In this order, from best to worst (also in alphabetical order, coincidentally), is what I think of each Older Scrells games:
I'm going to try and explain why I think the way I do through a few categories that I think sum up the entirety of the three games. (Disclaimer: Throughout this..."review", I treat Oblivion like some kind of unwanted step-child that isn't old enough to get a job and not young enough to find cute.)
Category #1: Openings
In the first half-hour-or-so (an hour if you're as undecisive as I am) of Morrowind, you can't kill the first few people you meet because you don't have a weapon. Then, after you are properly equipped, you may kill, steal, and (obviously the most egregious) sleep in the middle of the town square. At any moment throughout the game, no matter how game-breaking, you may kill anyone/everyone.
The opening of Oblivion is similar, only, after you get your weapons, there are select people who, when their health is depleted, rise from the dead again and again until you have deemed that this will not be the game you continue and load your last save. There are dozens of characters like this throughout the game.
Skyrim's beginning starts off with a Half-Life-style cart/Disney ride which takes you to the area where your character will move (all by himself, ain't he special) to the next area where you will run from dragons until the next area where you will equip swords (and maces and axes and battleaxes and 2 swords and 2 maces and 2 axes) which you will probably immediately use to try and decapitate your buddy-friend who will react in no way to your gliding swords across his back. You can't kill your buddy-dude, not even a scratch, until you leave the tutorial cavern (tutoriavern?). Why? So you don't mess up the game? He also does ALL the killing in the tutoriavern. I mean, you could kill a dude, I guess. If you get in front of him, that is. By the time you get to where the action is, he's already wiped off his blood-drenched swords with the dead rat carcasses. Or the dead rat carcasses with his blood-drenched swords, I can't remember which.
Also, a lot of people complain about the fact that kids are pretty much invincible (that must be a pretty crappy 18th birthday, "Jimmy the Snot-Nosed, I'm sorry, but you are no longer immune to any attacks, disease, fall damage, stealth kills, slipping down a flight of stairs, or sleeping on your carotid artery, slicing it ever-so-slightly) and kids are really the only ones that you feel compelled to kill. I mean, really, if you complain about it, that's kind of a strange that to complain about, but it does make a lot of sense. The point is: if there's no town where kids rule the roost and act like monster dicks to you at every given turn like Fallout 3's Little Lamplight, then kids shouldn't even be in the game. I mean, they add nothing but bounding boxes and literary context, which, in a game where you can have a fireball bomb cooking in one hand and a mace swinging in the other, maybe context isn't too important. And think of all the free room you'd have with all those kids out of your way. Oh boy, I sound like a serial killer, now, let's take a quick break:
The progression from Arena-to-Daggerfall-to-Morrowind-to-Oblivion-to-Skyrim is similar to the career of one of my personal favorite bands, Wings.
Starting out with their first album in 1971, Wild Life, to which everyone replied, "What the hell is this?" Then they followed up with a great album, Red Rose Speedway, my personal favorite album (which includes my personal favorite song, but that isn't very important). Not getting any commercial or critical success, but not being exactly shunned, the band then went on to Band On The Run, their most popular record.
After that, critical success, commercial success, you name it (...spiritual?), they were on top of it. So, what do they follow that up with? Venus and Mars. Not bad. Not Band On The Run, but not bad. Has some good numbers on there. Everyone knows 'Listen To What The Man Said', and some people know 'Letting Go'. Not bad. What next? Wings At the Speed of Sound? Hm. I...alright. It's not terrible. Half of the songs are listenable--enjoyable, even. But, come on...Cook of the House? (If you're keeping tabs: Arena = Wild Life, Daggerfall = Red Rose Speedway, Morrowind = Band on the Run, Oblivion = Venus and Mars, and Skyrim = Wings At the Speed of Sound) After all that, you have the somewhat-return-to-form London Town, which was a fine album, then Back to the Egg, which was...well, it was Back to the Egg. A very experimental album. What songs aren't pretty good (Getting Closer) are pretty god-awful (Arrow Through Me). All of this, of course, is only partially analogous because Paul McCartney had 5 more careers before and after Wings.
Bethesda, however, is not Paul McCartney (you can quote me on that).
[END OF INTERMISSION]
Section #2: Attitude Towards Player
One of an enemy's taunts in Skyrim is, "I've fought worse than you!" What? You're saying I'm not bad? How is that helping you? This isn't some high-class British royalty fencing match. It's a barbaric, to-the-death fisty cuffs that will end with me peeling off the underwear on your hairy ass to sell to someone (preferably someone who needs barbarian underwear). You should be trying a little harder to intimidate me, maybe?
In contrast, Morrowind's residents (not just the hostile ones) will greet you, at best, with casual racism, calling you things like "Outlander" and "Cyrodil", which I believe is racist, but I'm not sure. I mean, calling someone outlander is actually a pretty rough, if you think about it. You're basically putting it right out on front street that they're not welcome in the slightest. I had to retrieve some dude's ring before he would even humor me with responses to my dumb questions about something dumb.
