A fantastic voyage into one of the most beautifully realized worlds in gaming history.

With Skyrim right around the corner, I do what I always do when a new installment of a franchise I love is on the cusp of release: I whip out its predecessors and play them. A lot. Since Skyrim and Assassin's Creed: Revelations are coming out so close to each other, this November is going to be rough.

I have loved Elder Scrolls ever since I played Morrowind for Xbox (I later got the GOTY edition for PC). It had one of the most amazing premises I had ever seen: we drop you into a world with an over-arching set of rules and norms, and you simply make your way however you see fit. There was literally a gameplay style for every single person who could conceivably pick up a copy. This was so amazing to me because I felt like so many games tethered you to a main plot, while this one gave you an MMO experience offline, and that was something truly special.

When Oblivion was announced, I was ecstatic. The screenshots looked then what Skyrim's look like now: absolutely stunning. The whole game concept had been drastically enhanced for the new hardware, and I was excited that full voice-over interaction was going to be the norm. Unfortunately, I didn't have money for a new console, and my computer at that time was a Dell Dimension, not suited for hardcore gaming (I have since built a hardcore gaming rig that can easily play Oblivion and most new games on maximum settings). I was saddened by my predicament. I got to play a couple hours on my buddy's Xbox, but I wanted some quality time with the game.

Luckily, I got an okay job some six months after Oblivion came out, and I went out and grabbed an Xbox and a copy of Oblivion as my first game. I took home my new toys and was instantly blown away by the things I experienced. This game was exactly the RPG I wanted to play.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the plot, it starts out like most other Elder Scrolls games: you are a prisoner, charged with an unknown crime and with an unknown past who, by some serendipitous turn of events, winds up being released from captivity and given a simple task: find and speak with a specific person in a specific place. Once you're cut loose, it's completely up to you what to do. The plot of this game revolves around Oblivion gates (gates that go straight to hell) opening up all over the land, and you are charged with finding the assassinated emperor's illegitimate son, so that he can take the throne and combat the invasion. It's typical fantasy stuff here, but it's executed well.

That plot may be the main quest, but there are scores, nay, a hundred-PLUS sub plots that you can explore. Join the mage's or fighter's guilds, pal around with thieves, become a vampire, do errands for Daedric gods, loot dozens upon dozens of tombs and caves, find hidden locations (of which there are a stupefying number), and interact with hundreds of people. You have so much freedom, that I can imagine a new player may be intimidated to the point of insanity. This is what makes this game so great: you have so many options, it is literally impossible that two players will have even remotely similar experiences with the game.

The game's voice acting is competent, but not perfect. The audio as a whole is great, but the music is what sets the tone. Most people wind up being little more than animated information kiosks, many of which have the same exact thing to say, with a few variations. This is forgivable, because of the size and scope of the world. I seriously hope that in Skyrim, Bethesda uses more than a dozen voice actors. It's pretty obvious that every orc has the same exact voice, or that most women are voiced by the same person. I can understand that they had their limitations, but here's hoping the voice acting gets better.

The gameplay is what really sets this game apart from its predecessor. You essentially have the option to use whatever weapons you want to complete your objectives (most of which wind up being combat-oriented in one way or another). You can use a sword and shield, a staff for magic, a bow and arrow, or a litany of other choices. Magic is cool and feels strong, and there are dozens of spells from different schools of magic. As you use certain weapons, skills, or actions, you level up in those disciplines. If you level up your primary attributes (determined by what class you choose or create), you level up your character, and you get to put points in an over-arching stat like strength or endurance. It's a good system that makes sense in the context of the game.

I could seriously go on for pages and pages about this game, but I'm not going to do that. I just wanted to share my thoughts on this fantastic addition to the Elder Scrolls universe, and I strongly recommend that you play this game before you die. It's not perfect, but it's such a joy to play. It's a stark contrast to many other role playing games, and I don't want anyone to miss this fantastic voyage into a special world that was crafted with an unbelievable amount of care and attention to detail. Walk around and pick flowers and make potions, stalk highway bandits, BECOME a highway bandit, climb to the highest peak, explore the lowest valley... whatever you do is completely up to you. Once the beginning sequence of the game ends, just pick any direction and start walking. This is one game where your adventure really is your own, and nobody else will have an experience even close to yours. And that alone is worth the price of admission.