Just yesterday, I completed The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. As in, I earned all 1,250 Gamerscore associated with the game. 20 years ago, it used to be that grabbing the axe to retract the bridge and kill the dragon and save the princess was all that was required to beat a game. Now there are so many more definitions. I like the Gamerscore answer. I actually beat the main game a couple weeks ago, but I had more Achievements to unlock - each Achievement is like a trophy and worth so much Gamerscore - 10, 20, 30, 50, whatever. So I pressed on until I had my 1250/1250. Xbox 360 games are supposed to only have 1,000, and Oblivion is no exception - the expansion, Shivering Isles, adds another 250. That was what I had to do to get all 1250. The scary thing is that I am actually a long way away from doing everything Oblivion has to offer. More on that in a bit.
Oblivion is a beast of a game, and very open-ended. You start in prison, and the guy in the cell across from you is sure you're going to die. Future uncertain, you wait - not long, even - and then the Emperor himself, Uriel Septim VII, voiced by none other than Patrick Stewart (Star Trek's Captain Picard; X-Men's Professor X), opens your cell and then opens a secret exit. He's being chased by assassins, and must escape - through your cell. He recognizes you immediately - he saw you in a dream. This tells him that today is the day he dies, and he confides in you that whatever you did to get locked up doesn't matter; that isn't what you'll be remembered for. Rather, you have a grand destiny ahead of you. He charges you with the task of finding his bastard son, who doesn't know he's the only heir to the throne. However, once you get out, the world is all yours to travel as you please. The game will point you toward your next objective, but only because the main quest is the active one. Once you receive another - and you can have as many open as you like - you can make it your active quest, and you will be pointed toward that objective.
Aside from helping Martin Septim regain the throne, there are two Guilds you can join. The Fighters' Guild does odd jobs for people, from pest control to personal defense. Basically what you'd expect out of security guards to mercenaries, everything in between. The Mages' Guild will make you think of Harry Potter, perhaps. Same basic idea, except you've got to travel the land, visiting the Mages' Guild Hall in each city to get a "recommendation" from the local Guild Master in order to actually join. Some of these are more straightforward than others. On top of that, there are two "secret" Guilds - to join the Thieves' Guild, you have to read a wanted poster for and then ask around about famed thief the Gray Fox; this leads you to an associate of his. This guild works a little differently; in addition to doing jobs for people who want things found, you move up through the ranks by stealing things from others and selling them to "fences", members of the Thieves' Guild who buy stolen property (legitimate shopkeepers will not). Then there's the Dark Brotherhood, a fraternity of assassins - led by a vampire, no less. To join these guys, you must take an innocent life. Murder is hard to get away with, but the punishment isn't even death. You can either pay a fine of 1,000 Gold, or go to jail. You don't even stay overnight, but you do lose a few skills. You don't have to get away with the murder to be accepted, however, and even if nobody witnesses the murder - or it's an accident, as was the case with me - you'll be noticed. Then, next time you go to sleep, you'll be visited by a member of the Brotherhood, who gives you a dagger and assigns you a kill. Do this, and sleep again. He'll visit again, and tell you how to actually join. The Dark Brotherhood offers some of the best quests in the game. And each of the four Guilds has a finite number of quests, which all end in you ultimately running that Guild.
In addition to all of that and the main quest itself, you can buy a house in each town, except for Kvatch, which is destroyed at the start of the game. And Imperial City, because that house is actually just a shack on the waterfront. And the unmapped villages you come across - they don't count. Just Chorrol, Anvil, Skingrad, Lleyawin, Bravil, Cheydinhal, Bruma, and the Imperial City. The price of each house varies, from the cheap shack in the Imperial City to the mansion in Skingrad. Each house comes with little more than a bed or bedroll, but you can buy "upgrades" for each house in the same city, usually in total for the price of the house again. Fully upgraded, the shack is not really nice, but better than it comes. Fully upgraded, the mansion is very nice, and you can even buy a maid. You can get quests all over the game, from hearing gossip and talking to people of interest, to talking to counts and lords, it seems like every other person has something for you to do. None of them conflict, so you can do everything. Scattered around the land are shrines to Daedric lords - essentially demons - where you can make an offering and do one quest for each of them, for a substantial reward (and in fact, you will have to do one of these, and then give up the reward as part of the main quest).
