The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind is the first expansion for Bethesda and Zenimax Online’s marquee 2014 MMORPG. The original game has undergone a series of major changes since it released, and TESO: Morrowind spawns into the new “buy to play” / Tamriel Unlimited (boxed product + microtransactions and DLC, basically) version of the game.

Morrowind was also the subtitle of The Elder Scrolls III, the prequel to both Oblivion and now-being-ported-to-everything-Skyrim, and this expansion lets TESO players explore the island of Morrowind some 500 years before the events of The Elder Scrolls III. As a result, it’ll be familiar to fans of the earlier stand-alone game and a brand new experience in its own right. There are plenty of nods to the first Morrowind, of course, but players who are unfamiliar with that game need not fret that TESO’s expansion will be impenetrable without having played the original.

If you’re unfamiliar with TESO, it generally favours offline Elder Scrolls gameplay structures and presentation over what is typical in most MMORPGs. That is, it’s packed full of fully-voiced branching dialogues, character templates are deeply customisable through choices made in gameplay (although not to the level seen in other Elder Scroll games), and quests are far more complex than the “kill x number of creature y” type you find pretty much everywhere else.

While that sounds good – and mostly is good – there are some apparent nods to those earlier games that just don’t feel great in 2017. One of these is the black “loading”-style screen that appears every time you enter or exit a building or dungeon. As little loading seems to be done, it’s either required for some sort of non-obvious gameplay / technical constraint, or simply because that’s how other Elder Scrolls games work. It breaks the flow of the experience more than a little bit, and damages the immersion by tearing down the idea that you’re in a seamless open world.

Another oddity brought about by the structure is – perhaps ironically – the presence of other people. Often you’ll be somewhere doing something where it just doesn’t make sense that some other brightly glowing muppet and his legion of odd pets (or whatever) would also be. You might, for example, be sneaking around in someone’s office to steal a key or something, and someone else is also there. Or, you’ll be in a tomb that no living person has entered in hundreds of years only there are actually loads of other players also there, slinging firebolts around and looting the joint. Basically, TESO goes out of its way to set up genuinely interesting story sequences and then ruins them by filling them with loads of other players.

The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind review

The other players aren’t always a problem, of course, as TESO’s execution of seamless grouping is a triumph. Basically, if you contribute to an objective, you’re just as likely to be rewarded as anyone else. This means that people are far, far more likely to randomly work together when clearing one of the game’s public “dungeons” (or any other open objective) than in any MMO I’ve had any experience with.

In other ways, people are still people; grouping with random folk (through the game’s excellent group finder) is going to lead to random results. Some groups will fail and fall apart, others will tear up objectives. As always, guilds are the way to go if you’re seriously invested, and TESO (and Morrowind by extension) is no different.

Morrowind’s mushroom flavour (everything here seems to be fungally-themed) extends to the sorts of things you can buy in the in-game shop. If you want to, for example, purchase an in-game home for your character, you can drop around $25 (real money) and buy something in the style of Morrowind’s House Redoran. The optional monthly subscription is still available, of course, so you could always save up your regular in-game currency allotment and purchase the house at no extra charge.

The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind review
Morrowind features the best post-quest character continuity I’ve ever seen in an MMO

If you’re wondering why I’m bringing up the in-game / out-of-game currency model, as it was established long before this expansion released, it’s because the structure of that economy will clearly colour the experience of new players joining the game at this point in time (and Morrowind will definitely tickle the fancies of fans of The Elder Scrolls in general). Basically, core components of the experience (like crafting, which will clutter your tiny bag space without the unlimited storage granted with a sub) are severely hampered without paying for an expensive subscription, and players without a mount are going to need to put in a lot of time grinding to buy one using only in-game coin – or drop real money in the store. Levelling also takes a lot longer without the benefits that regular payments to Bethesda will grant you.

Basically, it’s clear that the game’s financial system impacts a player’s potential experience, and that people who don’t pay (aside from the full-price game itself, of course) are going to have a worse time than those that do. It’s not pay to win or anything like that, but they certainly haven’t nailed a real / virtual currency synergy anywhere near as well as the likes of Path of Exile or Overwatch.

The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind review

One of TESO’s greatest strengths has been – since the release of the Orsinium DLC in late 2015, anyway – its impressive combination of questing and story exposition. This genre-leading trait continues as expected in Morrowind, with genuinely interesting and unexpected twists and turns throughout most of the quests you’ll encounter. Political intrigue, people who aren’t who they claim to be, dark goings-on and brave exploits constantly mix up what is often considered just “that levelling thing you have to do to get into the real stuff at end-game” in most MMOs.

Playing with the sound up is recommended, too, with loads of incidental voice acting helping to make quests seem like only part of the journey for the various characters you’ll meet. In particular, Morrowind features the best post-quest character continuity I’ve ever seen in an MMO, making you feel like the activities you’ve been involved with actually change the world – even if it’s just a little bit.

Morrowind itself is an interesting place to explore. Loads of unusual buildings pepper the landscape, festooned with giant mushrooms and other interesting elements that help establish a truly unique location within TESO’s world. The creatures that inhabit the island are also at least moderately (and occasionally very) unique to both the game and the genre, with a good mix of familiar and weird to help establish and maintain a sense of charm about the place. It’s a little funky to get around in parts, all too often resulting in a furrowed brow, frequent visits to the map, and circling large outcroppings trying to figure out how to get to a location, but that’s hardly a new thing in this style of game and it’s arguably no more noticeable here than in other titles.

The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind review
One of TESO’s greatest strengths has its impressive combination of questing and story exposition

Generally, while exploration and questing is pretty fun, the overall experience can only really be described as “clunky”. Getting around is more frustrating that it needs to be thanks to the exclusion of minimap functionality, and on more than one occasion I’ve had to abandon a quest due to some glitch or just frustrating gameplay element that felt like poor execution rather than poor design. Gates that you can’t reuse, for example, if you miss something you needed to collect when you were in a previous room.

Characters animate in that classic MMO style, which is to say, rather poorly. Thirteen years ago, when World of Warcraft brought the genre into the mainstream, this was quaint; now, while true to Bethesda’s general RPG aesthetic, it’s just one more element that shatters the immersion that the game’s voice acting, quest design, and story so artfully construct. Still, these observations are only partly unique (like the minimap) to TESO, and more generally a frustration with a genre that’s struggling to evolve.

Ultimately, Morrowind is a good update to a solid MMO. TESO is the best it’s been yet with the changes this expansion brings, and the game was already much better than it was when it launched. Is it the best MMO on the planet? Far from it, but it’s a decent experience that really does feel like a genuine Elder Scrolls game, and the community that’s formed around it certainly is one of the less toxic you’ll find in the scene. It’s no Elder Scrolls VI, but there are much worse ways to spend your time while you wait for whatever comes after Skyrim.