Prey - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Brendan Caldwell)

Raphael Colantonio, the founder and president of Arkane Studios and creative director of recent fuzzy alien basher Prey, has stepped down from the studio after 18 years. It is time for me to step out to spend some time with my son, he wrote in a statement, and reflect on what is important to me and my future. Colantonio was also the co-creative director on Dishonored, and the man who once referred to us grubby journalists as press sneak fucks . … [visit site to read more]

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Richard Cobbett)

For a few horrible minutes during E3, it looked like Bethesda might seriously claim that The Elder Scrolls and Fallout were part of the same universe. Thankfully, not. Despite this being an era where Sony wants a Ghostbusters universe and Universal thinks demeaning the Universal Monsters by linking them with a top-sekrit monstah hunting group led by Dr Jekyll is anything other than schoolboy fan-fiction, Bethesda’s Pete Hines has been quick to go “What? No. No! No…>” Phew! Honestly, it’s bad enough that Daggerfall has six endings, ranging from the villain becoming a god to orcs being either defeated or victorious, and canonically all of them are true.>

But at a time when we’re seriously asked to pretend that “Dark Universe” is a thing we should want to see, that unholy union really wasn’t impossible…

… [visit site to read more]

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Graham Smith)

In among the game announcements at E3 2017 Bethesda also announced Creation Club, “a collection of new game content for Skyrim and Fallout 4.” That content includes new weapons, armour, crafting and housing features, and changes to core systems, and you buy all of it in-game with ‘credits’ purchased for real money through Steam. Is this a new paid mods system? No, says the FAQ, “Mods will remain a free and open system where anyone can create and share what they d like.” … [visit site to read more]

QUAKE

In addition to being the first truly 3D first-person shooter, the other completely off-the-chain feature in Quake was its soundtrack. Back in 1996, Nine Inch Nails was massive, having recently released the still-classic The Downward Spiral. Trent Reznor's next major release was the soundtrack for Quake, and what a  soundtrack it was.

Thankfully we'll be able to own it on a physical format soon (unless you kept your CD-ROM), because the soundtrack is being reissued on vinyl. Since it's only marked as "coming soon" on the Nine Inch Nails website, there's not really much else to learn, except that it'll be a single vinyl edition and its cover mirrors the packshot on the original Quake retail release.

I've embedded a YouTube rip of the soundtrack below, so you can be transported back to a time when nailguns were all the rage, and bunnyhopping was in its infancy. 

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Richard Cobbett)

The sign of a truly hardcore world is that it has its own languages. Klingon. Dothraki. Elvish. The term for these is ‘Conlangs’ – aka ‘constructed languages’ – and whether you see them as a vital part of world-building or a joke-in-waiting on The Big Bang Theory (they’re due a third one one of these days), there’s more to them than just slapping together some uncommon syllables and hoping it sounds alien. Well, actually, that’s exactly> how Klingon started, but never mind. Done right, paying attention to language offers more than just another DVD extra. Or at least, it can do…

… [visit site to read more]

Garry's Mod

Achievement hunting on Steam is serious business. While Valve's storefront might not have Xbox's Gamerscore or PlayStation's Trophies, there are still plenty of PC gamers who appreciate the way Steam achievements challenge them to play games in new and interesting ways. Then there's the satisfaction of knowing you're one of just a small percentage of players who've explored every nook and cranny, maxed out every stat, or earned every gold medal a game has to offer. 

The thing is, a lot of Steam achievements are kind of boring. Kill 10,000 enemies, hit level 99 in every class, finish the game on Ultra Nightmare Hardcore difficulty—most of the objectives feel like they've fallen straight out of a free-to-play MMO's quest log. Even the rarest achievements are often little more than tedious grind fests, requiring you to play 500 online matches in a multiplayer game with no active player base, or fight alongside a game's developer when that developer has long ago moved onto their next project. 

These achievements aren't particularly fun to earn, let alone read about. But buried in Steam's massive catalog of games are some truly obscure, brutally difficult achievements that less than 0.1 percent of players have managed to accomplish. These are achievements worthy of the name. Most of us will never earn them, but we can dream.

