The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: Out Now
Players: 1
Words By:

Have you ever played through the GTA series and wondered what it’d be like to be a knight rather than a gangland kingpin, slaying orcs and goblins rather than Mafiosi characters and prostitutes? Chances are that if you don’t own a ten-sided dice or a display case full of Warhammer models, you haven’t. Obviously someone at Bethesda has, as they’ve made a great free-roaming balancing act in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

Bethesda has really done a good job in creating a living, breathing world in Oblivion. The countryside is vast and beautiful, with swaying grass and different flowers blowing in the wind. If you get to the top of a hill you can see right down into the valley below. Each city has a periodic but completely different type of architecture, all depending on which province you’re in, but all look beautiful. The weather changes frequently and bright blue skies can be quickly replaced with genuinely uninviting black storms and high winds. The lighting effects are also very nice; the sun glints on swords and axes and after emerging from a dungeon it takes a little while for your “eyes” to get used to the sunshine. The best effects I’ve seen however are around midday; the sun shines brightly and reflects off brilliant white stone ruins, looking sublime. Also, watching a sunset in Oblivion is an experience to be done at least once, if only for the beautiful palette of oranges in the sky. It’s things like these that make you feel more like you’re sitting outside in a camp out in the wilderness rather than in your front room in Corby Kettering.

Unfortunately all that beauty comes at a price. While you’re out exploring in the wilderness the game has to load up the detail every so often, resulting in a momentary stutter. This is quite bearable, if a little annoying when you’re in the middle of a fight but gets annoying beyond belief when you’re riding about on a horse as it seems to load every other second. The loading between towns and wilderness takes a little while but when running between buildings the game stores the information so it takes no time at all. Indoors the game is smooth as silk, and generally the framerate holds steady, just as long as you’re not on a horse, moving in the rain, or attacking more than two enemies with something shiny… what a price to pay for graphics that don’t even look as good as the much-hyped media we saw before release!

Luckily the NPCs are more impressive as there are literally hundreds of them, all with speaking parts! Granted, most of them sound a lot alike and some of the dialogue treads common ground but the amount of inane chatter you can listen to is the largest I’ve heard in a game. Although it would have been good to see some of the characters doing their own things (travelling, monster-hunting etc) rather than plodding around the town, they do have their own little conversations between each other, which is another thing I haven’t heard in an RPG.

Oblivion’s predecessor, Morrowind tried to give the freedom of a fantasy world that let you do pretty much as you pleased but ended up giving you a little too much freedom. Oblivion gives you the direction of the main storyline, but also gives you the opportunity very early on to go off and explore the rest of the world at your own pace and carry on with the story later.

The main storyline is more prominent than Morrowind this time and from minute one you are thrust into a plot that results in the assassination of the Emperor and a threat against the Kingdom. This threat is the evil race from the realms of Oblivion, the Daedra, who after having the king knocked off have set up portals into Cyrodiil all over the place and are doing all manner of nasty stuff. Turns out you’re the only guy who can oppose them and bring back the balance, destiny and all that stuff.

I was a bit dubious at first about simply wandering about looking for fights without following a mission so I was content to run through the main storyline. That was until I was arrested for stealing some guy’s nice pointy helmet and was taken to one of the many towns in the game, Anvil. Before I went back to my mission I thought I might as well take a look around. After about twenty minutes I was still walking around the city, looking in the shops and taverns and had inadvertently picked up a couple of side quests! Juggling more than one quest at a time is always the case with Oblivion, as no sooner have you completed one quest then another seems to drop into your lap and that “This is really the last one” quest is ten hours behind you…

Luckily there’s a good system in place which helps you keep track of all the quests you’ve got active, how far along you are with them and which one you want to pursue at the moment. To make things a little easier, when you’ve got a quest selected an arrow always points on your map and in-game compass to lead you in the right direction; whether you decide to quick-travel there or walk the old-fashioned way is up to you…

Since the realm of Cyrodiil is a pretty damn big place, and to walk between towns on simple go-fetch quests would take ages, you can fast-travel between the major towns - all of which are accessible from the start. What you miss by fast-travelling, however are the many, many locations which aren’t initially on the map; they appear as symbols on your compass and reveal themselves on the map when you get there. These range from dark cult shrines and farms to the more common mines, caverns, abandoned castles, dungeons and Elven ruins that old-school RPG fans will be happy to see and explore. Pretty much every hidden environment doesn’t relate to any quest, and I can never walk past one without exploring inside, so the simple task of walking from one town to another can literally take hours!

Anyway, on to the nerdy stuff. From the beginning you can customise your character with minute levels of detail, for not only race, gender and size, but things like eyebrow size and chin-eye level are all considered. It seems strange, but even with all that customisation I still couldn’t create someone good-looking; they always seemed to look like they’d just come from a bar-brawl somewhere, and lost. After choosing your character you get further choices; of what class you’d like to be (mage, trader, warrior, thief etc) and also what star sign you want to be! Now it’s not as useless as in real-life, where you get non-specific statements about Venus coming into your prosperity chart, and each sign grants you a few extra bonuses, usually with weaknesses too. I chose a Warrior class under the sign of the Lord, which gave me lots of brute strength and health regeneration powers, but I had a weakness to magic, particularly fire. It wasn’t until later that I found out that all the main enemies in the story use fire magic. Bugger.

The system for levelling up is quite good on paper, as it is tailored to each character you play as. You have every skill you can use in the game, from blade and blunt (swords and axes) to security (lockpicking) and mercantile (bartering) and depending on your class a few of them are major skills (in my case, weapons, armour and strength). You can advance in all of the skills there but you can only level up if you advance in your main skills.

