- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Here’s a look at some out-of-this-world software that’s available:

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Collector’s Edition, by Bethesda Softworks for Xbox 360, rated M: for ages 17 and older, $59.99. Those lucky enough to find and afford Bill Gates’ latest entertainment console are in for a treat — if they have a few extra bucks to buy this swords-and-sorcery game, which takes the role-playing genre to the next level of immersion.

As the player creates a character to his own specifications, he quickly realizes the depth of options at his disposal. He must choose a name, a race such as a Dark Elf or Argonian reptile (each with its own set of strengths and weaknesses for combat, fatigue, alchemy and magic), gender and tons of facial features — down to the scale of the character’s nostrils.

Once an avatar is built, the player is plunged into a fantastical world where he escapes from a prison dungeon and then embarks on a quest to find the heir to the throne of Tamriel before the kingdom is destroyed by a demonic invasion.

Magic brilliantly mixes with combat within a gorgeous, meticulously detailed world in which the adventurer can roam freely through the countryside, towns and nine cities.

The game is seen through first- and third-person perspectives. A typical session with the game can have the character collect and use armor from fallen comrades or enemies, conjure up a skeleton to help fight battles, mix a powerful potion with a mortar and pestle, drink too much ale, sleep at an inn, murder an innocent and get thrown into prison, pick a lock, swipe some marigolds, ride a horse, shoot an arrow and even turn into a vampire.

The title never stops dazzling through cinematic presentations, bunches of side missions and voice-over work by such greats as Patrick Stewart, Terrence Stamp and Lynda Carter, who contribute to the 50 hours of dialogue.

Along the way, the player can interact with any of the 1,000 non-playable characters he runs into through Bethesda Softworks’ AI system, which gives all of the individuals full facial animation and lip-syncing as they live, make decisions and react to situations based on their programmed attributes.

The collector’s edition also includes a coin from Tamriel, a 112-page guide to its history and an extra DVD loaded with a 40-minute behind-the-scenes look at the development of the game and a liberal number of art galleries.

Serious players also will want Prima Games’ 368-page tutorial on the game ($19.99), which does an excellent job of explaining race attributes, birth signs, potion ingredients, enemies and places to visit on all of the maps.

Final Fantasy: Advent Children, from Sony Home Entertainment for DVD-enabled computers and home entertainment centers, rated R, $26.99. This movie sequel to a nine-year-old video game arrives in a two-disc DVD set that easily delivers the best computer-generated animation I have ever seen.

Final Fantasy has been a premier role-playing series for computers and entertainment consoles for nearly 20 years, and director Tetsuya Nomura and Takeshi Nozue drop viewers into a story that takes place two years after the conclusion of Final Fantasy VII.

In the 100-minute, high-definition visual masterpiece, the disgruntled former soldier Cloud Strife returns to fight the disciples of Jenova and find the cause of a plague threatening Midgar.

The average viewer will not understand the finer points of the involved saga but certainly will marvel at the fight scenes and the characters’ creative use of flight and motorcycles.

The first disc also contains a summary of the Final Fantasy game. Revealed through pixilated scenes of the actual gaming action and dialogue bubbles, the summary is not only a welcome resource for understanding the film’s background story, but also shows just how far video-game graphics have evolved.

A second disc explores the passion and magic behind the project through a 30-minute behind-the-scenes interview with many of the lead production staff and featurettes on more of the game franchise’s history.

The incredible look of the Advent Children clearly highlights how Japanese artists and their technological ingenuity can combine to offer animation that far outshines anything their American counterparts have produced.

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; or send e-mail ([email protected]).

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