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.
There's a lot to do in the game, but it's easy to keep track of your objectives thanks to a great quest system and map interface.
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.
Stunning good looks and fantastic audio make spending lots of quality time with this game that much easier.
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.
Once you visit Tamriel, you might want to stay there.
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.