Cliffwalker's Examination of Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim
One of my favorite game series throughout the years has been Bethesda Software's Elder Scrolls saga. I started playing shortly after the release of Morrowind, and I have probably spent more hours in that game alone than I really should admit. The series manages to make a relatively believable open world that even in the weakest case manages to make almost all other currently released open-world games seem embarrassingly shallow, allowing players to feel like they really are in the game-world.
But even though all of the games are great, there's a lot of debate on which is the best, with most people arguing for one of the most recent four, Daggerfall, Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim. I have not played Daggerfall enough to really give an in-depth explanation of it, and don't believe it should really be compared to the later three games at all thanks to most of the content being randomly generated. However, I do believe I am qualified to compare the latter three and intend to do so in probably too much depth. So whether you are new to the series and wish to pick what should be your first Elder Scrolls game, want to solidify your own opinion on which of the series is the best, or simply wish to see how the series has grown over the last three games, this article should have you covered.
All three games take place in different countries within Tamriel, a single continent within the greater world of Nirn. The third game in the series, Morrowind, takes place on a volcanic island within the country of the same name, and is usually considered to have the most unique and interesting world out of the three. Meanwhile the country featured in Oblivion is that of Cyrodiil, the capital of the empire that stretches throughout the entire continent. And finally, you have the most recent game in the series, set two hundred years later in the Norse-inspired land of Skyrim, a snowy land dominated by mountain ranges. Each of these three settings have a great deal of potential, but generally only Morrowind, and to a lesser degree Skyrim, are believe to do so effectively.
Unfortunately for Oblivion, its setting was terribly implemented compared to that of Morrowind and Skyrim's. The idea that its world was horrible does seem like a rather harsh criticism to aim at a game that on release averaged a score of over 9/10, but it must be compared to what came before and afterwords. The land of Oblivion is horribly similar and generic throughout. The country of Cyrodiil is supposedly covered by ten areas, but in practice there are only three, mountains, woodlands, and fields. And because of the size of the forests, and how they tend to merge with the mountains and fields, Oblivion's landscape feels like a single large forest throughout. There are attempts to mix this up, such as wetlands and snowy areas, but ultimately the overall feel of the world is almost identical throughout the game.
The cities are better than the landscapes, but they still are generally considered lacking. Unlike the landscapes, each of Cyrodiil's nine cities have visually distinctiveness, but instead tend to be even more dull than the forests. Despite the fact that they could be instantly told apart, each city is quite plain, with fairly few details beyond the buildings themselves, and large, nearly identical city walls encircling each city. But even worse in my mind is the fact that there is almost no feeling of being at the center of an empire. When one travels through the capital of an empire one should rightly expect to see some kind of sign that it has possession of other countries, whether through the occasional visitor, shops selling strange equipment, signs that there is worship of religions other than Cyrodiil's official one, occasional racial clash or differing accents, etc. But nothing like this appears anywhere with the capital, or in most of the smaller cities. Only in the outer cities of Cheydinhall, Leyawiin, and Bruma do you have any sign of this, and only small signs in each, with Leyawiin having some small, clash between the Khajiit and Argonians, Bruma has carved wooden pillars and obvious "Nord" styling in its arcitecture, and Cheydinhall having a large Dunmer population and a drunkard who sings about creatures from Morrowind.
The factions of Cyrodiil are no better, but at least there are signs in the construction set that suggest this was due mostly to time constraints. There are many factions listed in the construction set, but for most people it ultimately could be considered as just seven: the four join-able guilds, the world, the law, and all the various enemies. And there is nearly no interplay between most of these groups. Yes, the thieves guild and the Dark Brotherhood are enemies of the guards, and the world as a whole is against the various bad guys such as the invading Daedra or bandits, but outside of that there are nearly no inter-factional conflicts or friendships. The only two factions that are really placed against each other, the Fighter's Guild and the Blackwood Company, practically do not exist outside of the Fighter's Guild's questline.
Worse, despite the fact that the various enemy factions often dislike each other, there is very little attention given to developing their motivations. While bandits are simple, and one assumes conjurer's and necromancers are just attacking you to keep you away from their research, to this day I still don't know exactly what Marauders are. Are they just a gang of bandits who wear heavy armor? Are they some kind of raiding people with a homeland somewhere? Why do they have such a strong hatred for regular bandits, strong enough that they can sometimes ignore a player who is only a few feet away to go after a bandit at the edge of sight? I can find nothing in either Oblivion itself or on the various wiki's that explains what they actually are. They are by far the worst offenders, but there are a number of other issues that hurt the other enemy factions as well.
Finally we speak of the last part of Oblivion's setting, and honestly the least problematic one: the Daedra and other creatures. Oblivions creature design is, on average, quite simply standard. Its creatures range from goblins, to minotaurs, to trolls, and so on through nearly all of the fantasy tropes, and while they do not look bad by any means, the normal beasts do not do anything to aid Oblivion's feel of plainness. The Daedra however generally fair better, and while many of them are shared with Morrowind and Skyrim, in Oblivion they are the focus of the main plot, and so their importance to Oblivion as it's sole artistic strength cannot be overstated.
While it shares in some of Oblivion's issues, Skyrim's environments fair much better on average. While the Holds of Skyrim share Oblivion's focus on plains, snowy areas, forests, and mountains, they manage to more effectively place landmarks and even out the forests so that each area feels visually distinct. Moreover, there is simply more effective variety to Skyrim's landscape, with the swamps of Hjaalmarch, the hot springs of Eastmarch, or the enormous cave system of Blackreach each adding their own visual flare to the land of Skyrim. There is little to no worry of getting any one hold confused with another.
Skyrim's cities are questionably the best out of the three games, with Whiterun, Markarth, Solitude, Riften, and Windhelm each looking and feeling quite good. In Oblivion, the only town that had differing heights between the areas was Bruma, but each of the main five towns have variable heights, from the nearly-flat riften and solitude, to the almost vertical Markarth. The towns also tend to have a stronger feeling of social stratification, something that is especially well shown in Windhelm with it's two districts devoted purely to the Dunmer or Argonian peoples, but it is also apparent in a few other towns, such as Markarth's Warrens. Even better, the towns vary in organization, with Whiterun and Solitude possessing a single shopping area, but the other three cities having both a clear market section and a number of "hidden" shops to discover. This is all in addition to each city's striking architectural differences, which unlike Oblivion show both inside and outside of the city walls.
It's a pity that all of the other towns in Skyrim, including the important "cities" of Dawnstar, Falkreath, Morthal, and Winterhold all lack any character of their own. These towns differ in location, but their arcitecture is identical, they rarely have a wall even if they logically should, and even when there is an important point of interest in one of these towns, such as Winterhold's ruins, or Fakreath's graveyard, these features are so tiny it is quite possible to not realize they are in at all.