Note: Total owners approximated from SteamSpy. Verified achievement stats through AStats.

Devil Daggers

Devil Dagger - Survive 500 secondsTotal Owners: 236,000 Completion Percentage: 0.1

For something you could complete in the downtime between Dota matches, frantic FPS Devil Dagger's one and only achievement has managed to defy 99.9 percent of players for well over a year now. That might seem odd given how simple its requirement sounds: all you have to do is survive for 500 seconds. I mean, I do that all the time. See. That last 500 seconds? I just survived that. 

But yeah. Surviving Devil Daggers is a wee bit tougher than running out the clock in real life. Despite the game selling for a mere fiver, just 0.1 percent of players have managed to avoid croaking for the 8 minutes and 20 seconds necessary to snag the 'Devil Dagger' achievement. Watching replays of those runs is equal parts mesmerizing and depressing, making it painfully clear just how amateur my own skills are. I could probably spend the next year playing nothing but Devil Daggers and still not come close to the graceful death-dealing of players like the world-record-smashing bowsr. When the apocalypse hits and the whole world goes to hell, I'll be the redshirt incinerated in the first ten seconds.

Crusader Kings 2

Not so Bad - Survive the End Times Total Owners: 1.4 million Completion Percentage: 0.1

Crusader Kings 2, champion of the grand strategy genre, is full of intricate, multi-layered achievements few players have managed to unlock. From installing a female ruler in the five baronies of the Orthodox Pentarchy, to trampling the Pope with a horde of elephants, over a dozen eclectic achievements are currently sitting at a completion rate of less than 0.1 percent.  

The one I want to shout out, though, is the 'Not so Bad' achievement awarded for surviving the End Times. Ostensibly, you unlock this achievement by surviving the rise of the Prophet of Doom and the Black Death he's convinced will destroy humanity. A Crusader Kings player going by the username Xolotl123 on Reddit, however, inadvertently earned themselves the achievement due to their investment in high-quality hospital care and their imprisonment of the Prophet for disturbing the peace. The Prophet then hanged himself, but not before sending the player a letter that read: 'If you are reading this letter, I am with God, or with Lucifer..., if so, then you were right. If not, then I was right.' 

I've not had the time to play Crusader Kings 2, but after reading this story, I think I'm going to have to clear my schedule. Any game where you can avert the End Times through hygiene is a winner in my book. 

Rising Storm / Red Orchestra 2

Bringing a sword to a sword fight – As an American soldier kill an Axis soldier wielding a Katana, with a Katana. Stick it to Tojo – As an Allied soldier, kill 100 Axis soldiers with a bayonet. Total Owners: 2.7 million (unreliable due to free weekend) Completion percentage: 0.1 - 0.2

Rising Storm's focus on historically authentic, asymmetrical WWII combat means that, naturally, American soldiers do not spawn into the battlefield with katanas. In order to get one, you have to defeat a Japanese soldier who's carrying one. And in order to get the "Bringing a sword..." achievement, you then have to pick up their katana, find another Japanese soldier with a katana, and then defeat them with the weapon of their ancestors. It's a hard scenario to concoct in an FPS where rifles and grenades are the preferred way to fight.

Bit.Trip Beat

MEAT.BOY SMELLS - Get a perfect in 1-1 using only a game pad.Total Owners: 311,00Achievement percentage: 1.6

Heresy! An achievement that requires ditching the holy mouse and keyboard for a filthy gamepad? What does BIT.TRIP BEAT take us for, console players? Everyone knows a good M+K combo is the only way to play. Sure, it makes driving games a bit twitchy, and performing combos in third-person action games can be tricky without analogue sticks, and fighting games don't always work so great, and stealth sequences tend to be a little wonky with WASD…

