THE ELDER SCROLLS IV: OBLIVION (2006) – BETHESDA GAME STUDIOS
Since November, I have been engrossed playing through the game that I feel was the Game Of The Year in 2011 – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. As I sit here writing, I have put well over 100 hours into it without even scratching the surface of the possibilities, and I can’t advance with the main quest because I keep getting distracted by caves and settlements on the way that are simply begging to be explored. One day I will finish the game and give it a well overdue review and score, but before then I feel it is apt to look at its predecessor; another game that stole hours of my life – the fourth instalment of the Elder Scrolls series, Oblivion. To say that Oblivion was a sensation when it was released in 2006 would be a fair judgement. The third game, Morrowind, had received generally positive reviews for its open end world and mixture of RPG and first person fighting elements, but there was a feeling that it could be so much more with a bit more polish, After four years in development, Oblivion represented that dream – although it still contained elements that held it back from perfection.
The events of Oblivion take place many years after what transpires in Morrowind, and are set in a completely new land; the area of Cyrodil which is the home of the Imperial City from which all of Tamriel (the world of the Elder Scrolls universe) is ruled. The main story begins in a very familiar place for Elder Scrolls players – jail. Unexpectedly, you receive a visit from none other than the Emperor Uriel Septim VII, who is escaping from a bunch of assassins named the Mythic Dawn along with his bodyguards, a group called the Blades. It turns out that the Mythic Dawn have killed the Emperor’s sons, meaning that if he dies, there will no heir to the throne. You move through the Imperial Sewers before being caught in a ambush. The Emperor entrusts you with a trinket worn by the Emperor’s of Tamriel, the Amulet Of Kings, and tells you to seek out a man named Jauffre in a nearby town….just before he is cut down. You manage to escape the sewer, and then set off to find Jauffre.
Or do you? As soon as you get out of the Imperial Sewers (which serves as a introduction to gameplay and combat), the game enacts its greatest strength – you can do whatever the hell you want. If you do wish to continue the main quest, you will be engaged in a excellent narrative which involves you saving the world from the hellish realm of Oblivion, but you can choose to postpone the story indefinitely and just wander the world doing as you please. There are hundreds of sidequests to be done by meeting up with AI around the world, including fully fleshed out narratives for several organisations including the Fighters Guild, Mages Guild, the Dark Brotherhood Of Assassins, and my personal favourite The Thieves Guild. Attempting to do everything that this game has to offer you can easily steal well over 200 hours of your life away, and there a few games in history that can claim that sort of longevity.
The other great strength of Oblivion is the way that you go about tackling the multitude of quests. At the start of the game when you are in prison, you create your character. You can choose from one of around 10 different races that affect your appearance and natural abilities, and can therefore be tailored to the way you want to play the game. For example, you could play as a Dark Elf, who have a natural resistance to fire and excel in casting offensive magic spells. Or, you could take the stealthy approach with the Khajiit, a race of cat like people who can move around silently. Or, if you want to batter your enemies to bits, you could take a strong aggressive Nord or Orc to play as. Once you have picked your character, you then have to pick 7 from a list of 21 skills to specialise at in game; a move that is again designed to tailor your game the way you want to play. When you level up these seven skills in game (by consistently using the skills or earning experience from quests and items), you level up your character overall, and can choose to improve health, magicka or stamina. The system employed in this game means therefore that there is a tremendous amount of customisation, and it offers a hell of a lot of replayablity as you can start again with a new build and see if you are more comfortable with it. The only problem that it causes me as a reviewer is that I cannot give you an overall flavour in words of what to expect on your journeys. It really is a case of ‘play and see for yourself – make your own destiny’.
To undertake such a game can seem a bit daunting at first, but happily the game plays with a moderate amount of ease. You can pick to play from either a first person or third person perspective, and this can be changed on the fly by pressing the R3 button. Difficulty can also be changed at any time in game, meaning that if you are finding a particular fight tough then you can alter the odds. You can also save at any point in game, and there is a autosave feature included as well to make sure you don’t lose a huge amount of progress at any one time. The controls are also simple enough to operate; the player can interact with objects and AI using the A button, jump with Y, and attack and block using the trigger buttons. Pressing B opens up a very smart menu system, where all of the items that you hold are catalogued into different sections for easy access, and there are also menus to bring up quest information, maps of your local area and of the world, and also your character stats. There is also a clever hybrid system with regards to traversing the enormous world of Cyrodil, as you can use the map to fast travel to any location that you have already discovered, which encourages a mixture of exploration and quick movement. As far as combat is concerned, you have a wide array of weaponry at your disposal including swords, maces, bows, fists and a extensive set of spells. You can assign weapons to be used on the fly via hotkeys, and while it sometime seems a bit hit and miss, it’s generally a solid system to fight enemies with.