Factions are again better done in Skyrim, with serious dislike between the various "friendly" groups, and more unique groups of enemies. Dragons have returned to Skyrim after thousands of years, but that seems to do nothing to convince the Empire and the rebel Stormcloaks to solve their differences, or to convince the Thalmor to stop trying to hunt down people who worship the god Talos. On top of that you have the five join-able guilds and a number of NPC-only guilds that are distinct from each other, such as the Vigilants and the Penitus Oculatus.
The enemy factions are better handled as well, and while bandits, conjurers, and necromancers make their return, they are joined by the tribal Forsworn, a group who believes the area known as the Reach should belong to them, and that all outsiders deserve to die. But even more importantly, one can generally recognize what type of people own whatever dungeon they entered even if said dungeon was deserted. Skyrim's use of dungeon details is far above Oblivion's, and often one can see impaled heads in and around Forsworn dungeons, enchanting altars in areas owned by the two magical groups, as well as many other signs of life.
While all of this is indeed far better than Oblivion, it's Morrowind's world that is held up as the greatest of the three. Unlike the following two games, Morrowind has nearly no forests. Instead, it takes place on a volcanic island, with roughly half of the game world taking place in the Ashlands. This does hurt the game a bit, but it also helps strengthen the visual impact of the fertile areas of the game, such as the Ascadian Isles and the Grazelands. Morrowind also shares Skyrim's strength in the placement of landmarks, and so never feels like the Ashlands cover nearly as much ground as Oblivion's forests.
The cities and towns are also quite strong in their way, though they are rather different from those in Skyrim and Oblivion. Unlike the other games, Morrowind does not separate its cities and towns into a simple major/minor town system, and instead the towns tend to stand on their own a bit more. This does not mean that every town is especially unique, but that they vary greatly in size and the faction that rules them is recognizable long before entering. For instance, the town of Tel Branora is a fairly small place made up of less than a dozen mushroom-houses and a single Telvanni tower, but the Temple-run Capital city of Vivec is made up of nine large pyramid-like structures, each possessing the population and shops of a decent-sized town.
But while the landscape and cities of Morrowind are solid enough, I believe it is the game's factions that make its setting so strong. While Oblivion and Skyrim had only five and seven joinable groups outside of the main story, Morrowind had eleven. While none of their quest lines wove much of a story like those in the later games, the variety and lore surrounding these guilds gave them a different type of strength. More importantly, the factions actually felt like they existed together, with the conflict between the settled institutions such as the Temple or the three Great Houses and those from outside such as the Imperial Legion and Cult showing up in many places and quests. Just as importantly, the non-player factions held a solid role too, with the Twin Lamps and Slaves both hating players who join House Telvanni and being potential quest givers, and the Camonna Tong taking the same role as the Thalmor from Skyrim as "those people most players want to kill."
The enemy factions are also treated a little better. There are a number of peaceful members of dangerous groups who help make the enemy groups sympathizable, and the custom names for nearly all NPC enemies also helps sell the idea that the each bandit is a person. Additionally, as these named enemy NPC's never respawn, any cave or ruin you clear out will stay cleared, though unfortunately this does not count for monsters. Beyond this, many of the same strengths Skyrim possessed show here, with rogue magisters or members of the Camonna Tong being recognizable thanks to their surroundings, enemy factions going beyond the bandit/conjurer/necromancer triad, and the main enemy faction of the game, House Dagoth, having so much confusion in its background that one who looks into their lore isn't sure whether they deserve pity or hatred.
The three games each have a main storyline, and each one involves saving the land from some kind of horrible force. Despite this similarity, each of the three games tells their story rather differently, with Morrowind's focusing primarily on introducing and utilizing nearly all of the various factions and their conflicts, Skyrim utilizing the factions less, but instead using a highly cinematic approach to heighten the tension, and Oblivion possessing the only militaristic main enemies in the form of the invading Daedra.
In Morrowind you start out as a prisoner being transferred from Cyrodiil to Morrowind, but on arrival you are immediately released and given an encrypted packet to deliver to a seemingly drug-addicted man in the nearby city of Balmora, thus starting the most complex and morally questionable plotline of the three most recent Elder Scrolls games. The story focuses on the actions of the Tribunal, three men and women who achieved near-godhood after defeating two great "evils", the forces of the Dwemer, an ancient Elven race with far too much ambition, and the "traitorous" Dagoth Ur, a former ally of the Tribunal who supposedly betrayed the Tribunal and murdered another hero of the Dunmer, Indoril Nerevar. However, the truth is much more questionable, and while Dagoth Ur is ultimately the villain of the game, the Tribunal, who by the point of the main game have become a core feature of the Dunmer society, are shown to have come by their divinity in a rather questionable way.
Oblivion's main plot is much more straightforward, though not entirely without interesting plot points. You again start as a prisoner, this time in the Imperial City's prison, and after a little heckling from a rather irritating neighbor, the Emperor and his bodyguards show up to free you and take advantage of a secret passageway in your cell. This starts Bethesda's first attempt at a more sensationalist approach to storytelling: Where in Morrowind the focus was on clandestine threats and small skirmishes, in Oblivion you face a war between the forces of Cyrodiil and those of the demon-like Daedra, specifically those led by lord of destruction, Mehrunes Dagon, as well as his mortal servants the Mythic Dawn.
Skyrim takes place two hundred years after Morrowind and Oblivion, and follows the lead of the earlier two games in starting the player out as a prisoner. However, this time you have only just been captured trying to cross the border either into or out of Skyrim for reasons unknown, and are tossed into a cart with captured rebels on their way to the town of Helgan to be executed. Shortly before you were to be killed, Alduin, one of the first dragons to appear in the world for hundreds of years attacks, allowing you and the rebels to escape in the confusion. Shortly after escape it become apparent that more dragons than just Alduin have been resurrected, and that you have an ancient power to devour their souls and so prevent them from being revived again.
While none of these three games' stories are either amazing or terrible, they do each have different strengths and weaknesses. Morrowind for instance, has the advantage of the best world-integration, the most intriguing villain, the uniqueness of a deadly, but non-immediate threat, and some "backdoor" paths through the story. The main quest of Morrowind eventually evolves to the point where the player will have to become at least somewhat involved with all five major Dunmer political factions, the Temple, Houses Redoran, Telvanni, and Hlaalu, and the Ashland tribes, which helps integrate the player into the world. Additionally, thanks to the unclear situation involving Nerever's death and the Tribunal's power, Dagoth Ur is generally considered the most interesting villain in the Elder Scrolls. The addition of backdoor paths allow a player to kill most beings that they might wish to, such as the demigod Vivec, and still finish the main story line. And finally, the threat of the Sixth House is one of the slow spread of diseases and control rather than Oblivion and Skyrim's more "immediate" threats of invading Daedra and Dragons, which works well for games from a series like the Elder Scrolls in that it allows for the player to more comfortably ignore that the world has not changed during the hundred days that they spent completing side-quests. The main plot's only real weaknesses are that it is mostly told through text, and that there is no grand battles such as are done in the following games.
