Version tested: Xbox 360
The overwhelming thing about Oblivion isn't knowing where to start, but when to stop. It's an adventure game in the purest sense of the word in its effortless capacity to give the player a seemingly infinite wealth of possibilities - full of intrigue, excitement, risk, reward and this continual sense of the unknown.
Much of this was true of Morrowind, of course, but technically, things have moved on to a breathtaking extent. Stepping out of the game's introductory (and obligatory) dungeon, nothing can prepare you for the genuine sense of awe of entering Tamriel's outside world. The beautiful, sweeping vistas are, without question, the most beautiful game settings achieved to date. Whichever direction you cast your gaze, there are marvellous sights to behold at every turn; lush grass sways over rolling hills, deer bound through dappled woodland, once-proud temples lie crumbling in ruins, while towns of immense, stunning architectural majesty stand proud in the distance, beckoning you to explore their secrets.
Your first dilemma is whether to engage with the plot or not, and whether you stride purposefully towards that red triangle on your compass is your choice. You see, the death of the 87 year-old Emperor of Tamriel and his three sons presents something of a problem for this idyllic land. Without an heir to the throne, several hellish rifts or 'gates' to Oblivion are open, and demons are pouring out of them. As you might expect, they're doing a pretty fine job of doing their evil bidding and laying waste to everything in their path - and for reasons not fully apparent, you've been entrusted with the task of putting a stop to all this.
Losing my heir
Luckily, a secret lost heir to the throne is out there, and it's up to you whether you track him down, close the first gate and usher him to the safety of the Blades hideout in the mountains, or simply carry on with your own agenda, whatever that may be.
Just as it should be, Bethesda lets you chart your own course right from the word go, with a level of character customisation that even EA would be proud of. True to RPG tradition, you select from one of the ten races (Argonian, Breton, Dark Elf, High Elf, Imperial, Khajit, Nord, Orc, Redguard, and Wood Elf) and can then go to town on crafting the exact look of your character. By some freak of slider bar chance, we made ours look exactly like Prince, albeit with blue skin and a greater penchant for eyeliner. Obviously a sign of the times [Fired! - Ed] [But I am the Ed - Ed].
With a further choice over your Birthsign (essentially your special ability) the game will determine how your eight different attributes stack up (in terms of Strength, Intelligence, Willpower, Agility, Speed, Endurance, Personality and Luck) which in turn also have a bearing on your combat, stealth and magic skills. Each of these are further subdivided into a further seven secondary skills (such as block, athletics, restoration, alchemy, sneak and speechcraft), offering an extraordinary number of permutations over how your character ends up.
As complicated as it all sounds, though, Oblivion is thoughtfully designed to keep these layers tucked away unobtrusively. Unlike the RPGs of the past, simply playing the game a specific way influences the stats leaving you to get on with simply being immersed and entertained, rather than bogged down with tedious levelling up and micromanagement. The thing that ultimately dictates how your character ends up is simply the way that you play the game, and it all works in a logical coherent sense.
For example, if you're the type of player that prefers alchemy, and want to learn and create spells, then - naturally - the game works on the principle of practice makes perfect. It sounds silly, but if you don't mind making yourself look like a tit, then you can jump your way through the game and become a better acrobat; sneak around and you'll be a better thief; block your enemies and strike back with a mace and you'll have better block abilities as well as improved blunt weapon skills. Sometimes you might realise the only choice is to chat your way out of situations with persuasion or simply decide to swing your weapon with righteous anger; Oblivion reflects that within your character's abilities, and, naturally, with how the world reacts to you, too.
Perform a good deed, and word spreads as to the kind of person you are. Some people might react to you more favourably and comment on your deeds, or might hold back information until they can trust you. Admittedly, getting them to do this comes via the slightly pointless Persuasion mini-game, in which you have to rotate a wheel with Joke, Coerce, Admire, and Boast categories, and try to work out the emphasis that most aligns with what they appreciate. After a while you work out a preferred order and can increase how much they like you to the point where they might tell you things you need to know - or you might get to sell all your goods at a higher price. It's a slightly out-of-kilter mechanic, but we kind of liked it anyway.
But sod righteousness. Most of us (at some time or other) just want to see what kind of mayhem we can create, and Oblivion's absolutely fantastic in this respect. Killing people's not generally considered the best way to make friends and influence people, nor is robbing them, but there's a place for every approach. Your normal gaming instinct, at first, is just to kill the odd rabid wolf or bandit, and respect everyone else, but eventually you'll probably get a little frustrated at how rubbish your weapons and armour are, and want to find out ways of making some cash.
