by Marty Demarest & r & & r & Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Rated Teen, XBox 360 4 out of 5 Stars & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & nce, when hiking through what seemed like miles of rocky mountainside, I discovered an abandoned mineshaft -- just two ancient timbers holding up a gash in the hill. A tunnel sloped down with hand-hewn sides disappearing into facets of black. I put my head inside. Then, as often happens in bad horror films, the music swelled to sinister proportions moments before a trio of vampires attacked me. Thanks for the warning, Oblivion.
Vampires are tricky. Forget wooden stakes and crosses. Axes and swords work better. A few swings and the creatures collapse in a spatter of tastefully Teen-rated blood. I could just as easily have burned them with fireballs. Or stuck them full of arrows until they bristled, screaming and shaking off pain. It's all just a matter of pulling a trigger -- a nice, comfy Xbox 360 trigger that gets sweaty and hot if the monsters refuse to die.
It's not always violent. In Oblivion, I've led a life of honest pickpocketing by the moonlit glow of cat-eyes. I've spied my way through secret hideouts in service of the emperor. I've even tried herbalism, though I switched to assassination when I found some poisonous mushrooms in a cave. But I have no intention of becoming a vampire. I enjoy spending sunny afternoons getting drunk on ale and starting fistfights with passing deer.
Oblivion is not a standard "go to the blacksmith and buy the next sword" role-playing game. If I see a weapon that I want, I can simply kill the person who's carrying it, like a medieval Grand Theft Auto III. Certainly the detailed fantasy kingdom in which Oblivion takes place -- where the emperor has recently been murdered and citizens complain about the religious government -- is as ripe a setting for mayhem as a 21st-century inner city. The game even keeps statistics about the murders and crimes I've committed, along with "potions made" and "souls trapped."
Beyond graphics and special effects, the thing that makes a videogame compelling is the range of action it offers. That's how I escape into the game. Action by action, I embody my identity in the game's digital world. And with every evil cultist I stab, with every arrow I salvage from a corpse, with every silver cup I steal, I am able to step further past the television screen, into a world where men and elves live by watchfires and where vampires die by my sword.
THE GOOD: Oblivion has the click 'n' slash crackiness of Diablo. The trigger-driven combat and magic invigorates everything, from random, roadside battles with wolves to torch-lit castle sieges. And the dungeons -- the meat and potatoes of fantasy games -- are gnarly complexes filled with swooshing sounds and salvageable detritus.
THE BAD: If birds fly across the sky, where do they roost? If I stop in a meadow and my horse nibbles grass, when does he poop? Graphics that raise questions like this also raise technical trouble, at least for the 360. Onscreen images shudder occasionally, especially during clattering battles in forest clearings where archers are hiding in the bushes and wizards are summoning lightning from above. It must be really spectacular on a new PC.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Forget reality, I'm happy living in Oblivion.