Oblivion also has its strengths, though the story is dragged down by many of the same issues that plague its setting. It is a much faster paced and less potentially confusing questline than Morrowind's, meaning it is comfortable for more players. Even better, Oblivion has multiple "big" battles in it that help give it a different type of grandness than is in Morrowind's plot, such as the multi-part battle of Kvatch. However, despite the several portals to Oblivion that appear throughout the land there is very little sign that the invading Daedra actually wish to settle down, and beyond the immediate vicinity of these portals and the occasional conjurer dungeon, one will find no sign of any Daedra. The plot does nearly nothing to integrate the player into the world, and so one can finish the main questline with very little knowledge of Elder Scrolls lore beyond the idea that the Daedra are evil, which is not exactly true. Mehrunes Dagon, the leader of the invading Daedra has nearly no characterization or spoken lines, and despite his commander being very vocal, little is actually explained about Mankar Camoran unless one digs into Elder Scrolls lore. And it is the first of the games to introduce "essential" characters: NPC's who cannot be killed, which limits the player's freedom, and removes any reason to have backdoor paths. However, there are signs in the construction set and elsewhere that some of these issues would have been fixed if the game had been worked on longer.
Finally we reach Skyrim's plot, in some ways the strongest of the three. It quickly integrates the player into the world, introducing the player to the Dragons, Stormcloaks, Imperials, and Thalmor before the player even receives control over their character, and manages to keep many of these groups at least in the background throughout the plotline. Even better, it is aware of the player's faction in the Civil War, and will allow the player to skip a certain quest if he has ended the war. Skyrim is also the most cinematic of the three, with more tension placed into the story and events in general, and more effective use of NPC to NPC speech. And finally, your allies are usually allowed more time to build character in Skyrim than in either Morrowind or Oblivion. However, it has the same weakness as Oblivion in that there is little characterization of the main villain, Alduin, and beyond the fact that he wants to conquer the world very little is known about him.
While the main quests of each game are important in a way, no one who has played an Elder Scrolls game can deny that it is the side quests and guild quests that give the games their hundreds of hours of playtime. Fortunately for the length of this article, there is very little different about the quest system between Skyrim and Oblivion. But after they finished Morrowind, Bethesda listened to many of the complaints about confusion and other issues related to its quests and implemented multiple fixes to the user interface and elsewhere.
But unfortunately these fixes were not all good, and even the better ones were disliked by a vocal part of the community. The best of these is probably the new, and far more convenient, journal system. In Morrowind, the player kept a journal which recorded all quest information in an ongoing list, which made finding any information about older quests difficult, especially when the player has been collecting and/or finishing quests for hundreds of hours. Oblivion's solution was to give the player three menus, the first lists all quest information about the quest the player is currently working on, the second lists all currently unfinished quests, and the final section recorded the quests the player has already finished. This system was an amazing upgrade to the journal, but Bethesda bundled with it a pop-up window on every one of the frequent quest updates that most of the computer player base removed with mods as soon as they could.
The second user interface change is the quest arrow, a little arrow that appears on your map and the compass that show where your next quest objective is. This is highly convenient, and they kept the arrow around for Skyrim, but it comes with two issues. The first is that the arrow removes any requirement for an NPC to tell you how to get to a place, which is a simple and understandable piece to remove, but some believe its lack hurts immersion. The second issue is that because the arrow makes finding things easier it can also be seen as something of a cheat, and while Skyrim allowed the arrow to be disabled, no such option was in Oblivion, which irked some rather vocal players.
But the user interface was not the only change to quests Bethesda implemented, they also added in the essential/protected status for quest-related NPC's. In Morrowind, the player was free to kill any NPC in the game, assuming that they had the strength to do so. Since this could prevent quests from being started or completed, Bethesda created the "essential" status for all quest-giving NPC's, which meant that they could only be temporarily knocked out, and never killed. Unfortunately, this naturally limits the freedom of the player in a game that is largely about the freedom to be who they wish to be, and while Skyrim moved a little away from this by making some NPC's merely "protected", in that they are not attacked by other NPC's if at low health, there are still many essential NPC's in Skyrim.
Another change between Morrowind and the later games is the idea of factional interrelations. In Morrowind, the join-able factions were tied to each other, sometimes quite tightly, and joining a faction could find you blocked out of another either due to the simple act of joining, or from a quest done later on. Beyond this they often interacted with each other in various ways, with the Thieves Guild stealing from every Great House as well as the Fighter's and Mage's guilds, or one of the first quests for House Redoran being to stop a pair of Morag Tong assassins.
There are also positive ties between the guilds and factions too, with the best example being the Mage's Guild quest to explain why the Dwemer race suddenly vanished several hundred years ago. This quest is given to you by the head of the Mages Guild, and it is very clearly just his way of telling you to go away. However, by speaking to another prominent member of the Mages Guild, a House Telvanni Councilman, and a character living in Telvanni lands who is likely only discovered as part of the main quest, one can solve the disappearance of the Dwemer.
But these types of relations are almost non-existent in either Oblivion or Skyrim. There are absolutely zero conflicting quests in Oblivion, and the only quests in Skyrim that do so are those that are part of the civil war, in which the player simply chooses a side and sticks with it until the other side is defeated. The Dark Brotherhood's questline seems like it should naturally conflict with the Imperial Legion's, but it does not do so in any way. Additionally the only positive connection between any of the joinable guilds in Skyrim is that a certain Thieves Guild member is attached to the Dark Brotherhood in an extremely minor way.
The final two changes are directly connected to each other, that of progression through the guilds by more than a single path. For most of the guilds in Morrowind, one could reach the master of the guild by multiple paths due to a plethora of quests from multiple quest-givers, and the idea that one only needed to complete a certain number before they were ready for advancement. The workable quests narrowed down as the player moved further up the chain, but Morrowind's system still helped the player feel as if they had options in their path towards leadership. But Oblivion reduced this freedom greatly, and Skyrim removed it entirely. However, they did this so that they could create a more focused story-line for each faction, so while the path is the same on every playthough, that one path is generally stronger.
