PC Software: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

Any game that can make Dungeon Siege and the Baldur's Gate series look limited in scope has to win your respect. Morrowind effortlessly grabs the other PC RPGs by the throat, swings them around, and leaves them in a heap on the side of the road.

It's difficult to introduce the story of Morrowind since the whole idea is that you help make the story as you go along. Before you even make any decisions about your character (including your name, race, and class), you find yourself aboard a prison ship, about to be released to the Imperial town of Seyda Neen. For the next few minutes, you create your character by answering questions, signing release forms, and preparing to set out as a free citizen in the world. Why you were a prisoner in the first place isn't important - it's what you do when you're free that matters.

From there, you're given clues that will lead you down a secret adventure of betrayal, discovery, and intrigue, but you don't really have to follow that story. In fact, you could play Morrowind for hundreds of hours and never finish the first story-based quest. There are hundreds of places to explore, quests to fulfil, and people to talk to (or take out). You could go pearl diving for easy cash and suddenly discover a hidden underwater grotto that leads you into a whole new adventure. Unfortunate undead slayers might find themselves infected with a hideous disease with an obscure cure, or they could even contract vampirism and be forced to live as a creature of the night. Since you can customise your character completely at character generation (with patience, you can master every single skill in the game), the options for your gaming style are nearly infinite.

Whereas the last Elder Scrolls game, Daggerfall, was huge because it created towns and quests at random, Morrowind is entirely hand-crafted and still rivals its predecessor for sheer size and depth. There is no way you'll be able to do everything in the game with just one character, and the gameplay is vastly different among different character types, so you'll want to play over and over just to see what life is like as a dark elven vampire enchanter or an undead-summoning Imperial archer. You can even make a character who doesn't rely on combat at all to rise in levels. There are very few limits to what you can do in the game, and that's both a blessing and a curse.

The fact that the game is so open-ended might turn off a few people who are used to being led around by their noses. You could go for a long time without any given quests to fulfil, or you might run into quest dungeons that are much too hard for someone of your level. If that happens, though, you can simply go looking for the many ancestral tombs that dot the landscape, ask the townspeople about local rumours, or rob people of their possessions to make money for better equipment. If you can think of it, there's a good chance you can do it.

From a presentation standpoint, the graphics give a distinct impression of a far-off fantasy world that clearly diverges from the popular Tolkien-based idiom, and Morrowind's sounds and music are among the best ever heard on the PC. The first time you hear a thunderstorm or the eerie hiss of a vampire, you'll know you're involved in something special.

All's not well in the land of Morrowind, however. Although the game's interface is transparent and customisable, the control system itself could use some work. Combat is a chaotic whirl of activity (as it is in real life, allegedly), and spellcasting in combat can be a harrowing experience. Bethesda ‘simplified' the PC controls to accommodate an Xbox version, but in doing so, it eliminated many of the benefits of a PC interface, such as typing in amounts of gold in trades (instead of having to increase the number by clicking repeatedly) and having a sortable, multi-page spellbook (rather than having to go through your entire list of spells every time you want to find a specific one). There are also a number of glaring bugs, and while you can happily play the game without much trouble, the bugs that do occur are frustrating and dire.

Still, a real RPG fan with patience, imagination, and plenty of free time will absolutely love Morrowind, though Final Fantasy diehards need not apply. It's been six years since Bethesda's Daggerfall taught us what RPGs are all about, and Morrowind is the perfect refresher course.

Publisher: Bethesda Softworks.

Developer: Bethesda Softworks.

URL: www.elderscrolls.com.