2002 was probably a really good year. I'm sure lots of things happened during those 365 days that were noteworthy or memorable to many people. All I can attribute to that year however was leaving school and the release of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. The third game in the phenomenally successful series (although actually the fifth, with Redguard and Battlespire coming before it), Morrowind was a massive step up from it's predecessor Daggerfall. Gone was the randomly spawning maps that changed with every new game, Morrowind instead gave us the definitive sandbox – A sprawling island country called Vvardenfell, with an archipelago of smaller islands and settlements surrounding it. Into this world you're quite unceremoniously dumped and onto this world you must forge your legend.
Helping you do this is the intuitive character creation system. Choosing a race, birth sign and character class (or creating your own from scratch) sets your character with racial bonuses and the skills you'll be using to survive. While it is possible to become a master at any (and all if you have the time) of these skills, the ones you choose at the start will build faster and ultimately decide when you can level up. These skills range from various weapon specialties like short blades and axes to your ability to haggle and general conversation skills. None of these skills feels like a tacked on 'fill the numbers' skill either; If you choose to make a personality based character you'll find that many quests can be solved without violence through coercion and sweet talking your target, just don't expect to last long in the wilderness.
The main story of Morrowind is extremely long and eventually takes you over the entirety of Vvardenfell, starting you off in the Imperial Provinces running fetch quests and getting your bearings, you're shortly spirited off to the Ashlands to the north of the island. Here desolate grey wilderness and swirling ash storms test your perseverance as you wander between primitive tribes and integrate yourself with the natives of the island. By the end of the 40+ hour storyline you'll have conversed with gods, obtained many pieces of legendary armour and become famous across the whole of Vvardenfell. The hardest part of the main story however is simply staying on track. As soon as you're off the boat at the start the whole island is open to you. Granted some areas are tougher than others and some will only reveal themselves after certain quests and criteria are met, but it's the exploration and immersion in the world Bethesda have created that makes Morrowind such a fun game. Every town, be it a little run down fishing village like Gnaar Mok or the vast city of Vivec, has anything from 1-20 mini quests ranging from solving a family feud to becoming an assassin and fulfilling contracts for large sums of money. I remember the first time I played this game I spent the first few character builds simply wandering the island and looking around, playing a Breton mage in the desert city of Ald-Ruhn, then a Dark Elf Telvanni agent in the plant like structures of Vos and Sadrith Mora. There's so much on offer in this game that you're required to create several different characters just to feasibly see it all.
The art direction and environment of Vvardenfell is extremely varied for its size, and walking from one side of it to the other will take you through a menagerie of different areas. From the swamp and marshland of the Bitter Coast to the huge mushrooms and lush fields of the Ascadian Isles, through to the rocky, lava flow ridden region of Maar Gaan filled with ancient ruins and massive pieces of machinery from ages past, Bethesda have really gone to town with this game. Every inch of the island is beautifully designed, with only a couple of tiny glitches here and there. Morrowind rewards the player who takes it on themselves to leave the dirt roads and explore behind the hills, with ancestral tombs, vast cave networks and monster-ridden dungeons littered across the map, some being part of quests, many being there simply for the player to discover and plunder. While every major town and city is technically connected either by the Silt Strider network (massive flea-like insects that allow you to travel between cities instantly, for a price) or by a boat network, many a time you will find yourself choosing to walk from place to place, which can be extremely slow and time consuming (at the start of the game it takes a good 20+ minutes to walk from the starting town to the first main city), but much more rewarding. More than once you'll find yourself pausing to take in the scenery or going out of your way to help a fellow traveler, normally finding something worth the excursion as well.
Unfortunately, Morrowind lets itself down in one area – Combat. Fighting with magic isn't too bad, acting a bit like an FPS with slower projectiles, but the melee combat is dull and quickly repetitive. It could have been so much better had a bit more thought been put into it (and, thanks to the modding community, there has). Even with a weapon type you've mastered, combat essentially comes down to zig-zagging around your opponents magic, then wailing on them with your axe/sword/warhammer of choice until they die. Certain other parameters, like eating food to keep your fatigue up so you connect more often, come into play but in the end it becomes Morrowinds one main downfall, and unfortunately it's a pretty important one considering how often you're called to fight, especially outside of towns.
Morrowind has aged well, thanks in part to it's original design and setting, and thanks in part to the vast modding community that added so much to the original build of the game. In many ways it surpasses its sequel Oblivion simply by being a much deeper story and setting, dealing with subjects like religious conflicts, slavery and the colonization of an inhabited land. All this takes place on a lush, varied and beautiful world map that's a joy to explore and immerse yourself in, even if it means sitting in a bookshop and reading the excellently written stories that simply deepen the Elder Scrolls lore. If you missed this game then take it on yourself to play it, if only to see where Oblivion, Skyrim and, to an extent, Fallout 3 came from.* And if none of those games were your cup of tea, at least play it to see a groundbreaking and excellent example of an RPG and one of the best games from the past ten years.
*Incidentally, there's a mod for Morrowind that rebuilds Fallout 1 in the Morrowind engine, quite faithfully as well.