Dialog is an important part in the type of games these are, and each handles it a little differently. Morrowind was almost entirely text-based, Oblivion introduced voice-acting to every character in the game, and Skyrim cleaned up how NPC's react to the player and each other, particularly in relation to quests. Fortunately for the future of the Elder Scrolls, this is mostly a smooth improvement between games, but every game's form of dialog does have its flaws, some of which are quite painful.
Morrowind's dialog is done almost purely through text in the form of a pop-up window when you speak to someone. They rarely start an actual conversation with you, never speak to other characters, and nearly all NPC's within an area share a lot of their dialog. While the first two issues really have no counter-arguements beyond Morrowind's age, the shared dialog was due to the sheer amount each NPC can say. You can ask nearly all characters to share information about their backgrounds, the latest rumors, ask them for advice or to share a secret they know, or to tell you a little about whatever city or guild they were in. This is on top of many more class, quest, or character-specific topics you could ask them about. This wealth of options is not shared in the following games, but modders for both Oblivion and Skyrim have added most of these general-topics back in in voiceless text.
When Bethesda decided to rework the systems for Oblivion, they managed to take all of the complaints about the dialog and remove them, though a few new ones were added in. The topics system was greatly reduced, but instead each character is competently voiced and given a little personality in the smaller number of things they could say. More importantly, they could start up conversations between themselves and other people, which greatly improves immersion even if their conversations get old after a while. But as excellent as this is, the fact that Bethesda could not buy custom voice actors for all of the several thousand NPC's in the game shows, as there are only around fifteen voice-actors in the game, and several of those are strictly for important people, meaning that there were only nine actors stretched across the twenty races in Oblivion, and that further split by gender. Beyond that, the NPCs animations were limited when they spoke, and the camera zoomed in too far, giving the impression that you are basically bumping chests with them when you speak.
Thankfully Skyrim mostly solved both of the last two issues, and without bringing in any serious flaws. It nearly quadrupled its actors, bringing in at least two voices for each race, and most important characters have their own voices, even for the guild-quests. They also improved the characters motions when talking and removed the zoom and so killed the bizarre intimacy of Oblivion's conversations. Most characters have at least four or five lines unique to them with the notable exception of the town guards, who gave up their personalities for arrows to the knees, and the various evil types in the wilderness. The closest thing to "flaws" in Skyrim's Dialog is that it still needs more voices, and that the topics system was completely removed from all but Skyrim's innkeepers.
There is only one last thing to mention about the dialog of the Elder Scroll's games, and that is how the Speechcraft skill worked in them. In Morrowind, the player picked between three ways of making people like them(and insulting them to make them attack you so they could be slain in self-defense), and clicked that option and hoped they got a good result. Beyond this the skill had no interactivity. In Oblivion, it was given such, but in the form of a ridiculous mini-game that had a player seemingly bluffing, intimidating, admiring, and joking with the person they were trying to make like them, and the insulting option was removed. And in Skyrim there are no options to woo the average person, and instead only certain people can be charmed or intimidated, and only on rare occasions. Which one of these systems is the best is up for debate, with Morrowind's giving the most options, Skyrim's having the most immersion, and Oblivion's being the most unique.
Exploration and Travel
Exploration and travel are two of the most significant parts of the series, and while the setting itself is closely tied to this, how the player actually does these two actions is important. Oblivion introduced both a compass, and an overhauled fast travel system to the series that were successful enough that they were kept around for Skyrim. But while they were excellent for the average player, many immersion-lovers have complaints about these two systems, and feel they have to take them out of the newer games with mods.
The redone travel system is the more talked about of these two, and it changes how one moves between explored areas of the game. In the newer games, if a person has found an area that appears on the map, whether it is a cave, town, or other landmark, one can click that place and they will instantly travel there. Some in-game time will pass, but beyond that there is no disadvantage to fast traveling, and all locations are open. However, in Morrowind the fast travel system is much more limited, but there are five possible ways to quickly travel across the island. The first is by the use of Silt Striders, a large creature that a Dunmer caravaneer has removed part of the shell of, allowing him to control it and a player to ride inside of it. There are various boats that allow access to multiple places along the coast, and even to the nearby island of Solstheim if the Bloodmoon expansion is installed. Beyond that even those who choose not join the Mages Guild will probably often use the guild's teleportation service, which allow one to instantly travel between the five Mages guild-houses. There are also the four teleportation spells used by Mysticism which allow the player to instantly teleport to the nearest Tribunal Temple or Imperial Shrine, or mark any place in the world and teleport back there whenever they wish. And finally there are places known as Propylon Chambers in many of the old fortresses that allow a player with the correct key to teleport between them.
This seems horribly confusing, but it has a purpose: Morrowind's fast travel is far more immersive than the system added by Oblivion. It aids the feeling that the player is part of the world when they have to find a caravan or ship if they do not want to hike across the Ashlands, and the presence of usable ships and especially of the Silt Striders adds a great deal to the atmosphere of each town. Beyond this, as fast travel is not as easy to access, and doesn't allow one to go anywhere they wish, it causes the player to hike a lot, and either backtrack through areas often, or attempt to find new paths to their destination. While the latter of these encourages exploration and is immersive, the backtracking is why the series changed its system. While immersion is important to the Elder Scrolls series, such hikes could be time-consuming and sometimes downright boring. While players who learned those teleportation spells could skip the return trip, those who chose not to be mages were left with an awful lot of hiking.
The other addition Oblivion added was the enhanced compass. While a compass of sorts did exist in Morrowind in the form of a tiny and nearly useless mini-map, it merely allowed the player to see the direction they were heading and the landscape within a few feet in all directions. Oblivion's compass removed the pointless mini-map aspect, and gave the player the ability to see the direction of nearby landmarks, even ones that the player has not seen yet. The idea behind this is to help gamers find more points of interest, and it does this quite well. But like many of the changes, players do find drawbacks to its existence. The first is that since the compass shows all "important" areas to discover, the player can end up focusing more on the compass than the actual landscape. The other issue is that players sometimes think of it as something of a immersion-breaking cheat, as its magical ability to locate new areas is both nonsensical, and as it is not-removable without mods it nearly removes the player's ability to stumble upon interesting new areas on their own.
While Skyrim made nearly no changes to how the player explores and travels, the Radient Quests deserve mentioning. These are randomly generated quests in which one is given a simple objective and sent off to a location. What makes these missions interesting is that many of these have a list of possible locations to send the player, and will attempt to chose areas that have not been explored yet. In other words, these share the same goal as Oblivion's overhauled compass, and do it in a much more immersive way.
While the plains, forests, and wastelands may be interesting, dungeon-crawling is just as important in the Elder Scrolls series. But the dungeons vary wildly in type throughout the games: while caves and ruined forts are in all three, each game has at least one unique dungeon-type with its own lore.
