The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion review

I was a big fan of Morrowind on Xbox and of course I purchased the original game when it was released during the dry spell of releases early on in the console’s life. I also went on to purchase the Game of the year edition. I can proudly say that on both occasions where I must have invested well over 100 hours on each version, that I didn’t complete the main story line. Its probably one of the few titles that I actually haven’t finished and to be honest, I probably never will!

A lot has been said about how Bethesda could improve on the original console game and let’s face it, both versions were full of bugs and exploits. Well for the last three or four years Bethesda have been slaving away at the next game in the series Elderscrolls IV Oblivion, and with early screenshots and videos looking amazing, fans of the original and newcomers alike have been eagerly awaiting this title. Well the wait is over and gamers can now re-immerse themselves into the huge world that the team at Bethesda have created.

Morrowind on Xbox sold very well but for the masses at least was perhaps a little too daunting and possibly, dare I say it “Nerdy”. With its wealth of options, menus and strange fighting mechanics a lot of casual gamers didn’t really “Get” what Morrowind was truly about. In fact the game started very slowly with your character moving with the speed of a snail and pockets as empty as a cloudless sky. Well Bethesda have had time to address some issues raised from the previous console outing and make a far more accessible game for all types of player but ultimately does it work, or again is the game simply too overwhelming for the majority of gamers?

Gameplay:

To surmise, Oblivion offers gamers the chance to create a male or female character from a selection of human and non human races. Using various sliders and options, players can create the look of their character and spend literally hours or minutes perfecting the desired look; although to be brutal, the player isn’t going to be spending much time looking at the face of their character during play because the game is best played using a first person viewpoint, although a third person view is supported. Once the player is happy with the look of their creation they can then choose which class of character they want to be using set templates offered or by creating their own custom class. Character classes are based on various stats which in turn are affected by how often they are used. So, for example, a magic user might have high magic stats as opposed to the raw strength of a warrior. This is a rather simple way of looking at things because there are plenty of stats to consider but I’m sure most players, especially newcomers will simply choose a pre-set class from the healthy roster available and get on with the adventuring. Again, creating a class can take some time if you want to or be as simple as a few button presses.

Once you have gotten the character creation side of things sorted then it’s onto the game proper where you will be faced by a huge open world which your character is free to go anywhere and undertake anything that comes your way in the form of general goofing around to undertaking quests or just plain exploring caves, dungeons buildings for items. I think the major noticeable change from the offset is the way in which quests and story based objectives are handled. In Oblivion players are able to set quest and storyline specific markers on the map and compass which means players should never get lost or not know what to do next. This is a major upgrade compared to Morrowind and allows newcomers and vets to easily keep tabs on what quests they are doing or where they need to go. It’s a big open populated world out there and by simply speaking to people or overhearing conversations new opportunities are never far away. In fact there were plenty of times during my play of the game where quests would be initiated adding to an already large roster of current quests I needed to fulfil. Sometimes it’s just too hard to refuse a fellow character your aid and with the new system for keeping track of your activities and marking them on your map makes the whole process far less daunting.

Oblivion is all about exploration and whilst there are many paths to travel I think Bethesda have opted to leave how players travel in their own hands by offering several means to do so. There is a new teleport system (similar to Fable’s) where you can travel to any point on the map that you’ve visited already which is rather handy on occasion. Again this is another feature that will appeal more to newcomers and vets as it takes away some of the headache of long distant travelling; although some purists would argue that using or abusing the teleport system means you miss out on many unique experiences you might have encountered if you had travelled on foot. In fact another addition to the series are ride-able horses which can be purchased or stolen and offer a slightly quicker way of getting from A to B compared to travelling on foot. Let me give a simple example of how the fast travel could mean missing events.

I was undertaking a quest for a man to find an impostor who was using his name; however upon meeting the impostor it turned out that he was actually the long lost brother of the first guy I spoke to. He was pleased that I had found his brother and so he set off to go and find him way across the huge map in another town. At this point I could have simply fast travelled to the town he was heading for or gone on my way and completed the quest at a later time. Well on this occasion I decided to follow him and to my surprise the guy actually walked/ran from one town to the other with me simply following him. What was pretty cool was the fact that his journey wasn’t without peril as along the way we encountered several non scripted bandits and wolves which we fought together. My point is had I simply fast travelled to where he was heading, he would have simply appeared at his destination at the same time as I did. The fact that I followed him turned what could have been over in minutes into an incredible journey across the land.