Okay. So maybe gamepads aren't that bad. Still, locking an achievement to a specific piece of hardware is a surefire way to tick off achievement hunters. The BIT.TRIP devs found that out the hard way with the game's 'SIXTH.SENSE' achievement, which required players to beat a level using Razer's short-lived Sixense motion controller. The backlash to 'SIXTH.SENSE' drove the devs to delete the achievement from Steam completely, which technically makes it one of the rarest achievements out there. Not quite as rare as a game with motion controls that don't feel like total garbage, but still…

The Stanley Parable

Go outside - Don't play The Stanley Parable for five years Total Owners: 2.1 million Number of achievers: 2 verified through AStats (6.9 percent on Steam) 

Games are meant to be played—we usually take that much for granted. It's a little odd, then, when a game actively encourages you not to play it. Odd, however, is what The Stanley Parable's all about. I mean, one of the game's endings involves running back and forth between two buttons for four hours. And that's not to mention the pointed commentary on the nature of free will and the human tendency towards obeisance. Like I said, odd. 

The Stanley Parable's weirdest elements, however, are definitely its achievements. In addition to an achievement simply entitled 'Unachievable' (paradoxically earned by 3.9 percent of players), there's the 'Go outside' achievement that tasks players with not playing the game for five years straight. Since The Stanley Parable released in October 2013, no one can legitimately earn this achievement until October next year. Of course, that hasn't stopped some unscrupulous Steam users from setting their computer clocks forward to unlock the achievement early.  

Cheating to not play a game? I guess some people will do anything for their sweet cheevos. 

Garry's Mod

Addict - You have wasted a year of your life playing GMod! Total Owners: 13.2 million Number of achievers: 9 verified on AStats (1.8 percent on Steam) 

You can do a lot of things in the 8760 hours that make up a single year. You could play 105,120 matches of Rocket League. You could marathon the entire current run of The Simpsons—all 617 episodes—38 times over. You could hitch a ride on a rocket and fly to Mars, with enough time left over to plant the seeds of an interplanetary rebellion

You could also spend every one of those 8760 hours playing Garry's Mod in order to unlock the 'Addict' achievement. And when I say playing, I don't just mean booting up the game and letting it idle in the menu. You have to be connected to an active server for your time to count. Unsurprisingly, the hefty investment involved has kept the achievement's completion percentage at just 1.8 percent, even with achievement hunters over at AStats devising strategies for minimizing the resources used by Garry's Mod so you can leave it running in the background while you tend to other tasks. 

I have to wonder, though, how many people left their computers on while they were working or sleeping solely to unlock this achievement? At a modest estimate, 8760 hours' worth of electricity would cost roughly $210 USD, which is a whole lot of money for a single achievement. Kind of puts all those pesky microtransactions to shame, doesn't it? 

Train Simulator

DLC scenarios Total Owners: 995,000 Completion percentage: 0

Speaking of money, Train Simulator boasts some of the rarest achievements on Steam, but that's not because they're brutally difficult or stubbornly obscure. Heck, the achievement descriptions make it pretty obvious what you've got to do: the 'It Works For Dogs!' achievement reads 'Awarded for completing scenario [RailfanMode] Barking. It's not like the game's unpopular either, with nearly a million owners on Steam and a median playtime of a respectable 7.5 hours. 

No, what makes Train Simulator's achievements so rare is that fiendish friend of ours: DLC. Train Simulator is notorious for having the most expensive DLC on Steam, with its total value currently sitting at $6254.43 USD. Worse, Train Simulator ties many of its achievements to its DLC, leading to a wealth of 0 percent and 0.1 percent completion rates across the board.  

But that $6254.43? I'd want a real honest-to-god train if I was forking over that much cash. If it was anything like Train Simulator, though, it'd probably lock out the train whistle as premium DLC. Steam whistle: only $0.99 per toot! 

