After the initial character creation, the player starts their journey in a jail cell for reasons unknown, being taunted by another prisoner. It's not long before the Palace guard arrives with Uriel Septim, the Emperor of the land, in tow. Fleeing the castle through fear of assassination, his escape route fortunately runs directly through the protagonist's cell. He explains how from his dreams, the player's part in the tale of Oblivion will be a pivotal one, and so it will.
The next thirty minutes are spent escaping from the prison through the Imperial sewers, which essentially acts as a training level for how the game behaves and furthers character creation with the selection of star sign and class; determining the major and minor skills that will be used in levelling later in the game. Choosing the right skills for the prepared style play is therefore quite important. Those who prefer sneaking would be better off with classes that specialise in stealth. Those who prefer to get in the midst of the action would be better suited to combat skills. Those who prefer weaving the odd spell should pick magic. It's not vitally important to get this right from the off, as most choices can be tinkered with to provide a character that will work well in most situations, but these decisions will affect how quickly levelling occurs later. Should none of these templates suit, major and minor skills can be chosen as desired. A final chance to change all of these things is given just before the exit of the sewer and the start of the game proper.
None of this is preparation enough for the lush and gorgeous world that awaits that first step outside the dark and dingy tunnels of the underground; it is stunning, not just in the greatness of the visuals but also in the sheer scale of the task ahead. The scope of Oblivion is huge, and this leads to a difficult decision: should the main story be the focus of attention or is time better spent exploring the many hidden treats of Cyrodiil?
Everything in Oblivion is optional. There is no requirement to follow the main quest, guild quests or side quests. Should the desire arise it's perfectly feasible simply to raid tombs, claim treasure and make a living as an adventurer. Alternatively, pleasure can be taken collecting herbs, flowers and fungi, and making a career as an alchemist. Even the murky world of the paid assassin is a viable path to riches, if so inclined. Then again, being a hero or champion of the people may appeal; for that, there is the gladiatorial life of a fighter in the arena. For those wanting to follow the main story and complete their destiny, then commence on the quest of finding Septim's heir and destroy the gateways from the Oblivion hell. The point is any and all of these, and probably many more paths are open to the player. To choose or not to choose how to play the game, at any pace and in any style. The open-endlessness can be both intimidating and very satisfying.
Opting to play only through the main quest is likely to take ten hours or less, especially if using the fast travel option where visited locations can be warped to simply by selecting them on the map screens. However, doing this misses out on the very essence of what this game is about: exploration and experimentation. Oblivion rewards the player for taking the time to study and venture around the environment. New areas will be discovered in which to seek treasure, the rich tapestry of history will be revealed through the reading of books and interacting with non-player characters (NPCs), and mouths will be agog at the sheer beauty of the natural surrounds and architecture. There are lush forests to wander through, there are mountains to climb, there are lakes to swim through and there are sunsets to sit down and watch till day turns to night, as the wonderful score by Jeremy Soule raises the atmosphere of the surroundings yet another notch.
Some of the attention to detail is astounding; climbing atop the Imperial City’s council chambers and looking down at the area below, stopping to take in every crevice, stone and arch is well recommended. This extends to the cleverly designed dungeons, which can take from a few minutes to an hour or more to explore. Often once the heart of a dungeon is reached, a short cut to the entrance can be found meaning there is little in the way of backtracking. It's this sort of design that shows Oblivion has been a labour of love.
Unfortunately as there is so much on show graphically, there is a compromise on the distance of this detail; it is quite shallow. Texture pop-up is particularly evident in areas outside of town, as are frame rate stutters whilst the Xbox360 tries to keep up with streaming data from the disc, especially on horse back. In cities it's barely an issue, and in structures it isn't evident at all. There are loading transition screens when moving between the wilderness and into cities, caves and structures, entering buildings and when opening some doors inside structures. These vary in length from a few seconds to, occasionally, half a minute. Despite this, it is incredibly amazing to find that these minus points barely interfere with the pleasure of wandering around Oblivion; the pop-in and odd transition screen is accepted once the game digs its claws into your very soul.
Each of the main quest lines follow a similar structure; tasks are taken from a commanding member of the relevant faction which, on completion, eventually leads to advancement. Quests can feature the killing of people, the recovery of objects, the closing of Oblivion Gates, the escort or NPCs and the solving of mysteries. It isn't a case of grudgingly performing these assignments though; very often a simple task leads to the uncovering of a new area, or learning of a new side quest. It's not a matter of going from A to B, it's much more likely to be a journey from A to F to Z to Q to V to B. Such is the ever-branching play Oblivion provides. What starts as a simple thirty minute session, can end in a many-hour marathon.
Throughout the journey, the player will meet with many a NPC. The much-touted Radiant AI plays a key role in how these digital people behave; it can lead to some bizarre behaviour such as making a completely indirect route when they're supposed to be meeting the player as part of a quest. Perhaps the most striking thing is how these characters interact with one another. The conversation is often quite banal, and eventually they will repeat things, but it changes with events that happen in the game.
It is inevitable that combat will occur at some point in the trials and tribulations of exploration. The underlying engine that drives fighting with creatures and people has fundamentally changed from that of Morrowind, yet it remains very similar in feel. No longer is a hit based on a percentage chance; the player has an active role in blocking and swinging weapons at opponents in real time, be that up close and personal with axes, hammers, clubs and swords, or from a distance with magic or a bow and arrow. The physics play an active part too, requiring archers to aim slightly higher when targets are further away due to the gravity acting upon the arrows. When the target is slain, watch as the body rolls down an incline, and down and down, faster and faster with the player chasing the escaping loot.
Due to the diversity and individuality presented to the player in the game, it's not possible to adequately explain just how involving and rewarding the experience of Oblivion is, or put over the immense scope of the living, breathing world on offer. The massive, open-ended and complex nature of choices set before the player offer millions of permutations. Everyone's game will be different, as will the stories told for weeks, months, perhaps even years to come.