It's a debate that has been raging for years now: what is the best game in the Elder Scrolls series? There have now been five games in the series, the latest release being "Skyrim" back in 2011. The first two games, Arena and Daggerfall, are not really brought into this conversation as most people focus on the three modern entries in the series. This includes the third game, Morrowind, the fourth, Oblivion, and the fifth, Skyrim. All games in the series attempt to build an immersive world with a rich history and lore that ranks up there with some of the best fantasy works such as Tolkien. Since they are games and not novels, though, the gameplay of each needs to be mentioned too.
For many current avid fans of the series, Skyrim was the first Elder Scrolls game they got their hands on. Many older fans first played Morrowind, and it seems to me that those who consider themselves the "true fans" of TES prefer Morrowind to the later two installments. According to some other people, Morrowind is clearly the worst game out of the three. My first game was Oblivion, although I have played through both Skyrim and Morrowind. So, having played all three games and having a pretty critical and analytical mind, which game do I think is the best? Does Morrowind live up to the hype some people give it? I've thought about this question quite a lot before setting out to write this article, and we'll get to my conclusion later. Firstly, though, let's compare some of the attributes of each game.
When comparing these three games, it's certainly important to talk about the various environments because, as pointed out above, these games are all about creating immersive environments. It goes without saying that Skyrim is the prettiest of the three games due to its being the most recent release and running on the engine that it does. However, contrary to popular belief, games are about much more than just graphics. RPG fans will know of the game Planescape: Torment - in spite of the fact that it's an isometric, two-dimensional game with what would be judged terrible graphics by today's standards, it's considered one of the best RPGs of all time because of its writing, so case in point.
To me, the environment of Oblivion is the least interesting, and here we're talking about physical environments. When it comes to NPCs and the little villages of Cyrodiil, Oblivion's environment has just as much if not more character than Skyrim's. However, Cyrodiil is very generic: large green fields with some scattered ruins. It's still a beautiful environment with deep and rich colors, looking a bit like a watercolor painting come to life (incidentally, in an example of one of the game's more interesting quests, you actually jump into a watercolor painting to save the artist from certain doom). The Imperial City stands out, and is certainly the equal of any town in Skyrim. Skyrim, on the other hand, has a more interesting physical environment, with tall snow-peaked mountains and a level of detail that's simply unparalleled. Of course, it could be argued that the winter environment of Skyrim is dreary and boring, so it really comes down to a matter of opinion.
When it comes to physical environments, I do feel that the landscapes of Morrowind stand out. Of course the graphics of that game are outdated, but less detailed textures don't keep you from appreciating the beauty of this carefuly sculpted world. Volcanoes and rocky mountains cover the land, along with giant mushrooms and floating islands suspended in the skies above the province of the Dark Elves. Anyone who has played Morrowind will remember the large "silt striders", creatures looking a bit like a mix of a tripod from War of the Worlds and some Lovecraftian horror, which served as a means of travel from one area to the next. These towering creatures did a great job of adding to the otherworldly atmosphere of Morrowind. Because Morrowind's environment is the most fantastical of the three games, I really think it succeeds in being the most appropriate setting for a fantasy game. For these reasons, I believe Morrowind triumphs in the environment department.
One can't discuss games without talking about gameplay - even when talking about RPGs, which are more story-driven than other genres, gameplay is important. The change in gameplay from Morrowind to Skyrim is astounding, with Oblivion serving as a clear transition point. Morrowwind is more like a traditional role-playing game, for instance Dungeons and Dragons, where stats are the most important factor in determining the winner of a battle. Skyrim is more about your ability to hit an enemy or block blows, depending more on the player's skill than on numbers on a spreadsheet (although, of course, your stats and level are still important). Oblivion lies somewhere in between.
Some RPGs, such as Dragon Age: Origins or World of Warcraft, do not even allow you to really control your character once he or she is in combat. You just press some hotkeys and the character will perform an ability, and this is really the limit of your control. Morrowind was more like this, creating the illusion that you were actually doing something when you click to attack with your sword or whatever weapon you're using. Oblivion made the combat more realistic, much more dependent upon input from the player. A shield you were using was an actual shield that you could use, rather than just a stat that increased your armor rating. Skyrim improved this system. Some people may prefer the traditional RPG style of Morrowind, but I certainly preferred the more realistic, physics-based style of Oblivion and Skyrim.
When you're discussing the transition from Oblivion to Skyrim and the influence of stats, something can't go without being mentioned: class. One thing that many long-time fans of the series did not appreciate about Skyrim, and something they considered to be an example of "dumbing down" the gameplay, was the removal of classes. Classes are a fundamental part of most RPGs, determining what kind of abilities your character has and in what skills he or she excels. However, I liked the ability of the player in Skyrim to level up all attributes equally - this, in a way, is more realistic since we're not born as "archers" or "mages." I think Skyrim wins over the other two games when it comes to gameplay.
