A vibrant modding community keeps The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind as enthralling as ever

Articles: Gaming
Apr 17, 2021 Written by:Eric Born

For me, there’ll never be another game quite like The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. I’ll never forget those first moments when my character was released from bondage in the hold of a ship. Coming out onto the deck under the blinding light of day, I was transfixed by the fully realized fantasy world, the looming silt strider hovering over the river, and the unique characters that not only populated the small coastal town but inhabited it. The only games to truly break the spell of Morrowind for me were its ambitious sequels. I played each in turn obsessively, and I eagerly await the promised sixth addition to the series.

Morrowind recently showed up on my radar again when Xbox Game Pass added a treasure trove of Bethesda games to its catalog. As a longtime fan of the studio's output, I was giddy with excitement over the wealth of games that had suddenly dropped into my lap. It was only natural that I downloaded Morrowind first.

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It’s been quite a while since I last ventured onto the island of Vvardenfell, so my first reaction to loading up the game was to reflect on just how much has changed in fantasy RPGs in the years since Morrowind released in 2002. The game lacks widescreen monitor support, for one. I can’t even remember the last time I played a game at 1280x960. I’ve definitely gotten used to NPCs with higher polygon counts, and it was bizarre to be reminded that jump was bound to E and interact to the space bar by default. I changed all that in an awful hurry.

Those oddities aside, this game holds up surprisingly well for a nearly twenty-year-old title. It may not have as much voice acting as the later entrants in the series, but the well-written dialogue is just as compelling and immersive as ever. After years of RPGs that use overlays, arrows, and glowing outlines to lead me unerringly from one objective to the next, it was honestly refreshing to play a game that scorns the idea of holding my hand. Quests in Morrowind require me to invest in the story, explore a little bit, and let myself live in this fantasy world. Maybe it’s more work than following a glowing line on the ground to the next bad guy, but it’s also more connected to storytelling roots of fantasy role-playing.

morrowind-2Image source: Gamesplanet

Vanilla Morrowind is still an engaging experience in 2021, but it’s the incredible efforts of the modding community that truly give this game life even after all these years. Honestly, mods remain one of my favorite parts of gaming on the PC. I never cease to be amazed at the dedication and creativity that unpaid fans bring to their favorite PC games. Through a small selection of easily downloaded mods, I was able to modernize my experience in the game without detracting from the elements that made it special.

My first priority was updating the graphics engine so that it would play nicely with my gaming monitor. The MGE XE mod provides widescreen graphics support so that I can play at my screen's native resolution without awkward stretching or letterboxing. This mod also lets me take advantage of my next-gen graphics card to enjoy longer viewing distances than were possible back in 2002. It even updates shading and lighting in the process.

morrowind-4Image source: Gamesplanet

The game’s textures looked fine back in the day on sub-megapixel monitors, but they look blurry on today’s high-res displays. That’s an easy fix. There are many mod packs that fully overhaul the game’s textures, bringing welcome detail to landscapes, armor sets, and character faces alike. My personal favorite is Morrowind Enhanced Textures. The creator of this mod upscaled the game’s original assets using machine learning. The result is a package of modern-looking textures that retain the spirit of the originals.

Those mods made a huge difference in making this classic game feel fresh and new. Other mods go further in making the game more beautiful and more accessible. There’s an entire series of mods by Vurt that update the game’s ground cover and vegetation. They bring surprising life and variety to the original game’s relatively low-poly landscapes. Other mods reduce the frequency of the dreaded cliff racers, add bustle and life to the game’s cities by increasing the number and variety of NPCs, and revamp the UI with welcome quality-of-life additions. It’s even possible to play Morrowind as a co-op adventure these days.

morrowind-3Image source: Gamesplanet

Many mods aim to modernize Morrowind without detracting from the charm and nostalgia of the original. Others are breathtaking reimaginings that offer as much new content as a freshly released game would—yet they’re entirely free for anyone playing on PC. One of these is Morrowind Rebirth. It updates almost all the game’s cities with new houses and shops. It adds more than twenty new creatures for players to fight, and more than 100 new pieces of armor and equipment with which to combat them. It rebalances many of the game’s combat systems to open up new styles of gameplay. Since it’s compatible with the popular OpenMW engine, I can use it in tandem with a wide range of my other favorite mods, as well. Astonishingly, it’s not even the only overhaul mod to add this level of content. The ongoing Tamriel Rebuilt project is working to allow players to explore the entire continent of Tamriel inside Morrowind.

I can’t recommend this game enough to any fan of The Elder Scrolls series—or to devotees of fantasy RPGs in general. Even if you don’t have lingering nostalgia for the game as I do, the game offers unforgettable landscapes, countless hours of content, and one of the best stories in fantasy RPG history. The Xbox Game Pass makes it easy to get started in this groundbreaking adventure, and the PC modding community makes it possible to modernize the classic game’s look and feel and add new locations and adventures. Besides, The Elder Scrolls VI is on the horizon. What better way to wait for the next chapter of this legendary series than to experience the game that brought it into the modern era?