The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
Morrowind is advertised as a game where you can do anything and be anything. And in many ways, this is the truth. At the start of the game, you have to decide on a character by picking a standard class or making your own. And then, you're given the first mission of the main storyline. But you don't have to carry it out, and can in fact take actions that would make it impossible to complete, if you so choose. The whole world is open to you right from the start, though it's quite difficult for a level 1 character to survive a lot of aimlessly wandering around. The first destination of most gamers will be the town of Balmora, where they can start working on quests and decide how to play the game.
Balmora has a Mages Guild, Fighters Guild, and Thieves Guild. It also has the person in charge of helping you advance through the main quest. As long as your stats meet the minimum requirements for each of the optional groups, you can join any or all of them. Or none at all if you so choose. Everything starts out simply... the fighters have you battling some rats, for example. And the early mage quests really involve item collection more than anything else. But play long enough and things get more and more complex and fun. You'll eventually be sent on challenging missions to distant, dangerous places. There are plenty of other groups you can join elsewhere in the world, and all have their own kinds of missions. Sometimes they can conflict and you have to decide who you're really loyal to. I found myself really addicted once I started a few questlines that I enjoyed, taking breaks to advance the main storyline. If you don't create some kind of structure for yourself, the game can seem too big and start to feel like it has no point..
Unfortunately, for all the options you have open to you to be whoever you want, characters often end up pretty much the same with enough training. A mage can fight with a sword as well as a warrior with enough practice. This is another case where some self imposed restrictions can improve the experience a little bit. Maybe you can play a Paladin and try to resist the temptation to also make him a master theif.
Visually, Morrowind is impressive because of the size of the world, not for the detail in any one particular spot. It has a nice fully 3D engine, but there are other console and PC games that look more impressive. But Morrowind's world has a very real feel to it. The continent is enormous and it can take about an hour or more of game playing to go from one side to the other if you travel on foot, depending on the exact route you take. Luckily, there are plenty of different ways to get transportation, including teleportation at the Mages Guild, riding on Silt Striders, and paying to travel by ship.
The landscapes vary quite a lot, from grassy areas to marshes, huge mountain ranges, barren ashlands, and more. There are also different kinds of random weather events, like clouds, rain, thunderstorms, fog, and menacing ash-storms. You'll see some truly interesting things both when exploring the wilderness and making your way through some truly remarkable towns. Contrary to Oblivion, Morrowind never feels too much like the real world. Dungeons, unfortunately, are rather repetitive in design, but you'll still sometimes see interesting stuff such as the maze-like underground sewers, caves filled with lava, and haunted locales with skeletons and evil spirits. The enemies are fairly interesting and nicely designed, especially as you get past the starting locations. Warrior skeletons, flying creatures, evil mages, trolls, and many more will be attacking you as you progress.
Combat is actually one of the game's weaker points, as it really involves little more than facing an enemy and swinging your weapon or casting a spell. There's almost no strategy in most encounters, at least with the characer types I played, though with some of the tougher enemies later on you may need to use some specific spells or techniques to make things easier on yourself.
The flying enemies in this game are incredibly annoying. They always seem to attack you when you don't have a weapon ready, and you don't usually see them swooping down until the last minute. Especially frustrating when you're using a levitation spell to fly for a limited time (over a mountain range to save time for example), and you have to waste precious seconds dealing with those things. They also tend to get stuck on things on their way to attack you due to a bug in the way they're implemented, causing other problems. It says a lot that the sequel, Oblivion, has eliminated flying enemies entirely.
Interestingly, leveling up is based on advancing your main skills, not just fighting enemies to earn experience points. And you can advance the skills by training (in exchange for gold), too. So while fighting enemies will increase your combat skills, you need to work on other abilities like acrobatics, athletics, armor repair, and speechcraft as well. Any combination of ten of these skills leveled up (or one skill leveled up ten times, whichever) will give your character one regular level up. Depending on what skills you advanced to earn that level, you'll get some special bonuses to some of your stats. This takes some of the repition out of building a better character, as you don't always have to fight to become more powerful, but I often found myself missing the simplicity of mindlessly bashing some bad guys to accomplish things.
The main storyline is actually pretty entertaining, if a bit repetitive. You'll go on a series of missions, learning more and more about the true nature of your character's place in the world as you progress. Like most RPG storylines, it has a terrifying evil force threatening the world. The only thing special about it is that you don't have to deal with it in the first place if you don't feel like it. There is a lot of back story and other information you can find, though. You'll find in-game books you can read, which contain a staggering amount of text when compiled. And you can hear many of the same legends told from the points of view of all kinds of people. There's also a whole lot to discover about the history of Morrowind. Sometimes communication with NPC's feels a little too impersonal, like reading information in an online encyclopedia, but these are the drawbacks when you have lifesized towns with large populations.
All of your quests are organized in a journal, and you can look up almost everything you've been told about various things by NPC's and major characters. A very useful tool, but a little less user friendly without the improvements made to it in the expansions. Without the search tool and other changes, you'll constantly be flipping through the pages to find what you need.
Morrowind ends up being quite a bit better than the some of its parts. This is one of those games that you can play for hours and completely lose track of time. For the most part, it's true that you can do what you want without restriction. Any character, even those critically important to the main story can be attacked (though you get a warning message if you permanently end the main quest, so it doesn't happen by accident). You can be evil and go around stealing everything and fighting whoever you want. Or you can role-play in a sense, and try to be an honorable knight, a magic-only character, whatever you want. But as I said earlier, for those playing Morrowind for the first time, it's worth going through the main quest to have a sense of purpose and because while nothing new to the genre, it still manages to be quite interesting. I feel this game is worth the time for fans of western style RPG's and those with an interest in nonlinear gameplay.
Check out the Game of the Year edition if you make a purchase though, as it comes with both expansions and is the best way to play by far.