The sequel to 2002's Morrowind is such a remarkable accomplishment, not even because of its vast plains, seemingly endless amount of quests, and polished mechanics, but because it's equally accessible to both hardcore and casual gamers. You don't have to devote your life to Oblivion to truly enjoy it, and for those who don't want to pump in the hours, the main storyline can be completed in relatively few hours. However, once you've created your character and exited the sewers, you likely won't touch the main quest for quite some time.
The story begins with your character, for reasons unknown, waking up behind bars. Soon after, you're greeted by the Emperor himself (voiced by Patrick Stewart of Star Trek fame) who warns you of his dire situation and uses a secret passage within your cell as an escape route. Eventually the Emperor is ambushed by a group of marauders, leaving it up to you to restore the rightful ruler to the throne and once again bring peace to Cyrodiil.
Before you can even think of exploring Cyrodiil, you've got to create your character. Oblivion's character creation system goes way beyond simply choosing a pre-made skin and class, as you can tweak just about every aesthetic feature of your character model. You'll also have to choose your race, with each of the 10 having its own strengths and weaknesses, and depending on how you plan to play the game, one class might be better suited for you than the others. If you're going to hack and slash your way through Cyrodiil, you might want to consider being a Redguard. On the other hand, if you're a magic lover, the High Elf class might be just right.
So, you've picked your race, spent the better portion of the day tweaking the look of your character, now what? It's time to pick a class. In an interesting twist, the game actually recommends a class for you based on the way you played the opening prologue, though oddly enough, the King's guard recommended that I choose a magic class, despite the fact that I hadn't used a single ounce of Magicka.
Class selection is the single most important aspect of your character's creation as it not only determines how the game is played, but how easy it is to level up. Like Morrowind, players have to choose a set number of major skills and a set number of minor skills. Each skill increases in power the more you use it, and while it's important to increase your minor skills, it's the major skills that level up your character. You have a total of seven major skills to choose from, whether it be Restoration (a definite must no matter what class), Blade (equally important) or Mercantile (not so vital). For every ten points gained, spread across your seven major skills, your character will level up. As you continue to use these skills, they'll level up as well, allowing you to cast more powerful spells, strike more powerful blows and so forth. However, unlike Morrowind, when your character levels up so do your enemies, with the exception of a few lower level creatures.
Initially, when travelling through Cyrodiil's landscape, you'll be attacked by the occasional rat or wolf, but as your level increases, more difficult enemies begin to appear. By the time you're at level 20 you'll be fighting Ogres, Trolls, Spriggans, Will-O-The-Wisps and plenty of powerful Necromancers. While I'm a classic RPG purist, and would usually love to be able to level up my character to be able to kick some serious Daedric ass with a single blow from my Umbra sword, having enemies level up with you actually makes a whole lot of sense. In Morrowind, if you ventured to certain areas of the map too early on in your journey, you'd face some of the game's toughest denizens. In Oblivion, you're encouraged to explore without having to fear the dreaded 'reload previous save' screen over and over again after groups of Frost Atronachs, Dremora Lords, and Spider Daedra's decide to ambush your level 3 character. The system works well, but it can also be a pain in the royal behind for players who like to level up quite a bit before embarking on the main quest.
I'll give you an example. Say you level up your character to 12 before entering the first Oblivion gate at Kvatch. You decide to give that quest a shot, but as soon as you enter the gate you're greeted by a group of the horribly annoying Clannfear (they seem to knock you back whether you have 100 points of Agility or not), followed by Flame Atronachs galore. If you haven't evenly levelled up your character, especially if you've chosen a race or class with a natural affinity to magic, you could be in for a serious walloping. In fact, whether you want to be strictly a fighter or deal specifically in magic, it becomes apparent early on that no matter what class you are, your character stats need to be somewhat evenly distributed otherwise the game can become painstakingly hard. Thankfully Bethesda was kind enough to include a difficulty slider, so if you find yourself in a jam, you can adjust the slider accordingly. Or, if you're still stuck, you could always move on to the hundreds of other quests.
The game map is enormous, roughly three times larger than that in Morrowind, and is home to dozens of caves, landmarks, dungeons, cities, thousands of NPCs to interact with and four guilds to join (six if you count the Blades and Arena). For anyone who's played Morrowind, the game actually feels a bit smaller in scale, partly due to your character's speed (your character moved like a snail in Morrowind), and the illusion that cities are closer than they seem thanks to the game's incredible draw distance.
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