Sunday, February 05, 2006

There's a Bloodmoon on the rise

More than six months after I started playing Morrowind, I've beaten the final official expansion pack: Bloodmoon. While the storyline wasn't as compelling as Morrowind's main quest or Tribunal, it still offered some good gameplay enhancements that made it worthwhile.

Bloodmoon takes place on Solstheim, a Greenland-esque island mainly covered in ice and tundra. Incidentally, what is it with fantasy RPG franchises and snowy expansions? First we had "Baldur's Gate: Icewind Dale," now we have this. Anyways. On the whole the terrain looks more attractive on Solstheim than on the mainland, maybe because it's harder to mess up snow than to mess up mountains or trees (though Solstheim has both of these as well).

One big change for this was that, in addition to playing the expansion, I was also playing with several fan-created plugins. The Elder Scrolls series has a wonderful history of releasing its own development tools to the player community, and as a result, there's an incredible plethora of mods available for it. I'm not exaggerating; go to a place like Planet Elder Scrolls and look at the mods available for download: more than 3500 by my count. A lot of them are simple little patches, perhaps adding a new set of armor or a new race to the game. Many, though, are far more ambitious, changing the core behavior of the game or acting as standalone expansions.

The most impressive ones to me were "Better Bodies" and "Better Faces." I really, really wish I had installed these before starting to play the game in the first place, as it makes the inhabitants of Morrowind look much more like actual living creatures and less like hideous paper dolls.

What I liked most about the expansion was the strong Nordic flavor to it. The ebb and flow of the main quest is vaguely reminiscent of something like Beowulf, with mysterious monsters attacking from the darkness eventually being confronted in their lairs. There's also a continuation of the assimilation theme that is so common in all of TES; this time you must integrate with the Skaal tribe, an ancient clan of Nords who have held this island for generations. Again, this has a Northern feel about it; the plane between the physical world and the spiritual world is thin, and you prove your worth to the tribe by demonstrating your ability to face spiritual danger.

As always, there are more sidequests than main quests, though here the ratio is probably 2:1 rather than 5:1. (I've grown convinced that you could probably beat the main quest of Morrowind in a single afternoon if you cheated to give yourself all the stats, spells and items you need, yet it still took me several months of obsessive playing to rise through the ranks, gradually define and build up my character, investigate the living mythology and eventually confront Dagoth Ur.) The sidequests are pretty rote. There's a new faction here, the East Empire Trading Company. These quests are also of middling creativity, but what's really cool is seeing the EETC colony grow as you continue to help it out; it starts as just a few people standing around in the woods, and ends up as an impressively large, functioning community and mine.

Perhaps inevitably, the end of the main quest is a bit anti-climactic. (Spoiler alert.) After all, how do you top defeating Dagoth Ur and literally killing a goddess? The main villain here, whose name is something like Hircene, has a cool ominous background/prophecy, but is basically just a Daedra who appears once every age to, um, kill some people. It turns out that this time around he has his eye on you and three other people. So, either kill him, or you'll be dead! Which is a good motivation, I guess, but it feels pretty insular; you really aren't helping anyone besides yourself.

Now, it does do some stuff with werewolves. They're the only enemy in the whole game that actually impressed me. (Ascended Sleepers were a cool idea but impossible to take seriously.) They're fast and incredibly powerful. What's worst is when they hunt in packs; it's kind of chilling to hear a howl and then suddenly be attacked from four sides. There's a great attack/dream sequence, where you lie down in bed, then wake up surrounded by werewolves. I immediately pressed F and started swinging my mouse arround, but there was no response. It took a few minutes for my brain to register that they weren't actually attacking me, I was that strongly conditioned to fear them.

And the endgame is by far the most difficult part of the game. Well, not the literal final two battles; all boss battles are pretty easy because you can just do some summoning and carelessly drink all your potions. The two stages before that, though, were crazy hard; you navigate an extremely narrow maze filled with werewolves. The reason WHY this is hard is because you need to kill every single one of those beasts, since it's too narrow to sneak around them; each one probably takes 20-30 or so hits from a Daedric Wakazashi to kill; and as a result my weapons were almost totally blunted by the time I got through the first of the two levels. I was considering going way back to an earlier save just so I could stock up on everything before starting the endgame. This was the first time in any of the games that I've actually regretted not taking Armorer skill.

So, that's that. There are still a few EETC missions I could do, and I ought to report back to the inventor in Ald'ruhn about how his expedition went. I'm even more tempted to check out one of the highly-rated community expansions. Realistically, though, I think I'll declare this to be a good stopping point and will wait for Oblivion.

Which is another topic altogether. Now that the system requirements have been released, I'm going to need to decide how to approach getting this game. Not to put too fine a point on it, I'm about 1/3 behind where I need to be on all fronts: a 2Ghz CPU instead of 3; 768MB of RAM instead of 1GB; and a 6600 instead of a 6800 video card. A lot of people would point out that I could get an XBox 360 for less money than a top-of-the-line video card. Very true, but I have moral issues with getting a 360, plus Oblivion's the only game I'm really interested in for it, while a PC would let me do more stuff. Right now I'm contemplating doing something like I did for Morrowind: wait until 4 years after it is released, then pick it up in a cheap bundle and find that it runs effortlessly on my PC. Best of all, that'll give them a chance to patch up the game and the mod community will further buff out any annoying aspects of the game. RPGs probably age better than any other genre; I recently replayed FFVII since I never got Vincent the first time through, and was impressed again by the power that game packs. Oblivion is going to wow lots of people on the technical front when it is released later this year, but I'm content to wait and allow it to wow me with its story and atmosphere.

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