Unlike DDO: Stormreach, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is a dyed-in-the-wool single-player role-playing game (RPG) - so you can dip in and out of it without having to spend hours trying to assemble a party. The trouble is, while the dipping-in is proving all too easy, I'm having real trouble with the dipping-out part afterwards.
Like Morrowind (Elder Scrolls III), Oblivion's game area is impressively large (the equivalent to 16 square miles, apparently), but this latest chapter is the first to fill a map with such luscious detail and gorgeous scenery that it's all too easy to just wander blithely through the beautiful and varied landscapes. In fact, you're actively rewarded for doing so, with a seemingly endless array of missions, temples and dungeons only appearing on your map when you get close enough to see them.
The usual RPG elements - like character customisation, an "only you can save the world" storyline, and heaps of side missions - are all present and correct, and you can choose to rigidly follow the main storyline, or put the end of the world on hold for a bit and play the wandering adventurer instead. It's entirely up to you.
Unlike other RPGs, which typically give you generic experience points for achieving mission goals and levelling you up when you reach set totals, Oblivion's character advancement is different. You only level up for advancing your character's specialist skills, so while a Fighter character can cast as many spells as he has the magicka (mana) for, he'll only level up for killing things with weapons. While this helps to keep you true to your character type without placing unreasonable limitations on what you can do, there's a potential flaw here. Because the game balances the strength of your enemies based on your current level, characters who choose non-combat skills as their specialties (acrobatics, stealth, alchemy, speechcraft etc) may find themselves facing opponents who are a lot tougher than they are. So making the right character choices is crucial.
That aside, Oblivion is just about everything you want from an RPG. While there'll be times when you want to shout "I just saved your poxy village from rampaging Heckspawn, so a little appreciation wouldn't go amiss!" the world is pretty immersive. Characters mill around, do stuff and go places, and you'll often be given the chance to alter someone's destiny and see the end result at a later stage of the game. Some of the vocals are a little generic, but Patrick Stewart, Sean Bean, Lynda Carter and Terence Stamp provide theatrical flair for the game's set pieces.
In fact, there's nothing here that's likely to jar you out of the blissful reverie and involvement of this utterly compelling adventure - with the possible exception of your partner, who'll probably want to know if you intend to come to bed before 4am.
Verdict: It plays well, sounds great and looks absolutely stunning. Oblivion is a must-have purchase for any solo RPG fan, and would be a great introduction to the genre for anyone else.
Score: 5 stars
Publisher: 2K Games