While I hate how much I am attacking Oblivion, it has the least impressive dungeons out of the three games. There are only five basic dungeon types, caves, mines, ruined forts, Oblivion Gates, and ancient Elven(Aylied) ruins. But this would have been acceptable if the dungeons were sufficiently varied, had character given to them by the creatures living within, possessed some potential of peaceful NPC's other than the very rare possibility of random adventurers, and/or involved the player in their lore in some way. But with the exception of Oblivion gates, none of these issues were solved, leaving nearly every dungeon in Oblivion feeling uncomfortably similar.
Almost all dungeons possess roughly one to five levels of roughly equivalently-sized areas, and unless involved in a quest, they usually possess minimal decorations. The only peaceful NPC's within are if the dungeon is directly related to a quest, and worst of all, there is no lore or quest impact to most dungeons. The Aylied Ruins are gorgeous, but the Aylied themselves are very rarely spoken of, there is almost no archaeological matters related to them, no fancy magic that one can learn from exploring their ruins, nothing. The mines are all inhabited by hostile monsters and bandits without a single peaceful miner, and the ores in such mines are practically worthless. Caves can have any type of being living in them, but it is even more difficult than usual to tell what was there after clearing them, with rarely anything more noticeable than beds signalling that a place has humanoids in it. And every single fort in Cyrodiil is a ruin that no Imperial or Daedric force has attempted to maintain or possess despite the invasion going on.
But it is the Oblivion gates that suffer the worst from similarity. There are eleven Oblivion Gates, four used for specific quests, and the other seven repeated for every other one of the ninety-nine potential gates. While these gates are limited to only sixty appearing on a single playthrough, this still means that a player could clear the same seven Oblivion gates fifty-six times. It is a pity that Bethesda was so horribly lazy in this, because the eleven gates are the most detailed and interesting dungeons in the game. But as it is, this similarity, combined with their near-absence elsewhere in the world, causes fighting the invading enemy force to be repetitive and downright boring through much of the game.
Both Morrowind and Skyrim's dungeons lack many of the flaws that Oblivion's dungeons have, and in mostly similar ways. They both do a better job of mixing dungeon size, with some dungeons having only one or two rooms, and others being large enough to spend hours in. They manage to show signs that people(or monsters) live in whatever place you explore through better use of objects, such as necromancer bases usually having books, enchanting tables, etc. instead of just the beds and occasional skull tapestries that Oblivion placed. And the two games put more powers, artifacts, and other useful or lore-important points of interest in their dungeons, allowing for more unique and memorable dungeons.
But, while Skyrim and Morrowind's dungeons share many good traits, they do have some key differences. Morrowind's dungeons were allowed to be much more vertical thanks to the inclusion of levitation magic, which was removed from the later games. They also feel even more hand-crafted than those in Skyrim thanks to the many secrets and other features they have, which can include rescue-able slaves, access to items that are impossible to find elsewhere, and the occasional burial ship wedged into a cavern ceiling. Meanwhile, Skyrim's opponents are much better integrated into the dungeons than in Morrowind, with undead rising from their crypts and humanoid enemies using various items in the area. And, while I generally think that Morrowind pulls off awe-inspiring areas more often, there is nothing quite like Blackreach in any of the Elder Scrolls games.
The Elder Scrolls games may not be purely about combat, but even the most pacifistic player will have to take a life eventually. And here is where Oblivion finally steps out of Morrowind's shadow and shows itself as an important part of the development of the Elder Scrolls. Combat in Morrowind is downright terrible, especially if one attempts a pure warrior type of character. In such a case one chooses the best of three attacks depending on their weapon of choice and repeats that attack until one side or the other wins. This is worsened by the chance to miss on every attack, meaning that you can miss even though on screen your attack may seem to pass through the enemy's skull. This is an common occurrence at early levels, but it is only at the very highest levels of character skill that missing becomes a non-issue. There are potions and spells to make combat better, but even if one considers them the melee combat in Morrowind is inexcusably bad.
Ranged combat is little better, with archery being mostly identical to melee with the added requirement that the player pull back the arrow completely before firing, crossbows fire instantly but suffer long reload times, and throwing weapons are simply poor weapons all around. Magic can also be used for damage, but due to the generally limited amount of magical energy given to most races and the lack of magical regeneration without rest means that it is unusable as a primary weapon on most characters.
Oblivion changed this. Bethesda removed the chance to miss, and instead made weapon skill increase the damage dealt. They increased the number of attacks for melee characters from three to six, and made all six ways to attack have a use. Bethesda also made the act of blocking an actual skill that the player could use personally rather than giving the player a chance to guard based on their skill, and allowed it to be used with one or two-handed weapons instead of just shields. They added in the ability to cast magic from combat or neutral stance, rather than requiring the player to swap to a specific magic stance for any spellcasting. And finally they made poisons, which exist in Morrowind in only a useless drinkable state, into one-time enchantments apply able to the player's weapons. The only loss in combat capabilities was the removal of several weapon types, which since the weapons in the Elder Scrolls games are unfortunately not much different from each other was more of a loss to appearance, rather than a hit to playability.
Nearly all of these changes to combat are kept in Skyrim, with the regrettable loss of stance-independent spellcasting, and the removal of some of the melee-attack's debuffs which cause one or two of the directional power-attacks to become meaningless to perform. In their place are the ability to bash while blocking, an attack while charging the enemy, and a heavily overhauled magic system. There are a number of other new additions to the games, the most important being the ability to dual-wield weapons or spells, and while dual-wielding weapons is a fairly lackluster experience, its existence and the plethora of new options given to spellcasters opens up many new options in combat.
But it is the ability to use powers and the new Dragonshouts with the touch of a button that helps strengthen Skyrim's combat the most. Powers in the earlier games required selecting and casting them like any other spell, but by giving them their own button they became as fluid as the stanceless casting of Oblivion, and all types of players could benefit from their existence. All players get access to powers and shouts, either due to their race, or various quests and objects they have found, and many of these powers are quite powerful. They can range from a simple, low cooldown shout that staggers several opponents to the ability to cause powerful localized storms or cause the player to go into a berserker rage, giving them massive damage resistance and power for their attacks. Powers such as these did exist in the earlier games, but they were gated by being both almost exclusively once-per-day spells, existing in the already cluttered spell menu, and just not feeling good to use, which meant most players used them only a handful of times and then forgot they existed.
But, while combat is a major part of life for any player, there are two other entire sets of abilities that most players will at least dabble in, magic and stealth. And while they never needed an overhaul as badly as Morrowind's combat system, both of these skill sets have evolved just as much as the physical combat.
