In ye olden days, role-playing games were little more than just text adventures. Type 'E' to go east, and you might be greeted by the phrase: "You are in a beautiful forest. Sunlight streams through the lush canopy, reflecting dappled sunlight on the grass and flowers below." Twenty-five years on, my character is heading east, and now there really is a beautiful forest in front of my eyes, completely rendered in incredible 3D graphics, branches swaying and reacting to the real-time weather system, birds and wildlife frolicking in the idyllic countryside.
This is The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - the new RPG from developer Bethesda, and sequel to the critically acclaimed Morrowind, subject of last month's Games That Changed The World. Oblivion is set in a different part of the Elder Scrolls universe, Tamriel, where the emperor has been killed and an evil portal has been opened up below the Imperial capital, letting in all kinds of demonic nasties. It's up to you to vanquish the hellish beasts, rescue the emperor's surviving son and save the world from, ahem, oblivion.
Of course, this being an Elder Scrolls game, it's up to you how you complete the task and what character you wish to become, be that warrior, mage, thief or anyone in between. Oblivion begins in jail, where as a nameless prisoner, you must first free yourself to begin the quest - that's if you can stop admiring the gob-smacking next-gen graphics. And now that Oblivion has a complex physics system, over 9,000 objects can be interacted with - if your character happens to brush past some manacles on the wall, they'll move and clank realistically.
Eventually you escape and can enjoy the rest of the province, approximately 16 square miles, with half of it consisting of forest. Bethesda apparently spent research time with the University of Maryland geology lab studying how soil erodes, rock forms and trees develop. The woods and forests you now see in the game weren't created by an artist, they were literally grown by the game, giving it an intense, organic feel and making it a unique place for unscripted events to happen. You can shoot wild deer that wander about, and eat the meat to boost your stats, or pick berries and mushrooms and even combine them to create potions - if you have the required alchemy skills. In addition, a compass at the bottom of the screen always points towards the nearest point of interest, such as a dungeon, so that you don't end up wandering about lost for hours.
Oblivion has over 200 handcrafted dungeons that the team has spent a lot of time creating, ensuring that there is minute-to-minute action with more quests and interactive items, enemies to defeat and other surprises, such as traps. Combat is still immensely important, but has been revamped so that you can now easily combine melee, defence and magic. By pressing the attack button you pull off a quick sword attack, whereas holding the attack button will perform a much more powerful swipe at foes. You can add magical spells to any fights you encounter, as well as numerous blocks and combos - all governed by character statistics that affect the kind of moves you can pull off and how successful they are.
We've already seen exciting battles in elven dungeons against skeletal warriors, zombies, goblins and hellish knights, with the combat feeling much more brutal and realistic than Morrowind, metal clashing viciously against metal, anguished screams echoing through dark halls and blood spilling freely. You also have the use of other weapons, such as arrows, that will stick realistically in wood or flesh, or bounce off stone.