I can remember that the one thing that shocked me more than anything when playing Oblivion for the first time is the level of detail that Bethesda put into making the game world. JRPG’s such as Final Fantasy can claim to have interesting world maps, but they are nothing compared to the sheer scope of Oblivion. Cyrodil is a living breathing wonder; a mixture of dense forests, buzzing metropolitan areas, snowy mountain regions and more beyond that, all filled with flora and fauna that you can interact with. It gets even better in the cities, as you can wander into peoples houses and marvel at all the useless (and stashed away in boxes and chests, the useful) junk just lying around, including books featuring stories and lore from the series that you can browse and read. It’s not the sharpest looking game in the world: it wasn’t at the cutting edge of graphics in 2006 never mind today, but there is always something to look at, and in a game this size that it absolutely key to make sure you don’t get bored.
Backing up the detailed world is a soundtrack that in a previous article I declared was the greatest soundtrack in video game history – and barring occasionally mini battles in my head between this game and Final Fantasy 9, I stand by that statement. Composed by Jeremy Soule, Oblivion features some of the most wonderful pieces of ambient music I have ever heard, and it really is a pleasure to just walk around the world with the gentle sound of an orchestra in the background. Standout tracks include Through The Valleys, Wings Of Kynareth, Watchman’s Ease and All’s Well. Oblivion also features one of the most mismatched voice acting setups that I can remember – on the one hand, the more important characters in game are given a stirling performance by the likes of Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean, but then the majority of AI share roughly…five voices between them? It makes for a hell of a lot of repeated dialogue, and it can drag on horribly. I never want to hear about bloody Mudcrabs ever again please.
Lets tick the checklist thus far then – a massive immersive world, some top notch character creation, very impressive graphics and a generally positive audio setup. Its enough to warrant a high score…but as previously mentioned, Oblivion is certainly lacking in some departments. For one, the game is perhaps too ambitious – its all very well having so many sidequests, but many of them boil down to doing the same thing over and over again; go to location A to get the quest, clear out Cave B, return to Person C for reward. It’s formulaic at best, and while you will spend the first few hours exploring every nook and cranny of a dungeon to unearth its secrets, you soon learn to go straight to where the prize loot is. The menu system can be clunky, and I find the fast travel system very awkward as the map is horrible to negotiate. Going around the realm of Oblivion gets boring very, very quickly. The chief problem with Oblivion however, is the levelling system. You see, enemies in game are matched up to your current level, and the higher the level you are, the stronger the bad guys. Since all skills level up, sometimes without you wanting them to in the case of Acrobatics, you can often find that you level up to quickly and find that caves once filled with wolves and mudcrabs will soon be filled with trolls, minotaurs and Deadra. There’s little variety sadly as you get stronger, and fighting the tougher enemies is a chore that could be done without. Oh yeah, there are also glitches. Too many glitches in fact. It has become somewhat a unwelcome staple of Bethesda games that they can be buggy as hell at time, and while they patched out the worst of the damage, every now and again you can come across a game breaking glitch.
Still…I think the fact that when I finally got around to ending Oblivion that my hours completed statistic weighed in at 230 hours speaks volumes about the game. True, I am a horrible dungeon crawler and will search literally everything, but there is a lot of game to be had here, and it is little wonder it has consistently sold at near £20 since 2007. Factor in two pretty good expansions in the form of The Knights Of The Nine and the Shivering Isles DLC, and there is even more to do. Everyone may now be waxing lyrical about the gifted son Skyrim, but Oblivion has rightly been remembered as being one of the most important games of this generation; for being an excellent Western RPG, and for simply being an excellent game.
P.S Please not that I have reviewed the Xbox 360 version in this review. Since I completed the game a few years ago I have played a fully modded version on the PC, and can confirm that it is far superior as the game has been fixed by an avid group of supporters. Therefore if you have a computer fit to run it, get it on there instead of the Xbox and knock the mark up by a half.