Ark: Survival Evolved

Artifact Archaeologist – You personally retrieved all Eight Artifacts! Total Owners: 4.7 million Completion Percentage: 0.2

A whole lot of people play ARK: Survival Evolved, and yet even the most common of its seven achievements has been earned by less than 5 percent of players. But while 95 percent of ARK players haven't defeated the game's first Ultimate Life Form, 99.8 percent remain vexed by its toughest achievement: 'Artifact Archaeologist', rewarded for retrieving every Artifact in the game. It sounds simple enough, but this is where ARK's nature as an Early Access game comes back to bite it on the rump.  

According to the achievement description, there are only eight artifacts in ARK: Survival Evolved. This isn't true. There are 14 artifacts in total, 10 of which can be obtained through normal play, 3 which are locked to the Scorched Earth DLC, and one which can only be spawned through a console command. For a game that has already seen its fair share of controversy, ARK has left quite a few achievement hunters pretty disappointed. Still, at least they can take solace in the giant bees that have just been added to the game. That's something, right?  

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Dragonrider - Tame and ride 5 dragons Total Owners: 11 million (unreliable due to free weekend) Completion percentage: 0.8

I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume you've played Skyrim, or at least heard enough about it to understand the game's premise. You're the dragonborn, you need to save the world from an evil dragon, yada yada yada. In short, the game basically revolves around dragons. 

How, then, is the achievement for riding dragons so rare? Only 0.8 percent of the millions of Skyrim players have tamed five or more of the mythical creatures and taken to the skies, which makes exactly zero sense to me. Who wouldn't want a dragon as their personal chauffeur? It's not like you'd have to worry about anyone jacking your scaly pal; any thief foolish enough to try would be charred to a crisp before they could shout Fus Ro Dah. I guess Skyrim players are just too busy getting busy and fighting Macho Man Randy Savage to spend their time becoming certified dragon pilots. 

Black Mesa

Rare Specimen – Send the Hidden Hat to Xen. Total Owners: 500,000 Completion percentage: 2.1 percent 

Hats are all the rage these days. I have it on good authority from my stock broker that the hat economy is only going to go up—and that's coming from a man who wears a top hat, so you know it's legit. My wardrobe is already full of baseball caps, bowler hats, fezes, and beanies, just waiting for the day when my fabric fortune will be ready to claim. The only thing I don't quite understand is why my broker keeps mentioning Dota. Eh, never mind. I'm sure it's nothing. 

Video games, it turns out, are just as keen to cash in on the hat craze. Black Mesa, the fan-made recreation of the original Half-Life, adds in the 'Rare Specimen' achievement that tasks good old Gordon Freeman with locating a hidden purple top hat and lugging it all the way from the Black Mesa Research Facility on Earth to the alien dimension of Xen. It might not sound that tricky, but apparently Gordon's more interested in trivial things like saving the world instead of securing his future in the hat economy--only 2.1 percent of players have carried the top hat all the way to its new interdimensional marketplace. 

Wait, that gives me an idea. What if I started selling digital hats instead of physical ones? Ooh, I think I'm onto something here. I better stop typing before someone beats me to the punch… 

QUAKE - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alec Meer)

Strafe [official site] is steeped in love for Quake 1 & 2 (and to a lesser extent the original Doom), there’s no question about that. But it’s also saddled with a desperate desire to evoke retro-cool no matter the cost, clad as it is in ironic faux-’90s videogame advertising terminology, lascivious talk of gore and a widdly-widdly-woo soundtrack. Strafe tries far too hard, and it backfires. Strafe is a deeply> dorky videogame. I quite like it anyway. … [visit site to read more]

Team Fortress 2

I tried.

Without bagels, I’d probably live to be 100 years old. But I have regular access to bagels and sourdough loaves and this sandwich bread always in my house called Birdman that’s covered in seeds and I don’t know why. I eat the stuff so fast I’ll be surprised if I make it to 50. 

In videogames, bread often gives you health instead of slowly seeping it away, a beacon of hearth and health. It’s been this way since the earliest games, and as technology became more capable of producing detailed environments and uncanny human likenesses, so too advanced the fidelity of the loaf. But the evolution of bread didn’t happen in a straight line. Diverse genres, art styles, and game engines shifted the purpose and priority of bread throughout the ages.