This links into the enemies, as to keep things challenging you can go off and do sub-quests and level up and instead of beating the little imps and goblins down with one swipe they level up with you. This stops things from getting too easy but also creates a problem if you play off-mission for ages and then come back to the main storyline, as the NPCs do not level up. This means that while you’re prancing about in Mithril armour, waving your Elven longswords, they’re trying to fight off level 20 goblins with iron swords and promptly get slapped across the map. Also, it does beg the question that if the missions are just as hard at level 30 as they were when you were level 3, then what’s the point in levelling up at all? Although you can experience more by levelling up it doesn’t really motivate the player to slog through the sub-missions to find useful weapons and level up to fight that “unbeatable” enemy along the line…

The combat system is quite easy to use, with the right bumper for attack, the left to block and the right trigger for spells. If you need to swap quickly between weapons, armour or spells there’s a quick-swap system mapped onto the d-pad, although choosing anything in the diagonals is pretty tough when you’re trying to run away from a bloody great minotaur in a cave! The enemies seem to react pretty well to your fighting style, making you think about how to attack each one. Each type of enemy fights very differently, too; goblins tend to rush right at you while the shamans stand back and summon stuff, the beasts use brute force while the bandits work as a team to flank you with numbers.

There are two situations where the combat system falls down, though: When fighting more than one enemy and fighting in confined spaces. Usually these two come hand-in-hand as goblins and bandits hide out in the caverns in fairly large numbers and before you know it the fairly simple combat system starts to get confused. In the open it’s easy to fight as you’ve got space to back away, move around the enemy and find your bearings. In the caves you’re constantly retreating backwards, blocking several attacks at once. If they hit you hard enough you’re screwed, as you get dazed and sway around for a bit. In this time you’ve been pummelled into submission, and a succession of dazing hits can see you dead without even returning a hit. You can also be dazed if you attack an enemy while they’re blocking, which gets annoying when you’re fighting more than one enemy and you attack an open enemy, only to be dazed by the enemy that’s blocking behind him

The non-combat skills are also good additions to the game, each playing like mini-games but actually having a direct response on your character’s advancement. One of the bigger skills which you use quite a lot regardless of your class is alchemy. This is the skill of using different ingredients and mixing them together to make potions. It seems quite simple at the start, as mixing bread with cheese and venison does recover fatigue but the more skilled you get the more properties of each ingredient (they have four properties) are revealed, some good and some bad. This means after increasing by ten levels the same venison and cheese sandwich will not only recover fatigue but also increase speed for a period of time, or that poison of nightshade, ectoplasm and orc’s teeth will damage health and fatigue. And it’s not just standard food stuffs you can use in alchemy; there are literally hundreds of different ingredients, ranging from remnants of dead enemies (orc’s teeth, minotaur horn) to many different types of plant (nightshade, arrowroot). The vegetables can be picked from farms and plants can all be picked in the wild, with the rarer plants having more desirable effects. As a fighter I spent my time mainly making health and fatigue potions but talk to anyone playing as a mage in the game and they’ll tell stories of how they spent hours walking around the wilderness looking for a rare plant to complete their ultimate potion!

Some people I’ve spoken to about Oblivion didn’t catch on to the game as much as I did in the beginning. They didn’t like the fact that they didn’t seem to be making a difference in the game, that it was too big for its own good as, unless you put serious hours into it, you’d never see the end. Thirty gaming hours ago I hit back at them, saying that everyone moans about games with six-hour lifespans and not enough depth and now that one comes along it’s got too much depth?

It seemed like they didn’t really know what they wanted from a game, but thirty hours on, I’m starting to know what they mean. I’ve done countless sub-quests that never seem to end, and explored probably 20+ caves, ruins and forts and barely even scratched the surface. I like to have a feeling of accomplishment when doing anything, not just games, and I did the sub-missions as filler, waiting for them to run dry before going back to the main storyline. But they never ran dry, they just kept going and what was original and exciting suddenly felt like a demoralising slog that could probably never be finished, and I like completing games!

Shifting back to the main storyline made things better but it shows that with all the choice and different directions you can go in sometimes it still isn’t enough to hold interest, especially not for the casual gamers who want to see the game moving on as you complete missions.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is a huge game, with gaming hours easily into the triple figures. The environment is believable and easy to get lost in (literally) and feels great, both in looks and sound. There’s much, much more to the game than what’s in this review (the guilds, bartering, arenas…) but I don’t want to reveal everything; I want you to find some things for yourself, like I did. The only real problems lie with the scale of the game, which coupled with the levelling system seem to offer no real incentive to play through all the sub-missions and explore the caves for anything more than sheer curiosity, which may be a turn-off for some people.

Fans of RPGs, from Morrowind to Final Fantasy, and even games like Deus Ex will enjoy Oblivion, as it is an addictive experience that can hit you like chloroform: one minute you’ll be sitting happily, playing away, the next it’s 2am, Oblivion’s still flickering away on the telly and you wonder where the time went. You don’t distinctly remember but you know it must have been good.

Best Bits

- Huge engrossing world
- Lots of freedom
- Loads of missions
- Massive lifespan
- Addictive
- Wonderfully atmospheric music.
Worst Bits

- Needs a lot of hours to show results
- Flawed levelling up system
- Combat can get confusing
- Framerate drops
- Loading times can get annoying

by: Crazypunk

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