Journey Through Morrowind Starts in Seyda Neen...

If you opt to skip the tutorial, you'll start your adventure on a ship that will look wonderfully familiar to any Morrowind fan. From there, you step into the lush swampland of Seyda Neen -- the same starting area as the original game. 

This new opening zone, and the new tutorial that comes with it, are a refreshing change from running Coldharbour for the hundredth time. It definitely encourages players to make a new character so they can take full advantage of the expansion -- and its new Warden class -- without forcing them to feel like they have to start over entirely. And the fresh sights when you're starting out make you feel primed for a brand new adventure that's unlike anything else ESO has to offer. 

Questing from there feels different than in any other zone. Zenimax Online took a page from The Elder Scrolls III's book and made quests feel like much more of a discovery process. Arrows are still floating over heads, so finding new quests isn't quite as organic as it is in the source material. But quest-giving NPCs are scattered enough that you have to wander about to stumble across them. The whimsy of random discovery that made Morrowind so engaging resonates here, encouraging players to check every nook and stray from the beaten path.

ashlander eso morrowind

This expansion still hasn't really remedied the grindy feel of MMO questing, but it does give it an eccentric facelift. Even when quests do start to feel a bit flat or monotonous, they're still infused with the quirky charm that made Morrowind's side quests so fun to complete. Whether you're stealing drunken poetry from a dark elf or clearing Daedric dungeons, the quests in this expansion are a hell of a lot more engaging than trying to farm Nix meat for every NPC around. 

The Warden: A Fresh Class That's Worth Playing

You'll want to play this expansion with ESO's new Warden class. Unless you have something against bears and raining down sharp-beaked fury from the sky. 

The Warden is a fun Morrowind reskin of your standard druid character -- an animal whisperer with access to natural magics. The bear companion that stays loyally by your side is a wonderful (if expected) addition, and it is often very helpful in combat. But that's not really where this class shines.

Zenimax Online took a unique approach to this character, utilizing some familiar Vvardenfell creatures in a new way. The Cliff Racer, for example, is no longer a scourge upon the land waiting to swarm you at every moment. Now you can use their annoying dive-bomb powers for good -- or at least for making your opponent feel like the unfortunate star of a paleo-avian Hitchcock sequel. 

eso warden

Animal governance aside, this class is highly flexible and able to suit a number of different play styles. It plays smoothly and offers a decent balance between offensive and defensive capabilities. If you're the ranger sort who wants to deal lots of damage with your bow and your creature companions, the nature-based Green Balance skill tree will let you regenerate health and mana so you can kite and summon to your heart's content. If you prefer a more wizardly path, the Winter's Embrace tree offers lots of defensive maneuvers, crowd control, and ice-cold damage.

The freeze magic did feel a bit out of place given that Vvardenfell is primarily a desert and swampland environment, but I imagine those abilities are better suited to the rest of ESO than something like Red Mountain lava magic would be -- though that would imply you'll ever want to leave Morrowind at all. 

What A Wonderful World

Reimagining the world of Morrowind will obviously be the deciding factor in how this expansion is received. Zenimax knows it. Creative Director Rich Lambert knew it when he told me he was "scared shitless" about doing so during our chat at PAX East. If veteran TES III players stepped off that boat in Seyda Neen and didn't immediately feel at home ... then everything else can't salvage that. 

Luckily, the team got it right. 

When I pressed Lambert about the world construction during my PAX demo, he made me one promise:

"You're gonna get off the docks in Seyda Neen and go 'holy shit...this is Seyda Neen'."

And that's exactly what happened. When I left the Census office and saw that little swamp village for the first time in years, my jaded old heart swelled so much it hurt a bit. I was in Seyda Neen. In spite of a few aesthetic discrepancies, the world was immediately familiar. I could have closed my eyes and made it to Balmora by memory. 

eso morrowind balmora

The nostalgia really hit me when I passed the Silt Strider just outside of town. Wandering between its spindly legs, I saw this iconic transport bug in more detail than ever before -- from the careful detail on its exoskeleton to the spines protruding from its insectile joints. 

This expansion feels like Morrowind. It's a different version, of course, but the essence of Vvardenfell still breathes inside. Wandering around will be a little surreal for veteran Elder Scrolls players -- a bit like walking through a dream. Everything feels familiar, but it's all slightly rearranged and painted in technicolor.

This is Vvardenfell before the blight turned everything ashen. The Ascadian Isles have never been so lush and shroomy. Balmora never so labyrinthine and striking. Even the stark barrenness of the Ashlands has a certain beauty to it, all dark crags and vibrant lava. Many times, the landscapes stopped me in my tracks, and I just had to take it all in. 

The colorful aesthetic of Elder Scrolls Online that makes it feel like so unlike the main series games works to this expansion's advantage. Where the vaguely Sheogorathian art style makes more well-known areas of Tamriel feel a bit overdone, the approach works perfectly for ancient Morrowind. It feels a lot like revisiting Vvardenfell in its glory days -- seeing the province in its luminous prime before everything collapsed into low-contrast despair. 

eso morrowind lava

All that said, some of Morrowind's character does get lost in translation. This expansion lacks some of the strange little details that made TES III so immersive and memorable. There are no merchant mudcrabs or wizards falling out of the sky. There is no Creeper the Scamp wanting to bang on his drums. 

Of course, streamlining is necessary for an MMO given the amount of content that needs to exist. When there are multiple instances of multiple worlds that are brimming with things to do and see, there's little time for dilly-dallying with easter eggs and minutiae. But in some ways, this version of Vvardenfell has been streamlined to a fault -- so distilled that it loses some of that Morrowind spirit which lived inside the game's many quirks. 

But I can forgive that. And I'm sure many other players will too when they step off that boat. It's truly fascinating to see this world before it became the one we fell in love with in the main series game. Wandering through Vivec City and talking with troubled gods echoes the adventures we had as Nerevarine -- even if the cantons are still under construction. 

Verdict

This is a compelling reimagination of Morrowind. The effort to please TES III loyalists is obvious, and Zenimax has been surprisingly successful in that endeavor. Discerning fans may find this iteration of Vvardenfell a little vapid at times, but it's hard to ignore the amount of care that's been put into creating this fresh world. 

The Morrowind expansion is sure to enrapture players who never got to experience the main series game. If you're an ESO player already, you should find this expansion quite satisfying. And if you're new to ESO, it will definitely pull you in -- and probably make the rest of the game feel a little flat in comparison. 

But if you're a TES III fan who is looking for an exact replica of the main series Morrowind that perfectly captures every ounce of magic and nostalgia ... you're going to have to look elsewhere. This isn't a remaster, and it isn't Skywind. This is Vvardenfell (beautifully) reconstructed with a different sense of purpose. And that's all this salty adventurer wanted anyway. 

Published Apr. 26th 2017

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