Morrowind. Inexplicably titled The Elder Scrolls III, though there actually exist four preceding titles bearing the name, it came pretty much out of the blue. Although there was some publicity here and there, all eyes were on the much-hyped and little-seen Neverwinter Nights. However, though Morrowind sneaked out under the shadow of the eventual US release of the aforementioned über-RPG, it has had a fairly big impact. I've been playing it for few hours now, so I guess this is more of an 'initial reactions' feature than a full review. An RPG by genre but touching on FPS and adventure, the game puts you in the shoes of a foreigner, an outlander, arriving in a strange new land called Morrowind. And I like it.
As a fresh immigrant you have total freedom to choose who and what you want to be. A nice touch right at the start is the character creation process. In the guise of an registration process for new arrivals, the storyline lets you decide on your class based on a number of presets, create your own custom class or have it determined for you based on your answers to a number of questions, Voight-Kampf-style. However, I would have liked more information at that point and perhaps a little longer to explore the game before I was forced to make my selection, and some of the characteristics I selected for my character based purely on the short description given I regret choosing, now that I have discovered more about how the game works and what each skill does. My advice is to take your time when creating your character. By all means experiment with various combinations and try all three methods of class selection before you are happy, and don't be afraid to start over. Do what fits the image of your character that you have in your head.
The storyline takes a while to get going, so expect to feel a little aimless for a while. Without giving anything away, once you find the guy you are instructed to seek he will point you vaguely in the right direction, but how you proceed at most points during the game is pretty much up to you. You have a broad choice of guilds to join, if you want to join one at all, or you can become a member of more than one. Guilds give you tasks to perform, as well as some basic equipment and discounted training and equipment, and you can advance up the ranks and obtain access to new facilities and skills. However, your guild duties are merely sub-quests to sustain you, let you grab some loot and level you up a little in order to be able to further the main story. Yes, this game has the usual levelling, and yes, That's Bad. Nevertheless, your character's level plays less of a part in the game than in some others, and my level hasn't restricted me from doing anything - well, not yet, at least.
Now, the fun part - stealing. Bizarrely, you can pilfer pretty much anything provided you can find a position where no NPC has a direct line of site to you, even if the object or container is plain view of them. The difficulty of getting into chests and locked rooms differs depending on the lock, your equipment and your proficiency in Security. Cleverly, merchants and other characters more often than not recognise their own possessions and will call the guards or attack you if you try to sell them back things you have nicked from them; even more cleverly (and a little comically), when trying to sell an item to an alchemist in the Mages Guild building, another NPC shouted across the room "That's MY Soul Gem!" Because of this, making a profit on your stolen items can often be trickier than the actual theft, especially when stealing high-value but specialist items. The whole mercantile system is good fun, though, and the bartering-types will enjoy building up their wealth.
Combat is ok, though I've yet to fight anything really nasty. The enemy AI seems pretty good, though the more vicious critters can sometimes get momentarily stuck while trying to catch you. There are plenty of weapons and multiple ways to use most of them (for instance, with a bladed weapon you can slash, chop or thrust), which adds another dimension to the swordplay. Long-range weapons are a little fiddly but I suspect this is deliberate with lower-level bows and the like.
The visuals are lovely, but come at a high price. My mid-level machine struggles to cope with 1024x768 resolution, even with some of the graphical features turned down or off, and you may well have to cast Fortify Speed on your graphics card several times to achieve full real-time shadows without any slowdown. As a result, I find the game can be a little shaky and laggy, especially with high-detail areas and rainfall. The loading time between areas is mercifully fast, as is saving the game. Unfortunately, the quick-load, a term that is becoming increasingly oxymoronic nowadays, takes an annoyingly long time, though that is slightly balanced by the creature art and images displayed while it is loading.
A nice feature of the game is its file structure and expandability. You can download new data files and plug-ins, official and unofficial, or make your own with the bundled Elder Scrolls Construction Set. They will seamlessly integrate into the game and even into your saved games. Well, the ones that won't completely bugger it up. New buildings, cities and continents, custom weapons and spells, pets and beasts of burden, new NPCs, new quests and even scantily clad slave girls are available from a number of sites. Get the latest patch first, of course.
Morrowind is a great game if you don't like sleep. You can easily plan to play for half an hour and realise three hours later than you're still at it. I would definitely recommend it to RPG fans, and FPS players would like it too, though the game is a lot slower than Quake-types. Choose the right characteristics and class at the start and you'll be quickly drawn into the wonderful world of Morrowind.