It's all very well raiding the odd abandoned cave or dungeon, but that only seems to get you so far, and even nobly following the main quest isn't the most financially beneficial thing in the world. In time, you'll want to test out those sneaking abilities you learned right at the start and begin pickpocketing people while they sleep in their beds. You'll fill your pockets with flawless diamonds, filch all their superior apparel and leg it out of the door in the dead of night... and then get caught and chucked in prison.
And although it might seem like this pinching lark isn't for you, at some point you might find yourself being passed a note from a stranger offering you the chance to join the thieves' guild. Before you know it, you go from being an upstanding, law abiding hero to stealing from the rich to give to the poor - a righteous law-breaking Robin Hood. Elsewhere, you might find yourself joining one of the other guilds - such as the fighter's guild or the magician's - for proving your worth in similar ways.
The brilliant thing about all of this, is that it's all just mindless side-questing that's not even remotely going to save the world. Sod the Emperor - I've got a joint to case.
Yet unlike the most famous sandbox game of them all - Grand Theft Auto - these quests all feel purposeful; like they matter, and that they may have a true consequence somewhere down the line. They're not just idle padding; each and every one of these incidental missions feels alive and full of purpose - and you never quite have a handle on where they're going to lead you, or who you'll meet as a result. Like we said right at the start, it's a true adventure, and it's quite likely no two will ever be quite the same, giving gamers the perfect opportunity to regale and embellish their stories in their own unique way. Like the introductory blurb says, the game really does seem to offer unlimited possibilities.
But all this grand scope for freeform adventuring would mean little if the fundamental combat was broken from the outset, but things have improved massively since the last Elder Scrolls came out almost four years ago. For a start, the game works well in either third- or first-person view, and you'll find that both play an equal part, depending what you're doing at any given time. For most of the combat, you'll probably prefer the up-close-and-personal view that first-person gives you, allowing you to deliver lunging blows and blocks with precision, not to mention casting spells from afar, or, of course, pulling off a tricky headshot with your bow. In a sense, the combat feels every bit as free and fluid as any comparable first-person title, and on the 360 the two-stick control works superbly, with just the right amount of sensitivity meaning you'll slip comfortably into the game right from the start. A simple two trigger system of attack and block fits the game perfectly, and with eight 'hotkeys' mapped to the d-pad, you can quickly assign heal spells, fireballs, specific weapon changes or whatever you like by hitting the pre-determined direction then the right 'bumper'. It's seamless, effective and well-implemented.
Clicking the right thumbstick flicks you out into third-person, giving you a much better view when traversing the sprawling outdoor environments, while also negating the possibility of someone sneaking up to you (which happens, of course). After a few hours you might even find a horse to ride (which really does need a third-person view), and although riding through this incredible world doesn't quite give you the cinematic buzz as something like Shadow of the Colossus, it's by far the best way to travel in Oblivion - plus, you can leave it in the forest to kill all the wildlife, and then go tut tut and play "nature's executioner" by galloping off a cliff. Fumito Ueda never thought of that, did he?
Even on a trusty steed, though, getting around the map is an incredibly time-consuming process, and one that could quickly get quite frustrating if it weren't for the ability to simply call up the map (when outdoors) and point your arrow cursor to where you want to head off to. Although you miss out on the opportunity to stumble across uncharted territory (and all the cool things that accompany that), if you're on a determined questing session, it's a lifesaver. A short loading pause later, you're there, saving yourself often 10, 20 minutes in the process - a design decision that we heartily approve of.
On the tabs
While we're on the subject of the general construction, you can't help but admire the slick tab-based interface that makes browsing through all the different aspects of the game an absolute breeze. With further layers of filtering within each, you can, for example, check out specific parts of your inventory, look up your skills, scan different parts of the map, check out your active, current and completed quests and basically any piece of pertinent information simply by hitting a single button and using the two sticks to navigate the tabs. For what most people would have assumed was a PC game on a console, it's not the case at all - if anything, the interface is tailor-made for the living room, allowing you to finally play a deep, involving RPG on the big telly in the comfort of your living room. Just don't plan to watch any telly for a few weeks, that's all.