And then there's the downloadable content. Oblivion gets a lot of flak online because the first downloadable content cost $4.25 and all it did was allow you to buy armor for your horse. People were not amused at what they got, let alone what they had to pay. Then four properties came out - Battlehorn Castle, for fighters; Frostcrag Spire, for mages; Deepscorn Hollow, for assassins; and the Thieves' Den, for thieves. These were $1.89 apiece and, like the houses, came pretty bare until you bought all the upgrades (with the in-game money, not real money). Each also included a quest or two apiece and various other things to do. And Mehrune's Razor, the largest dungeon in the game, which includes an underground village, and ends with you getting a relatively weak sword. Weak compared to what my character currently has, anyway. It'll look nice in my castle, though. But those are the little things. There are two large downloadable expansions. The first is Knights of the Nine, which costs $10. You travel the country looking for shrines to the Nine (the good gods) and you must pray at one of each. Then, you form an ancient brotherhood of knights to oppose a god-killer. This is huge and worth every penny, but don't - and I mean DON'T - do it before finishing the Dark Brotherhood and Thieves' Guild. The reason is, you get some good equipment, but do one bad thing (well, two bad things) and all the stuff you get from KotN - falls right off you. You must be a righteous character to use those things. And the first thing you do, the pilgrimage quest - forgives all your sins. Then there's Shivering Isles, which costs a whopping $30, but it adds a whole new country to explore, so it is worth it as well. The Shivering Isles are home to and the creation of Sheogorath, the Daedric Prince of Madness, and his world reflects that. It's divided into two sections, Mania and Dementia. You end up working for Sheogorath, working to stop the invasion of another Daedric prince named Jyggalag, the Daedric Prince of Order, who Sheogorath describes as "boring".
Anyway, that does sound like a lot of money, but if you buy the "Game of the Year" version of Oblivion for the Xbox 360, it comes with a second disc which installs Knights of the Nine and Shivering Isles to your Xbox 360 hard drive (takes up about 1GB). That's $40 of extra stuff, and this pack is only $30. The thing is, it adds 30 seconds to the start of the game to "load" the "additional content", so bearing in mind my warning about Knights of the Nine and its conflicts, it pays to actually not install the expansions until you're completely done with the original game. You're also on your own for the four extra properties and Mehrune's Razor. Also, Xbox 360 games start out costing $60. This is one that is completely worth that, so getting it for $30, plus $40 worth of expansions, is really a steal. It really is $100 worth of game. It's more, actually, I've put 120 hours in and I still want to play.
So is this game perfect? Near about. It's not without its pitfalls, however. Like I said, the $10 expansion quest Knights of the Nine doesn't play fairly if you choose to be a bad guy later. That's stupid. It makes sense, being as that you're an agent for the (good) gods, but for a game that gives you this much freedom, it counts against it. Then there's the extra 30 seconds of loading. That gets old. On top of that, the game itself lags in places it really shouldn't. Around the Net, they say if you press A/green while the game is starting, it "defragments" the "disk cache" which should fix it. It really doesn't. Or maybe I'm doing it wrong, the instructions aren't clear, and everbody's got a different way of doing it. There are a couple of bugs which will halt your game right in its tracks, so save often. Fortunately the Xbox 360 version does this for you, but some crashes like to take the last few saves with them. Some instructions are unclear and you'll find yourself hitting up a site called UESP - it's like the Wikipedia of Oblivion. The game's menu icons are never explained, but they're mostly self-explanatory. A couple of caves are death traps - fall down a hole and you're stuck. Whoops. A dead goblin drank himself to death in there. If you have about a dozen paint brushes on you, you can sort of get back up through the hole - paint brushes don't fall when dropped. Drop one right in front of you and it floats. On top of that, you can stand on it. There are also a lot of useless items you can find, so when going through loot, you have to know to separate trash from treasure. And speaking of treasure, nothing's actually worth what it shows