The recently released Elden Ring surpassed a lot of players' expectations, receiving critical acclaim and quickly becoming one of the most talked-about new titles. FromSoftware's reputation for immensely challenging and intricately designed games may have added to the pre-launch hype, but Elden Ring still managed to deliver on its promises, and please both fans of the studio's previous games and newcomers to the Soulsborne genre. While Elden Ring may have broken ground regarding certain elements of its gameplay and design, it still has impressive open-world predecessors like Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind.
In the spirit of all things FromSoftware, Elden Ring's design is very deliberate. Some open-world games just have massive areas that don't feel all that distinct from one another, but still provides players with plenty of content in terms of sheer size.
Elden Ring doesn't follow this formula and makes sure its world is filled with meaningful quests and characters. FromSoftware games like the Dark Souls series also have huge regions, but players are quite skilfully funneled from one place to another, and unlock shortcuts as they go to enable easier traversal. Elden Ring does away with a lot of these mechanics and offers players a lot more freedom when it comes to exploring the dangerous and secret-laden landscapes.
Elden Ring's open-world design may have led to a longer development time, but a lot of players have agreed that it was worth it now that they're able to explore it for themselves. Some aspects, like the ever-present poison swamps that Hidetaka Miyazaki just can't stay away from, may feel familiar to players, but Elden Ring has opened up and improved upon the Soulsborne experience in so many ways. The Lands Between are dripping with lore, like many FromSoftware games, and the storytelling is mainly environmental, and conveyed through item descriptions and cryptic dialogue. Elden Ring is the studio's biggest game yet, and it certainly earns this title not just in terms of size and scope, but also with its ambition.
Bethesda is more accustomed to creating open-world games, and it is a feature that usually defines its titles. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a typical example of the studio's ability, and it has had surprising staying power thanks to the freedom it gives players, and the vast in-game world it lets them explore. However, it was Skyrim's predecessor Morrowind that really opened the doors to what an open-world game could look like, and helped to set the precedent for what these types of titles should aspire to be.
Morrowind may look a little rough around the edges compared to newer releases like Elden Ring, but it's hard to overstate what an impact it had on the open-world RPG format. While the video game industry has no shortage of gorgeous open-world titles with incredible depth in design, there was something about Morrowind's almost complete lack of pointers, HUD, or in-game guides that set it apart. One of the best things about a really immersive RPG is that it presents players with an amazing world to get lost in, and in Morrowind's case that was usually quite literal. It took some getting used to, but the freedom and immersion it granted players was unparalleled.
Both Elden Ring and Morrowind have the type of storytelling that makes players really work for it. The narrative isn't necessarily clear or straightforward, and gamers need to pay attention to pick up all the right clues and inferences.
Traveling around the lands of each game, players must work out a direction for themselves without the heavy hints or handy waypoints provided by other open-world games, and it's this slightly maddening, but also kind of genius feature that makes them a true open-world. Gamers can explore whatever direction they choose, unshackled by quest markers and acceptable mission orders. In both Morrowind and Elden Ring, players can tackle bosses and areas in whatever order they like, mostly at their own peril.
Learning how to play the games properly, after a baptism of fire introduction opens up even more possibilities, players soon learn how to "get good" in order to tackle the right areas and progress the game. There isn't a gentle increase in difficulty — players will often stumble into regions for which they are very ill-prepared, but once they overcome these sections then the victory is all the sweeter. Death is just part of the experience, particularly in Elden Ring. Gamers are given an unprecedented amount of agency, and this lets them shape their own gameplay experience in unique and interesting ways.
Although both Elden Ring and Morrowind fall into the "medieval" category when it comes to their inspirations, both really push the boat out in terms of design. FromSoftware has been known for its weird and wonderful (and intensely creepy) character designs and environments, and Elden Ring is no different. From sentient pots and half-wolf knights, to fleshy Godskin foes, Elden Ring certainly wears its uniqueness on its sleeve. Morrowind also features some bizarre visual choices that help to elevate the game's overall design and set it apart, like its penchant for mushrooms and its dinosaur-like creatures.
The main point of an open-world RPG is adventure, and not a lot of games nail this quite like Elden Ring and Morrowind. Exploring a large open-world game can sometimes feel like a punishment rather than an exciting experience, but with their challenging gameplay, hands-off approaches, and beautifully realized environments and inhabitants, Elden Ring and Morrowind combat this apathy perfectly.
Elden Ring is available on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S.