Morrowind is a unique RPG experience that I have enjoyed more than any other. The story takes place on a human empire's furthest and most recent conquest - the island of Vvardenfell. The island is populated by Dark Elves, or Dunmer as they refer to themselves, as well as many original and unusual natural and unnatural flora and fauna.
The world seems enormous due to the rich layers of detail and the breadth of quests available. It is actually considerably smaller than either of the previous entries - Arena and Daggerfall. But it is much more interesting due to the detail. I have only played Daggerfall, and it was enjoyable to an extent, but it was just too cookie-cutter for my tastes. Every building and town looked the same, and the dungeons were a mess of weaving, 3D corridors that were extremely tedious to navigate, even with the minimap.
Although Morrowind scales the size of the world down a bit, that is the only thing about the game that is smaller. There are a number of "guilds" or other organizations that can be joined, each with their own ranking system and multitude of quests that take the character to the far corners of the island world. The environs are richly detailed, with varied terrain, numerous towns that are all unique in layout and architecture, fantastic environmental effects like sandstorms and rainfall, and a dramatic night sky filled with stars.
The best part of the game is that it is almost entirely open ended. You can play any type of character you wish, from a virtuous crusader to a dastardly villain. You like to steal things? There are valuables everywhere for the taking (but not without consequence). You prefer to be a noble warrior? There are a number of guilds and quests to suit your sense of right. How about a bloodthirsty barbarian? Got you covered. Maybe a mafia-like hit-man? You bet! Or maybe you are more of a pacifist that would prefer not to fight at all unless it's absolutely necessary? You'll be very busy here. Or just maybe - you'd like to be all of these rolled into one? Well guess what? You can! Now there are competing factions, and law to be upheld, so your decisions may not be without consequences. But with a little caution (and resorting back to saved games), you can be a very successful career criminal in this world. In fact, there are a number of illicit trades that you can become involved with, including slave trading, narcotics, murder for hire, and of course theft. There is even some implicit prostitution in several of the towns. This is not Grand Theft Auto, but the criminal underworld is just below the surface with many opportunities for those who are so inclined.
I stressed the criminal element here merely to demonstrate the game's depth. There is also much political intrigue that the character can become involved with. This makes for some very interesting game play with numerous side stories to be told. Now to solve the game, you must eventually become involved in the "main" quest. But there is so much else to do that you may very well forget about this for a long, long time. In fact, you can come back to it whenever you wish without penalty.
The game relies on a skills-based system for character advancement. You start with a set of skills, ranging from weapons and armors to speechcraft and mercantile. Each one improves with use only. There are no "experience points" for killing monsters. If it takes you two swings to kill a monster, then the skill for the weapon you used increases by two swings. With the skills trainers and opportunities to use these skills, they are increased fairly rapidly, resulting in level increases.
With all the glowing praise I have for the game, there is still room for some criticism. Although increasing one's skills and wealth early in the game is a challenge, as it progresses this becomes easy to the point of tedium. Some of the very valuable items that are supposed to be rare seem to appear with frequency. And the character eventually gets so much outstanding equipment that he/she becomes nigh invincible. Many would not consider this much of a flaw, but when the game fails to challenge it becomes less appealing. There is still an incredibly interesting story and quests to follow, but I feel that some of the game aspects should have been redesigned. It is truly a paradise for the power gamer, however. The combat is rather straight forward and simplistic, but this is not the main focus of the game as it is with so many others - in nearly all other RPG game titles the character must wade through and kill hordes of things just to level up and advance along in the game. You could technically advance to a high level in this game without killing a single thing (although that might become a bit tedious and boring). The only other problem, in a way, is that the game is of the "sandbox" variety, meaning that it never really ends. It is rather anti-climactic.
When all is said and done, however, this tops my list of the best RPG experiences of all time. Immersive, entertaining, with a phenomenal breadth of things to do, places to go, and people to see, this is an experience that any RPG fan would be loathe to miss out on. Do yourself a big favor and go get the Morrowind Game of the Year Edition as soon as you can. I have not played Oblivion yet, so it may even be better. But Morrowind must even then be highly enjoyable.