metzomagic.com Review

The Elder Scrolls III: Tribunal

Developer/Publisher:  Bethesda Softworks
Year Released:  2002

Review by Andrew Gray (March, 2003)

Morrowind seems to be a game the least in need of an expansion. It was shipped with hundreds of hours of gameplay and had an amazing amount of things to do if you strayed off the Main Quest. An editor was even included so if you somehow did get tired of everything included in the game, you could go ahead and create your own additions.

However, it was this open-ended gameplay that some people criticised. As with Daggerfall, there were people who said they'd enjoy a similar yet shorter game so that they could sit down and complete it over a number of days. Daggerfall's answer to this was Battlespire, a stand-alone game using a modified Daggerfall engine. For Morrowind, however, it takes the form of an expansion pack entitled "Tribunal".

When Gods walked among us
Without ruining too much, the beginning of Tribunal happens almost instantly. An event occurs while on Vvanderfell that leads you on an investigation of the Dark Brotherhood. This investigation eventually leads you to Mournhold, the capital of Morrowind.

Naturally, this investigation is short lived but it is the first pull at a thread of a much more intricate plot. You'll first work as a spy inside the Temple for Helseth, the new and mysterious king of Mournhold. Following some rather mundane errands involving hitting things with swords, you'll meet the Goddess Almalexia where the plot really starts to develop. Mysterious attacks are unleashed on Mournhold and ancient ruins that have been hidden for hundreds of years are exposed, and you must investigate these incidents and find out who's behind them and who you should trust: The Temple or The Empire.

While clearly anything but spectacular, I found the story very satisfying. It's really an extension, and almost a conclusion, to the original plot of Morrowind and due to the more linear nature of the expansion, it feels much more involved and focused than the original game. There is also quite a surprising twist at the end of the main quest. It makes sense if you have been paying attention and reading books, but it still caught me off guard and was a very nice surprise... well, nice, depending on how you look at it. You can see for yourself!

More than just exploring
Gameplay wise, Tribunal has a slightly different feel to Morrowind. The quests are more creative and feel more involving as you often have clear objectives. For example, at one point you'll have to travel to some ruins to enable an ancient machine that can control weather. These give the quests a much more focused feel and they are a nice change from the "Take this item across the entire continent" variety of Morrowind which became tiresome at times. There is even a small amount of Myst-like puzzles which broke up the monotony and I only wish there were more of these.

Dungeon design is mixed, but generally improved over Morrowind. While the dungeons on Vvanderfell looked very similar and derivative, Tribunal tries to make things more interesting with impressive architecture and waterfalls running through the caverns, many of the underground areas having a distinct look from other sections. Other areas disappointed, however. The sewers was a maze with identical halls and the clockwork city was a huge disappointment as, after expecting a machinery driven dungeon from the descriptions, it ended up looking incredibly bland.

Despite the huge underground areas, Mournhold as a City is actually pretty small, and I can only assume suburbs sprawl from outside the main gates. The architecture is beautiful and there are many fountains and gardens, making it look like a holiday resort compared to cities on Vvanderfell.

New ambient sounds have also been added, giving a thicker atmosphere to the game although the lack of new music tracks was a disappointment. I found just turning the music off and enjoying the new ambient sounds was more enjoyable in Tribunal.

The new side-quests are just as interesting as the main ones. Many are social quests which are quite entertaining. You can work as a bouncer, spy on cheating husbands or try and set people up on dates. One of my favourite moments was when you're asked to star in a play. You're given a script and then must go on stage and remember the correct lines as you go. I also wish there were more of these! In addition, you can now hire bodyguards and rats to fight with you, although higher levels will find them useless.

Haven't we met before?
Since this is an expansion, it's almost identical to Morrowind technically, which is good and bad news. The good news is that you can immediately jump into the expansion and know what you're doing.

The bad news is that flaws from Morrowind are here too. Many bugs remain and I've still been randomly crashed, fallen through the ground, and the AI of NPC's is still questionable. It's quite irritating when a NPC following you decides they'd rather drown themselves than have you as company, and people still block doorways which is especially annoying in the castle where there are tight hallways and guards decide to casually stop in the middle of them. Perhaps NPC characters should move if you bump them, or maybe you should just be able to walk through characters indoors. If you managed to survive these bugs in Morrowind you'll probably survive them in Tribunal, but they are still worth noting.

Another gripe with NPC's is that while many have their own personalities, when you talk about certain things they give a standard reply. The problem with this is that, for example, there is a character that refers to himself in the third person yet when asked about a common subject, he gives the standard and intelligent reply. It's the small lack of detail's like this that can break the spell the game has over you.

Other additions are a couple interface tweaks. The first is an improved journal which now lets you view quests in an index, and greys out ones already completed. The other is the ability to add notes to the map. (Useful features, yes, but why weren't these in a patch? For those of us who purchase Tribunal, it's fine, but I'm sure there will be Morrowind players who won't and it's a shame they won't be able to get these new features.)

Must be this tall to ride
While you can enter the world of Tribunal whenever you wish, it's best that you have a character level that is at least in the high 20s. Some of the new enemies not only look considerably cooler, but are also considerably harder. The game is not very focused on combat, but there are enough tough battles to frustrate lower level characters, and entertain the higher level characters (assuming you're not using a cheap, over powerful weapon). The final battle will certainly need a powerful and experienced character. There are no places to train in Mournhold, so if you're having difficulty you'll have to go back to Vvanderfell to skill up.

This brings me to my next point. Tribunal has roughly twenty to forty hours of gameplay which may seem short at first, but only compared to the original. However, once you get past Tribunal's main quest, it's hard to find reason to go back to Mournhold. There are plenty of side-quests and good shops, true, but even they may not make you come back for more. Apart from the references to events in Morrowind, Mournhold is its own community with no Houses to follow or Guilds to join, making it almost completely detached from Vvanderfell. Once you go back to Vvanderfell, there aren't really any quests that will take you back to Mournhold. While this is to be expected since it's simply an expansion pack, it's still a disappointment. Hopefully fan-made mods will take you back there; such is the beauty of packed-in editors.

Enjoy the trip
Although it can feel like it, Tribunal is not a stand-alone game. However, it also doesn't expand a great amount on Morrowind. It's a short but sweet journey that is highly enjoyable if you can look past the more linear path. If you go into Tribunal expecting the same huge worlds and open ended gameplay found in Morrowind you will be, without a doubt, disappointed. If you go into it expecting a short but focused and enjoyable adventure, there is a good possibility you'll enjoy your visit to Mournhold.

metzomagic.com rating:  

Copyright © Andrew Gray 2003. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Windows ME/98 with 128 MB RAM; Windows XP/2000 with 256 MB RAM; 500 MHz Intel Pentium III, Celeron, or AMD Athlon processor; 8x CD/DVD-ROM Drive; 1GB free hard disk space; Windows swapfile; DirectX 8.1 (included), 32MB
Direct3D Compatible video card and DirectX 8.1 compatible driver; DirectX 8.1 compatible sound card; Keyboard; Mouse.
Note: You also need a copy of the original Morrowind to play this expansion.