The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
AMD Radeon X800
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion comes as the fourth instalment in the best selling RPG series, released at a time promising the ‘next generation’ of graphics and looking to be a marked improvement over its predecessor, Morrowind.
Oblivion began development immediately after the release of Morrowind, again headed by RPG veteran Ken Rolston. Bethesda initially intended Oblivion to be a launch title for the next generation Xbox 360 as well a seeing a PC release, but this was pushed back instead to early 2006.
Promising a more meaningful story and an interactive world with a focus on NPC and quest interactions, Bethesda has certainly set up to deliver Oblivion as a worthy successor to Morrowind, does it succeed?
Oblivion takes place in the lands of Cyrodiil, the Imperial province which is head of the Empire, governing all other lands of Tamriel. The world of Oblivion couldn’t be in more contrast to that of Morrowind. The towns are richer, the lands are grassy and bright and the people welcoming and far more civilised. Whereas Morrowind’s Vvardenfell was alien and hostile, Cyrodiil is welcoming immediately recognisable, it is a land of traditional high fantasy rather than the often abstract Morrowind.
A signpost for the particularly dimwitted Orc.
You start the game, as always, as a prisoner. Your release in the previous game was instigated by the Emperor’s orders; this time around it is the Emperor in person seeing you along the path to freedom. Unlike Morrowind, there is no prophecy or chosen one here. You just happen to be in the right place at the right time. The Emperor’s sons are dead and he is being hunted. His loyal guards, the Blade’s, are escorting him out of the city, through a secret escape route that leads right through your cell.
The story’s initial exposition is thick and heavy, unlike Morrowind – which preferred to throw you headfirst into the world with only a vague hint at what was going on. In your cells you create your character, with a considerable degree of control. You can move sliders to determine your face as well as choose hair length, style and colour. You can see the immediate improvement in graphics, this game looks great. But this is marred somewhat by the frankly awful looking character models. Each NPC as well as any character you would hope to create ends up looking like they have been on the receiving end of a large hammer.
The opening tutorial segment is longer than Morrowind’s and may take you up to forty five minutes to complete. This isn’t a problem the first time around, where it is fun and engaging. But because the Elder Scrolls games often see you creating an abundance of new characters, it can grate to play through the same opening sequence for the tenth time.
Glass armor: for those wanting the complete opposite of unassuming.
Once out in the world however, the true spectacle of a next generation Elder Scrolls game hits you. It is beautiful. Shimmering lakes, rolling green hills and distant mountains. It all looks brilliant. In fact, every aspect feels new and different. Combat is improved; all of your hits now strike the enemy, rather than your ability to hit being based on dice rolls as in the previous games. It feels weighty and fun, the physics engine – whilst suspect at times – really improves the whole experience. Striking an enemy down will now result in their corpse gently rolling down the hill, rather than laying like a stiff wooden board.
The game world is just as large as ever, in fact it is bigger than Morrowind’s. There are a whole host of towns and villages, the towns being much larger than most places in Morrowind. With this comes quests-a-plenty, there are also many ruins of different kinds to explore and discover. The main draw, once again, is in exploration. If you’re not leaving the path when you adventure, you’re doing it wrong.
Bethesda touted their much improved AI system, known as Radiant AI. What this promised was NPCs that didn’t just act as walking information boards, but instead had jobs, homes and interacted with each other. That’s not all, NPCs in the game now fully voiced, giving personality to the inhabitants of the land. This all promises a lot, but in reality the NPCs still wander aimlessly around the same spot. The difference being they now go home at night and occasionally visit the local tavern. The promised NPC interaction just results in laughable conversations between two NPCs, spouting lines ill fitting resulting in sheer awkward scenarios. The fact that NPCs are voiced is a nice addition, except Bethesda has used the same handful of voice actors across the entire game world. In a game containing thousands of NPCs, this is a problem. What’s more, NPCs have less to say than in Morrowind. Whilst it was true that they often repeated themselves, they also gave more information and background history of the world; instead in Oblivion they have a scant few lines which in fact reduces player to NPC interaction.
