It's the middle of the night; it's pitch black, and I'm trying to sneak into a heavily guarded bandit base in order to poison a major bandit leader with some pretty powerful enemies. There's just one guard in between me and the medicine cabinet that I've got to drop some potent poison into, and thanks to the handy Eye Of Sithis that I've equipped myself with, I can see the guard's heat trail, predator-style, as he moves around the room. He can't see me yet, and if I do my job properly, he never will. If I'm feeling particularly nasty, I could dip an arrow into some poison and punctuate his neck with it, but then I'm risking another guard discovering his corpse. So for now, I hide and wait.
Only ten minutes in real time prior, I was busy learning the healing arts in a major magical college, and ten minutes prior to that I was picking locks on a general store before looting the place in order to finance my magical tuition. This, then, is Oblivion, the eagerly awaited follow up to Bethseda's Morrowind, and a better game in just about every respect. If you've not dabbled in Oblivion but loved Morrowind, this is a no-brainer; you'll love Oblivion. Even those who normally see RPG's as exercises in dull plots, linear progression and the hideous grind of meaningless scores may well be sucked into Oblivion's addictive gameplay structures.
Before I start, though, time for a quick admission -- and not the one about the tub of margarine and the nun's outfit either. No, this is a simpler and considerably less raiment-staining admission by far. I haven't finished Oblivion at the time of writing this review. That's OK, though -- Oblivion's one of those games that I can see myself (and, by extension, most gamers) returning to multiple times over multiple years, both because of the sheer scope of the content (which is why I haven't 100% finished this exceedingly lengthy game) and because of its cunning addictive qualities.
Oblivion, or to give it its full title, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, is the follow up to Morrowind, a deep PC/Xbox roleplaying game that built up a rather fanatic PC modding community, and a rather less enthusiastic Xbox community, thanks in part to the fact that you couldn't mod the console version, but largely because the game's interface was rather clunky and on occasion bug-ridden. Well, for the Xbox 360 version you still can't apply mods or mess around with settings files, but the interface bugs have been ironed out, providing a far more enticing gaming experience.
As with pretty much every RPG of recent times, you start out by defining your character from a list of predefined character races and, to a certain extent, classes. While you'll pick your species from a list of fantasy staples as soon as you start, your character's specific skills only emerge over the course of the game's introductory level, where you're tasked with escaping from prison behind the fleeing figure of the Emperor, who has assassins on his tail. At the end of the level you're given a final chance to review your basic stats, and then it's out into the wide, wide world of Oblivion.
And then, nothing. The Oblivion of the title, in fact. Not that you're cast into a white wonderland with no game to play; quite the reverse. Oblivion's world is about as non-linear as it's possible to be within the framework of what's both technically possible on the Xbox 360/PC hardware right now and what's realistically possible within the framework of keeping some kind of character narrative going. The important factor with Oblivion is that, like Morrowind, you're free to pursue whatever interests capture your fancy, whether or not you tackle the main quest at all.
This can be initially isolating; you're left looking at the shores of a lake with little in particular to do beyond the first main quest, and if you decide to go wandering you can get lost rather quickly and disenchanted even faster. The game does offer a quick map-based fast travel option for getting between the major cities, although this rather lacks charm. Once you've hit your first city your game options expand considerably and almost seamlessly. To give you some perspective on this, in the first half hour of play beyond the tutorial, I finished the very first main story mission. In the twenty-odd hours of gameplay since, I've not seriously been back to it. It's still there, waiting for me, with some not-so-subtle clues pointing me towards it.
Oblivion is an organic title that lets you grow your character based entirely on your actions. Skill improve only as you use them, so if you're the type of RPG player who, upon realising that there's a button that makes you jump, feels compelled to hop around like a cocaine-fuelled cricket, you'll quickly develop good acrobatic skills for doing so. If you're the type of gamer who, in FPS games, quickly collects all the armor and sits in a corner turtling, you'll develop good armor skills quickly. If you've got posters of Iain Hewitson on your bedroom wall, I'd suggest therapy, but still the path of the alchemist, grinding up each and every root, herb and organic substance is open to you.
There's a significant upside to this approach to skill improvement, in that your character develops based on your own play style, and there are few constraints on how your character improves him or herself -- it's possible to create battle mages, thief assassins or magic knights if such things take your fancy, and then mid-game switch over to an entirely new "career" path. The downsides shouldn't be ignored, however; if you make the wrong choices in initial character creation, or concentrate on only one set of skills, you can find yourself somewhat stuck at higher levels. This is because Oblivion silently levels up as you go. When you first start out, you'll only be attacked by simple mud crabs and intermittent timber wolves running solo, but once you've got some experience under your belt, you'll face gangs of trolls, marauding bandit hordes and much worse a whole lot of the time. This happens purely based upon your level, which only goes up when you sleep, but irrespective of whether you've created a character who's a battle tank, or simply one who's the world's greatest lockpick. Naturally, a lockpick won't do all that much against an angry troll. There is some mitigation inbuilt, as you can adjust the difficulty of the game on the fly, although this feels like cheating most of the time.
Oblivion is for the most part a lush looking game, with plenty of attention to detail, and it's detail that's not only good to look at, but relevant to the game. Alchemists in particular are well provided for, with mushrooms and exotic herbs growing wild under many trees, as well as the corpses of fallen enemies being good for potion ingredients. The fast travel option may seem enticing -- and there are reasons ranging from health to timing concerns where you'll use it a lot -- but to fully realise Oblivion's world, find all the dungeons, side quests and even just the relaxing bits where you sit by the side of a lake and take in the stars above -- you'll need to do some proper on-foot (or on-horse) exploring. It's a game that's naturally most shiny on a HD display, although it's still perfectly acceptable without such technology.
It would be unfair to overlook Oblivion's bugs, however. There are sections of the game where you hit invisible walls -- presumably to make way for more expansion packs, although at the time of writing the only expansion available for Xbox 360 owners is some rather expensive downloadable horse armor -- and some wacky bugs that'll sometimes see you floating on air when you dismount a horse. There are also reports of some other, more game-crippling bugs out there, although these evaded me. Oblivion runs well on an Xbox 360 Premium, and makes good use of the hard drive for caching purposes; you'd be wise to save frequently.
While we've had to wait longer than most of the rest of the world for the console launch of the 360, we've enjoyed the benefit of having an improved launch lineup to enjoy with it, including titles like Fight Night Round 3 and Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter. They're both great games, and opinion may of course vary on this, but Oblivion arguably comes closest to being the 360's first true system-selling game. Now, if you'll excuse me, the guard's just wandered off into the darkness, and I've got some poison to deliver...