Magic in the Elder Scroll's games comes spread between six "schools", Restoration, Alteration, Mysticism, Destruction, Conjuration, and Illusion. Restoration, Destruction, and Conjuration are primarily combat-focused schools, while Alteration, Mysticism, and Illusion are mostly non-combat, though each has a small selection of battle spells. This basic setup has lasted Bethesda through all three recent Elder Scrolls with the only significant change being their choice to merge the weakened Mysticism school into Alteration in Skyrim. Additionally there are two purely out of combat crafting skills, Enchanting and Alchemy, which have been extremely powerful throughout the series. While just reading the above suggests that magic was kept relatively similar, it is my opinion that no other part of the series has changed more.
In Morrowind, although a pure mage is nearly impossible without a unique race and/or birth-sign choice at the beginning of the game, all six schools have major reasons to practice them. This is thanks to Morrowind possessing the largest spell selection in the three games, with between sixteen to thirty types of spells per school, and several illusion, Alteration, and Mysticism spells such as Levitation, Teleportation, and Blind that were not brought back for the later games. Additionally any of the various spells could have custom versions made by a spellmaker, be applied to an item either as a constant effect or triggered as a castable ability that uses the items charge, or set to automatically cast when the player attacks something. But Morrowind has a major flaw in that the magical power used to cast spells is only restore-able through the use of potions or sleeping, which means that any sustained use of magic, such as that that is required by a pure mage, is quite difficult to manage for the average player.
Thankfully this was rectified in Oblivion, the ability to cast spells even with your weapon our was added, and the ability to brew usable poisons was given to alchemists. But sadly, the Alteration tree lost its flight, locking, slowfall, and swift-swimming spells and Illusion lost blind, sanctuary, and sound spells, though it gained the ability to outright dominate creatures, and enchanting lost the ability to make items cast spells. But it was the Mysticism school that was hit hardest, losing all of its teleportation abilities and then for some completely unknown reason having its absorption spells moved into the Restoration school, thus removing ten of the seventeen spells in the school and leaving it with only soul-trap, a low-level spell easy to find on weapons, as the only really important spell in Mysticism.
But for better or worse it is Skyrim that brought the biggest change to magic. Bethesda removed the fairly simple targeting system of the earlier games that had made all spells be either applied to the player, applied on touch, or shot out as a bolt, and instead made each spell have unique properties. This meant that the standard flames spell could be a flamethrower, a candlelight spell creates a glowing ball that follows you around, and necromancers finally target corpses and make them fight rather than summon them out of the air. Additionally enchanting was made even more powerful thanks to the with the eventual possibility to add two effects on a single item. But while the above is great, Skyrim cut out the ability to make custom spells, and merged some of what was left of Oblivion's Mysticism school into Alteration and Conjuration, and removed the school. Beyond this several more types of spells were removed from the player, including most buffing spells except for Alteration's armor spells, and most of the weakening spells from the Destruction school.
Stealth, Traps, and Lockpicking
Stealth is one of the most linearly improved systems throughout the series. In Morrowind, stealth relies entirely on the direction the opponent(or shopkeeper) is looking, your stealth skill, and the weight of your boots. How well lit you are does not matter, and you can effectively sneak past people while holding a burning torch. You also can not move quickly and quietly at the same time, and enemies will detect you if you "missed" with an attack, making assassins rather frustrating to play.
Lockpicking and traps are tied directly to each other, and both are thoroughly uninteresting. A lock in Morrowind is given a level between one and one hundred, and that level determins its difficulty. If your security skill is in the general area of that level, you have a random chance to open it, and you can then click the lock repeatedly until it either opens or you break all of your picks. Traps are even more boring, as the game always tells you whether an item is trapped or not. If it is, you use a probe and click the trap until it is disarmed, or you break all of your probes. There are no environmental traps of any kind, only ones that activate when you open a door or chest.
Oblivion overhauled these systems. Now, for stealth one has to take into account all of the same features, but the most important parts of believable stealth, lighting and noise, were added in to some degree. Now to be a successful thief one has to stick to the shadows and/or sneak around at night, otherwise regardless of stealth skill the player will be easily spotted. Additionally running while in stealth-mode was added, but doing so around a target will alert them to your presence unless your skill is very high.
Lockpicking was also enhanced with the introduction of a mine-game. Instead of clicking on a locked object multiple times, when the player actives the object a new screen opens which shows the inside of a lock with a set of one to five tumblers. The player then attempts to use their pick to force all of the tumblers into the open position, and if they fall the player breaks the pick. This is far more interesting than Morrowind's system, but unfortunately the mini-game is easy and in the default game any skill level can open any lock, causing most players to not feel any need to level up the skill.
While Lockpicking was somewhat mixed, traps received one of the most important and effective overhauls out of all of Oblivion's upgrades. The game removed the probe system, and all traps on doors and chests, but instead added actual environmental traps. Now one could step on a floor plate and poisonous gasses will flood the room, or have the floor open up under them, or even be slammed up against the ceiling. These examples are just a handful of what is availiable in the Aylied ruins, when one counts the other tilesets the developers used it is likely thirty or more unique trap types were introduced into the game. Just as important as their variety is the fact that all of these could be used against the enemies by a clever enough player. The traps did become predictable after a while, but compared to Morrowind, this was an enormous step up.
Skyrim did not improve on the systems as much as Oblivion, but Bethesda did make several minor enhancements. Traps were generally made a little harder to see, and enhanced in variety, but otherwise the only improvement they received was in the form of noise-makers of various sorts such as a string of bones that rattled if you walked through them. Lockpicking also received only a minor change, as Oblivion's Lockpicking minigame was replaced with an equally easy one in which the player rotates the lock using their pick until they hit the perfect location, then pops it open.
But stealth and enemy detection were what was improved the most. Sneak attack damage now changes greatly depending on the type of weapon, with daggers delivering up to twelve times their normal damage in a back-stab, but bows only dealing three attacks worth. Stealthy archers now also have to aim well, for a missed shot can now alert enemies to their presence. The aforementioned noisemaker traps help improve dungeons, as does the greatly reduced sight of "blind" enemies like the Falmer. But compared to Oblivion, Skyrim does relatively little to enhance the series stealth game-play.
Vampires and Werewolves
Beyond the player's skills, equipment, and abilities they learn, the series also has two other paths to power: Lycanthropy and Vampirism, and unsurprisingly both have changed greatly throughout the games.
Vampires have received the most positive upgrades. In Morrowind, after one becomes a vampire they become instantly identifiable as such to all NPCs, and only members of House Telvanni, the mages guild, and other vampires will speak to them. They lose the ability to heal naturally or walk around in daylight, and in exchange gain a number of status buffs, a few resistances, and a spell to drain health in combat. But as the resistances and raised stats can be achieved through enchanting, and drain health spells are availiable to mages, the only real advantage vampires gain is access to one of three unique quest-lines, and a number of minor quests. However, access to the quest lines are gated by being bitten by members of one the the vampire clans, and not all vampiric enemies are members.
