Games want to be films. Developers want games to be films. Why? Because there's a level of cred associated with movies, a traditional industry as opposed to an upstart regarded as puerile by our peers. Yet, right from the glorious cinematic opening of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, you know the distinction has been eroded further than ever. This is a true interactive movie, and sod those ugly choose-your-own adventures like Fahrenheit.
From the sweeping initial zoom over the wooded hills of the Nibenay Valley into the glistening blue-white marble of Cyrodil itself and then beneath it, into the sewers and prison complex of the Imperial Blades, all the time narrated by Uriel Septim, the Emperor of Tamriel (Patrick Stewart), talking in ebullient retrospect about his imminent death... If you're like us, you'll feel that same swelling expectation, that excited bursting pressure that Lord of the Rings produced. Yet this time, you're the hero, you're the ringbearer and you control the adventure.
As the game starts, magic-wielding assassins unknown have attacked Uriel Septim's sons and heirs, inside his own palace. You're a criminal, imprisoned in the dungeon of the palace, in a cell that also happens to contain the hidden escape route from the palace. The Emperor, seeking to escape, recognises your face from his dreams of his death, and takes you along as a mascot/hero. The next hour is a tutorial as you flee alongside the Emperor and his guards, trying to learn the tricks you'll need to stay alive. It's rare that a tutorial contains the majority of the tricks you'll need for the game, manages to stay fun and doesn't break the illusion of being in the world. Oblivion ticks all of these boxes.
ARSE ABOUT FACE
We've seen face-shifting technology before, notably the identikit one that every EA game seems to use, but the character creation technology in Oblivion seems much more advanced, allowing you to morph and customize every aspect of your character's face; our Dark Elf female looked truly hideous by the time we'd finished with her, like something built from the contents of a Hollywood plastic surgeon's dustbin.
About an hour later, after the long predicted death of the Emperor, you get a chance to further customise your character by choosing a profession; there are a lot of sensible pre-set professions ranging from knight to sorcerer, and the game suggests the profession most suited to how you've played up to that point. However, for the real tweakers, there's also the option to create your own custom class, where you can select areas to specialise in and determine which of the three basic sub-classes you belong to (magic, combat or roguery), what skills you'll start with, your star-sign and so on. It's very much like a pen and paper RPG but, hack 'n' slash fans, it's all totally avoidable if you don't fancy it.
The true beginning of Oblivion is when you step away from those tight training levels and out of the claustrophobic sewers at the base of Cyrodil. Your heart skips a beat. "Look", your brain gesticulates, "that's a big lake and on the far shore, there's some haunting ruins, and behind them some hills and trees", and then it gets tired, and melts a bit, and you just have to sit down and look for 50 minutes as the day-night cycle runs and the stars go away and your face is dappled by sunlight and then a light drizzle starts and you still can't quite cope with the openness and variety of the world, nor with the oil painting styling of it, until a wolf starts gnawing on your leg and you have to run away.