The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Developed by Bethesda
Available for Xbox 360 and PC
All right, I'm not going to waste any pretense: I'm a Level Seven Night Elf. I'm working on getting this magic amulet, but I've also got no problem hacking away at dungeon-dwelling goblins, or sneaking into temples and lifting Elven artifacts, or hunting grazing deer in shady forests. Also, I enjoy drinking beer and chatting with locals in cozy taverns, and I've become quite fond of long sunset horse rides, marveling at how Cyrodiil's frigid peaks and verdant valleys are chiaroscuroed in scarlet and crimson.
The permutations of gameplay in Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion are practically endless: There's a main plot you can jump into, bringing Cyrodiil's heir to power—a task that will have you fighting religious fanatics and closing portals to a demonic dimension. Or eschew the plot and join a thieves' guild, or a fighters' guild, or a mages' guild, improving your skills in each (or all) of those areas. Or hop on a horse and ride through Oblivion's 16 square miles of intricate, varied, and lifelike environs—everything's up to you. (See that mushroom? Harvest it, and grind it up to make a health potion. A locked house? Use your lockpick and quick fingers to break in.) Everything's interactive, and nothing's preordained, to an extent that other open-ended role-playing games—Grand Theft Auto, Fable, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic—have attempted but never accomplished.
Oblivion isn't without its flaws—the gorgeous graphics occasionally stutter, it's frozen up my Xbox 360 twice now, and the game's first-person perspective feels clunky during combat. But still: Oblivion, with its wide-open, immersive world, is simply one of the most expansive and involving videogames yet made. Pick it up, and get ready for some lost weekends and late nights—my guess is, like me, you'll show up to work the next day, sleep-deprived and blathering about how you're a level nine whatever and how those whiny magicians in the mages' guild are totally giving you a harder time than any of the dungeon-lurking trolls. ERIK HENRIKSEN