This is a rare and remarkable achievement--a huge, open-ended, complex, detailed role-playing game that's fun to play and a pleasure to behold. Oblivion not only delivers everything that earned the Elder Scrolls series the devoted loyalty of a huge following of fans, but also significantly improves on the weaknesses of its 2002 predecessor, Morrowind. Morrowind earned recognition for being one of the best role-playing games in years, but the immersive and long-lasting experience it provided wasn't for everyone. Oblivion is hands-down better, so much so that even those who'd normally have no interest in a role-playing game should find it hard to resist getting swept up in this big, beautiful, meticulously crafted world.
The Elder Scrolls series is known for its sheer size and depth. These are games that you could lose yourself in, spending hours exploring a fantasy world, traveling for miles, or just looking for minutiae, such as rare plants or hidden treasure. Oblivion lives up to this pedigree, putting you into a massive, cohesive, highly immersive world. You get to create your own character--the possibilities for customization seem limitless--and then explore the world as you will. There's a compelling main quest for you to follow, which takes about 40 hours to finish the first time through, but the majority of the game's content is peripheral to that main quest. You can root out evil in hidden dungeons, join and climb the ranks in a number of different guilds, visit all the different towns and try to solve everybody's problems, compete in a long series of gladiatorial battles to the death, break into someone's home and rob them in their sleep, get caught and face the consequences, contract a disease that leads to vampirism and then try to find a cure, buy a house, steal a horse, invest in your favorite shop, and, if you can believe it, there's much more.
So the breadth of content is as remarkable as ever, but the most important thing is this: The many types of gameplay in Oblivion are well-designed and deeply satisfying, even when taken on their own. That's the main difference between this game and Morrowind. This may be a role-playing game, but you could play it like a pure action game, or like a stealth game, or like an adventure game, and it'd still be at least as good as, if not better than, games that are specialized in these regards.
Oblivion does a great job of quickly introducing you to all these different aspects of play, successfully engaging you rather than overwhelming you. You see the world through your character's eyes, but a behind-the-back perspective is also available. Initially you just pick a name, race, and gender for your character, and the game opens with you stuck in a dungeon cell, being taunted by a fellow inmate. Somehow, though, you get swept up in a desperate escape attempt by the emperor and his loyal retinue of protectors. The emperor, voiced unmistakably by Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation, X-Men), recognizes you from a portentous dream and entrusts you with the search for his illegitimate heir. But first, you'll need to escape from the Imperial City's sewers. As you make your way through this basic dungeon crawl, you happen upon ill-fated adventurers, their stuff, and some ornery goblins, so you immediately get to play around with close combat, ranged attacks, magic, sneaking, lock picking, equipment repairing, and more. How you survive is up to you--it's just as viable to kill your enemies with destructive magic, weapons, or bare hands as it is to sneak or run right past them. And even though the sewer setting might sound unimaginative, the quality of the game's visuals, the exceptionally good atmospheric sound effects, and the realistic physics all serve to quickly draw you in.
Toward the end of this sequence, the game does a clever job of recommending a character class to you based on how you've been playing. For example, if you've gone toe to toe with every goblin you've seen, hacking them up with an axe, you might make a good barbarian. But the game's numerous premade character classes aren't nearly as interesting as the ability to create your own custom class. The choices are numerous but clearly presented, and while you could go out of your way to create a fairly useless character, your intuition will easily guide you through what's a complex process. You choose an underlying specialization--combat, magic, or stealth--then you choose a couple of primary attributes, seven major skills, and even a birth sign. Basically, you're choosing your character's talents. Every character can use every skill; it's just a question of how well. Ultimately, this character-creation process is much like Morrowind's, and it shares the same ingenious design: You get stronger in this game by practicing and improving your primary skills, not by killing stuff and earning generic experience points.
That's not to say you can play Oblivion like a pacifist, since the main quest and many others are combat-intensive. But all the fighting in this game is probably one of the best parts. Visceral toe-to-toe melee battles have you carefully negotiating the distance between you and your opponent while switching between quick and powerful attacks, sometimes pausing to manually deflect your enemy's blows with your weapon or shield. Specifically, melee combat feels faster and smoother than it did in Morrowind, since in that game, it was possible to whiff blows against enemies while still appearing to hit--in Oblivion, close combat (as well as ranged combat) looks and feels much more solid. Your foes are generally quite smart, too. Humanoid enemies will taunt you when they're winning or turn tail and flee if they're near death. If you're faced with a number of foes, you can try to draw closer ones into the line of fire of the ones in the back--but be careful, because ranged attackers will lead their shots, forcing you to dodge and weave during battle, rather than simply keep moving.