Although we've touched on the beauty of Oblivion, it comes at a price, but one well worth paying in every sense. At first, second, third glance, the external views of the game are amazing - almost picture postcard in their quality, and if there's one game worth investing in a big screen HDTV for, it's this. Once you've been through the day-night cycles (and seen the wonderful sunsets and stars - man, the stars) and been through various extremes of weather, you'll swear blind that this next generation lark was well worth waiting for. The interiors, too, are - in their own way - just as impressive, with massively detailed, hugely atmospheric locations above and below ground, filled with fearsome creatures that not only look impressive, but move and act with the kind of intelligence and fluidity that used to be beyond RPGs. Admittedly, they're still not up to the same refined standard as the best of the FPS bunch, but given the vast context, they're way more than adequate.
Even the biggest, most forgiving fan of Oblivion wouldn't claim that it's all perfect, though. On the 360, at least, you'll (eventually, very occasionally) find the already low-ish frame rate heading south into the netherworld of single-figure unacceptability. The fact that this only seems to get really bad when you're a) outside b) it's raining c) around complex rocky environments and d) you're not involved in combat means that it doesn't have any bearing on the gameplay - in our experience at least.
Holes in the fabric
Less acceptable is the way the foliage visibly fades into view, and how the sides of entire mountain ranges can appear peculiarly smooth even when you're not actually that far away (notable, for example near the Blades hideout). This is all massively nitpicky for such a marvellous-looking game, admittedly, but just be aware that you will encounter the odd winceworthy moment, but then come to accept them. It's also worth pointing out that none of this is an issue indoors, where the game engine has much less to sweat over. In fact, for the most part, the 360 copes brilliantly with a game that requires a hefty beast of a graphics card to run to the same level on the PC.
Whether you'll like the overall art style is open to question, though. It certainly has an overtly 'western' feel to it that won't be necessarily to everyone's taste. The character models, for instance, still lack a certain something. You can't fault their detail level, but they can look a bit plastic, and animation's not quite up the same standard as the rest of the game's stunning artwork - particularly the lip-synching and expressions, which aren't even in the same league as, say, Half-Life 2. There's also the occasional tendency for the lighting to show them in an unflattering (and actually quite odd) light, but we're being impossibly harsh over what is almost always an amazing visual showpiece.
The actual interactions you have with the NPCs are generally well-handled, though. Using a basic topic/question-based conversation system, you get the chance to grill almost everyone you meet, giving Oblivion the feel of one of those old-school adventures where you end up making progress almost as much by being plain nosey and inquisitive as your actions. This might frustrate the type of gamer that just wants to wade in and kill everything, but for the investigative gamer who admires storytelling, interaction and questing, all of this is instantly intoxicating stuff. The voice acting's of a pretty decent standard, just about managing to veer away from tired stereotypes and amdram inflections, with the occasional exception. In terms of the main characters, it's all sturdily handled by the kind of grizzled actors that wouldn't sound out of place at the RSC (like Patrick Stewart, Sean Bean and Terance Stamp). It's only the lesser NPCs that you meet that invariably let the side down a little, but it is only a little. Alongside that, there's one of the finest game soundtracks imaginable, with seemingly hours of haunting, lilting, uplifting, and dramatic scores from long-time Elder Scrolls composer Jeremy Soules.
A problem shared...
The only slight regret about Oblivion is that you have to go through this majestic experience all on your own. Although it'd probably cripple the frame rate even more, the idea of co-op questing is something that would work perfectly for a game like this. Maybe in the next next-gen?
If you've stuck with us this long and not simply rushed out to buy it (which we suggest you do before the weekend is out), then you should have the distinct impression that it's the kind of must-have game that has Game of the Year contender written all over it. There's so much we haven't even talked about, that's the crazy thing, 3000 words in. The prospect of things like Vampire hunting (or, even being a vampire) is just the stuff of gaming legend, or being the ultimate warrior or assassin for hire. Frankly, there's way too much stuff to talk about in the confines of a review - it's one of those games you've got to experience for yourself.
Oblivion is a staggeringly ambitious game that successfully unites some of the best elements of RPG, adventure and action games and fuses them into a relentlessly immersive and intoxicating whole. If the irresistibly picturesque visuals don't draw you in, then the ability to engage in a massive, unique and above all hugely entertaining adventure ought to tip the balance for anyone doubting how good this game could be. If ever a game was worth the full asking price, Oblivion is it - to miss out on it would be tantamount to a dereliction of duty.
10 / 10