January 5th, 2012

Top 10 Games of the Last Decade: #3 Morrowind


James Hayward, our nerd from the UK hits us yet again with the next installment of his retrospective look at the 10 best games of the last decade.

Top Ten Games of the Last Decade – # 3 Morrowind

System Requirements:
-Win ME/98 (128 MB RAM), Win XP/2000 (256 MB RAM) – will also run on Vista and Windows 7 via compatibility mode
-500 MHz Intel Pentium III, Celeron, or AMD Athlon processor
-8x CD/DVD-ROM Drive
-1 GB free hard disk space
-32MB Direct3D Compatible video card and DirectX 8.1 compatible driver

With its sweeping green forests, mountain valleys and grand architecture, Cyrodil, the setting for the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and the capital of the Septim Empire, was an overwhelming masterpiece of fantasy and Arthurian legend. Contrastingly, its predecessor, TES 3 Morrowind, was set in a geographically and culturally distant Imperial province called Vvardenfell. The island of Morrowind is characterised by the volcanic crater at its centre, with the peripheral regions divided up into various political, environmental and culturally distinct areas.

After the character creation process, where you select the gender, race and class of your character, you start the game at the southern tip of this island. With little more than a note telling you to make contact with a man in a town named ‘Balmora’ the game begins.

However, as anyone who has played Oblivion may be aware, games in the Elder Scrolls series are very much ‘open’ in the sense that you really can go anywhere and do almost anything. Where you go, what you do and how you do it is entirely your choice. You aren’t ever funnelled toward objectives and there are never environmental cues popping up on screen to indicate the direction you are expected to go in order to progress. This is a game where you learn by doing, you find things by exploration and investigation and those who do invest time in both of these are richly rewarded.

And here’s the thing. I think that half the joy I got from Morrowind was in this ‘process’ of exploring just for exploring’s sake. Unlike Oblivion, whose forests and mountains were procedurally generated, every last part of Morrowind’s environment was painstakingly hand crafted. Of course, the graphical quality was far lower than Oblivion, but for me, the variety in Morrowind’s world maintained my enjoyment of exploration for longer.

The open world, with all its variety, combined with the weather system and day-night cycles to give the player a sense of actually ‘living’ in a persistent and dynamic place. If you are at the right place at the right time, you’d discover a beautiful sunset, an incredible vista, or get caught in a thunderous lightning storm. Sleeping plays an important part in the levelling up process within the game and time passes as you do so. There’s something that just feels ‘right’ about the process of getting a good night’s rest, restoring your stamina, levelling up, and then taking a stroll out into the morning sun to face the day afresh.

Character development is in the time honoured Elder Scrolls tradition of player choice and consequence; with skill levelling happening relative to what you actually do rather than some arbitrary experience point system. This meant that, regardless of your initial aptitudes, you could get good at anything if you were willing to put in the practice. However, for those that didn’t feel like swinging an axe a thousand times (for example) to get good at that particular weapon skill, the game also contained ‘trainers’ who can help you speed up the process of learning in exchange for some coin.

The game play structure ties in with the story. That is to say that it is a tale driven by a process of becoming. You start a weak nobody and you can potentially choose to become a powerful figure in the history of the Elder Scrolls and saviour to the island of Morrowind. Alternatively, you can completely ignore that path and play the game entirely your own way, involving yourself in the world’s various factions, politics and intrigues as little or as much as you like.

There is no right or wrong way to play the game, just consequences to the choices you make. However you choose to play through the world, Morrowind always maintained a challenge to the gamer and this remains one of the key reasons why Morrowind’s memory burns brighter than that of Oblivion. In Oblivion the world levelled up with you, keeping the challenge of combat relatively consistent at all times. In Morrowind, there are areas where you will get your ass completely handed to you as a low level character. These initially unbeatable enemies eventually become beatable as your character develops, and when you do finally beat them, the sense of accomplishment is a thousand times more rewarding.

The greatest achievements in life are those that are earned and Morrowind’s game play and narrative were testament to the fact that Bethesda believed in this idiom when they made this game. In a quest for mass appeal, Oblivion departed a little from this core formula. Here’s hoping that as Morrowind’s tenth anniversary approaches, Bethesda have taken stock of what made Morrowind so special, so that Skyrim (released this month) will eclipse it as the best Elder Scrolls game ever made.

James Hayward

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