The latest in a role-playing series known for its depth, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion isn't so much a game as it is a lifestyle choice, like getting married or having children. Just designing a character—a crucial process of selecting attributes based on race, custom class, astrological considerations, and detailed facial molding—could take longer than finishing, say, the Curious George video game. With the breadth of several games rolled into one, Oblivion exercises virtually every muscle—first-person and third-person action, strategy, puzzle-solving, and personal relations—while boasting the flexibility and complexity expected of a good RPG. Set in the immersive world of Cyrodiil, a topographically diverse province under attack by demonic creatures, the game allows you innumerable angles from which to fight this insurgency or detour into other occupations altogether.
After choosing a character based on its facility for combat, magic, and stealth, you start the game by escaping through the rat- and goblin-infested tunnels beneath a prison dungeon in Imperial City. Before assassins take him down, Emperor Uriel Septim entrusts you to seek out his son Martin, an heir who has grown up unaware of his bloodline. You must find Martin and protect him from the onslaught of baddies spilling out from the gates of Oblivion (the gates of hell, basically) and ravaging the province. The gates themselves are worlds within worlds, and you have to manage your inventory of weapons, armor, potions, and magic powers wisely in order to increase your skill level and prevail. For those unschooled in RPG strategy, the learning curve can be steep, but the interactive choices are so staggering that you can balk on the main mission and just do whatever you want.
Beyond the game: The new "fast travel" option allows you to get from one place to the next in a snap, but it's worth taking the long way just to see how much effort went into parts of the landscape that many gamers will never even see.
Worth playing for: The sense of discovery—each environment looks different from the last and requires a nuanced reaction—makes the action addictive.
Frustration sets in when: Though you're allowed to save at any point, be sure you have the tools in your arsenal to survive. Otherwise, game over.
Final judgment: Tired of living on Planet Earth? Take a lease out on this one.