An emperor's bloodline assassinated. A prisoner freed by fate. Portals to a netherworld dotting the countryside. A province plunged into chaos. These are times when a leader rises from obscurity to deliver the land into the hands of peace and prosperity.
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Unfortunately, you're not that leader. That's the first of many surprises in the RPG epic that is The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. You may be a hero, but you're a hero on your own terms. While you're a key player in the story that unfolds, you're not the central character and not really the one who ends up "saving the world" (as the cliché goes).
You're a prisoner who just happened to be in the wrong place at the right time. An attempt is made on the emperor's life and a secret passage runs through your cell. You're given your freedom, but the emperor -- wait, I guess I spoiled that one. Yeah, he dies. So do all of his heirs. That unbinds a mystical barrier between the normal world of Tamriel and the demonic otherworld of oblivion. So begins your quest to find a hidden, unknown heir and deliver him to safety so he can seal the doors to oblivion forever.
What makes Oblivion special is how exactly you complete this mission. This isn't a game with a large main quest and a few diversionary sidequests here and there. It's a game with a large main quest and an even larger assortment of sidequests, factions, skills, dungeons, ruins, towns, wilderness, and more that you can choose to do when and how you please. The main quest might be 30-40 hours long, but to uncover the secrets of the entire game would take at least ten times that, and multiple plays through with different characters making different choices.
To start with, there's a deep character creation system. Not only can you customize the look of your character more precisely than in Sims 2, but there are ten races and birthsigns to choose from along with over a dozen classes. Don't like the classes supplied? Create your own by choosing primary stats and seven major skills from a list of 21. Instead of earning "experience points" for killing monsters, your skills improve as you use them and character development is based on this system. Those 21 skills include the six schools of magic that let you do anything from boost your stats to turn invisible to walk on water to toss fireballs around. If you don't like the spells you pick up, you can create your own and even enchant your own equipment.
Generally, a character falls into one of three archetypes: combat, magic, or stealth. You'll use one or more of these to complete most of the quests in the game, but there's not always one right way to do things. This means that a magic user and a thief might approach a problem in two different ways, but they can both find a solution. Obviously, it's tempting to not only replay various missions and challenges but also to use multiple characters.
You're not constrained to being a do-gooder, either. Crime features heavily, with the ability to pickpocket and open locks, or even murder innocent townsfolk. In fact, committing murder is the only way to trigger certain questlines. Freedom is really the name of the game, and you can completely ignore the main story and walk or ride the countryside (yep, on your horse), visiting towns or abandoned ruins, making your own story as you go.
Oblivion can be played from either a first-person or a third-person perspective, but first person is really the way to go. I'm not going to go into too much detail on the graphics, because I'm sure nobody wants to read 2,000 words gushing about how good a video game looks. Suffice to say that even on systems at the low end of the required specs, the visuals are impressive. Textures are highly detailed, the varied environments are lush, complex, and mood evoking, and little touches like eye movement in the people you meet add to the total package. Sound effects are good but not amazing and the music is fitting (though I prefer to use my own mp3s), but the audio really shines in the voiceovers. Every bit of dialogue is voiced, even random conversations that other characters have with each other. Plus, some serious talent was brought in, notably Sean Bean and Patrick Stewart.
If you're used to menu-driven point-and-click RPG's, you're in for a ride. Oblivion is very action-oriented, and everything outside of your inventory happens in real time. See a monster in the clearing up ahead? Well, if it didn't see you first you can run in with your sword swinging, you can fire some spells or arrows at it, sneak up and strike a surprise critical blow, or avoid it altogether. You choose. Physical combat uses the mouse; click the right button to swing your weapon, hold the left to block. Movement, blocking, and well-timed strikes are needed to survive, and the action can get fast and furious.
The character AI is worthy of note. There are several cities you can visit, and Bethesda developed a new "Radiant AI" system for the people in them. Instead of just reacting to the to the player, every character in the game has certain needs and desires and they try to fulfill them on their own. They can even interact with each other, so they'll barter with, talk to, and sometimes even attack one another -- all without the player's interference. The first time you hear townsfolk strike up a conversation with each other, it's a surprise. The first time you realize that it's not entirely random, it's a revelation.
Oblivion isn't without problems, though. First, to play on a PC requires some beefy hardware. The game does run well on systems closer to the minimum requirements, but it's much more enjoyable nearer the high end. Sure, it's also available on the XBox 360, but that brings me to the second problem. Bugs. Lots of them. On the PC, they can usually be resolved by using special commands. Another advantage to the PC version is the construction set. Bethesda released the game creation utility that they used to build Oblivion's world, so players can tinker with the game and create new quests, dungeons, characters, even entirely new games. And all that player-created content is free.
Okay, sorry this is so long, but to recap quickly: This game is huge; you have the ultimate freedom to do what you want, how you want; it's supremely customizable; it caters to a variety of play styles; it has a crazy amount of replay value; the graphics are gorgeous; and there's even some humor. Really, there's a lot to this game that I couldn't fit here, and that you'd want to discover on your own anyway. I'll just say this: suicidal trolls. That's it. Oblivion is a breath of fresh air in an RPG market full of stale, anime-style rehashes. It's not just an RPG really, it truly deserves the title "adventure game". Oblivion not only sends you on an adventure, but lets you create an adventure all your own.
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