Vampirism was much improved in Oblivion, thanks largely to the new tier and feeding systems. Now a vampire can sneak up to a sleeping NPC and bite them, draining their blood and returning them to the lowest level of vampirism, at which they are immune to sun damage. But a vampire can also chose not to drain blood, and instead starve themselves to become less human by the day. This increases their abilities and strengths, but also increases the amount of damage they take from the sun and eventually makes most people refuse to speak to them. But while this is an excellent improvement, and for the most part playing a vampire is more interesting, there are no longer any quests of any sort for made for vampires.
Skyrim probably handled vampirism the best, but only with the addition of the Dawnguard downloadable content. In vanilla Skyrim, vampirism was nearly identical to that in Oblivion, but instead of taking damage your maximum health, magic, and stamina being reduced while in sunlight. But with the Dawnguard expansion Bethesda added in a long quest-line for both vampires and those who wish to hunt them, which helps a lot to connect vampires to the rest of the game's lore. Vampires also gain the ability to shapeshift into a winged vampire lord in Dawnguard, and this gives them a number of new powers such as turning into mist or dragging enemies to you and choking them.
Unlike vampirism, or in fact any other gameplay mechanic in the Elder Scrolls series, the Werewolf experience peaked in Morrowind and has been either missing or poorly implemented in the following two games, though admittedly it was only brought into Morrowind in the Bloodmoon expansion. If one was infected with Lycanthopy in Morrowind, he or she turned into a werewolf every night, and stayed transformed until sunrise. They gained extreme speed, strength, and high stealth skill, at the expense of losing all of their equipment and spellcasting abilities until sunrise. They also were forced to kill a person, whether villager, bandit, or guard, or else when they turned back they would be left nearly dead. And the Bloodmoon questline itself was focused heavily around werewolves, and split depending on if the player chose to become one or not.
The next two games did not handle it nearly as interestingly. In Oblivion there was no way to become a werewolf at all, or even much mention of them. It returned for Skyrim, but in it Lycanthropy was relegated to a special transformation ability one could get as part of one of the major faction's questlines, and triggered only when the player wanted to change. Otherwise all it gave was an immunity to diseases, and an inability to gain buffs from sleeping. The type of play-style Skyrim Werewolves have is also different: instead of being quick, deadly assassin-like creatures, now they are berserkers with absolutely no way to be sneaky, which is a strange departure. On paper this sounds quite fine, but playing as a Werewolf has no important disadvantages, and the advantage is low enough that most players will not bother using the ability more than a few times, and can often forget they are a Werewolf at all.
Expansions and Downloadable Content
Each of these games has several expansions and bits of downloadable content, ranging in size from tiny little shops, to new lands and questlines. There are no expansions needed to enjoy the original game, though it should be noted by PC gamers that most mods end up requiring the major expansions, but all but the smallest are of excellent quality for their cost.
And Morrowind has the cheapest DLC. While its two expansions, Bloodmoon and Tribunal, cost a little extra, there are actually eight small mods released by Bethesda that are free to download off their website. None of these are very large, with "Siege at Firemoth" being the largest with a small island chain and fort that the player attempts to reclaim from a necromancer, and the smallest being the ability to entertain the guests at an inn in Balmora, but unlike Oblivion's DLC, these are all free.
Almost all of Oblivions minor DLC was fairly underwhelming, with the notable exception of Mehrunes Razor, which added a large and well done dungeon with a lore-important item at the end. But the others cost roughly two or three dollars each, and ranged from new houses based around four types of characters, tiny quests, and horse armor, which thanks to the lack of horse-combat, the creatures general uselessness, and the popularity of the invincible horse Shadowmere, many players felt not worth even the two dollars it cost. The house mods fared better, with some of them allowing access to normally troublesome objects such as Frostcrag Spire's spellmaking and enchanting altars, but I suggest checking online for new house-mods, generally they will be better. The spell-tomes mod is also somewhat suggestible, but can be ignored comfortably. It allows spellbooks to appear in chests throughout the world, allowing the player to learn new spells without buying from a trainer or using a spellmaking altar. And the final DLC is the Orrery, a glorified fetch-quest that adds a new room to the Arcane University, and the ability to receive minor buffs from it after the fetch-quest is completed.
Skyrim only has one minor DLC, but it is a fairly impressive house mod. In Hearthfire, once the player completes certain requirements for one of three Jarls, they gain the ability to purchase land from them, and from that point on are able to build a rather complex house, with a little bit of customization allowed in what wings are installed. These houses are meant to be built up over ten or more hours, though a wealthy character can do so much faster, and provide a nice little way to use the players overflowing gold. Unfortunately, I can think of at least two mods that do similar, one of which was released before Hearthfire came out, and so I'm unsure if I would suggest this DLC to computer gamers.
Fortunately for those who love this series, when Bethesda releases actual expansions they are often better than much of the base game. Each game in the series has two, and we shall start by speaking of what I consider the most and least imaginative of the expansions, Shivering Isles, and Knights of the Nine. Knights of the Nine is the less exciting of these, but hardly bad: in it the player learns of a massacre in the city of Anvil's Chapel, and soon after arrival is brought into an attempt to recreate an ancient order of knights to face an equally ancient enemy. It is not a particularly amazing quest-line overall, but there are some standout moments, such as a battle above the clouds.
Meanwhile Shivering Isles hits every good point an Elder Scrolls expansion needs, and does so very well. In it the player crosses into the Shivering Isles, the Daedric plane of madness, and works with the god of madness Sheogorath to prevent the forces of Order from conquering his lands. The main plot is one of the more fun ones in the Elder Scrolls, and has a relatively surprising plot-twist, but the main strength of the Shivering Isles is the new world. Normal Oblivion is a land that suffers from too much similarity all around, but here the world is evenly split between the dark swamps and lowlands of Dementia, and the almost too vibrant mountains and forests of Mania. There are multiple new towns and quests in both areas, and they are almost all quite fun and unique. And even better the enemies in the two areas are entirely new, with only the occasional heratic or Skinned Dog sharing anything with the monsters of Oblivion. This is quite possibly the best and most needed expansion in the Elder Scrolls.
Morrowind's expansions are also quite good. The first of which, Tribunal, is usually considered the weaker, as it only adds in the city of Mournhold and the dungeons below it. But while it adds little in the way of new areas to explore, it makes up for this with its focus on Morrowind's lore. Two of the three living gods of Morrowind, Almalexia and Sotha-sil, were nowhere to be seen in the original game despite their importance, but Tribunal makes the two of them and their "cities" the focal point of the plot, and so unlike the rest of the Elder Scrolls expansions Tribunal feels like it is a logical extension of the main quest, rather than a side-story.
