This is not a review.
Frankly I have no interest in reviewing Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion for a number of reasons. First I'd lose a lot of objective credibility in making statements like the following: Oblivion is one of the greatest CRPGs made. It is in the company of titles like Fallout, Planescape: Torment, Baldur's Gate, and Ultima IV. Further, and this is the real part that keeps me from penning any sort of structured review, I simply have no interest in wasting my precious Oblivion time being meticulous, objective, critical, or jaded. I'm having far too much fun simply exploring and experiencing the game to try and turn a cynical eye toward it. It's not that this is a game without faults, but to dwell on those faults would be like complaining that Keira Knightly's nose is too straight or Jessica Alba's lingerie was too see-through.
I have to this point played some thirty hours of Oblivion, which is, of itself, extraordinarily unusual. I could probably measure the number of games I've put 30 hours into over the past year on one hand. World of Warcraft, Civilization IV, Guitar Hero; that's about it. It is even more unusual that I've put in that time in just over a week. Further it is patently absurd that I feel as though I've barely spent any time at all playing the game, much less a day and a half. Every time I sit down before my Oblivion Delivery System – or the more pedestrian terminology: Xbox 360 – hours evaporate like liquid Nitrogen on a hot day.
I am not simply playing this game, but experiencing it. I don't know exactly how to describe the intricacies of that difference, but I think it has something to do with my general lack of direction, willingness to be sent off-track, and genuine curiosity at exploration. Never has a game so fully rewarded me for becoming my own man, dark elf, ogre, or furry cat guy. Unfortunately, this freedom married with the uncommon reward for exploring that freedom means that I regularly ignore the lamentations of the populace at large for my own selfish goals.
I want to attend the needs of my Emperor, but it's like telling a two-year-old to walk from one end of a toy store to another without touching anything. The Emperor tells me that the very fabric of our world is crumbling and I must, with all haste, embark on his mission to save all of our futures, but I'm not a half mile down the cobblestone road, his sultry, Sean Bean tones still reverberating in my ears, before I'm off spelunking, picking pieces of fungus off a mushroom, chasing deer across hilltops, or merely lounging on some quiet bridge admiring the scenery.
I imagine that if the game were any more realistic I would encounter conversations that went:
"You've arrived just in time, traveler, for the Daedra have taken the south bridge, our forces are decimated in the true sense of the meaning, and I'm pretty certain that a great horde of angry minotaurs are organizing for "… I'm sorry am I boring you? What? Yeah, that's a book about the Warp in the West; did you hear what I was saying about everyone dying? Yes, stranger, I do agree that the flames make the sunset a particularly stunning shade of red, but I'm not entirely sure that you get the full magnitude of "… hey! Can you please pick flowers later? I don't care if it is Nirnroot!"
This method of play is extraordinarily unusual for me. More often than not side quests in RPGs seem like a vaguely annoying concept that I must suffer for gains in loot or experience. Ho, traveler, my library book is nearly overdue and I need someone fleet of foot to deliver it to Westinghamburgville Library! Oh, and I hear that lady McWeespalot is missing her precocious son who is believed to have wandered off into the clearly labeled Orc Infested Cave #4. Yawn!
And, it's not even that I'm performing that many side quests, though I've been compelled by all the ones I have completed. In many ways, it's simply that I am creating my own series of quests, suddenly deciding on a whim to investigate a given dungeon, mine, ruin, statue, point-of-interest, Oblivion gate, Inn, camp, shrine, or whatever the hell else I run across in the endlessly dense landscape of Tamriel.
The world, as has been said countless times over the last week, is richly alive, and while the AI is certainly not perfect, it is quirky and interesting enough to usually elicit a response. I recall a recent encounter I had on the road to Chorrol, whereupon I encountered two guards hurling arrows at one another. They each danced around, ducking in and out of cover, trying to gain an advantage on their opponent for reasons I simply could not at the time explain, so I stopped and gawked as one guard finally delivered a fatal blow unto his once comrade, and stalked off. On exploring further, I found the corpse of a highwayman nearby, his body stuck with arrows as well, and imagined a number of possible scenarios. But, what struck me is that not a moment before this encounter I had nearly veered off the track to investigate some ruins, and if I had then this unhappy trio would have still gone about their murderous business without my knowledge. It simply reinforces how much of this game I simply won't have the opportunity to experience, and hints at a world in motion despite, not because of, my character's existence.
The finishing details that fully realize this world are too numerous to even mention, and I hesitate to give even a sampling simply because no one element makes this game. It is in the cohesive final product with its amazing art direction, prolific volumes of text, subtly changing regions, atmospheric visuals, complex and compelling story, and most of all it's extraordinary density that makes this not just a great reason to buy an Xbox 360 or upgrade your PC, but probably one of the definitive games of its genre.
Oblivion is not just the kind of game that makes a year's Best Of list, but will inevitably be mentioned in the breath with the all-time greats.
See, those are pretty extraordinary things to say about a game that's been out less than a week. I'm not necessarily in a position to defend my statements, as any criticism about proclaiming a game among the best ever after only 30 hours of playtime and roughly a week on the shelf is entirely appropriate. It is bombastic, presumptuous, foolhardy, and probably not entirely well thought out, but just wait and see if I'm not right.
You want my review of Oblivion, here it is: it's better than whatever game you're playing right now. Go buy it. If you don't have something to play it on, then buy that too.