Richard Jones' Log: Oblivion
A little over a week ago, I started playing Oblivion. I've been consistently impressed since, and I've put in about 30 hours of play. I can see many, many hours of gameplay still to come. The developers have really opened up the whole idea of free play and roleplaying in computer games. Grand Theft Auto (GTA) is arguably one of the first games to introduce the idea of free play - that is, the idea that you can ignore what the game would like you to do and go off and do something else. My only real criticism of GTA was that it only let you play a criminal - you couldn't choose to be a cop, or even someone on the middle ground between the two. Most of your freedoms in the game tended towards criminal activity (with the notable exceptions of the stunts, fire fighting and ambulance missions - though even in the latter you had to steal the vehicles.)
Oblivion, on the other hand, doesn't pre-cast any ethical values onto the player. Once you enter the world, it's entirely up to you whether you play a Fine Upstanding Citizen, or a Sewer Dwelling Creature Of The Night. Or someone kinda in the middle. I intend to try for all three with separate characters (my current character falls into the middle - mostly just very pragmatic.) Indeed, you can even try to redeem yourself if you start down one path and the character then tends towards another.
It's a game with freedom to just wander around and explore or follow your destiny and save the world. Or both. I believe one of the criticisms in the prequel (Morrowind) was that the freedom was over-emphasised. Right from the start of Oblivion there's a little arrow on the map that you can choose to follow if you wish to go down the "save the world" storyline. Or you can ignore it. You can choose to just click on the map to "fast travel" to the next quest location, if you choose. Or you can walk/run/ride a horse there through the gorgeous landscape.
The other amazing feat they've accomplished with Oblivion is the modding. Many of the modding tools are similar or the same as they were in Morrowind. Right from the start players were turning out little tweaks (or large modifications) to the gameplay in Oblivion. Personally, I now have mods installed that remove annoying messages in the interface, expand the size of the map viewer, make animals like rats a little less rabid, make plants you harvest be removed from the play world, make far-off landscape look a little prettier, turn off the message popups in the initial tutorial... nothing that substantively changes the game as yet, though you can get mods that change the way character levelling happens, or adds in whole new buildings with new items and NPCs inside, or even modifies the very first room you're in so it has a whole new door that lets you skip the opening tutorial dungeon entirely.