SummaryA beautiful and rich game setting stunted by inexcusable game design flaws.
The GoodThe best parts of Morrowind are the graphics and the exploration.
The graphics are extremely well done, especially the water effects. Water looks like you could actually drink it instead of appearing (as it does in most games) as a translucent blue mess. Even more amazing are the effects when your character walks through water or when rain splashes into the water.
The other part of Morrowind that is done well is the questing and exploration aspects of the game. The game is very large and detailed, so much so that I have played through the beginning parts of the game three or four times and I haven't explored even half of that area, let alone the other 90% of continent and its islands. There are numerous factions and quests you can do for those factions to gain prestige and move the plot of the game along, but you can also ignore quests completely and just wander around looking for trouble.
Another trivial, but often overlooked detail in other games (*cough* Wizardry 8 *cough*) that I liked was that monsters almost always have the loot you expect them to have, not some randomly-generated junk. So if you slay a skeleton warrior that was chopping you up with a big battle axe, you will find Bonemeal and a battle axe on his corpse.
The BadThere are almost too many things that I didn't like about this game to list. None of them make the game unplayable, but after playing the game for about 15 hours you wonder why they spent so much time on the water effects and so little time balancing the skills, making the interface easier to use, giving the characters personality, and giving good feedback to the player in combat.
The character-building tools are fun to use, and it is great to have the flexibility to make the character you want, but ultimately, the flexibility is illusionary -- there are only a few different types of character builds, and since you can buy training for cash, you can get good in skills even if you didn't specialize in them once you raise enough money. There is also almost no reason to specialize in Stealth because you can get all of the perks of the Stealth abilities by casting spells. Sure a thief can sneak and pick locks, but there are cheap, reliable spells that replace his abilities and they are easier to come by than a high Security skill and a pair of master lock picks. Why even bother with sneaking when you can just make yourself invisible? I had some fun with the thief I made until I tried out a mage build and found that I could steal 90% of the stuff that the thief could without specializing as a thief. I was never able to successfully backstab, even with weapon raised and the "sneak" icon clearly showing that I wasn't detected. So much for the thief builds.
So that gives you the choice between fighters and mages or a combination of the two. So now your only character-building choices are picking which spell schools and weapon types you want as Major skills and which you want as minor skills. The spells are fun to use, but are awkward to select even with the quick keys. The worst aspect of spells is that there is no obvious way to remove obsolete spells from your spellbook as you get or design better versions of them. So if you can't fit all your favorite spells on the quick menu (I couldn't and I only had 4 schools of magic) you have to bring up the spellbook menu and search through the list for it which is tedious to say the least.
Combat is poorly implemented. First of all, there is absolutely no feedback on how damaged a foe is, so you have no idea how close you are to killing your enemies, which eliminates a lot of combat strategy. Second, combat is even more of a click-fest than in Diablo 2, without the fun of having all those cool special attacks. Your only attack options are spells and melee. There are three types of melee attacks: slash, thrust, and chop, which would seem to give you some strategic options. Unfortunately, you have to do some really awkward gyrations with the controls to select between the different attacks, and it doesn't matter anyway because all weapons have one kind of attack that does more damage than the others, so why bother using any of the others? There is a game option to "always use best attack" that keeps you from having to jiggle as you clash swords. Why didn't they just remove the options altogether since there is never a reason not to use the best attack? Finally, it was obvious that Hand-to-Hand combat with fists was an afterthought, as it requires so many punches to KO even a lowly rat that you will wear out your index finger and your patience before becoming the Karate Kid of Morrowind. Also, for no reason at all, you can't use the Block skill with unarmed combat which would seem to be a natural fit for that skill.
A final problem with character development is that the Enchant skill is way too powerful. As long as you have the Soul Gems (and are willing to restore a lot of saved games or spend lots of money to raise your Enchant skill) you can put any spell effects, from paralyze to life leech, on an item, the only limitation being that you have the spell effect in your spellbook, even if you can't cast it reliably or don't have enough mana to cast it! So you can run around with your Staff of Paralyzation and Life leech and mow down monsters at your leisure. It would be much more interesting if the abilities on the item were based on the creature you had trapped in the Soul Gem. But of course Bethesda couldn't put something that interesting in the game, they had to make it generic.
Dungeon-delving and questing is a fun part of the game, but the price you pay is a rather disjointed gameplay as you wait for new scenes to load even if you are only visiting the local Inn to get a good night's sleep. The developers really should have toned down the graphics a little so they could have made the game transitions smoother. They should have done seamless transitions like Dungeon Siege, especially since it is only a single-player game! The other problem with their zoning is that creatures can't follow you in and out of zones. So if you are getting your butt kicked by a bunch of bandits and you have enough speed you can just turn around and run out the door to their cave (that's right...ALL of the caves in Morrowind have doors!) for an easy retreat.
The interface is pretty good, but there are a lot of things that require too many clicks and drags to accomplish simple tasks like inventory management. The inventory system is difficult to use and forces you to click and drag items too many times. It would be a lot more convenient to have a text view of many items, especially alchemical ingredients and potions, which all look alike after a while. I hate having to mouse over every scrap of hide or piece of plant that I have in order to find the right ingredients for my potion. I also wished that I could load two different types of arrows into one quiver so that I wouldn't have to reload during combat.
My final gripe is that none of the characters in the game are very interesting. I wasn't expecting the level of characterization of Morte in Planescape: Torment, but I was expecting at least a little more dialogue options than only being able to ask about quests, rumors, and what they do for a living. The worst part of the dialogue options is that most characters respond in exactly the same way. So if you ask any fighter about his job, he will respond with a lengthy paragraph that sounds like a resume submitted to the local fighters' guild. Yawn.
Some characters will join you as companions, but don't expect them to be very interesting or even very helpful in combat. Your companions always blindly charge anything that appears hostile, even if they are obviously overmatched. Even worse, they often charge into the path of your spells or arrows, and then take their stupidity out on your hide. After a while I just started killing anyone that wanted to join me so they wouldn't get in the way. After all, they still carry the reward money or item they were going to give you for doing whatever errand they wanted you to do.
The Bottom LineMorrowind is a large, beautiful, open-ended RPG that allows you to custom build your character, spells, and magic items from components. Unfortunately, the good ideas in the game are overshadowed by a ton of poor game design choices that make the game a lot less fun and a lot more tedious than it should be. Perhaps the Mod community will be able to use the bundled construction kit to solve some of Morrowind's worst problems, but many of them are so embedded in the design of the game that I doubt anything but a huge gameplay and interface patch by Bethesda would solve the problems.
The game is still worth trying, but I would wait until it is $15 in the bargain bin and good Mods start coming out before shelling out money for it. If you did pay full price, you can at least console yourself about your bad gaming investment by looking at the cool water effects.