The game map is enormous, roughly three times larger than that in Morrowind, and is home to dozens of caves, landmarks, dungeons, cities, thousands of NPCs to interact with, and four guilds to join (six if you count the Blades and Arena). For anyone who's played Morrowind, the game actually feels a bit smaller in scale, partly due to your character's speed (your character moved like a snail in Morrowind), and the illusion that cities are closer than they seem thanks to the game's incredible draw distance.
In the cities you'll find the Mages Guild and Fighters Guild, while the Dark Brotherhood Guild and Thieves Guild are unlocked via other means. The guilds each have their own story, completely separate from the main quest and offer a variety of quests, ranging from fetching items to solving full-fledged conspiracies.
Unlike the guild quests, side quests are triggered by speaking to NPCs in and around each city. Once you've accepted the quest, it'll be added to your journal and updated as you make progress. To make things a little easier for the casual player, Bethesda has completely remodelled the map system, which now features a compass and markers. When a quest has been accepted, a red marker appears on the map showing you exactly where to go. It even shows you the room in which the character or item is located. Elder Scrolls vets might be a little turned off by this system but I don't even want to imagine how long the game would take to complete without it. The lack of any real direction was one of my biggest gripes with Morrowind, resulting in simple quests taking hours, so the improvement in this area is much appreciated.
Similarly, the way in which characters travel has been drastically altered. Whereas in Morrowind, you could fast travel between each town, in Oblivion, you can fast travel to multiple locations in each city, as well as any caves, landmarks, and shrines you've found along the way. It eliminates hours of on-foot travel and makes the game more appealing to a general audience, and frankly I don't see how you could play the game any other way - not that random gallivanting around the environment isn't fun.
'Ultimately, the variety of these quests is what will keep you coming back for more.'
Ultimately, the variety of these quests is what will keep you coming back for more. Even quests that involve fetching an item in a nearby cave usually have multiple layers, while other quests are so outrageous and inventive that you literally can't put your controller down until they're completed. Case in point is the excellent quest that has you travel inside a painting, complete with brush-stroked skies, trees and painted trolls to clash swords with. It's a perfect example of how a 'find this missing person' quest can evolve into so much more. Another, equally interesting quest has you delve into the mind of a mage and undergo a series of trials constructed by his subconscious. When's the last time you've seen something like that in an RPG?
Equally impressive are the number of items and spells you can acquire in the game. I'm not sure what the exact numbers are but there must be well over a 1000 items that can be collected, equipped, and stolen. Similarly, there are a seemingly endless amount of spells that can be cast, provided you have the required amount of magicka and have reached the appropriate skill level.
From a technical standpoint, Oblivion doesn't disappoint. Bethesda has done a remarkable job at bringing Cyrodiil to life, and not just visually either. The Radiant A.I. delivers on all fronts, as NPCs go about their daily activities - eating, sleeping, hunting, training and generally living their lives the way people do. But every now and then the A.I. goes beyond its menial tasks and does something extraordinary. I've seen NPCs fight over kills; I've seen rival goblin clans fight one another to the death; I've seen the population of an entire city come to the aid of a downed comrade; I've seen NPCs steal items I accidentally dropped and then sell them to the nearest merchant. Occasionally they'll do something that is a little odd, but on the whole no other game features AI as impressively lifelike.
Cyrodiil is a massive province, filled with trees, grass that sways back and forth as you wade through it, towering stone structures, and beautiful sunrises - make a trip over to Dive Rock at around six in the morning and you'll see what I mean (watch out for the giant troll nearby though). Character models are well designed, although often quite ugly, and the lighting has also been well implemented, but unfortunately all of these visual treats do come at a price. Some of the loading times are horrendous, often clocking in at over a minute when fast travelling to the other side of the map. Low-res textures in the distance, noticeable pop-up and some frame rate stutters are the game's other noticeable offenders. If you're running the game on an ultra high-end PC some of these problems will be lessened, but, for most, the Xbox 360 version will be the wisest choice. And then there are the glitches...
As with any game of this size, and with the amount of freedom players are given, it's no surprise that glitches have reared their ugly heads once again. I've been stuck in walls a number of times, the game has a tendency to freeze during loading screens, and a few characters from the main quest have decided to mysteriously disappear on me, forcing me to reload previous saves. During one quest, I had to acquire a particular ring; however, in the chest were two of the exact same rings, so I figured, hey, why not? I tried giving the first ring to the NPC who requested its retrieval, and keep the other, only to have the game crash on me. Unfortunately I hadn't saved for a while, so one controller against the wall later, and I was at it again. My second attempt at the quest proved to be more successful than the first as the chest contained one ring instead of two. So the moral of the story is to save often!
From an audio perspective, Oblivion succeeds, for the most part, with solid voice acting and an impressively epic score, but also fails miserably at times, with NPCs engaging in some horribly dry conversations. Furthermore, while the voice talent is top-notch, I swear there are only three or four voice actors in the entire game. I ran into a group of NPCs and after speaking to all of them, I realized they all had the same voice - a little strange if you ask me.
I was disappointed like everyone else when Oblivion didn't make its release alongside the 360, but it was well worth the wait. Let's get one thing straight though: Oblivion will consume you. It'll consume your life, your performance at work will suffer and you might not see friends in weeks. With hundreds of hours of gameplay, and an unprecedented amount of quests to be completed, I couldn't possibly recommend Oblivion enough. Great job Bethesda. Sorry social life.