Gritty European fantasy
When you get to the nearest settlement, the so-called "Old Camp", the guard asks if you're going to be making trouble.
"Sure, I'm here to take on the whole camp."
"You're a funny guy... I don't like funny guys."
(beats you up, steals your stuff)
"Thanks for the ore! I'll drink to you!"
And so you are left lying in the mud wondering if there's anyone in this town not looking to punch you in the face...
There is Diego, one of Gomez' men, who keeps you from getting killed by the welcoming committee and quickly becomes your friend and mentor.
Once acquainted with the politics and geography of the place you spend much time travelling between the three main camps doing jobs for each of the factions.
And there's all kinds that need doing. First of all, there's the letter. You need to get it to the High Fire Mage at the Old Camp, but the mages are in the castle and Thorus won't let you in without good reason. Becoming a guard in the Old Camp, or a courier for one of the other camps will gain you access, but first you must earn their trust. In every camp a number of influential figures will vouch for you if you prove your worth.
Thankfully their quests are a little more imaginative than collect X of X. Fingers wants you to learn some useful thieving skills, Sly wants you to buy a sword which Fisk refuses to sell him, while Thorus would like you to secretly 'take care of' an envoy from the New Camp whose death would cause political trouble if it was linked to his men... Baal Tondral meanwhile wants you to recruit a new member for the Sect Camp, while Baal Namib will be impressed if you claim to have had a religious epiphany...
Eventually you join one of the three camps, making your contact with the other two limited to the occasional diplomatic exchange.
The landscape in Gothic is really something. It's not as unendingly enormous as, say, Morrowind, but this is sooner a strength than a weakness. Every cliff and corner is hand-crafted and there's always something interesting to find off the beaten path. Once you've spent some time in the valley you won't even need a map to know where you are. No one place looks the same.
Combat in Gothic is interesting. It takes some getting used to, and when fending off multiple attackers can be unwieldy, but it actually works rather well. Instead of stats doing your work for you, fighting takes good timing and an awareness of posture. Skills will you give a higher chance to do a critical hit, and training will make your moves more varied, but button-mashing will get you nowhere and if you just swung your sword to the right and try to swing right again, you will do *nothing*... What moves you can do, and do well, depends on how you're holding your sword.
One thing Gothic has in spades is atmosphere, from its European forests and mountain ranges to its sometimes gorgeous weather effects and lighting. The day/night-cycle in the game has a very real effect on the people around you. They wake up and leave their houses in the morning, splash their face in a bucket of water and then get to work. In the evening people sit around the campfire.
NPCs react. If you draw your sword in the middle of a crowded square, everyone around you will draw theirs, shouting: "Put the weapon away!". Go wandering into their houses when they're around and they'll be none too happy either. Any NPC can be killed, but winning a fight against someone only knocks them out. Unless you're using arrows or magic, you have to deliver a killing blow, making murder a very calculated thing which you WILL be held responsible for. Most people will leave you alone if you kick their ass once, so there is generally no need to go around killing everyone who looks at you funny.
You're warned early in the game: "Don't go into the forest, especially at night."
And they aren't kidding. Gothic is filled with things that can kill you. The game is not going to hold your hand and if you're stupid enough to run into a Shadowbeast with no armour and a pick-axe, you will be eaten. It lends a real sense of danger to the wild. Once you venture outside the gates, you're on your own. Get skilled enough though and it is you that will be doing the hunting.
Gothic has a very open-ended start, but gets more focused as you progress and the story begins to unfold. There's a lot of room for choice in how you interact with the three factions and your fellow inmates, though the underlying plot is fairly linear. Overall it strikes a good balance between having a meaningful story and letting you freely explore an open world.
Certainly, it is a place worth visiting.