Three towers of doom and nasties? No sweat.
When it comes to joinable factions, a large part of the Elder Scrolls experience, the game doesn’t disappoint. Whilst there are less than in Morrowind, each one is more fleshed out and contains a longer quest line with more NPCs to interact with. Playing through the Dark Brotherhood quest line is one the best gaming experiences you can have, Bethesda really nailed how factions work in this game.
There is a staggering amount of content here, from items such as weapons and armour, right up to the amount of quests. Little touches here and there improve the game over predecessors, like being able to purchase a home and having companions follow you along. The magic system is as good as ever. While spell making has been scaled back the effects are much improved, resulting in cool animations and truly visceral spell impacts. It is simply a fun game world to explore, from swampy lowlands, large lakes and snowy mountains – there are always more treasure chests or creatures around the next corner.
Because combat is so improved – and you can now press a separate button to cast a spell, instead of going into a ‘spell casting mode’ first – fighting the enemies feels far better. There is still an enormous amount of variety in opponents, from bandits and rogue mages to bears and Imps. Whilst this is true, the world as a whole feels far more ‘bog standard’ than Morrowind. From the setting, which is standard Tolkien fantasy, to the NPCs – where the different races act generally the same – Oblivion hasn’t retained some of the more outlandish aspects of Morrowind, it feels like your typical fantasy game rather than something unique.
Your standard villager's arsenal.
Of course, you can’t go for long without mentioning this games graphics. It looks amazing and you will be hard pressed to go back to Morrowind’s look after this. Sure the world is more standard, but its beauty redeems this. It is not just the on the surface graphics either, the animations, physics and effects are all new and improved, resulting in a game which feels and plays next gen. The sound is also great. The soundtrack, once again provided by Jeremy Soule, really hits the mark. The latest rendition of the Elder Scrolls theme is brilliant and the ambient music is a joy to behold. The effects are vastly improved, especially with this inclusion of more spoken NPC dialogue.
Coming back to Oblivion’s story, it is kind of a tricky thing to describe. Unlike Morrowind’s, whose own storyline was varied, full of conspiracy and intrigue and with a great cast of characters, Oblivion’s own offering is far less impressive. There are several things wrong with it - although it starts off varied, it soon descends into mindless repetition (without spoiling anything, you’ll see what I mean), there is less back-story and history and, as such, far less to discover. Lastly, you will soon find that you are not the true hero of this tale. You may think this is a clever curve ball away from tried and tested RPG conventions, but it seems almost unintentional and leaves you feeling unsatisfied.
That’s the thing really, with this game. You have a bigger world full of quests and heaps of improvements over its predecessor, yet it takes the bizarre decision of dumbing down and streamlining the classic formula, resulting in several aspects being far more backward than they should be. It seems like each part of the game is one step forward, two steps back. Sure, the towns are bigger and varied, but there are far less of them. The combat is vastly improved, but the enemies’ level with you, negating much challenge and joy from overcoming tougher opponents. The NPCs AI is improved and they speak, but they have less to say and still act like idiots, and the world is bigger, but far more generic and lacking.
Oblivion has all of these problems, but don’t be mistaken – this is a fine game. It is after all an Elder Scrolls game which, despite the dumbing down, is still as captivating, addictive and as fun as ever. You may decry the things taken away, but the general improvements and feeling of playing a brand new Elder Scrolls game make up for it. Oblivion is flawed yes, but it is well worth your time and better than most other games on the market. Play it, fall in love, notice its problems, forgive it and expect to lost hundreds of hours to this RPG behemoth.
- Good side content: The faction quest lines are long and amazingly fun.
- Looking good: The graphics and small improvements to the gameplay make this game feel ahead of its time.
- Improved combat: Combat is greatly improved, weapons have weight and feel realistic.
- Lots to do: Countless towns and quests, expect to play this for months to come.
- More generic: It’s more generic than its predecessor and far more conventional.
- Scaled back: Some things have been stripped away, leading this title to lose complexity over its predecessor.
- Bugs: Ever present bugs and oddities mar the experience.