I started out by renting this game as it had such mixed reviews. I love games such as Zelda and Fable and I was hoping for something on the same level, which this game isn't.
The general plot of this game is simple and predictable and not the reason why you will play this game through to the end, which is a shame but not critical as the side stories are good enough to keep you exploring. Basically you play a mercenary who's sister is abducted. You must follow directions in order to discover a family secret which has resulted in you and your sister being targeted. The main plot is not very long and in itself would only take a few hours to complete. However, there are many, many sidequests to keep you busy and enable you to earn the skill points needed for levelling up.
It begins poorly. Firstly there is no tutorial session which is really needed in a game such as this. Although your first encounter involving you fighting a few 'groms' is in itself unchallenging, from then on the game becomes much harder, with almost any battle ending in death for our poor mercenary. If only a small tutorial session had been included at the start to help explain the many menus and just how important levelling up is in this game it would make this game much less frustrating at the start.
Renting a game never gives a player much insentive to stick with a game and after about an hours play I switched off the xbox irritably. However, I re-read some of the reviews on here and decided that I would give it one more go, after all it's months till Fable 2 comes out!!
After a couple of hours playing this game it suddenly got alot better. As soon as you start levelling up in your chosen area(s) - vitality, strength, dexterity, magic - you find battles becoming increasingly easy.
This game is simply HUGE. Other people have commented on how difficult the maps are to read but I have to say I did not find this at all. Once I had started to explore the world properly I found the maps extremely useful and easy to use. The other menu screens are also great, although they do take a while to get to grips with and I found myself flicking through the instructions, which is something I rarely do with games. There is an inventory screen, where as you would expect you can see everything you are carrying and what items you are currently equipped with. The range of items in this game is truly staggering, I am about two thirds of the way through it now and I am still finding new things all the time. You get new items from chests and cupboards found in people's homes or in enemy camps, along with the bodies of your victims once you have despatched them. There is an enourmous range of armour, weapons, potions, gems (which can be cooked in you alchemy pot to form magic potions which make your weapons stronger), money (there are traders throughout the world where you can buy and sell items) and other useful items which you will need. You are limited by the weight of the weapons and armour and levelling up in strength is needed to carry more. You can also combine two of the same items you have found, making your armour or weapon even stronger. I'm a female gamer and reading about weapons and armour would normally make me yawn but this aspect of the game is really great (and essential for surviving battles with necromancers, bears and ogres!).
The other menu screens include your skills screen and your ratings with the many guilds found throughout the world. Your skills screen is split into two sections, one showing your four main skills (vitality etc) and the other sections showing a array of less important skills such as horse-riding, swimming, balance, lock-picking, archery, and so on. I haven't counted all of these but there are lots and only a few are unlocked at the start of the game. Levelling up in these areas are just as important as the four main areas, and the ones you chose will often depend on what route you have chosen for your mercenary. For example, if you have gone down the path of a warrior you will value skills such as balance and ability to weild 2-handed weapons, where as if you have decided to become a mage skills in magic (fire, air etc) will be of much greater use to you. Magic forms a big part of this game, there is a menu screen devoted to this which shows you all magic cards that you have picked up or bought. Simply owning a magic card does not enable you to cast that particular spell, you must continue to level up in order to be strong enough to cast them. Additional items like magical cloaks and staffs may be used to increase the strength of these spells as well.
When playing this game you can follow the main story or you can wander off and explore the world and meet its many creatures and people. Other people have commented on how alive this world seems and I want to reiterate this. There are SOOO many animals running and hopping around this world that you really feel part of a world rather than running around an empty world full only of baddies or people essential to the plot of the story. Many of the animals, such as bears and wolves will attack you, and can prove something of annoyance at the beginning when 3 wolves can easily kill you and you find yourself running in terror from an enourmous grizzly bear. These get increasingly easy as you progress however and soon prove little distraction. Many other animals are harmless however, from the birds singing in the trees to the snakes wiggling across the forest path in front of you. I have even stumbled across a deer grazing innocently deep in the forest.
The world itself consists mostly of forest, with towns and villages dotted throughout. Bandit and orc camps are found frequently alongside forest paths and the many caves provide great opportunities for levelling up with an abundance of enemies to fight. The graphics are great, maybe not as good as they could be considering the console's capabilities, but very good all the same. I'm playing on a HD tv so have had no problems seeing the writing on screen, something other people have reported. Overall, I think the graphics are great.
One major gripe I have with this game, and something that nearly caused me to stubbornly never play it again, is the voice acting. Perhaps americans don't notice it as much as a british person, I don't know, but there is nothing good about a VERY american accent speaking olde english/pirate lines. I still find this very irritating, especially as it seems the makers have gone to great effort with the dialogue. However, it shows how good this game is that I can see past this problem (just). One liner's like 'looks like my mother-in-law' when he sees an orc only makes this worse!
When interacting with people you have freedom to do as you wish. You can steal from peoples houses but be warned, do it out of sight as the villagers will all fear you after and if you are in a town they will chase you and kill you. If you fight back, as I did in one major town where I had quite alot to do, the city guards will then come after you and you cannot safely return to the city.
There are 2 kinds of person, people will either give you advice in response to an array of possible questions you can chose to ask or they will give you a task, usually in payment of money (well you are a mercenary) or respect within that particulary guild. If you can't resist stealing, don't worry too much if the person present is a task setter as these will quickly forgive you once you have run away and returned. Other people don't seem to forget however. I tried killing a man who asked me to kill someone else for money, thinking that I could just take the money he was offering directly. Here, realism is lacking however as after he died he disappeared (unlike anything else in this game, where the bodies remain throughout the game) and I had 'failed the task'.
When wondering round you come across enemies which you quickly realise are too advanced for you at your current level. That is what I love about this game, you are completely free to do what you want to do - if you stumble across an enemy that is too difficult you can simply wander off (or run off) and come back later when you feel you are ready. There is definately no linear pattern to this game and no pressure to do anything other than explore if you want to.
Overall, this game is well worth buying for fans of this genre. I have not yet played oblivion so I am not able to make the comparison that everyone else has made (although I will of course be purchasing this game in the near future). I can only compare it to Fable, which although is far superior game is at least a good indication as to whether you will like this game. Definately worth buying but remember that levelling up is essential (horse-riding is near impossible without levelling up a couple of times in it first) and you will have alot of fun!!