Elder Scrolls Online prepares to take adventurers back to Morrowind

Remember silt striders? Back in Bethesda's 2002 RPG Morrowind, they were the quick-travel beasts who looked like giant fleas who'd sprouted legs as long as lodgepole pines, all the better to shuttle folks about the island of Vvardenfell. They never actually moved, though, chained as they were by the technological limitations of the time. When I learned Morrowind would be the focus of Elder Scrolls Online's first big expansion (coming June 6), I'd hoped I'd see them during my visit to ZeniMax Online's Maryland studio, scuttling freely about Vivec City and environs. I don't even wait until my private interview session to ask if they now walk.

"Nope," says game director Matt Firor. There's an uncomfortable silence. They're in the expansion, but the technology apparently still isn't there yet.
Well, drat. That's one disappointment, and it comes right on the heels of the realization that I've come all the way to ZeniMax Online's Maryland studio not to actually play the Morrowind expansion, but to watch dev-made trailers and clips in a darkened theater. 

All the same, ZeniMax shows off a world I want to roam. Main quests and side quests together reportedly deliver almost 30 hours of adventure, there's a new class, and at last, 'balanced side' PvP battlegrounds will grace the three-year-old MMORPG. On top of that, there's a sprawling scavenger hunt quest, two new public dungeons, a Morrowind-focused tutorial for new players, and a new 12-man trial that sends adventurers into the heart of the god Sotha Sil's Clockwork City. Firor insists on calling Morrowind a "chapter" rather than an expansion, but never before has ESO expanded with such ambition and promise.

Mushroom houses! Tentacled beasts herded like cattle! I've always loved Morrowind's trippy weirdness, and it's good to see it enjoying new life. Even so, I can't shake the feeling that what I see leans too heavily on that nostalgia. ESO's new chapter may unfold 700 years before the Nerevarine, but little seems different in the images Firor shows us: the huddled stone dwellings of Balmora, the spindly daedric ruins—even the cozy office where the prison ship dumps you in Morrowind the elder. I expected something more visually surprising, sort of like Blizzard's reimagining of a familiar alien world in World of Warcraft's Warlords of Draenor expansion. 

Yet there are, in fact, changes, even if they're not as extensive as I wish. Balmora, with its stone shops and quiet river, looks far more lush and inviting than it did in 2002. Ald'ruhn, the dusty city nestled in a hollowed shell, exists as a ramshackle camp in this era. ESO's creative director Rich Lambert tells me ZeniMax chiefly focused on transforming Vvardenfell to look as it must have before the Red Mountain started erupting years later.

"In Vivec City, only three of four of the cantons are actually built," he says. "The ghost fence hasn't been erected yet, and the Ashlands are a little smaller."
As for the island of Vvardenfell itself, Lambert tells me it's essentially the exact same size as it was in the original game as they used Morrowind's height map as the foundation. Put in the context of ESO itself, it's about 30 percent larger than Orsinium, ESO's largest chunk of DLC so far.

I'd seen a prototype of ESO's battleground concept at E3 a couple of years back and loved it.

Orisinium's a good point of comparison, as ZeniMax stuffed it with quests and locations that often outshone those in the core release. Morrowind might well outdo it. Amid all the chatter about dunmer and dwemer, ZeniMax also teases an hours-long trek to help an Argonian slave become a Telvanni mage, a romp with the assassin-priests of the Morag Tong, and the epic overarching tale of the mortal god Lord Vivec's struggle to cling to his draining power. Should he fail, the giant rocks floating over Vivec City will slam into the city and smash it with the force of meteor (much as they eventually do in the years before Skyrim). ZeniMax shows us absolutely nothing of it in action, but it sounds fascinating. Just don't expect to align with the various houses as you did in the original RPG.

"One of the things we kind of burned ourselves on at launch is separating players," Lambert says. "You make a choice, and then you've walled off all the other choices and then you can't play with another buddy who made that choice. In our game, you basically can work with all the houses."

Furry friends

Apart from all the quests and scenery, the big attraction of the Morrowind expansion is the new Warden class. Firor describes it as a druid, hunter, and ranger all wrapped up in one tidy package—essentially the class I've been waiting for since ESO dropped. It's versatile, coming with three skill trees that roughly correspond to damage, tanking, and healing and one skill in the 'Animal Companion' line lets players conjure a massive bear into battle permanently. The video showcase even more wonders: calling down cliff racers or swarms of bugs on enemies, wrapping oneself in an icy shield, or stun that spreads to multiple enemies. 

It sounds kind of awesome, frankly. Maybe too awesome, if it's not balanced properly. Careful balance arguably hasn't mattered much in previous ESO builds when PvP was largely about herds of players ramming into each other, but it could prove a challenge in the new 4v4v4 PvP battlegrounds. I'd seen a prototype of ESO's battleground concept at E3 a couple of years back and loved it. What Firor shows us now looks much the same, but with three stunning maps featuring open arenas like the lava streaked Foyada Quarry or a sprawling daedric complex concealing dozens of easy ganking spots. The modes are simple, amounting to little more than base capture or capture the flag, but what I see looks more fun than what I've ever seen in Cyrodiil. The main question remaining is whether they can balance it.

Perhaps I'd have a better idea of how it would work if I'd actually managed to handle the game itself. But at this point, I'm willing to have faith in ESO. It's gone from a rough launch to accumulating more than 8.5 million players, and each new patch seems to bring it closer to ideal of the memorable Elder Scrolls MMO many players have always wanted. Thus far, Morrowind looks like one of the purest visions of that concept yet. Too bad about those silt striders, though.