A stealthy approach can be a tantalizing alternative, since sneaking up behind an opponent, pick-pocketing him, and then finishing him off with a single, deadly sneak attack can be at least as satisfying as slugging it out. And there are a wide range of magic schools to choose from, as well. Blast your foes with elemental spells, summon demonic aid or otherworldly weapons, charm your enemies into laying down their arms, debilitate the toughest monsters into simpering wimps that even a magic-user could beat up, make yourself invisible or really fast, and on and on. Whether you're playing on the Xbox 360 or PC, you can select a number of spells, items, and/or weapons for easy access in the heat of the moment.
Of course, there's much more to the game than combat against a wide variety of scary-looking bad guys. Simply exploring one of the game's towns and interacting with its populace can be a remarkable experience. Characters don't all stand around like they did in Morrowind; they're on a schedule, so they'll go to work in the morning and go to bed at night, and you can catch them going from place to place, talking to each other about recent rumors, and so on. They'll regard you differently depending on your personality and appearance, and you can compel them to like you better using everything from bribery to a fun little persuasion minigame in which you must guess at the other character's disposition and act accordingly. Every line of dialogue in the game is delivered in full speech, and the quality of the voice acting and the writing is generally excellent.
Almost every character in every town is unique, apart from the generic guards you'll find patrolling around (though every city's guards are different, clad in their respective armor and uniforms). There isn't always a ton to say to each character, but the fact that there are so many different lifelike characters in this game is staggering. It's exciting to stop and chat with each new person you meet, especially since a lot of them might send you on a quest of some sort or tell you where you can find one. Their faces are expressive, their eyes glint with life, and their lips move well with their speech. They could have used more body language, though, since they stand almost perfectly still when you're speaking to them. These aren't necessarily the most realistic-looking characters in any game to date, but they're up there.
Also, the way the quest system is structured in Oblivion is a huge improvement to the way quests were handled in Morrowind. In this game, anytime you're given a quest, you're prompted with a clear summary of what the quest is about and what you're supposed to do or where you're supposed to go. All your pending quests are clearly listed as part of the game's well-designed menu system, and you can set any of them to be your active quest, which automatically marks your objective on your map and gives you a compass waypoint to follow. This means there's next to no time wasted confusingly wandering around, looking for the right person to talk to or the next place to go.
In fact, you can instantly travel to all major metropolitan areas right from the start, or any other landmarks you've previously discovered. Through the "fast travel" feature on the world map, Oblivion simulates the amount of time it would have taken you to hoof it from point A to point B, so if you'd prefer to quickly teleport from one town to another instead of go by foot or on horseback, you're free to do that. This might be jarring at first, both to Morrowind fans and new players, but it turns out to be a great feature that helps keep the gameplay fast-paced...if that's how you like it. Certainly, the game rewards you for exploring on your own, since you'll find all kinds of uncharted places worth visiting. And in general, the way the quest system is structured is ideal for making you feel like you always have clear goals, yet without it feeling dumbed down or easy.
On that note, the game's level of challenge feels just right by default, though you can adjust a difficulty slider if you want to make it easier or harder. There's so much to do at any given point that even if you do get stuck on something, you can always come back to it later and go do something else that's fun and rewarding. The game's fine-tuned challenge is achieved in part because the enemies you'll encounter out in the world will get stronger as you do, though in practice, this doesn't come across nearly as contrived as it sounds. Growing more powerful in this game feels suitably rewarding, as it should in any role-playing game. As you find new and better equipment or spells, gain mastery over your skills, and increase your ability scores, you'll clearly get the impression that you're becoming much stronger. One of the great, new features in Oblivion is how all of the different skills in the game have different levels of mastery and corresponding perks--for example, when you reach journeyman level with blunt weapons, you gain a chance to disarm your foes with a power attack. Or, a journeyman in marksmanship can zoom in to snipe at foes with his or her bow. The strongest spells are limited to masters of their respective magic schools, and so on. When you advance to a higher rank in a skill, you get an immediate and significant payoff that wasn't there in Morrowind, where your character grew stronger much more subtly.
