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Hands-on: Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion--keep off of the hell-scorched earth, please

Hands-on: Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion--keep off of the hell-scorched earth, please

I got a chance to test out a near-final version of Bethseda Softworks' Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion last week. Oblivion has the distinction of being the first epic RPG for the Xbox 360; Kameo, as enjoyable as it was, had been developed for two older consoles previously and in the end felt as if it was taking place in a world the size of two city blocks. The game does have all the trappings of an epic: there's the Lord of the Rings-esque theme and score, more weapons and armor available than there are people to wear them and, most importantly, voiceover work from Patrick Stewart, who could make a Denny's placemat read like War and Peace. The gameplay was impressive, with an expansive world coupled with extensive character customization. Essentially, you can choose from races, astrological signs, and classes, each with more than a dozen choices, then tweak its features and dress your character in the myriad of equipment. Thankfully, it's all laid out in layman's terms, so you know you're extending a character's jaw line instead of lower head z-axis. The combat is simple enough, given the depth of weaponry and the spell choices available--hard-core 360 gamers will find a point of comparison in Condemned, of all titles. The interactivity with other characters is varied, but I'd be lying if I said the wheel of speaking conversation system, in which you choose a manner of talking based on a character's expected reaction, was intuitive.

Considering the scope of the land laid out, the loading times were delightfully minimal, though Core-owning fans may not share that sentiment, as the game is promised to be HDD-optimized. And while the environments are vast, I'd be remiss if I didn't bring up one oddly sectioned-off area. Near the end of my time testing the game, I came across a gate to Oblivion. Thinking nothing of it, I entered it, only to be tapped on the shoulder and told by a Bethseda rep that that part of the game was off-limits until final release. Huh? Why include it in the demo? Isn't the game subtitled Oblivion? A note by the TV would've served as a better deterrent than the fearful soldiers trying to dissuade me. I thought they were just acting, honestly.

So what, pray tell, was beyond those forbidden gates? Well there's the...hey! Looks like my time's up here. Elder Scrolls is set for an "early 2006" release, which retailers have interpreted as "next month." In the meantime, enjoy some fresh screenshots that were served up this past weekend.