To get a clearer picture of how game bread has or hasn’t evolved, we’ve taken a look back at its implementation in some best games ever made to some of the most obscure.

BurgerTime (1982) 

As one of the earliest depictions of a hamburger bun, BurgerTime did a decent job. And it should have, given the name. Notice the inference of sesame seeds on the top bun and how the light diffuses on the bottom bunk. Early pixel art set a high bar for bunwork. 

Ultima VI: The False Prophet (1992)

A decade later, the burger genre fell out of vogue and fantasy roleplaying games stepped into the limelight. Ultima IV didn’t feature bread in a major way, but was an early example of inventory art, proof that you didn’t need the latest in computer graphics to make a great loaf. 

Jesus Matchup (1993) 

As a preteen, I went to a Catholic church camp even though I’m not and have never been Catholic. I ate the body of Christ even though I wasn’t supposed to and my friend Brian chastised me after the fact. He said I needed to get confirmed first and that I broke some kind of holy rule. The bread was just a thin wafer, like a sugar cone without the sugar, and maybe the aftertaste of it was a taste of hell itself. Jesus Matchup’s brown lump captures my disappointment exactly.

Ultima Online (1997) 

Pixel loaves hadn’t evolved much between Ultima IV and Ultima Online, but for one minor detail that changed the bread game forever for a few months. Ultima Online’s bread features a small blemish, giving the impression of a bite or piece ripped away for light post-adventure munching. The loaf went from inanimate prop to inanimate prop with history

Thief: The Dark Project (1998) 

Whether Thief should commended or condemned for its early attempt at modeling a 3D loaf is beyond me. All I know for sure is this: that’s a log. 

Someone’s in the Kitchen! (1999) 

You may know Steven Spielberg for his hit films like E.T. and Jurassic Park, but did you know his name was once mentioned in a trailer for a game he probably had nothing to do with? Someone’s in the Kitchen! isn’t just good reason to call the police, it’s a bad point-and-click edutainment game with one hell of an opening theme song. Also, you make a sandwich in it while a demon toaster—who is going to kill me, I saw it in a dream—judges your creation. The bread looks like my little brother sat on it, and is a shade of yellow I’ve only ever seen in bathrooms built in the 70s. Clearly, the late 90s weren’t great for game bread. 

The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind (2002) 

Even the modern masters of 3D bread had to start somewhere. In Morrowind, Bethesda drew inspiration from something other than felled trees and instead turned their eye to the sky, probably. I’m guessing here. They managed to suggest bread by texturing a footballish shape with what look like photos from the visible surface of Jupiter, a perpetually storming gas giant. 

World of Warcraft (2004) 

Just two years later an MMO, known for prioritizing multiplayer features over looking good, managed to bake bread that an Orc could tolerate. While the left loaf looks like a water chestnut, the precise angles and light divots up top are a convincing enough illusion. The right loaf, except for it’s undercooked coloring, nails the shape. And the inner texture marks a defined border between crust and light, fluffy inside. I’m tempted to throw some mayo, lettuce, tomato, and a bit of thinly sliced night elf meat on there just looking at it.

The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion (2006) 

Maybe Bethesda should’ve prioritized bread resolution DLC over horse armor. At a glance, one out of ten times I’m going to say that’s bread. The other nine times I’m going to say that’s a large misshapen potato. I lived in Idaho for a while. Got invited to a ‘Baked Potato Party' and yeah, they get that big.

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale (2007) 

While 3D game bread moved into potato territory, Recettear reaffirmed that pixels were still the way to go. Its depiction of Walnut Bread takes a good squint to make out, but when you get up close, the shades of gold and brown and white light diffusing on the outer crust nearly flash the entire baking process on the back of your eyelids. “Walnuts, soft dough and a bit of sugar…” do more than an extra dimension ever could.

