The Elder Scrolls saga makes its fervently anticipated Xbox 360 debut as an addictive, visually striking role-playing game that addresses many of the complaints leveled at the series as a whole. The underlying play style is the same as in previous installments, with real-time, action-oriented combat; a vast world to explore on foot or on horseback; and the freedom to do just about anything an intrepid adventurer, creative conjurer, or underhanded assassin would desire. For its first appearance on Xbox 360, the game has taken a more console-friendly approach that will likely garner the series its widest audience to date.
The developers at Bethesda have endured a rocky history, with the second game seeing more patches than John Goodman's inner tube, and the third installment coming across as too big for its leather-stitched britches. Oblivion streamlines many of Morrowind's quirks and complexities while still retaining its open-ended charm. Instead of static townsfolk, the game introduces "radiant AI" with generally interesting results. Guards will patrol the streets, innkeepers will converse with patrons, and characters will follow daily routines. This variety makes the world far more dynamic and appealing. Consider the ambitious AI a work in progress, however, as many characters seem content to stare at walls for hours on end, engage in repetitive dialogue, and disappear in front of doors.
Among Oblivion's improvements to the series is a fast travel system that instantly transports players to each of the major cities as well as locales discovered while exploring. Combat now relies on actual player performance instead of transparent dice rolls, and quest locations are clearly marked on the in-game map. Players can decide to rob people or help them, enlist in different guilds, buy and furnish houses, compete in a gladiatorial arena, create potions and spells, or skulk through death as a vampire. Unlike most role-playing games, the encounters automatically adjust along with the player's level, providing an appropriate challenge each step of the way while gradually introducing new enemies, items, and treasures.
Alas, Oblivion is not perfect. There are short but frequent loading times, the enemy list is rather small, the third-person viewpoint isn't entirely functional, and the combat engine is a tad too simplistic -- pull the trigger to swing a sword, pull another to block with a shield -- when compared to most action games. Yet most will easily live with the shortcomings to bask in the beautiful vistas and the diverse cities, delve into the hundreds of engaging quests, and tinker with different races and character builds. Oblivion is a deceptively huge time sink that players will find difficult to pull away from as long as there are skills to learn, rewards to earn, and stones left unturned.
Graphics: The world is filled with lush forests, hilly countryside, thick grasses, and steep mountains. Even the many dungeons are varied, with traps and hazards such as spikes, trip wires, and collapsing ceilings. Marring the visuals are bouts of pop-up, minor slowdown, and frequent loading times.
Sound: The orchestral soundtrack is suitably majestic and epic in scope, but the voice acting seems to have been recorded by only a handful of actors.
Enjoyment: Some role-playing game purists might scoff at some of the changes made to the series, but the developers have made a more accessible game for players of all backgrounds.
Replay Value: There are hundreds of quests, thousands of NPCs, and plenty of things to keep players occupied for close to 100 hours of gaming.
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