Morrowind's other expansion is Bloodmoon, which adds the large, Nord-inhabited island of Solstheim to the north-west of Vvrardenfell, as well as adding werewolves to the game, a questline focused around them, and a new faction with a city-building questline for good measure. The island, which is split between pine forests and glaciers is almost as big of a shock to enter for those used to Morrowind's Volcanoes as the Shivering Isles are for Oblivion players, and the questlines are both excellent. Bloodmoon is overall one of the Elder Scroll's greatest expansions, and possibly Bethesda's favorite considering they bring back the isle of Solstheim for Skyrim's Dragonborn DLC.
Speaking of which, Skyrim has what is likely the most consistently good expansions of the series. Dawnguard is Skyrim's quest-focused expansion, giving a major questline in which the player chooses to aid a group of vampires or hunters who have near-identical questlines in their attempt to either gain access to the power to block out the sun, or stop that power from getting into vampiric hands. The plot is reasonably interesting, and Bethesda's choice to add in Serana, a companion who aids you throughout most of the plot reguardless of side is unusual considering how most of the series has you running around alone, but the real excellence of this expansion is the new areas. While Skyrim is not bad with area-design most of the time, the two new locales added by Dawnguard, the Soul-cairn and especially the Forgotten Vale are two of the most striking places in the unmodified series, and it's sad that they are so small.
The other expansion, Dragonborn, is both a major tribute to Morrowind and an excellent expansion in it's own right. It brings back the island of Solstheim, but the south side has been covered in ash from a volcano that exploded in Morrowind, and Houses Redoran and Telvanni have since settled down into the southern areas. But while this sounds like such a salute to Morrowind, Dragonborn really is its own expansion thanks to its focus on Hermaeus Mora, the Daedric Prince of knowledge and his former underling Miraak. Thanks to Miraak, people all around the island have been being controlled in their sleep and forced to build mysterious structures all across the island. The two of them and Hermaeus Mora's awesome but small domain of Apocrypha bring enough that the expansion feels simultaneously fresh and nostalgic.
But while Bethesda's content is generally excellent, most computer gamers will run a set of mods overhauling some, if not all aspects of the game. I could likely do a full article on the best mods for each of the games, and in fact I may do so in the future, but here I will list what I consider the three or four best or most important mods for each game.
Galshaih's Character Expansion
This is the smallest mod out of all the mods that I'll speak of, but it is one that I will always install on every playthrough. It enhances the way that your character grows in power, evens out some of the balance issues of the original game, and gives mana-regeneration to players, letting specialized mages be viable.
Morrowind Code Patch
Morrowind Code Patch is a fan-made patch that edits the code of the game, allowing for multiple fixes, features, and balance adjustments to be added to the game. While no single of the enhancements added by MCP is amazing in itself, when all hundred or so are considered this really isn't something to be skipped.
Morrowind Graphics Extender
Normally I don't care about graphics in games, but MWGE allows for modern computers to dispel the "fog" that normally blocks all vision beyond roughly one or two hundred feet in Morrowind, and allow the player to see as far as their computer allows. This is one of the few examples of "functional" types of graphical enhancements in gaming, and if you can deal with a somewhat complicated setup, it adds a lot to the game. And for those who are willing to mess with the shaders and such, Morrowind's graphics in general can be extensively enhanced.
There are mods for the other games that add in large stretches of land, but none compare to the immense size of Tamriel rebuilt, which as of this writing I believe is roughly two times the size of the primary game. So twenty miles of content is added to an already large game, and most of it is excellent.
Better Cities & Unique Landscapes
I'm including these two together because they cover the same kind of problem. Oblivion's cities and landscapes are both downright boring, but if you use these two mods together you can simply fix two of Oblivion's biggest issues.
Or you could simply replace the entire world. Nehrim is a semi-open world total conversion for Oblivion, featuring a new plot, universe, everything. It's much more story-focused than Oblivion, and where you can go is gated by your level and progression in the plotline, but it takes Oblivion's strengths and gives it a solid plot, great landscapes, and excellent dungeons, so if you play Oblivion at all you should look into Nehrim.
Dragon Combat Overhaul
The first time you face a dragon in Skyrim is an awesome experience. It's a pity that it's only one or two more fights after that before dragon battles become downright repetitive thanks to their boring artificial intelligence. DCO gives them the brains that they lack, as well as a large number of other tweaks to their behavior so that they always stay both interesting and threatening.
Apocalypse - Magic of Skyrim
Skyrim's magic system in the default game is somewhat poorly designed. Within each school of magic is usually around five types of spells, and anything else in the tree is either a direct upgrade or downgrade of those spells. Apocalypse solves this by adding one hundred and sixty spells new spells to the game spread across the various disciplines, and while there are a number of "replaceable" types of spells, many add completely new abilities to the player, or fill a role-playing niche that was missed by the basic game.
Skyrim is a cold place, but in the original game one can go swimming in the middle of a blizzard without any issues beyond the occasional fish bite. Frostfall changes this thanks to an in depth and immersively presented system of hypothermia that makes every campfire almost as important as if you were playing Dark Souls.
I'm a little surprised not to be including one of the new landscape or major quest mods here. However, while this mod doesn't add that many new quests, or even all that many new characters, the ones it does add are so unique and add so much to the game both in the form of themselves and their personal stories, and the stories of the areas around them, that it has become my favorite out all of Skyrim's modifications.
There have been a lot of changes throughout the Elder Scrolls series, with only two aspects remaining untouched: the medieval land of Tamriel as the primary setting, and the freedom to explore its open-world. But that does not have to be the limits to the Elder Scrolls' potential. The series admits to having multiple other continents to explore, and has let players dip into the Daedric dimensions connected to the world of Nirn. I don't know where the series will go next, but despite the questionable hiccup that was Oblivion, Bethesda has mostly shown improvement in all aspects of their series, and chances are high that Elder Scrolls Six will be even better than what has come before.
Each game has its own merits and flaws. In Morrowind's case it uses its story and setting so well that many forget the game's lackluster combat.
And finally, Skyrim is the series' most solid game. While its setting is not as strong as Morrowind's, and battlemages may find swapping between spells and blades awkward compared to how things were in Oblivion, it does not have any issues nearly as large as those suffered by its predecessors.
And while Oblivion may have lost that strong sense of setting, it evolves the actual gameplay more than any other part of the series, and even today it still has the most cohesive combat system system for those who enjoy using both magic and weaponry.