One thing that people could certainly criticize about Morrowind is the lack of voice acting, although the occasional character did have some spoken lines. This is of course due to the technical limitations of the time. Many people enjoy reading the text instead of having voice actors, and this hearkens back to old-school RPG games of the 1980s and 1990s. I personally prefer hearing voice acting, although I'm sure some people could argue that imagining your own voices for the characters is better than hearing the same voices over and over as in Oblivion or (admittedly to a lesser extent) Skyrim. Oblivion brought in some excellent voice actors such as Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean, so perhaps we can forgive a lot of the characters for sounding the same.
The appearance of character models in Oblivion is infamous - they don't look that great. Skyrim certainly wins in that category since the denizens of the Nord province look realistic and not like single-colored blobs as they do in Oblivion. Morrowind is somewhere in between, although there is definitely a higher degree of customization when it comes to different types of armor and weapons, something that fans of that game laud.
So we've taken a look at all three games and what makes them unique. What conclusion can we draw? Before we get to what I believe to be the best TES game, I'd like to say a little bit more about why my opinion is what it is.
First of all, I personally think that Skyrim is the worst of the three games. The thing is that they are all very good games, so saying Skyrim is the worst of them does not mean it's a bad game - it's an excellent game. The problem is (and this was one of the main criticisms of the game coming from long-time fans of the series) that it seems "dumbed down," less "in-depth." As an example of this, one of my (and many other peoples') favorite parts of Oblivion was the Dark Brotherhood questline. It was in-depth and interesting, with neat characters and cool subplots like the subplot in which you could become a vampire. The Dark Brotherhood questline in Skyrim, on the other hand, was much more superficial. At least for me, I wasn't nearly as interested in the stories of the people being assassinated and why they were being assassinated. Compare that to the amazing Dark Brotherhood quest that takes place in a mansion, which feels like a genuine, well-written mystery.
That being said, my two favorite games of the series are definitely Morrowind and Oblivion. In the fight between these two, I would say that Morrowind comes out on top. Keep in mind that I played Oblivion before I played Morrowind - my first playthrough of Morrowind came after I had beaten Skyrim and all of its DLC. Yes, I say first playthrough because I played through Morrowind multiple times - that's how good it is. So why do I consider Morrowind to be the best of the three titles?
In Morrowind, you start out as a nobody. Unlike Skyrim, you are not almost immediately considered to be the savior of the world. You are essentially a normal person who has to work hard to get anywhere, to be noticed by the people who live on the island of Vvardenfell. Some people may dislike this, but for me and many others it creates a truly interesting gaming experience in the world of RPGs, one that's unique and rewarding. You'll remember when you were being killed by some low-level monsters just outside of the first town you set foot in, and remember when you accidentally wandered into that high level area and got creamed. There's very little hand-holding, and unlike Oblivion the monsters and NPCs you fight do not level up with you.
I already touched on this a bit but Skyrim simplified not only the combat system, along with throwing classes out the window, but the story. Guilds are not nearly as interesting as they were in Morrowind or Oblivion. Any drawbacks, such as the less engaging combat system or the lack of voice acting, are in my opinion overshadowed by the incredibly amount of freedom and self-determination available in Morrowind. I'm currently somewhere in my third playthrough of the game, and I'm still finding new things that I hadn't seen in my other two playthroughs.
As you may have guessed from my point comparing Oblivion and Skyrim, I really enjoy guilds in TES games. I think that most players do, and that's usually because the lore is interesting and the quests are well written. I probably prefer the guild quests in Oblivion to those in Morrowind, specifically the Dark Brotherhood questline (it's one of my best memories in gaming), but I think Morrowind is ultimately superior because of the number of factions available. For instance, there isn't just a Fighter's Guild: you can join the Blades or the Imperial Legion too, joining groups more specific to the type of character you want to play. You could even become a boring tax collector!
There were also more weapons in Morrowind than in Oblivion or Skyrim. This too added to the ability to craft your character the way you wanted to, to make him or her any archetype your heart desired. At the end of the day, I feel that this is the whole point of RPGs: to step into the shoes of any type of character you want to.
As you may guess, I would definitely recommend Morrowind to you if you have not played it before. Of course it has its flaws and shows some signs of aging, but you will see how it includes all of the good things about Oblivion and Skyrim and increases them exponentially. If someone could take Morrowind and give it the combat system of Skyrim (while perhaps keeping the classes), it would be close to the perfect RPG. Modders are attempting such a thing with "Skywind," for instance.
Most people know that Bethesda, the developers of the Elder Scrolls games, bought the Fallout IP and began making those games as well, starting with Fallout 3. Fallout 3 was excellent, more than just "Oblivion with guns," with a deep and interesting story. However, Fallout 4 was received by fans with less acclaim. Like Skyrim, it's still a great game, but it's so linear with not much to explore, which does not lend itself to replayability. It seems like there's a bit of a trend forming with the "dumbing down" of both Skyrim and Fallout 4: we can only hope that the Elder Scrolls VI does not continue this trend and goes back to the series' roots, appeasing both newcomers and the original fans who helped bring the series into the mainstream.