It helps that the world itself is so beautiful, not just in terms of geography, but in terms of production design. It was obvious from Morrowind that Bethesda had a special vision for its world; one that successfully blended a range of fantasy influences with Nordic and even Eastern traditions to create something rich and powerfully mythic. With Oblivion, it’s outdone itself. Visit the northern city of Bruma, then travel to a central town like Chorral. Look at the differences in dress, architecture and decoration. Then find your way down into an ancient, mist-wreathed crypt. Gawk at the carvings, and wonder at the way cold light flows into the chamber. We’ve had gorgeous RPGs before – Final Fantasy X, Guild Wars, Jade Empire – but Oblivion takes things to a whole new level.
What’s more, it uses this beauty like a snare. The word “immersive” doesn’t do the game justice – Oblivion comes closer than anything yet to creating a fantasy world full of distinct locations and individual people. The hordes of NPCs look different, dress differently and have their own routines, their own take on life and – frequently – their own aims and objectives. Admittedly, this makes it all the more frustrating when they repeat the same sentence you’ve heard umpteen times before or fail to notice the two corpses you’ve left slumped beneath the bar since a failed ambush three days ago, but there are times when you just have to cut the game a little slack. Oblivion’s world isn’t perfect – and you can never beat an MMO if you want to see a world teeming with real life – but it’s a long way on from any single-player game we’ve seen before.
And all these elements come together to form a world you really can explore your way. Oblivion is better paced than Morrowind for novices, in that it throws you straight into the central plot and never fails to signpost where you need to go and what you need to do next, but it has so many other missions and sidequests that you can spend days ignoring the plight of the Empire should you wish. You won’t, first because the plot is so compelling, but also because you’d miss out on some of the games biggest treats. For example, nothing beats storming into the hellish realm of Oblivion – a dark world straight out of Capcom’s most bloody fantasies. Striding through its wracked, red landscape towards a sinister tower, fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with a nervous squad of guards through corridors of bone, torn flesh and monstrous claw, gives you an authentic ‘hero’ feeling that few other games can touch.