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So, this is where a single-player RPG still comes into its own. MMORPGs can make you feel like a hero – though frequently they make you feel like just another working stiff on the daily grind, bashing monsters and grabbing the loot – but they rarely make you feel like THE hero: the guy who’s facing up to the darkness and bringing order to the realm. Oblivion frequently does just that. Like Lionhead’s flawed classic, Fable, you feel that your actions have consequences. Save a city, and news of your exploits spread. Kill needlessly, and your notoriety precedes you. You’re always at the centre of the story, not scuttling around somewhere around the periphery, struggling to make your own mark.
That said, nobody could blame you for getting distracted. After all, there are guilds to join, an arcade university where you can build your magic skills, a dark brotherhood of assassins on the look-out for murderers to sign up, and even a gladiatorial league to get involved in. Plus, you might want to study the finer points of lock-picking, armour repair, alchemy or speechcraft. The more people you meet, the more missions you’ll uncover and – praise be – these go way beyond the usual “kill the five rats in my basement” nonsense. So far, I’ve put two brothers back in touch and cleared their home of trolls, tried to uncover the truth behind a half-orc hero’s background, looked for signs of dodgy dealings from a corrupt city merchant, and attempted to solve the mystery of a stolen painting. And that’s just selected highlights.
Look at it another way. In the time I’ve played Oblivion I would have completed most games, so why do I still feel like I’m scratching at the surface? So much depends on the type of hero or antihero you want to be and the way you want to play, that you could easily play through the game two or three times and have a different experience each time. Buy this now, and you could still be coming back to it two years down the road.
Perhaps more importantly, you don’t have to be a dyed-in-the-wool RPG nut to get a similar buzz. Oblivion takes huge pains to make you feel welcome, with simple ideas like an instant travel option on the main World map, or an autosave when you perform certain actions or enter new environments. The interface is perfectly tailored for the Xbox 360, with a tabbed menu available at the touch of a button, arranged into broad topics (inventory, spells, maps and quests) which you flick through quickly using the trigger buttons. The game even handles difficulty intelligently, matching the level of hostile critters and dungeon dwellers to your own current standing, and with a slider to fine-tune further should you find the real-time combat hard going.
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