All of that aside, the main quest in Oblivion features a solid good-versus-evil storyline that'll give you a reason to see a lot of the world and get wrapped up in a lot of other activities. Much of the main quest revolves around the good-natured illegitimate son of the emperor, voiced to perfection by Sean Bean (The Lord of the Rings, Patriot Games), and how you become his trusted ally in a desperate attempt to rid the world of what's essentially an invasion from hell. The title of the game refers to a hellish realm from which demons are springing forth and besieging the land of Tamriel, and you get wrapped up in the middle of an effort to put a stop to it. While this main quest doesn't branch wildly depending on the disposition of your character, you can go about it while being as good or as evil or as chaotic-neutral as you please.
That is, you can opt to help the emperor's heir out of the goodness of your heart or for your own self-serving motives, or not at all if you'd prefer not to. You can actually role-play in this game, something that the vast majority of role-playing games have stopped offering in recent years. Unlike in a massively multiplayer role-playing game filled with people acting out of character, or a typically linear Japanese role-playing game in which you're more of a spectator than an active participant in the plot, in Oblivion the world will often respond to you as you'd expect. Characters will ask you if you're feeling well if you've been diseased. They'll hail you as a hero if you save their town from one of the looming oblivion gates that are threatening the world. They might be apprehensive toward you if you approach them with a weapon drawn, and they'll yell at you and summon the guards if they catch you stealing.
Yet, the more believable a game is, the more believable you want it to be, and it's true that the artificial intelligence in Oblivion doesn't always put on a good show. You can break into someone's home and wake them up for a chat, and they'll chat with you like nothing's happened. The guards still might suddenly show up, seemingly without notice, but probably because one of them saw you crack the lock on the front door. Sometimes you'll battle alongside computer-controlled allies, but while these guys may be likable, they really aren't good at self-preservation, and you'll probably catch yourself mourning their loss more than their comrades will. Also, you can't bash stuff open, and no bathrooms are to be found anywhere in a world that's otherwise so finely detailed that it genuinely seems lived in. And the things about it that aren't always realistic or believable can still be amusing and entertaining. You're free to do whatever you want. Why not find out what happens if you try to pickpocket the Count of Skingrad while he's looking straight at you in the middle of his heavily guarded court? You can always load your saved game if things go sour, and you can save quickly at any point.
Considering all that's in this game, it's surprisingly difficult to find much fault with any of it. The inventory system could have been a little more streamlined, and the encumbrance system will quickly disrupt your plans to pick up and carry as much stuff as you'll wish you could, but these things are hardly worth mentioning. However, some reference to the game's technical performance is necessary. On the Xbox 360, you can look forward to a usually fast and smooth frame rate and graphics that look especially dazzling on a high-definition display. On a high-end PC, you can get the game looking even better, though unless you have a fast graphics card and at least a gig of RAM, you might have a hard time getting the game to appear pretty while moving at an acceptable frame rate at a high resolution. The frame rate especially tends to bog down when a lot of characters are simultaneously onscreen, which might explain why there aren't as many people milling about in the cities as you might hope for. Controls are as good on the Xbox 360 as on the PC, though using the PC's number keys is a little easier than using the 360 controller's D pad for quickly switching between items and powers. On the other hand, a lot of the other interface elements seem like they were designed with the console version primarily in mind, which makes switching between character menu panels using the mouse feel a bit clunky on the PC. Both versions contain fairly frequent but fairly short loading times, a slight detriment to the game's sense of immersion, but nothing that you wouldn't expect from a game with this much detail.
Ultimately, which version you choose should depend on whether you have a high-powered PC and whether you have an Xbox 360 hooked up to a home theater. If you don't have the former, the Xbox 360 version is a relatively safer bet, and it gains a perk over its PC counterpart by offering some unlockable achievements, enticing you both to finish the main quest and to earn your keep in all the different guilds in the game. It packs a higher retail price, though. Meanwhile, there's a downloadable toolset available for the PC version, which will surely lead to untold volumes of user-created content that could extend the life of the game. Incidentally, the Xbox 360 version also contains hooks for future content downloads over Xbox Live.
What's overwhelming about Oblivion is how good it is and how much there is to it. Literally almost everything that's ever been done well before in past role-playing games is in here--done at least as well, if not better. From the quality of the story and character interaction to the pure thrill of the combat to all the pleasure to be found in the game's little details--the lock-picking minigame, the alchemy system, the way arrows stay stuck in their victims, the ability to eventually create your own spells, the informative full-color manual, all the different books you can stop to read in the game--these things combine to make Oblivion one of the single best, longest-lasting gaming experiences to be had in a long time. It's just too bad there's no multiplayer.