Oblivion is all about giving the player choice to do as they please and with options to be an aggressive warrior or sneaky thief means that players can assume any role they desire and behave accordingly. Much has been said about the Radiant AI used in the game and so far from what I’ve seen has been very impressive indeed. On one occasion I simply sat my character in a chair and watched the non playable characters go about their routines. In some way the AI is scripted, however the actions of the AI are performed regardless of the players input. On many occasions I would see people getting into fights with each other, conversations or simply eating a meal at a table. I especially liked seeing ominous dead bodies along the pathways in the wilds with the body of a slain wolf beside them; knowing that these guys had obviously gotten into a fight with the now dead wolf. Most often you will see town guards automatically attacking and killing any creatures that venture too near the city or perhaps killing people who are fighting. All of these events are triggered by things that have nothing to do with the player and are excellent to witness.

There are literally thousands of items, weapons and armour contained in cupboards, chests, crates on people and even plants that grow in the wilds. Players are able to interact with these and either take or steal them. Another new addition to the series is a changeable cursor which highlights red when you are about to perform an illegal action such as stealing, lock-picking or trespassing. This is a big improvement from Morrowind as it clears up any doubt you may have had regarding the legality of your actions. There are plenty of weapons to find or purchase and it appear their strength is determined by the strength of your character. Players also have to bear in mind the wear and tear of weapons and armour and so any favourites can be repaired by the player or by one of the many people who do repairs for a small fee. Items and bodies can be manipulated in real time and although precision placing of random items is a little awkward it does allow you to mess around with the impressive physics engine used.

The combat has been fully reworked and is a massive improvement over Morrowind’s fighting by numbers approach. In oblivion player’s fight in real time with swords, axes, maces, magic, bare fists, bow and arrows or whatever you choose and can perform various attack moves depending on skill. For the first time players are able to block at will, which in turn makes the fighting far more engaging. Enemies come in all shapes and sizes and attack according to their abilities; thankfully I have yet to encounter a dreaded Cliff Racer which was the same repeated enemy that populated Morrowind’s wilds and was highly annoying.

Early on in my adventure I had one rather neat encounter with a bandit in a dark cave I had entered as part of a quest. Using my character’s sneaking ability I crept amongst the shadows keeping a firm eye on my surroundings. As I ventured deeper into the cave, I stumbled upon a sleeping bandit (yes bandits need sleep too you know) who was blissfully unaware of my situation. On this occasion I decided to pickpocket the sleeping bandit to see if she had any gold. Well it transpired that I was able to pickpocket her weapon although after stealing it she promptly woke up which sent me into a frenzied sword attack. At first she defended herself with fists but figured that she wasn’t going to get very far against my sword strikes. At this point she decided to run away which enabled me the chance to search the area for loot. However a few minutes later the bandit returned and this time was armed with a hammer type weapon which had been dropped from one of the other bandits I had killed prior to our meeting. I found this highly amusing and fairly intelligent AI but sadly she paid for her actions with her life!

Oblivion features several levels on how players can approach the game world. Whilst you can never be too far away from your next objective by simply navigating through your complex looking but simple menu system there are a lot of deeper elements to explore should you choose. As mentioned earlier there are various quests to find and with such a huge world available means that it is quite probable that players won’t find and complete them all. There are also deeper elements such as being able to create potions by mixing various ingredients or perhaps creating your own spells. Again it’s quite easy to simply ignore these deeper facets of the game and still have a rewarding experience. It is nice to know that these options exist should you choose to devote your playing time to these pursuits.

Graphics:

Oblivion offers an expansive world with real time day and night cycles to explore which are full of open areas, woodland, towns, settlements and of course dungeons and caves. The graphical finesse on display is second to none and looks pretty spectacular throughout; although the outdoor areas are impressive in providing a sense of scale they aren’t as impressive looking as the interior locations. In fact the outdoor areas highlight some of the problems with the graphics as you are able to notice distant objects being of a very low texture resolution or details popping into view not too far from your character. These are present and there is no denying this fact but the point is they do not hamper the playing experience in any way and to be frank can easily be ignored. The outdoor areas also provided some frame rate issues on occasion where the game stuttered but again wasn’t so bad as to detract from the overall immersion the game provides.

