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SummaryThe best single player RPG I've ever seen, and probably the best for a while.
The GoodThe 'good' section could go on for quite a while, so I'll try to keep it as summary-ish as possible while still detailing all the marvels of this game.
You start out as a released prisoner who's been shipped off to the island of Vvardenfell, on the far northeastern reaches of the Empire of Tamriel. Why, you don't know (and similarly you have no other knowledge of your past). You at once enter a charming little medieval village filled with great architecture and people milling around randomly. Of course, as soon as you talk to a few NPCs, the less-than-charming undercurrent of events in the town becomes evident: the local tax collector has vanished, and probably killed by the way people talk of him. The guards are corrupt. People at once offer you quests of stealing from other people. And this is before you get to cities with the assassin's and theives guilds! (There seriously is an assassin's guild, and what's more it's totally legal--a writ from the guild being literally a pardon for murder!)
Once you've gone through the preliminary steps of creating your character (which is cool because you can choose from a huge list of diverse characters, or--as I think most people did--just combine whatever skills you want into a character of your own choosing) then you can head out into the next room from the census officer and proceed to rob it of all its silver plates and lockpicks and money, if the urge strikes you. From there on you can do whatever you want. No limitations, no orders from anybody except directions to go to another city and find some guy, which you can put off forever if you like. You can explore around the gigantic island of Vvardenfell, which has impressive landscapes: the coastal areas are green with grass and mushroom shaped trees and lakes, but as you move closer to the volcano in the middle of the island it becomes a maze of paths in between rocky, blacked mountains, with buildings made from the shells of giant insects and bazillions of dungeons and tombs throughout.
There are numerous guilds and feuding factions you can join and do quests for them to gain respect and services. There is a main quest, but you can just ignore it and go explore the island, discovering every little secret plot, historical mystery, or evil shrine that is has to reveal. After a good amount of playing, my character has still only explored the western coast of the island, which leaves lots more to see, and has never run short of things to do. Many secrets await (such as being turned into a vampire, sometimes inadvertently) and little flashes of humour too (sometimes unintentional: one time I sold a huge heavy shoulder pad to a wizard in a robe, and if you sell an expensive item to anyone, they'll put it on. She put this on, and it looked hilariously funny)
Even out in the wilderness are NPCs who offer you quests: I was walking around one time and some lady asked me to direct her to a place where she was making a pilgrimage to. She knew where it was, so I don't know why she needed a guide. But she offered me 150 gold, so I obliged. Along the way, we were swimming through a lake when I noticed that her dead body was floating on the surface of the water, having been killed by a hostile sea creature. it was all the same to me--the gold was on her anyway. Etc.
The game is totally opened and it would take months or maybe years of playing to full explore the island--and there are two expansion packs as well, Bloodmoon generally being considered the better of the two.
Anyway, graphics are awesome, there's a wierd variety of creatures, that, combined with the wierd 'Ashland' terrain almost feels like you're on a desert alien planet. The architecture is extremely varied and carefully done, and every little detail is in place. You can do anything you want, almost, and lead your character down any path you like. Live as a knight, running around freeing slaves and saving lost pilgrims. Or become an outlaw, sneaking around towns and hacking up citizens for their valuables--which works fine as long as you don't get caught. Well, Looking at how much I've written, it's probably almost enough. So on to the Bad.
The BadThe majority of my gripes with this game are of the 'it could have been even awesomer' variety. As it is, the game is better than most, but I still find myself seeing ways it could have been better done.
A more serious problem first: The quests are often repetetive and boring, consisting of go-get-this-item (or, even worse, gather a batch of alchemical ingredients, for which you have to go rooting through every little plant in the countryside hoping to find it) or go kill such and such a person or monster. I hear the quests are a lot better in the Bloodmoon expansion, which I haven't played.
Secondly, you need an incredibly powerful computer to run the game, due to all the great graphics and huge extent of the place, and most people probably don't have the required system specs. And even with a great computer, you'll encounter frequent sandstorms in the Ashlands which drive your framerate down to horrible levels.
While there are plently of different NPCs to talk to, they seem bland and undetailed, most of them apparently having no in-game reason to exist--they don't reveal any information that other people don't, they don't offer quests, etc. And the time of day doesn't affect them in any way: they still wander around the streets, meaning it's no easier to commit a crime under the darkness than the light. The only difference is that the guards carry around torches at night.
The crime and legal system could have been a lot better. Let's give some examples: I can walk into a guard tower and find a guard standing up there, doing his job. I decide to wait until his back is turned and then grab that incredibly valuable armour sitting on the table behind him. My crime is unseen and I walk out (he doesn't notice. 'Is that an iron longsword in your pants or are you just glad to see me?') but you'd think that he'd have had a good enough look at me that when they notice the stuff is gone they'd come looking for me. Or I can go up there and kill the same guard, and beat him to death instantly, but somehow I get the message box that 'Your crime has been reported' and I have a bounty on my head--making people unwilling to talk to me, among other things. Even though the only witness is stone dead.. Could it be that someone saw me on the way out? No, because I got in trouble the second I hit the guy. Another example: I can kill a villager while nobody is looking, then sit next to the body poking at it with my sword and playing paper doll with it, putting different clothing and armour onto it, and a guard walks right past, not having any second thoughts. And nobody ever mentions that the person died, either. And finally, I can find someone wandering in the back alleys and hit them. Then they run away and out into an open area full of people and guards, and I then catch up and kill them. But the guards didn't see the beginning of the fight and don't pay any attention to it.
Enemies don't go through doors. Every location, even a cave, has a door, and if you're being overpowered, you can just walk out the door and sleep for a couple hours to regain your strength, while presumably the enemies are beating on the inside of the flimsy wooden door, unable to open it.
And your actions, ultimately do not affect the game world. You can do whatever you want, become head of any guild, or the leader of a ruling house, but you can't affect their political relations with the other houses, or send people on the same missions you fought through to get to your position. But forget about all this. The game is still awesome.