I came to know Morrowind (I only figured out it was the third game in a series after the fact) through a friend. He had taken time out from Everquest to play a new single player RPG that I hadn’t heard of. I sat and watched for a while, and was intrigued. There were a LOT of things different about Morrowind, such as skills that improved with use and not just from an arbitrary level-up. The world was massive, with miles and miles of terrain with ruins and caves to explore. You were free to roam anywhere and do the main plot at your own pace. I really enjoyed that aspect, as it was one of the few games where you could really get in over your head in a dungeon meant for a higher level (but if you could sneak through and grab some of the gear it was incredibly fun).
It’s a game that is meant to actually be role-played, but that did mean that the gameplay was breakable if you were a bit of a min-maxer. You could find (or steal) many solid weapons and armor right from the start if you were careful and had the patience, though the effectiveness of the armor stayed low until you had been hit in that kind of gear quite a bit. You could also cheat the potion-making and enchanting systems by creating temporary stat boosting potions, using them (cumulative) and then creating even more powerful potions and so on. Still, once you know how to break the game, it’s up to you not to do it. I’d rather have the option to be creative than be hamstrung because of a few dopes.
The game itself looked good for the time, though it suffers (similar to Dragon Age: Origins) from too much brown. The character faces were pretty muddy, but that leads to one of the other big strengths of this game series: you can fix it with mods! Bethsoft provided a fairly easy to use set of tools to customize the game, and gamers took to it. There are 297 pages of mods listed at PlanetElderScrolls for Morrowind, and many of them are quite awesome. Don’t like getting attacked by Cliff Racers? Take them out of the game. People are ugly? Install new heads, new clothes or whatever you can think of. Don’t like the housing options in your favorite town? Build a new one, or heck, build a whole new island of your own. People did, and it’s incredible. There are numerous mods I wouldn’t start a new game without.
If you are as excited as I am getting for what you are seeing out of Skyrim, you owe it to yourself to go back and play Morrowind and Oblivion. Classics.