Dinner Date (2011) 

I’d flake on a guy who thought it’d be a good idea to dip that twisted loaf in some red shit too. And look at that distribution! I’m not sure what’s being distributed, but half of that isn’t even bread, it’s Dark Brown Stuff. Jesus, man. We should never be able to see inside the bread if the tech isn't ready and can’t simulate a good bake. 

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011) 

Star Baker goes to Todd Howard this decade. Look at the fidelity of this loaf. A nice rise, detailed textures, and I can nearly hear the muffled tip-tap from the even bake. Forget adventure and the snowcapped mountaintops and vampires and dragons—like a toilet in a Tarantino movie, a good loaf is the keystone of any open world. 

Minecraft (2011)

Well regarded for its wild redstone contraptions and horrifying monuments to pop culture, Minecraft’s bread has been largely ignored, and for good reason. You’re one of the most successful games of all time, and a brown lump is the best you can muster? I’ve felt more love radiating from an old hotdog bun.

Scribblenauts Unlimited (2012) 

You can tell this was made in a bread pan, small specks imply the bread is airy and light, you can summon it whenever you like, and nearly every humanoid creature will eat it. It’s a crude child’s drawing, sure, but Scribblenauts built put time into simulating natural, albeit simple, bread world behaviors. Consider it this immersive sim, the System Shock, of bread. Place it in the world, and the world reacts to its presence.

Bioshock Infinite (2013) 

Source: David Miles on YouTube

If one game knows how good its bread is, it’s Bioshock Infinite. If you were to press pause and inspect the 3D baguette, it’d be possible to nitpick small design decisions, like texture resolution, flour distribution, and grain density, but because the bread is sandwiched with context—the dancing bread boy and his believable reaction to owning a baguette inside a big patriotic amusement park city held up by balloons that Ken Levine imagined using his brain, his very own personal brain—it doesn’t feel out of place. Realism is helpful, certainly, but the game world needs to feel alive, like a natural home for bread above all else.  

Team Fortress 2: Love and War update (2014) 

Bread is only monstrous when left to mold, and Team Fortress 2’s Love and War update bottles the essence of in a cute, tragic short film. There’s little purpose to the bread in-game aside from a few dough-themed items. Personally, I interpret it as a commentary on the state of game bread as nothing more than a simple prop and HP potion skin, new ideas and advances left in the pantry to rot. I see you Valve.

I Am Bread (2014) 

As a goofy physics playground, I Am Bread is fine. I do take issue with how controlling a slice feels like maneuvering a heavy sponge. Bread isn’t heavy and sandwich bread isn’t durable. One fall off the table and it’s over, usually. I Am Bread forgoes natural bread behaviors for the sake of a joke, but I’m not sure we’ll be laughing when our kids start to think they can wash the dishes with a sandwich.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015) 

Everything about The Witcher 3’s world feels hand-placed. Small villages, big cities, and even monster-infested caves are brimming with life and purpose, but in order to maintain such a sprawling illusion, nearly all props and people are static. NPCs sit in the same place spouting the same lines and props like bread just sit there, looking delicious, but forever out of reach. What an awful game.

Fallout 4 (2015) 

After setting a new standard for 3D loaf work in Skyrim, Bethesda dropped the atom ball in Fallout 4, spending more time on the bread box than any bread at all. Modders came to the rescue again, modeling slices, sandwiches, and adding recipes any old ghoul could follow.

Dishonored 2 (2016) 

Karnacan bakers know how to bake bread. Lovely rise, nice crust, but a bit low res I’m being honest. Eating it gives you a small dose of HP, but the animation is a simple swipe-and-swallow maneuver. It’s pan for the course, and not much else. In 2016, it’s a good bake, but it’s not a great bake. 

The future of videogame bread

How far have we come, really? From BurgerTime’s advanced bun art to Dishonored 2’s simple dark loaf, videogame bread feels without a sure destination—a lumpy mass that needs more time to prove. Perhaps the future holds loaves we never could have imagined, or abominations, such as virtual reality pumpernickel that virtually tastes like sourdough. 