Oblivion has some excellent character models and when you initiate a conversation you get a real time close up view of the person you are talking to and are able to watch some excellent facial expressions and lip synching. Although by default subtitles are available I found it more immersive to switch them off. Characters faces all appear to be different from one another and show details such as wrinkles in the skin and blemishes. Oblivion also features some very impressive real time lighting effects which are more apparent when inside. Light and shadows are cast and when looking at shadows you can see them dance around due to a flickering light source such as a torch or fire. Oblivion is simply full of detail and whether you are in or outdoors its often nice to simply sit back and admire the view which changes as you watch. The art direction is simply superb and so kudos must be given to the designers who created such impressively detailed environments.

Audio:

The sound is another area which is highly polished and whilst there are plenty of ambient sound effects to accompany you where ever you are one has to give kudos to the voice actors who do a wonderful job of bringing the various characters to life. It’s not rare to meet characters who share the same voice but again due to the high numbers of characters in the game it would be hard to employ and record so many people. Every character is voiced and therefore makes the whole aural experience an enlightening and believable one. It’s really great to feel captivated by a characters plea for help or simply hearing a tale. There are some issues when it comes to hearing conversations as the sound level doesn’t adjust too well based on your proximity from the people talking and so you can end up in a room with several booming voices talking over each other.

The music is also very orchestral and fitting of a game of this type and remains dynamic to whatever actions you are performing. However after a while I was left with no option to turn the volume almost off, as the battle music often gave away the enemy before I had even spotted him, her or it and thus taking away the element of surprise. Combat sounds are all pretty meaty and you can really feel the impact of clashing swords and shields as well as the grunts and groans as your character swings his or her weapon.

Longevity:

Well if there was ever a game that could be described as having the ultimate longevity then this would perhaps be it, although I must say a little self control is possibly required. With all the classes available means that you could be playing various character roles until the end of time, that’s if you stick to their relevant behaviour. It’s no use being a mage character who simply acts like a warrior, a mage should use spells as a means of combat as opposed to swords and as I said, some self control is needed.

Oblivion has such a wide and expansive playing area which lays host to such a wide number of quests and activities means that there is never, not something to do in the game. Quests seem to be available all over the place and although they offer rather simple objectives such as finding people or acquiring items remain engaging and intriguing all the same. Whilst the general level of things to do might sound daunting it still seems to be manageable for players to not get lost in it all. I have invested over 30 hours into the game and have no doubt barely scratched the surface of the game’s underlying story line. Oblivion will last die-hards as long as they want it to and casual players can expect a long haul as well especially if they deviate from the story and complete some side quests along the way.

Overall:

I’m still playing Oblivion and I can honestly say it will remain one of my favourite games in which I will continue to live out my characters roles for quite some time. It’s all very impressive and well suited to the “Next Gen” tag that seems to be the current buzz word flying around and despite the odd graphical glitches here and there. I guess one has to look at the game from a role playing game fan point of view but also on how more casual players will approach the game. I think from being an RPG fan it’s clear that Oblivion remains challenging and highly engaging throughout and certainly delivers what fans of the genre expect. For casual players I still feel that despite the obvious changes Bethesda have made to make the game more accessible there still is a huge amount of time investment needed to fully experience what the game has to offer. For a casual player this might pose a little bit of a problem especially if time is limited although saying that you could get away with the odd hour here and there. Oblivion tends to suck you in and more often than not, time in the real world seems to pass unnoticed. If you’re a casual gamer then yes Oblivion might be a little overwhelming at first and perhaps you might not wish to get into the deeper aspects of the game. However I think any gamer worth his or her salt will truly appreciate the love and effort that has been put into the game. RPG fans looking for a true next generation experience can rejoice as Oblivion certainly fills the void that has been present since the launch of the Xbox 360. I think the safest thing to say is for casual players to rent the game first and spend several hours getting to grips with how things play out and if you like then buy. For RPG fans then this is definitely a must buy as games of this scale and quality don’t come around too often.

Score – 9.5/10

 

Written by: Robert Cram

Robert Cram has hundreds of video game reviews and thousands of articles under his belt. He aims to remain objective and fair in his analysis. With years of experience, feels his gaming opinions are valid and worth sharing. Agreement is entirely optional.