Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Homer goes to hell and is sentenced to eat donuts for eternity, only to find that all of the Krispy Kremes in the fiery abyss cannot quell his unending hankering for the fried doughy treats? Well it won't be long after you start playing The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion before you're just like the animated éclair-scarfer, except you'll be in hell fighting monsters and it'll be your penchant for adventuring and treasure hunting that'll be insatiable.
For as grand as Oblivion is in its scope, it's equally compelling in its execution. Its depth is immediately apparent as you start by creating any character you like, beginning with a race (such as the battle-ready Redguard, the bow-and-arrow expertise of the High Elf, or the innate stealthy traits of the catlike Khajiit). Soon you'll choose a class, be it a warrior, wizard, thief or any custom combination you'd care to conjure, and then you'll select your birth sign (read: special ability).
Once you've escaped the initial dungeon - a necessary but not overly drawn-out rat-killing trek during which the game instructs you on the basics of blocking, spell casting, sneaking and more - the hand-holding eases and you're free to roam the great outdoors. Here, you can seek out the heir to the vacant throne of the land and quash the hell-spawned threat that could destroy the world. And with only a cursory glance, you'll see that it's a world very much worth saving.
Videogaming has never seen such a meticulously detailed digital landscape, let alone one so beautifully realized. Mountainous, tree-dotted vistas implore you to spin around and take it all in. Between the nine architecturally and culturally diverse cities and the equally varied outdoor locales and dungeons, the in-game world of Cyrodiil feels real. Light blooms off guards' armor at high noon while bathing the sky in hue-tiful purples and oranges at dawn and dusk.
But it's the sheer volume of never-tedious things to do that makes Oblivion a bar-raising masterpiece. In the approximately 50 hours we spent living a virtual life in Cyrodiil, we never once felt bored or shortchanged, whether we were purging orcs from overrun towns or saving artists who'd gotten trapped inside their magical paintings (requiring you to go into the artwork, watercolor walls and all). You'll find countless side jobs and quests; each of the four major side-stories - one for each main workers' guild - takes longer to play through than most entire games these days. Throw in all sorts of other non-obvious goodies like rideable horses, hidden shrines, player-creatable spells and even unicorns and vampires (the latter of which you can become yourself), and the sheer quantity of content is alarming.
With so much to do, it's a wonder how you can keep track of it all without going insane. Oblivion 's streamlined interface builds critical info into your cursor and manages your inventory and quest log with easy-to-navigate, Web-browser-like tabbed pages. A "fast-travel" option saves you many hours of trekking; just select any previously-visited location from your in-game map and zip instantly to it.
Fortunately, Oblivion is just as easy to actually play. Different analog stick motions combine intuitively with timed button presses to swing your sword for varying attacks. Spellcasters and archers enjoy similarly simple functionality. Plus, this doesn't even touch on the enjoyable mini-games, including lock-picking, stealth action and persuasion. They don't feel like filler.
Furthermore, leveling up - the heart of any RPG - is skill-based, meaning you simply practice what you like doing in order to get better at it. You'll rise quicker if you hone your character's core traits (i.e. a thief who frequently sneaks). Interestingly, Oblivion's bestiary levels up with you, further adding to the freedom as there are no "high-level" dungeons that are off-limits until you've played for 40 hours.
So like Homer, once you've begun to consume what this eternity has to offer, you'll have no desire to stop. The fourth Elder Scrolls entry is utterly brilliant and should not be missed by any adventure-spirited gamer. It serves notice to the rest of the role-playing world, unabashedly boasting, "Can you top this?"