The sequel to 2002's Morrowind is such a remarkable accomplishment, not even because of its vast plains, seemingly endless amount of quests, and polished mechanics, but because it's equally accessible to both hardcore and casual gamers. You don't have to devote your life to Oblivion to truly enjoy it, and for those who don't want to pump in the hours, the main storyline can be completed in relatively few hours. However, once you've created your character and exited the sewers, you likely won't touch the main quest for quite some time.
The story begins with your character, for reasons unknown, waking up behind bars. Soon after, you're greeted by the Emperor himself (voiced by Patrick Stewart of Star Trek fame) who warns you of his dire situation and uses a secret passage within your cell as an escape route. Eventually the Emperor is ambushed by a group of marauders, leaving it up to you to restore the rightful ruler to the throne and once again bring peace to Cyrodiil.
Before you can even think of exploring Cyrodiil, you've got to create your character. Oblivion's character creation system goes way beyond simply choosing a pre-made skin and class, as you can tweak just about every aesthetic feature of your character model. You'll also have to choose your race, with each of the 10 having its own strengths and weaknesses, and depending on how you plan to play the game, one class might be better suited for you than the others. If you're going to hack and slash your way through Cyrodiil, you might want to consider being a Redguard. On the other hand, if you're a magic lover, the High Elf class might be just right.
So, you've picked your race, spent the better portion of the day tweaking the look of your character, now what? It's time to pick a class. In an interesting twist, the game actually recommends a class for you based on the way you played the opening prologue, though oddly enough, the King's guard recommended that I choose a magic class, despite the fact that I hadn't used a single ounce of Magicka.
Class selection is the single most important aspect of your character's creation as it not only determines how the game is played, but how easy it is to level up. Like Morrowind, players have to choose a set number of major skills and a set number of minor skills. Each skill increases in power the more you use it, and while it's important to increase your minor skills, it's the major skills that level up your character. You have a total of seven major skills to choose from, whether it be Restoration (a definite must no matter what class), Blade (equally important) or Mercantile (not so vital). For every ten points gained, spread across your seven major skills, your character will level up. As you continue to use these skills, they'll level up as well, allowing you to cast more powerful spells, strike more powerful blows and so forth. However, unlike Morrowind, when your character levels up so do your enemies, with the exception of a few lower level creatures.
Initially, when travelling through Cyrodiil's landscape, you'll be attacked by the occasional rat or wolf, but as your level increases, more difficult enemies begin to appear. By the time you're at level 20 you'll be fighting Ogres, Trolls, Spriggans, Will-O-The-Wisps and plenty of powerful Necromancers. While I'm a classic RPG purist, and would usually love to be able to level up my character to be able to kick some serious Daedric ass with a single blow from my Umbra sword, having enemies level up with you actually makes a whole lot of sense. In Morrowind, if you ventured to certain areas of the map too early on in your journey, you'd face some of the game's toughest denizens. In Oblivion, you're encouraged to explore without having to fear the dreaded 'reload previous save' screen over and over again after groups of Frost Atronachs, Dremora Lords, and Spider Daedra's decide to ambush your level 3 character. The system works well, but it can also be a pain in the royal behind for players who like to level up quite a bit before embarking on the main quest.
I'll give you an example. Say you level up your character to 12 before entering the first Oblivion gate at Kvatch. You decide to give that quest a shot, but as soon as you enter the gate you're greeted by a group of the horribly annoying Clannfear (they seem to knock you back whether you have 100 points of Agility or not), followed by Flame Atronachs galore. If you haven't evenly levelled up your character, especially if you've chosen a race or class with a natural affinity to magic, you could be in for a serious walloping. In fact, whether you want to be strictly a fighter or deal specifically in magic, it becomes apparent early on that no matter what class you are, your character stats need to be somewhat evenly distributed otherwise the game can become painstakingly hard. Thankfully Bethesda was kind enough to include a difficulty slider, so if you find yourself in a jam, you can adjust the slider accordingly. Or, if you're still stuck, you could always move on to the hundreds of other quests.
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. The PS3 game includes the Knights of the Nine expansion from the off, adding even more hours of game play to an already massive game.
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. 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 AI 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. On the PS3 distant hills and the like look a little more attractive than in the 360 game and the load times have also been notably reduced. It's not enough to drastically alter the game, but it's good that Bethesda used the extra development time to improve the PS3 game.
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 PS3, 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.