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.
Morrowind was a tough act to follow, but Oblivion isn't just better--it's a lot better.
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.
Not only is there a huge amount of great content in the game, but you can also experience it in all kinds of different ways depending on the type of character you create.
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.
The combat in Oblivion is surprisingly fun and exciting, whether you fight head-on or from the shadows.
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.