The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion ReviewCain Dornan
At first, I didnt find Bethesda Softworks latest masterpiece in the long-standing Elder Scrolls series, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, all that impressive. Sure, its equipped with some flashy visuals and top-notch sound work, but the gameplay simply failed to immediately immerse me into its elegant and charming world. At first, it seemed that Oblivion felt like too many other role playing titles that have been released in the past, a game that looked and sounded impressive, but lacked considerably in the gameplay department. Several hours of play later, however, I discovered how wrong my initial impressions on the game were, as I was finally engulfed in the amazingly complex and never-ending world that is Oblivion.
As with many RPG titles, upon beginning a new game in Oblivion, you are offered the chance to create your very own custom character for use through your epic adventure. Unlike many RPG titles, however, the level of customization and versatility in the creation process is overwhelming, with a huge variety of powerful options available at your fingertips. Beginning with the race of your character, you can fine-tune and tweak each significant and less-noticeable aspect of your in-game self. The vast options available to you before even beginning the actual adventure is a clear indication of the grandeur that you are about to experience.
But the individual customisation options of Oblivion extend further than the physical aspects of character creation at the beginning of the game. Soon into the game, you are confronted with further character-building elements that allow you to choose the personality and skill of your character. Here, you need to choose what star your character was born under, which defines which skills he or she is particularly good at, as well as further defining their personality traits. While each character can perform most abilities to some degree, choosing a particular birth star determines how good you are at performing a particular activity.
Your skills and traits can be further enhanced through practice. Rather than simply leveling-up your character by killing enemies, Oblivion requires you to enhance your skill at particular activities through the more natural means of practice. The more you use your sword, the more skilled you will become at using bladed weapons. Likewise, using a mace often will improve your skill in using blunt weapons, as will successfully blocking enemies attacks with your shield improve your block skill. Furthermore, running or swimming will gradually improve your athletic abilities. While there is the standard leveling system that sees your characters mainstream traits, such as health and strength, increasing as you meet specific standards, the additional natural system of improving your skill sees your character reflecting your playing style better than most other RPGs.
Interestingly, you dont begin the game on an open field or within a settlement. Rather, you find yourself confined to the dank cells of an underground jail. While the visuals at this point arent exactly overwhelming, you get a strong feeling of the graphical detail that Oblivion holds, as you cast your gaze over the dimly lit cell, the soft moonlight from outside filtering in through the small barred window. After spending some time playing around with the chains and human bones, which all react to your movements realistically thanks to the games strong physics engine, you are soon engulfed in the courageous escape attempt of the kingdoms king and his loyal bodyguards. Apparently, the king has had a series of dreams that are indicating that his death is near, and although he knows that his time within this realm is almost at its end, he has decided to make a run from the evil that pursues him. You soon find yourself dragged into the mayhem several minutes later, the king dead and his dying request still ringing in your ear. With no known heir available to claim the throne, it seems there are dark times ahead, that is, unless you fulfill the promise that you made with the king during his last breath: to locate his illegitimate son, protect him from the evil that is rapidly engulfing the world and place him in power. If you fail to do so, the entire country will become shrouded in darkness and ravaged with the evils from another world.
While the first half-hour of Oblivion is spent within the limited confines of underground passages and sewers, stepping outside for the first time and taking in the stunning view is nothing short of breathtaking. While the underground portions of the game do offer solid visuals, they arent quite as impressive as we had originally expected. Sure, there are some great lighting effects that see shadows bouncing off the walls as the flames from candles cast off a warm glow, but the actual environment detail isnt exactly stunning. This is largely due to the darkness that shrouds the underground environments, offering bland and mostly black surroundings that arent exactly impressive. This is all quickly forgiven once you make your first steps into the outside world, as the sheer size and level of detail is astounding. As far as the eye can see, the landscape is dotted with realistic-looking trees and shrubbery, swaying slowly in the breeze in a lifelike manner. As you begin to make your way through this wilderness, youll soon come across deer that bound away as you approach. In one instance, we found a fellow warrior busying himself by chasing one of the deer, shooting arrows into the helpless creature as he hunted for his next meal. Its surreal, yet somehow believable at the same time, as the sheer size of this endless land is daunting.
Once you escape from the initial underground sections, you are offered the choice of either directly traveling to a nearby settlement through the use of Fast Travel, which essentially transports you to your desired location immediately, or making your way there on foot, which we instinctively decided to. We wanted to see more of this stunning wilderness, to see how far its limits would reach and whether the environments would vary according to our location. Throughout our trek, we made our way through a series of slightly different surroundings that change according to the location. While a clearing within the forest offered little more than a few deer and some lush green grass, proceeding on to a nearby river saw the trees growing thicker, creating a true sense of distinct variation that gradually evolved as you traveled across the vast land. Youll also come across the occasional camp of thieves, or the crumbling ruins of an old settlement or shrine that have been abandoned to the harsh environment. The sheer size of Oblivions wilderness is nothing short of breathtaking, and we havent even begun to explore the numerous cities and villages that are scattered across the landscape.
