The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Windows)

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Written by  :  Cor 13 (174202)
Written on  :  Nov 01, 2007
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  4.29 Stars4.29 Stars4.29 Stars4.29 Stars4.29 Stars

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Medieval Fantasy Sims

The Good

Oblivion is, for most purposes, a typical Elder Scrolls game: it puts you into a gigantic world which you can freely explore and undertake any quest you are interested in. One of the problems of its predecessor were boring, repetitive side quests that took the joy out of experimentation. Fortunately, Oblivion pays more attention to this; in fact, some of its side quests are more interesting than the "save the world" main mission. Working for the Thieves Guild or the assassins, you will discover some tasks that require you to make choices and generally involve a bit of variation on the usual "go to place X, kill person Y and bring me item Z" formula.

Like other Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion is set in large world with plenty of background. Dialogues contain tons of information about the world. One thing I loved in it was the abundance of books. I always like it when developers dedicate their time and skills to something that could have been simply left out. For example, I read with a great pleasure a story about a thief who had to sleep with the ugly wife of the person he was robbing in order to escape. It was just a book I found in one of the many stores. It has absolutely no significance to the story. But it was so well-written, with wonderful style and humor, that it left me wonder why the writers couldn't do the same for the conversations between the game's characters.

"Size doesn't matter", some people say. Well, it's still nice that Oblivion doesn't confine itself to narrow passages some other modern RPGs tend to do. You are free to explore this world in any way you like. Emerging from the first, tutorial dungeon into the open wilderness is an amazing sensation. Fortunately, not every location is marked on your ubiquitous map, so there is still some stuff to discover by yourself, without jumping from dot to dot.

The "radiant AI" was a welcome change from the signposts that were the NPCs of Morrowind. You can see characters talk to each other and perform some routines - less convincingly so than in Ultima VII, but impressive nevertheless. It was fun to take a stroll through the quiet alley surrounding the Mages Guild in the Imperial City and contemplate a Khajiit sitting on the bench and reading a book.

Oblivion has great graphics, and they are more than just eye-candy. The world is detailed, there are many objects everywhere, each room is stuffed will all kinds of things, not just important items like potions or alike, but candles, apples, quills, plates, mugs - regular household items. And you can interact with all that physically. There is a "grab" action in Oblivion that allows you to drag things in any direction, much like in Ultima IX, but with a more realistic physics system. It feels great to push tables and see how things fall off it. I know this is just fooling around, but that's one of the things I like doing most in games.

You can also jump, climb, sneak, swim, and generally do whatever you like in the world of Oblivion. The meticulous customization is always a joy. Alone the character creation is almost like a mini-game of its own. You don't just pick a character out of the several available pre-made ones, but create his face and body. You can even adjust things like nose shape and the color of eyebrows - with a little patience, you can make the hero of Oblivion look like yourself.

There are plenty of spells, and you can also make some of your own. You can play as a thief - there is a physical stealth element in the game. I liked the fact that you develop your skills simply by using them repeatedly (like in Quest for Glory games). This is a simple idea that makes the gameplay addictive, and in many cases very rewarding, because you feel you really did something, not just fought many monsters and miraculously became stronger overnight.

I found the music wonderful. I don't think there is a need to introduce Jeremy Soule to anyone who pays attention to music in video games. Much like the graphics, the music here is a very sensual experience. Sure, you could call it "generic fantasy orchestral track", and that is indeed the genre it belongs to, but it's the choice of melody, the harmonies, the detailed orchestration that make the difference. And there is full voice acting in the game, which is always a plus in my book.

Oh, and you should definitely get the expansion, Shivering Isles. It gives the game a much-needed "edge" both in visual presentation and quest content.

The Bad

Compared to the intriguing, fascinating world of Morrowind the setting of Oblivion is a disappointment. It is just your archetypal European-style medieval fantasy environment with somewhat repetitive scenery and locations. It's still beautiful, but it doesn't quite capture the magic of the previous game. The recycled textures in the dungeons also do little to preserve the ominous atmosphere that envelops you when you venture into one of those places for the first time.

Like other Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion pays little attention to narrative and writing. The main story is very short, very simple, and quite uninteresting. The only more or less exciting part, the search for the missing Emperor's son, was over way too early. Very soon you learn everything about your antagonists, and from that point on it becomes the usual hunt for items required to defeat the bad guys. I also think that the "save the world" urgency didn't sit well with the laid-back pace of an Elder Scrolls game, and was less exciting than the gradually unveiling mystery of Morrowind.

Why is there fast-traveling to cities you have never visited before? Who on Earth came up with this idea? I remember how interesting and rewarding it was to look around everywhere in Morrowind, which forced you to explore physically because there was no other way to discover locations. What's the point of exploring if there is always an easier and quicker way?

Despite the well-written books (which were actually ported from Daggerfall, if I'm not mistaken) and the overall clear improvement over Morrowind, the writing in the conversations is still painfully impersonal. The dialogue is there just because you'll need to receive quests and obtain information. The NPCs have no personalities, and there is no single living soul in this whole world you can become attached to. Remember your friends in Gothic games? Well, here, technically, you also have friends; but they are, with very few exceptions, distant and forgettable.

The levels-scaling system almost ruined the game for me. Basically, the stronger you become, the stronger are the enemies around you. I always loved this feeling in RPGs when you grow strong and then go to some place with enemies who seemed so tough before and just whack them in two hits (Gothic games were great at that). Well, you can't do that in Oblivion. You can get to level 99 and then go to some place where you saw level 1 bandits, and you'll see the've become level 99 as well, and on top of that magically procured very strong and rare enchanted armor. So if you don't specialize in combat, those level 99 bandits will actually kick your level 99's ass faster than they did when you both were humble level 1. So much for character growth.

The items you can find in dungeons are randomized and also scaled to your level. So you can forget about being a low-level guy who ventures into a dangerous dungeon and gets that super-strong sword before vicious creatures can tear you to pieces (and again, Gothic conveyed that feeling superbly). If you are low level, your reward will be low level as well. If you are high level, you'll already have found better stuff due to the fact of you being at high level. It's a bit like communism, actually. Sounds logical in theory, but makes life very boring.

The Bottom Line

Oblivion is a hard game to review. It improves upon Morrowind in several ways, but also retains many of its shortcomings and adds some new ones. Its dubious design choices are irritating, and you can't help thinking what it would have been if it had more charisma. And yet, despite all its flaws, Oblivion is still as fun and as addictive as only an Elder Scrolls game can be. Yes, it is a generic fantasy world, but one you can lose yourself in for hours without noticing how the time passes. It will probably not convert a new player to the series' fandom, but will certainly satisfy those who enjoy full-scale freedom and sensual immersion in a virtual world.