I don't remember what people said in Oblivion. It was probably along the lines of, "This is for the gods!" or something. (No, I remember one: "This is the part where you fall down and BLEED TO DEATH!"...so, there's that one.)
This is how a citizen greets an orc: "Hello, Orc." Well, alright. I suppose I wouldn't like it if a dog came up to me and said, "Hello, human." Or maybe I would. I mean, how should he greet me? He could just say, "Hello." and that might go over better. Maybe he should just say, "Hey, man.", but say it in a very condescending manner. Where was I?
Part #3: Mission Structure
One of the first missions I got in my recent game of Morrowind began with me finding a dead body just outside of Seyda Neen, the starting town. On him was 200 gold, tax records of everyone in town, and some stupid-looking robe. I talked to some official dude in the census office (or whatever the beginning building was) and told him about the dead body. He asked if I found any money on his body, to which I replied, "Uh...nope, can't say I found any...what was it that you said? Money? No, none of that." He said, "Oh, alright, I guess. Nevermind. I was gonna offer you a reward, but..." Save file successfully loaded. "Did you find any money on his body?" "Why, yes! I did." "Oh, well, I'll take that." I poised my finger over the reload button. "If you can find the guy who killed him, I'll give the reward of 500 gold, more than double the money you returned!" Oh, alright. So I found him by searching the tax records, looking at the person with the highest tab. I confronted him, he confessed, even going so far as to say he'd do it again. Then he got pissed and started jabbing at me. So I killed him. I reported back to Official Guy and he gave me my reward. Then I thought...hey...if I killed that dude BEFORE I talked to Official Guy, I wouldn't have to give him the tax money AND I could get the reward. Okay, I didn't actually think that, I read it, but still. I mean, that isn't a quest line, it's more like what a tax collector would do, in that you have to figure out what outcome of events benefits you the most. It isn't some random series of events that at the end you get gold. You actually have to understand and be able to play with the rules of what is happening. I didn't even get into the part of the quest that involves a ring the tax collector had that his girlfriend wanted to remember him.
In Skyrim, there's a mission where you stab a guy in the face.
Actually, that's not fair, I've seen some Skyrim quests and their competent along the lines of story beats. But as far as what you do, it isn't very involved. (Even Oblivion had that great 'And Then There Were None'-style quest where you have to go to a large house filled with prospective winners of a fortune if they can spend the night in the house, but you had to kill them all, one-by-one, without anyone seeing you. That was pretty good.)
This isn't about Morrowind being about CHOICE, though. CHOICE is a ridiculous buzzword that has no real meaning by itself. But Morrowind was about...optimization? What I mean is that, at any given juncture, there are hundreds--thousands of things to do. Some of those things can be done in any order, but figuring out what order to do things can yield far greater results. Example: If I get hired to kill a guy who wants me to deliver a letter to someone, I should deliver his letter, get the reward, then kill him in his stupid, smug face.
Even in the RPG mechanics, it's about optimization. How can I raise my Acrobatics without spending any time on it? Hows about I jump everywhere I go?
Optimization may not sound like an inherently interesting theme for design, but in a world with Phoenix Wright, a game about lawyers (albeit sweaty, Japanese lawyers), I don't think that's a problem.
Now, to be sure, Morrowind's quests aren't all of the same quality. There are the broken Thieves Guild quests that are broken. Like, really, really broken. Like, how did they expect this to be done by a sane human? And without mods. And I could give you dozens of examples, but I haven't really played Morrowind past...I don't know, three towns? And I only kinda skimmed them for quests. All I know is that the purpose behind Morrowind is...purposeful? (Boy, this is falling apart fast). It wasn't bold to make an open world game with lots of quests, Fallout and Diablo had it beat long before. What was great about Morrowind was its sense of a world only a game could create. Oblivion and Skyrim would strive for worlds based on Lord of the Rings, and Morrowind's visual style is certainly copped from other stuff as well, but how many quests in Oblivion were about you finding a dead tax collector? (I think I might actually remember one, or at least a similar one.)
In Morrowind, when you are being directed somewhere, you are told through landmarks and directions, rather than arrows on the bottom. Skyrim's so afraid new players won't have any idea what to do that it insults them by never walking away and grabbing a sandwich. It's always behind you, pointing at where to go, like a nervous game developer at E3, scared to death that the press-man won't understand what they've been pouring the last 3 or so years into.
I think (to tie this into Thanksgiving) I'll say that we should be thankful for what we have this year, game-wise. For every new Assassin's Creed game, there's a Dark Souls. For every Modern Warfare 3/Battlefield 3/Uncharted 3/Gears of War 3/Just Dance 3(?), there's a Super Mario Land 3D. And for every Skyrim, there's a dentist appointment.
That was too harsh. Ah, screw it. Happy Thanksgiving.