Thursday, April 06, 2006
By Cindi Lash, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Reviews are out of four stars.
'The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion'
Can it be that four years have passed since the Emperor first appeared in "The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind" and charged us with a vital task?
Maybe it's a good thing these "Elder Scrolls" titles don't come out all that often. At the rate we're going, it's likely to take four more years to discover all there is to accomplish in "Oblivion" (Xbox 360, PC; Bethesda Game Studios; $49.99 to $59.99; Rated T), a glorious, open-ended role-playing odyssey that makes its sprawling predecessor seem puny.
Once again, the Emperor -- voiced by venerable stage and screen actor Patrick Stewart -- needs help to ensure the future of the land. He shows up in an unlikely place -- the cell where you're serving time for an unknown crime -- and informs you that your cell lies along the secret route to freedom.
Recognizing you from a dream, the Emperor offers a shot at escape. But assassins strike him down, and with his dying breath he entrusts you with a glowing amulet that must be delivered to his son and heir if the lovely land of Tamriel is to endure.
Baying at its gates are the hounds of a particularly vivid hell, the fiery, fiend-filled "Oblivion" of the title. You must close the gates to this terrifying land that gives Dante's vision a run for the money, then later take on fearsome Lord Dagon and his shrine.
"Oblivion's" story is way too complicated to condense here. Just accept that it presents so many choices that will chew up oh-so-much time. Take up the primary quest and create your own character from an astounding array of classes and variations, down to the constellation under which you were born and the special traits that result. And don't sweat much about getting it wrong -- you'll have opportunities to adapt.
Don't feel like sticking to someone else's script? Cast it away, and permit yourself to get acquainted with the teeming towns and lush countryside. Converse with hundreds of startlingly lifelike non-player secondary characters whose animated faces and voices seem, well, human. Ask and answer questions, seek out news, sort through rumors.
Or wander through a wilderness packed with things that will engage you, even when you're lost. Eventually, you'll learn to generate your own magic, develop new skills or combat moves and make choices to chart your future.
Interactive environments are a joy, allowing you to pick up, handle or manipulate much of what you encounter. See that bowl of fruit? Grab a snack for later. But forget about trying to pick other people's pockets -- this does not go well, trust us.
"Oblivion's" graphics flow seamlessly and pop with detail. Sound, too, is wonderful, thanks to excellent voice acting by Sean Bean, Terence Stamp and other actors, and a soaring orchestral score worthy of cranking up the home theater to window-rattling volume.
Also welcome are improvements to the dull, wooden combat moves and lengthy load times that marred "Morrowind." Combat is now more fluid and load times are miniscule. We also were thrilled with the ability to save at any time and any point. When you've been enticed to devote this much time to a game, you're going to want to hang on to every bit of progress you've made.