Since its release on PC and Xbox 360 this time last year, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion has racked up awards and perfect scores aplenty. Set in the realm of Tamriel at the end of the Third Era, gamers were instantly wowed by a vast landscape, amazing graphics and a gripping plot. After the main game there quickly came a succession of downloadable content which included the infamous Horse Armour and the critically acclaimed Knights of the Nine side quest. Now, a year later, Bethesda is unleashing its first expansion, The Shivering Isles.
To be released simultaneously on 360 and PC, The Shivering Isles focuses on another Daedric Prince, Sheogorath, the slightly-bonkers (and then some) Lord of Madness, who will be familiar to fans of Morrowind as He Of The Fake Apocalypse and Rain of Dogs.
Sitting down to play, it might seem a misnomer to say that The Shivering Isles is beautiful, particularly when considering the lord of this strange realm. When a strange portal appears in Niben Bay and insane people start wandering out, it's up to a hero (yes, once again, that mantle has fallen to you, the player) to go in and see what the Mad Lord wants. But when was anything that simple?
The portal itself is a striking thing and completely different from other Oblivion Gates. Made up of three faces which symbolise Sheogorath's multiple personalities, the swirling vortex at its centre is not as terrifying as those of Mehrunes Dagon but that doesn't mean it's safe... far from it. Sheogorath is a picky bugger when it comes to his Champion and so demands a little worthiness in the only way known by Daedric Princes: a little slaughter - one dead Khadjit coming right up! The poor insane creature just happened to be in the vicinity but oh-the-irony! Sheogorath really doesn't like cats.
But the vetting isn't quite over yet. The Mad God's indentured servant Haskill is waiting for you on the other side. Before progressing further, Haskill wants a civilised chat, so civilised in fact that you have to sit in the offered chair before he'll talk to you. But such niceties are not in vain and this is where usage of the word 'beautiful' comes in. Rather than stepping through a door, the walls transform into a flock of multi-coloured butterflies (over four thousand of them - and one moth - according to Bethesda). After picking up your jaw, it's time to go find Sheogorath.
The striking thing about The Shivering Isles is that it's totally unlike Mehrune's realm. It's easy to forget that the red-soaked skies are not the norm and that each plane of Oblivion is shaped by the Daedric Lord who rules it. Despite its name, which summons up images of arctic vistas and falling snow, the Shivering Isles is actually an autumnal realm. The blue-gold sky is positively pleasant and the landscape is dotted with large crystalline structures, huge mushroom trees and long vine-like roots; but the land itself is split in two, each half filled with strange creatures, mist, moss and swamps.
The Fringe, the area of the Shivering Isles in which you arrive, is the gateway to the Mad God's realm and what would a gate be without someone to guard it? Exploring Passwall village and chatting to helpful (and strangely sane) locals leads to the eventual encounter with the Gatekeeper - a tattooed giant with a Hannibal Lector-like mask and homicidal tendencies who dispatches Champions for breakfast. But what's a 20ft giant to the Hero of Kvatch - the bigger they are, the more satisfying it is when they fall. From the Gatekeeper come two keys which unlock the two entrances to the Isle proper. One road leads to the north side of the city of New Sheoth, known as Bliss, the other to the south leads to Crucible. The final portion of the city is dominated by Sheogorath's Palace and its striking sky filled with pink and violet stars. It's here where the Mad God resides along with Thadon, the Duke of Mania, and Syl, the Duchess of Dementia. Each rules a portion of his city although Thadon is more interested in feasting on intoxicating and mind-altering food, and Syl is just trying to avoid being assassinated.