The Elder Scrolls Online nails the magic and weirdness of Morrowind

Sometimes you really can go home again.

Poor Eoki just can't catch a break. I first saw the hapless Argonian huddling in a corner of a dirty island hut where we'd been stashed as newly captured slaves, and he followed me when I leapt into the surrounding waters in a daring escape alongside an assassin. And now, here in Sadrith Mora, hugging the eastern rim of the island of Vvardenfell, I find him in chains again. Four times he tried to escape after our escapade, and four times slavers drug him back. Now he's stuck toiling for Telvanni mages who bought him for a discount and don't give a damn for the Ebonheart Pact's ban on slavery.

I offer to free him myself, but he says he's going to be all right. He knows someone, you see—a fellow Argonian slave named Sun-in-Shadow who happens to be pretty handy with magic herself. It's more than mere trust: he's smitten with her. And now Eoki's pleading with me to go help Sun-in-Shadow with whatever she needs to rise through the Telvanni ranks and free them both. 

This is the questline that captured my heart and attention in the closed beta for The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind. Others had me chatting with demigods and helping with the construction of the cantons of Vivec City, but it's this one that best shows what to expect from this new expansion. It's this one that shows ZeniMax Online gets Morrowind, while at the same time demonstrating that it's not hobbling itself with nostalgia.

Recapturing that Morrowind magic

The laziest MMORPGs think all you need for a quest is some reason to run out and kill or fetch a few things, but Morrowind shows Elder Scrolls Online in healthy maturity, mixing moving conversations like these with puzzles, pickpocketing, and the occasional pun. Long stretches went by when I didn't even pull out my weapon at all, and I can't say I minded much. Even better, all the tweaks the ZeniMax team has made over the last couple of years have finally left the game feeling about as "Elder Scrollsy" as an MMORPG possibly could.

Yet it'll never fully be able to shake off that disconnect between the expectations of the singleplayer games and an MMO. One of the first things I have to do after chatting up Sun-in-Shadow is steal an awful love poem a drunken dark elf Telvanni sent to a local wood elf—which is bad because dark elves are massive racists, mm-kay?—and now he wants it back lest she blackmail him. (And truly, it's criminal stuff, infected as it is with couplets like "O Ethrandora, I do adore ya" and "Your smile is so sweet like the sweetest guar meat.")

So, massive Nord named Isleif the Unwieldy that I am, I venture into her private office to pickpocket her. It's, well, awkward. Ethrandora shows not the slightest apprehension as this tall stranger dawdles in her quarters, inching up and waiting for her to look away before rummaging in her pockets. There's a justice system in Elder Scrolls Online these days, but I can't help but think the guards would have already been on me in Skyrim. Heck, the whole time I kept expecting another player to burst in and shatter the illusion further. Anyway, I get the poem back.

Yoink.

"Hide the ink when next you drink," my character tells the Telvanni. It's not Shakespeare, but there's much more wizardry in that rhyme than in anything the dark elf scribbled.

The pickpocketing weirdness is a trifle. I'm grateful enough that Elder Scrolls Online lets me pickpocket and read bad poetry in the first place rather than just sending me out to kill a bunch of guars for their sweet meat. And anyway, action isn't far behind. Sun-in-Shadow soon sends me to the Daedric dungeon of Zaintirasis, where I have to steal some saint's finger bone before the rival Redoran clan gets it.

The laziest MMORPGs think all you need for a quest is some reason to run out and kill or fetch a few things, but Morrowind mixes moving conversations with puzzles, pickpocketing, and the occasional pun.

Even here Elder Scrolls Online adds variety to the MMO template and captures some of the spirit of the original Morrowind. To even get into the Daedric ruin, I need to solve a puzzle involving bowls and skulls left by followers of the unpredictable trickster Daedric lord Sheogorath. It frankly stumps me for a bit. It apparently stumps me less than other people, though, because a player with the delightfully beta-appropriate name of Nord-Warden-Test starts following me and mimicking my every move. Finally, the riddle clicks in my head and the lock clicks in the door. We're in.

Down into the dungeon we go, Nord-Warden-Test and I, slaying imps, skewering frightening floating eyes wreathed with tentacles, and plucking holy finger bones. I'm playing as a Warden myself, the new druid-meets-ranger class that comes with the expansion. It's what I've always wanted out of ESO, right down to the Aragorn-as-Strider style costume the class comes with. None of ESO's existing four classes ever really appealed to me, but I love the nature focus of the Warden, and the way I can call ghostly versions of Morrowind's famed cliff racers down on foes. I can shield myself in ice, do decent healing, and even summon a bear. There's a lot of outcry in the community right now about how ZeniMax weakened every other class in preparation for the Warden, but right now I'm loving it.

I bring the finger to another mage who's impressed by Sun-in-Shadow's initiative, and they agree to raise the clever Argonian up a rank from slave. But not without some reluctance.

"Lift one of these beasts up and a thousand more will follow," one of the Dark Elves says. Had to sneak some racism in there. Typical Dunmer. Typical Telvanni.
And now Sun-in-Shadow wants me to buy some land with all of her gold. Poor Eoki, busting his scales on some construction project in a swamp, laments that she didn't just buy his freedom, but he accepts it. And so I'm off again to Vos, a tiny village nestled in the northern expanses of the vast island.

Ordinarily I'd need a map, but I knew where to go. This, after all, is Vvardenfell, the setting of one of the finest RPGs ever made, and the expansion's aimed largely at us who knew it well. In the early 2000s, beholding Morrowind's mushroom forests and complex social structures felt like a revelation, leading me to wear Morrowind shirts around my graduate school campus in the hopes someone would notice and share my joy. I'd say my awe at the breadth of its imagination largely put me on the career path I'm on today.

I know the poetry of its place names—Balmora, Ald'ruhn, Hla Oad—as well as I know the streets of my own hometown. Ordinarily the early hours of an MMORPG thrive on pure discovery, but riding through Vvardenfell here feels a bit like coming back home after years of absence. My adventures with Eoki and Sun-in-Shadow wisely take me all over it, whether it's in the Telvanni manors built into the hollows of skyscraper-tall mushrooms or the shadows of a volcanic mountain threatening the surroundings. Those surroundings are beautiful, too, even if they're crafted in that spindly, overlong style ESO prefers that I've never grown accustomed to. The play area of Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind mirrors the exact dimensions of the original Morrowind, but it far exceeds the original in detail, whether it's in the lush trappings scattered about a Telvanni mage's tower or the ornate mosaics lining the walls of the cantons in Vivec City.

It's good to be back.

With such a strong legacy, Morrowind is the most logical point for a first expansion—there's little doubt about that, and it's stuffed with callbacks like the little registration hut in Seyda Neen where The Elder Scrolls III starts off. My time with Eoki and Sun-in-Shadow shows that this isn't merely an attempt to cash in on nostalgia; the quests I've gone on capture the essence of what made Morrowind great without retracing its steps.

Every book, every conversation, every building reveals a reverence for the lore and a keen desire to show this unique fantasy vision at another point in time. So far, it's an expansion I want to sample to the last drop. Best of all, if you're totally new to Elder Scrolls Online, you can kick off your adventures with a Morrowind-specific tutorial from the very start and jump into its adventures without having to worry about the core game unless you wish.

Hang in there, Eoki, we'll get those chains off you yet. Or so I hope.

The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind is out on June 6 for $40.