up in your inventory as. First of all, shopkeepers only give you 39% of what something's worth, though you can usually haggle that up to around 55%. The more business you do with a merchant, the more they like you, and you can work it up into the 70s and 80s percentage-wise, but you'll never be able to sell stuff for what it's actually worth. And merchants have a cap - if a merchant's cap is 800 gold, your Daedric warhammer is worth 4500 gold, even if you haggled him up to 75%, he's still going to give you no more than 800 gold for it, because that's his cap. There are a lot of factors, but the most you can get for something is commonly accepted to be around 3,000 gold. Yet they will be glad to take 5,000 or more gold for items they sell, and their cap doesn't go up to reflect their newfound wealth. The most expensive item I saw cost nearly 20,000 gold, and I think it was a ring. But on the other hand, once you've bought all the properties and their upgrades, all you use money for is to repair your equipment. And you can buy spells, I guess, but that's trivial when you get up around 50,000 gold in no time. You stop picking up glass, Daedric, and Ebony weapons and armor to sell for top dollar; you end up only picking up gold and stuff you'll actually use. Because you can only carry so much.
Still, this game has gone above and beyond the Grand Theft Auto games for making a truly open world where you can literally do anything you want. Actually, if fans of GTA (which does include me) can get over the lack of cars, cops, and explosions, Oblivion is actually a very attractive game to that crowd. It is a role playing game, however, and while you can actually control the battles (unlike Final Fantasy's infamous menu-based fights), it's still rolling dice in the background, and of course you have a ton of stats and proficiencies. What works here, though, is that your character learns by doing. Fighting with a sword builds your Blade proficiency, and just running and swimming raises Athletics (jumping raises Acrobatics). Every transaction in a shop raises Mercantile. You have seven major proficiencies; level any/all of these so many times, and you go up a level. Stats (strength, dexterity, intelligence, luck, etc.) can raise zero to five points per level gain depending on how much the proficiencies they govern (e.g. Strength governs blade and hand-to-hand, dexterity governs athletics and acrobatics). If all you did to gain a level was jump and run, you have the option of raising dexterity by a full five points. So it's all very clever.
While I highly recommend Oblivion for the Xbox 360, I can't recommend it for the PC, unless you have a very expensive beast of a computer. Oblivion is very demanding for PCs, and does not look as good. With an Xbox 360 and even a 720p HDTV, as we have, it looks fantastic. You would need a computer costing a couple thousand dollars to play this game, not something you can get at Walmart or even Best Buy. For that price, you might as well buy a nice TV and an Xbox 360 and not have to worry about getting it to run under Windows. PC games used to dominate, but that time has passed. Maybe it will come again, maybe not, no one can say. Then again, if you do have a PC capable of playing Oblivion, there are a lot of homemade mods for it. New weapons and items, new quests, changes to the game itself (for example, one I saw added muggers to towns at night). What most PCs can play, however, is Oblivion's predecessor, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. While not quite as intuitive as Oblivion, I fully intend to play through Morrowind now that I've beaten Oblivion, and now that I feel that I know how an Elder Scrolls game is meant to be played. Also, not to come off as an Xbox 360 fanboy, I hear that the PlayStation 3 version of Oblivion, while just as good, does not have the downloadable content available. I'm not sure if there is a "Game of the Year" edition which adds the big ones or not, but I'm pretty sure the downloadable stuff is unavailable to PlayStation gamers. Still, as it's among the best Xbox 360 games, I'm sure it's among the best PS3 games as well. And hopefully PS3's stronger processor eliminates those slowdowns. One can only hope. Best thing is, Oblivion came out in 2006, and the fans are expecting a fifth Elder Scrolls game next year or the year after. They just made Fallout 3, a futuristic RPG that is said to be a lot like Oblivion. While I can't see myself enjoying a game with guns and radiation as much as Oblivion, I owe it to Bethesda Softworks to give their new game a try, given how much I enjoyed their last one.