I was 19 when I stepped off a Port Authority ferry and saw the Big Apple in person for the first time. I had seen big cities before, but nothing even remotely like this. This was New York City, a metropolis with a capital M. There were so many places to go and things that could be done, that at first I just stood there and stared.
It's that same kind of size and scope that staggers you when playing Bethesda Softworks' The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The world created here has such a huge scale and fine graphic detail that at first you're not sure what to do. You're plopped down in the vast Province of Cyrodiil, made up of nine major cities, hundreds of creatures (from giant rats to hulking ogres), thousands of people, and uncounted miles of countryside, all of which you can touch and interact with. This is not a game to be played in hours or days, but rather in weeks and months.
Where No Elf Has Gone Before
Like its Elder Scrolls predecessors, Oblivion has you begin the game by creating a character who you'll be living with for a very long time. You choose from a myriad of physical attributes, skills and races (ranging from elves to lizard people). After that, you're thrust into a magical open-ended world where you hone your skills (combat, stealth or magic) and increase your level of strength.
The central story begins with the death of the land's emperor (voiced briefly by Patrick Stewart of Star Trek fame). Before dying, he assigns you the job of protecting the land from demon-like creatures of a hellish other-dimension called Oblivion. To do so, you must find the king's long-lost son, retrieve the amulet of kings and light magical beacons around the province.
But that's really only one story in what turns out to be an anthology. There are guilds you can join, quests you can undertake and people everywhere who you can help. Which is an interesting dimension of this game. Because although you have the freedom to choose the path of a murderer or thief just as readily as a knight or Good Samaritan, the dominance and penalties of laws (carried out by guards who are always at least 10 levels higher than you) tend to promote a life of good rather than evil.
In the Dungeon's Depths
Nevertheless, there is a wide range of devilment that one can find his character in. This role-playing game, or RPG, as it's known among fans, is at heart a search-and-fight game. So you are attacked repeatedly and you end up spilling the blood of something or someone quite often. You're also faced with the choice of picking locks, trespassing, stealing, assaulting and even murdering others in cold blood. If you choose to murder an innocent, the law comes after you, but you're also approached by the Dark Brotherhood. They offer you membership in their guild and the possibility of reward for carrying out their assassination assignments.
Another dark Oblivion mainstay is the use of magic to impact yourself or others. Spells include everything from night sight and health restoration to lightning attacks and fireballs. If you make an offering at one of the Daedric shrines scattered throughout the land, the statues talk to you and send you out on quests to retrieve something they like or cast a spell on someone they don't. And although there isn't a bathroom in the realm, you eat and drink things (good and bad) all the time. Plants, cheese, animal meat, potions and alcohol are all available and they each affect your health in one way or another.
Sexual situations and vulgar language are minor elements in Oblivion. One quest has you casting a spell as a joke on a group of stuffy dinner guests. They are magically stripped down to their underwear and you are immediately arrested. And although there is no way I heard all 60,000 lines of spoken dialogue, I did encounter the words "h---", "d--n" and "bastard."
Will You Take the Trip?
I must say that there is a lot here to appreciate. Oblivion is a treat for the eyes from its lifelike towns and windswept fields to its cobweb-shrouded dungeons. And the creators offer upwards of 300 hours of possible game play. You're drawn into every story line with well-acted dialogue and an environment that gives you ample opportunity to literally stop and pick the flowers or read a book along the way.
At the same time, it's a land of blood, violence, demonic evil creatures and spells. It can be a fairly negative place to inhabit. And the downside of 300-plus hours of possible game play is, well, spending 300-plus hours playing a video game. Do you really want to spend the next month-and-a-half in Oblivion? My first trip to New York City only took a weekend.
ONLINE EDITOR'S NOTE: Six weeks after its initial release, the ESRB has changed the rating assigned to the PC version of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion from T (Teen 13+) to M (Mature 17+). The change is due to the availability of downloadable mods (third-party modification files) that give gamers the ability to display a more detailed depiction of blood and gore, as well as open a "locked-out" art file. The art file allows the user to play as topless versions of female characters. The locked-out content is (so far) inaccessible on the Xbox 360 version of the game.