Will Call of Duty: WWII pay proper homage to the history and show families turning their nose up at National Loaf? Maybe someday we’ll spend as much money on naan as we do on spaceships in Star Citizen. All we know for certain is that bread will be there, a short roll for every dodge roll and an abundance of biscuits to crowd every RPG inventory.

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind® Game of the Year Edition - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Alec Meer)

I’ve got a piece going up later today about my thoughts on the closed beta for The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind (short answer: I like it lot more than I’d expected to), but I wanted to write a little too about why the original Morrowind, aka The Elder Scrolls III remains a high watermark of roleplaying games for me. Why it’s a place I forever yearn to go back to. … [visit site to read more]

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind® Game of the Year Edition

Poor Eoki just can't catch a break. I first saw the hapless Argonian huddling in a corner of a dirty island hut where we'd been stashed as newly captured slaves, and he followed me when I leapt into the surrounding waters in a daring escape alongside an assassin. And now, here in Sadrith Mora, hugging the eastern rim of the island of Vvardenfell, I find him in chains again. Four times he tried to escape after our escapade, and four times slavers drug him back. Now he's stuck toiling for Telvanni mages who bought him for a discount and don't give a damn for the Ebonheart Pact's ban on slavery.

I offer to free him myself, but he says he's going to be all right. He knows someone, you see—a fellow Argonian slave named Sun-in-Shadow who happens to be pretty handy with magic herself. It's more than mere trust: he's smitten with her. And now Eoki's pleading with me to go help Sun-in-Shadow with whatever she needs to rise through the Telvanni ranks and free them both. 

This is the questline that captured my heart and attention in the closed beta for The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind. Others had me chatting with demigods and helping with the construction of the cantons of Vivec City, but it's this one that best shows what to expect from this new expansion. It's this one that shows ZeniMax Online gets Morrowind, while at the same time demonstrating that it's not hobbling itself with nostalgia.

Recapturing that Morrowind magic

The laziest MMORPGs think all you need for a quest is some reason to run out and kill or fetch a few things, but Morrowind shows Elder Scrolls Online in healthy maturity, mixing moving conversations like these with puzzles, pickpocketing, and the occasional pun. Long stretches went by when I didn't even pull out my weapon at all, and I can't say I minded much. Even better, all the tweaks the ZeniMax team has made over the last couple of years have finally left the game feeling about as "Elder Scrollsy" as an MMORPG possibly could.

Yet it'll never fully be able to shake off that disconnect between the expectations of the singleplayer games and an MMO. One of the first things I have to do after chatting up Sun-in-Shadow is steal an awful love poem a drunken dark elf Telvanni sent to a local wood elf—which is bad because dark elves are massive racists, mm-kay?—and now he wants it back lest she blackmail him. (And truly, it's criminal stuff, infected as it is with couplets like "O Ethrandora, I do adore ya" and "Your smile is so sweet like the sweetest guar meat.")So, massive Nord named Isleif the Unwieldy that I am, I venture into her private office to pickpocket her. It's, well, awkward. Ethrandora shows not the slightest apprehension as this tall stranger dawdles in her quarters, inching up and waiting for her to look away before rummaging in her pockets. There's a justice system in Elder Scrolls Online these days, but I can't help but think the guards would have already been on me in Skyrim. Heck, the whole time I kept expecting another player to burst in and shatter the illusion further. Anyway, I get the poem back.

Yoink.

"Hide the ink when next you drink," my character tells the Telvanni. It's not Shakespeare, but there's much more wizardry in that rhyme than in anything the dark elf scribbled.

The pickpocketing weirdness is a trifle. I'm grateful enough that Elder Scrolls Online lets me pickpocket and read bad poetry in the first place rather than just sending me out to kill a bunch of guars for their sweet meat. And anyway, action isn't far behind. Sun-in-Shadow soon sends me to the Daedric dungeon of Zaintirasis, where I have to steal some saint's finger bone before the rival Redoran clan gets it.

The laziest MMORPGs think all you need for a quest is some reason to run out and kill or fetch a few things, but Morrowind mixes moving conversations with puzzles, pickpocketing, and the occasional pun.