Oblivion plays host to a number of different-sized settlements that are all distinct in their own individual ways. Set towards the middle of the map is the games central city, which plays host to the largest offering of shops, important figures and, more interestingly, a Colosseum-like fighting arena that sees warriors fighting to their deaths for fame and fortune, but more on that later. Each settlement offers its own physical appearance and personality that makes it easy to remember what each township contains. Some are set within colder regions alongside the towering snow-covered mountains, while others are set within open plains with clear-blue skies and great weather. The weather and location affects the buildings and scenery that you find in each settlement. While the games capital city is filled with spotless, tall and elegant structures, the more poorer regions sees residents living within cramped conditions in basic housing that offers only the barest necessities. The citizens within each city are also varied, with each city consisting of citizens with varied appearances and each offering their own distinctive voice. Its clear that the developers have strived to create a large, open and widely varied world, and it shines in almost everything that you see and do.
Oblivion heavily emphasizes the freedom of choice, and this extends to participating in the aforementioned arena that is situated within the games capital city. Competing will not only allow you to hone your fighting skills, but it also allows you to source additional weaponry and also earn a modest amount of money. The freedom of participating in the arena extends to the various different guilds that you can join, such as the Fighters Guild, the Mages Guild or even the Thieves Guild, who promote acts of thievery and offer money for stolen valuables. Joining such guilds not only allows you to extend your contacts within a certain group of people, but also gain access to additional resources, such as furthering your skills or gaining the support material-wise of the guild that you are a member of.
Joining particular guilds will also open the doorway to further side-quests, which have you performing a large range of activities such as locating an object, a location or assassinating a particular individual. Other quests can be gained by talking to an important person, while others are mysteriously bestowed upon you when you become unfortunate enough to experience a particular tragedy. We wont go into further detail, to save from any possible spoilers, but this particular quest is certainly a more interesting one.
These additional side quests offer a wealth of gameplay that compliment the core string of quests that push the central storyline along. While its always refreshing to take a break from the save the kingdom story that drives the core quests, there is plenty of lifetime within the core missions alone to keep most gamers happy. The ever-important storyline is also extremely strong and engaging, making it a rewarding experience to continue through the game if only to discover what happens next. These quests, coupled with the sheer size and adventurous opportunities that the game holds, pushes the lifespan of the game past thirty to forty hours of gameplay, and many gamers will be able to spend even further with this expansive and unique world.
An interesting aspect of Oblivion is the way in which it is presented. The game offers you the choice of playing in either a first-person view, which has you viewing the world through your characters eyes, or from behind your character in a third-person camera view. Whereas most RPGs have you looking from a third person or top-down view, viewing the world from your characters eyes allows you to immerse yourself into the games world further. You can do everything from either view, including fighting or conversing with other in-game characters, and each character view feels surprisingly different. Offering the ability to play from either views offers another depth of welcomed freedom and choice.
As with any RPG, Oblivion offers a wealth of weapons and armor to equip your soldier with. In addition to the conventional weapons, you can also perform attacks using magic, which sees you shooting fireballs at enemies or creating creatures to do your bidding. You can find many of these items laying on the ground or within the corpse of a fallen enemy or soldier, as well as purchasing them from the shops that are located within each settlement.
Naturally, these weapons can then be used to battle the hordes of demons, ghosts, villains and various other enemies throughout your quest. As with Oblivions presentation and sheer size, the game is backed with a strong battle system that offers plenty of depth if you are willing to explore the possibilities that lay open to you. You can aimlessly run into battles with your sword swinging, or choose a sneakier route by slowly sneaking up behind your enemy and then launching a surprise attack. You can also choose to pick off targets from a distance using a bow and arrow or magic, and then finish them off as they stumble towards you, your arrows still clearly sticking out of them. The battle system is pleasing to say the least, proving to be a varied experience that doesnt grow repetitive quickly.
Unfortunately, not everything glows gold with perfection. The intelligence of the computer-controlled characters, while usually satisfying, can often become disappointingly stupid. Yes, they are capable of making some occasionally surprising comments as you walk past, but for the most part, many of them feel rather generic. A majority of the townsfolk will say almost identical comments, particularly when you ask them questions, or will be completely oblivious to the actions that you are performing. You can often roam around the house of a complete stranger without them caring any less, or when fellow warriors fight by your side, they blindly run into battles, only to be quickly slaughtered by the enemy moments later. Its not a major issue, but it can become slightly annoying and monotonous at times.
As with the games visual flair, Oblivion offers an impressive collection of music that suits the game perfectly. A large range of orchestral music complements the gameplay perfectly, never subtracting from the experience but always adding to it. The quality of the voice acting for in-game characters is also of a high standard, offering uniquely voiced characters that radiate with their very own distinct personality. A collection of bangs, clangs and various other sound effects have been collaborated to offer an accurate representation of events that sound true to what is occurring.
The sheer size of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is overwhelming; to the point that I could continue this review on over several more pages. Alas, Im sure you have better things to do than continue reading about a game that you could instead be playing, which is something that I recommend you do wholeheartedly. Oblivion is, quite simply, a massively enjoyable, unique and varied experience that will please almost every RPG and adventure fan, whether it be the wealth of different quests to participate in, the different people that you meet or the ability to explore hundreds of square miles of interesting wilderness and townships. The Elder Scrolls series has certainly established itself firmly within the RPG genre, with the latest offering further heightening the series glory. Oblivion is one of the best looking, best sounding and more enjoyable games on the Xbox 360, if only you can forgive the sometimes unintelligent AI.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.