The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind launches worldwide on June 6, which – coincidentally, it turns out – is the 15th anniversary of the North American Xbox release of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.
No pressure, then.
The version of The Elder Scrolls Online that players are enjoying in 2017 is a vastly different animal to the game that released in 2014. For a start, the original was limited to PC and Mac, and also required a paid subscription.
Three years on, subscriptions are optional. Content like DLC zones and cosmetic items are available for purchase, but according to game director and president of Zenimax Online Studios Matt Firor, the dev team takes its "do no harm" motto very seriously, and there are no pay-to-win items for sale.
Since June 9, 2015, TESO has also been available on both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. In fact, the game's expanding player base is evenly spread across all its platforms, with the bulk of players choosing to play with a controller rather than keyboard and mouse. More than 8.5m players have sampled the game.
TESO saw another major change in October of last year, when its "One Tamriel" update removed alliance and level movement restrictions, allowing players to roam wherever, whenever. This brought the game in line with offline Elder Scrolls titles that use level scaling to maintain challenge without restricting player freedom to explore. That's significant, as the new Morrowind zone needs to cater for a wide range of players, Frior said at a press event earlier this month.
"We designed it to be an expansion for high level players, but we also designed it to be an entry point for new players," Frior said. "There's a new tutorial, you can buy it, it has a different box – TESO: Morrowind, with the logo on it – so if you've never played ESO before, you can just buy Morrowind and get into the game that way."
Morrowind inherits more than just the name of the third Elder Scrolls title. The game map is directly lifted from something known technically as the "height map" of The Elder Scrolls III, effectively meaning the team started with a direct one-to-one duplicate of the original game world. However, as ESO players are visiting the area some 700 years before the events of its namesake game, there are some differences: the landscape at the heart of Morrowind hasn't been altered by a volcano eruption yet, and as such, there are more lush areas to discover.
One of the most interesting parts of Morrowind's new feature set is entirely unrelated to the landmass that gives the expansion its name: the game-wide inclusion of 4v4v4 multiplayer battlegrounds. Like the existing open-world Cyrodiil PvP zone, these battlegrounds pit three teams of players against one another. However, unlike in Cyrodiil, these instanced, queue-based areas ensure teams are always balanced, eliminating wholesale face-roll style obliteration in the event that you encounter an impossibly large enemy force.
Players will be matched based on their item and skill level as well as possible, which should help ensure an even match-up. That doesn't mean Morrowind's PvP mode will be tournament ready at launch, however. "I think that's where it's – probably – going to naturally go," Elder Scrolls Online creative director Rich Lambert suggested when I asked him about the game's streaming credentials. "But we don't have a spectator mode," he conceded, "we don't have anything like that. What we're focused on right now is getting the system in, getting as wide a net as possible, then [we'll] start to iterate on that and add new features as we go.”
Battlegrounds will launch with three different levels to play on, all of which are described by the team as "open, with nowhere to hide". There will also be three different modes to play that will let ESO players engage in classic matches of team deathmatch, capture and hold, and capture the flag. All three modes can be played on every map. Other ideas, including something called "murderball", was teased at the press event, but it's clear that with the team focused on Morrowind's launch, these are yet to be fully locked down, and will no doubt come later.
Players focused on PvE content will be pleased to learn that a new Trial (ESO's Raid equivalent) will also be added to the game with the Morrowind expansion. Called Halls of Fabrication, it's set inside Sotha Sil's Clockwork City, a mysterious location hidden somewhere within Morrowind itself. Little was revealed about Halls of Fabrication other than the fact that it exists, and that you'll need a team of 12 to take it down. There will also be two new public dungeons, a giant multi-zone scavenger hunt, and "many" distinct new biomes to explore. As if to hammer home the scale of Morrowind – which is 30 percent larger than Orsinium, ESO's biggest DLC so far – Lambert suggested characters that start their adventures in Morrowind will be around level 32 when they finish the zone.
If the announcement of Morrowind has rekindled your interest in Elder Scrolls Online, but you'd like to change which of the in-game factions your character is associated with, you're currently out of luck. However, an alliance changer might make its way to the Crown store eventually. 'It is definitely easier to do," Lambert explained, "now that alliance – outside of PvP – isn't as important. One of the reasons we couldn't really do it before is that you were locked into your alliance."
That doesn't guarantee the inclusion of alliance-change tokens when Morrowind hits in June, however, as Rich also confirmed that the oft-requested ability isn't on the team's short term radar. One feature that will make an appearance is the ability to purchase up to two additional character slots (over and above the ones that are already available to buy), creating space for seasoned veterans of ESO to fill with new Warden characters.
The Warden – which Matt described as a kind of Ranger / Druid hybrid – is a class that focusses on nature and beast-related magicka. With the ability to summon a giant bear as an Ultimate skill, the class is evocative of WoW's Hunter or Shaman, and should help fill a niche that has been underserved in the game up to now.
The first new class since ESO's release three years ago, the Warden can fill any role in a group, leveraging healing, tanking, and damage-related skills to adapt to any situation. If current Templar players are considering a switch, however, Firor points out that playing a healing-focused Warden will take more skill to execute well than is required to keep players alive with a Templar.
The announcement of The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind has been met mostly with excitement by the game's fans, many of whom are tantalised by the idea of revisiting the classic setting more than 15 years since its first go-around. What I saw in my time with the development team in Baltimore was certainly appealing, but given it was strictly hands-off (and mostly eyes-on-a-presentation, with zero real-time game shown) there's not much I can do to inform you as to how well it's all shaping up.
However, on paper it all seems very compelling, and Zenimax Online Studios has delivered engaging ESO content life so far, and managed to improve the base experience. To me, that suggests a complete commitment to the game in the long term. As such, I look forward to going hands-on with Morrowind for a proper look when the expansion launches on June 6.