Even here Elder Scrolls Online adds variety to the MMO template and captures some of the spirit of the original Morrowind. To even get into the Daedric ruin, I need to solve a puzzle involving bowls and skulls left by followers of the unpredictable trickster Daedric lord Sheogorath. It frankly stumps me for a bit. It apparently stumps me less than other people, though, because a player with the delightfully beta-appropriate name of Nord-Warden-Test starts following me and mimicking my every move. Finally, the riddle clicks in my head and the lock clicks in the door. We're in.

Down into the dungeon we go, Nord-Warden-Test and I, slaying imps, skewering frightening floating eyes wreathed with tentacles, and plucking holy finger bones. I'm playing as a Warden myself, the new druid-meets-ranger class that comes with the expansion. It's what I've always wanted out of ESO, right down to the Aragorn-as-Strider style costume the class comes with. None of ESO's existing four classes ever really appealed to me, but I love the nature focus of the Warden, and the way I can call ghostly versions of Morrowind's famed cliff racers down on foes. I can shield myself in ice, do decent healing, and even summon a bear. There's a lot of outcry in the community right now about how ZeniMax weakened every other class in preparation for the Warden, but right now I'm loving it.

I bring the finger to another mage who's impressed by Sun-in-Shadow's initiative, and they agree to raise the clever Argonian up a rank from slave. But not without some reluctance.

"Lift one of these beasts up and a thousand more will follow," one of the Dark Elves says. Had to sneak some racism in there. Typical Dunmer. Typical Telvanni.And now Sun-in-Shadow wants me to buy some land with all of her gold. Poor Eoki, busting his scales on some construction project in a swamp, laments that she didn't just buy his freedom, but he accepts it. And so I'm off again to Vos, a tiny village nestled in the northern expanses of the vast island.

Ordinarily I'd need a map, but I knew where to go. This, after all, is Vvardenfell, the setting of one of the finest RPGs ever made, and the expansion's aimed largely at us who knew it well. In the early 2000s, beholding Morrowind's mushroom forests and complex social structures felt like a revelation, leading me to wear Morrowind shirts around my graduate school campus in the hopes someone would notice and share my joy. I'd say my awe at the breadth of its imagination largely put me on the career path I'm on today.

I know the poetry of its place names—Balmora, Ald'ruhn, Hla Oad—as well as I know the streets of my own hometown. Ordinarily the early hours of an MMORPG thrive on pure discovery, but riding through Vvardenfell here feels a bit like coming back home after years of absence. My adventures with Eoki and Sun-in-Shadow wisely take me all over it, whether it's in the Telvanni manors built into the hollows of skyscraper-tall mushrooms or the shadows of a volcanic mountain threatening the surroundings. Those surroundings are beautiful, too, even if they're crafted in that spindly, overlong style ESO prefers that I've never grown accustomed to. The play area of Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind mirrors the exact dimensions of the original Morrowind, but it far exceeds the original in detail, whether it's in the lush trappings scattered about a Telvanni mage's tower or the ornate mosaics lining the walls of the cantons in Vivec City.

It's good to be back.

With such a strong legacy, Morrowind is the most logical point for a first expansion—there's little doubt about that, and it's stuffed with callbacks like the little registration hut in Seyda Neen where The Elder Scrolls III starts off. My time with Eoki and Sun-in-Shadow shows that this isn't merely an attempt to cash in on nostalgia; the quests I've gone on capture the essence of what made Morrowind great without retracing its steps.

Every book, every conversation, every building reveals a reverence for the lore and a keen desire to show this unique fantasy vision at another point in time. So far, it's an expansion I want to sample to the last drop. Best of all, if you're totally new to Elder Scrolls Online, you can kick off your adventures with a Morrowind-specific tutorial from the very start and jump into its adventures without having to worry about the core game unless you wish.

Hang in there, Eoki, we'll get those chains off you yet. Or so I hope.

The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind is out on June 6 for $40.

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