I suppose the best way to describe my time with Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is to say that I often had a love/hate relationship with the game. Bethesda has undertaken a monumental task in trying to create a role-playing game (RPG) that allows the player to do whatever he chooses, and while they should be commended for elevating the art of game design, Morrowind itself seems to be most fairly viewed as an ambitious, yet deeply flawed game.
By trying to give the player the freedom to do whatever he wants whenever he wants, Bethesda has certainly pushed the envelope for what can be achieved in terms of non-linear game design. Unfortunately, in the process, theyve also highlighted most of the major flaws with this style of gameplay.
As Mike points out, its easy to forget that Morrowind is a game. It eats up hours of real world time in a way that I havent seen since EverQuest, which can be either a good or bad thing depending on your perspective. Occasionally, the game itself is a chorenot unlike a job in the real world. It was in these moments that I hated Morrowind the most. Sure, the game design may allow you to go wherever you want and do things in any order you choose (even to the point of avoiding the games main quest in its entirety), but that doesnt change the fact that the bulk of the games quests are all versions of the same three thingsescort someone somewhere, kill someone and steal something, or find an ancient relic. There are literally hundreds of quests in the game, but the vast majority of them never stray beyond the three objectives mentioned above.
What saves Morrowind (and pushes me back into the love category) is that the game allows the player to complete the majority of the quests in any way he sees fit. Much like the shooter/role-playing hybrid Deus Ex, Morrowind presents a large number of options in how to handle each and every situation. Players can kill people, bribe them, soothe them with some smooth talk, or simply steal whatever it is they need. The game thus often feels quite lifelike, which only adds to the immersive quality of the experience as a whole. This is where Bethesda has really improved upon standard game design and structure.
Perhaps the biggest flaw with the game is that it can often be incredibly overwhelming. Vvardenfell is a massive world, and traversing it from one coast to the other is no small undertaking. Couple that with the fact that almost everyone the player talks to will have some kind of quest for him to do, and gamers will often find themselves spending hours fulfilling menial tasks that seem to have little in the way of value. As Mike mentions, placing a little extra emphasis on the main quest would have certainly made the game more playable, and still wouldnt have sacrificed any of the non-linearity that Bethesda seems so devoted to.
One area that Mike didnt get into is the graphics. Morrowind is a taxing game for even high-end PCs to run, and it certainly gives the Xbox a workout as well. While the Xbox version looks good, it still doesnt compare to the PC version of the game running on a top of the line machine. The Xbox version is hampered by quite a few aliasing problems (where objects often have jagged edges instead of smooth ones), some pop-up (where items in the distance just pop into view) and a little draw in (where the player can see an item in the distance being drawn into the frame line by line). Worse still is the slowdown that will plague the game anytime you have three or four characters on screen casting spellsthe framerate takes a pretty big hit in those instances. Still, the game looks good for the most part. Those obsessed with graphics will no doubt want to pick up the PC version, though.
As Mike says, what you get out of Morrowind is proportional to what you put into it. Its quite the interesting dichotomy as far as videogames goon one hand, theres no denying the ambition of the game design. Bethesda set out to make a game that gives the player free will, and for the most part they succeeded. On the other hand, gamers have free will in real life, and few of us are using it to go on any great adventures. Morrowinds quest to give the player complete freedom is ultimately a double-edged swordwhile gamers will certainly be able to proceed as they see fit, many will become completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of options and give up in frustration. There simply has to be a happy medium between the heavily scripted and linear RPGs of series like Final Fantasy and the sheer open-endedness of a game like Morrowind. Bethesda is beyond that balancing point with this game, but they certainly have earned my respect by striving to take gaming to a different level.