The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - Review  

Save the World With Sean Bean!
by John Boske

Moderate to Difficult
40-100+ hours


Rating definitions 

   Say what you will about the Elder Scrolls series, but where they come from, they make 'em big and chock full of stuff to do. So it is with Oblivion, the latest and largest entry into the series, this time taking place in the Empire of Cyrodiil during what may be its final days. The sheer size of the game can be intimidating for even seasoned gamers, and there are enough problems to suggest that Bethesda's reach was, at times, a bit beyond its grasp. Nevertheless, Oblivion is a massive improvement over Morrowind in almost every way, and the game delivers an immersive and dramatic adventure set amongst some of the best-looking environments to date.

   The core gameplay hasn't changed much from Morrowind, and anyone familiar with first-person shooters shouldn't have too much trouble: WASD keys handle movement, while the mouse controls aiming and attacks. New additions include numbered hotkeys for quickly switching out weapons and spells, a much-appreciated block button - which, properly timed, can deflect a blow and leave the enemy open to counterattack - and an optional minigame interface for picking locks. Even better improvements have come to the map and quest systems. Quests are now tracked separately, detailing each relevant step in the quest and where you need to go next; at any time, you can select a primary quest, and your destination will be marked on your map and compass. And to expedite travel, the map now features a fast travel feature which lets you jump between the major cities, or to any previously discovered landmark or location. Throw in horses of varying strength and speed, and the amount of time spent traveling has been drastically reduced from Morrowind.

   You'll want to walk around and explore, however, because the world looks just that good. Isolated villages, bustling port towns, haunted dungeons, lush forests, the regal capital city, decrepit ruins; the number and variety of places you'll visit is truly impressive. While some of the dungeons and caves will feel repetitive after a while - there are literally hundreds of such locales - there is enough attention to detail to keep exploration from becoming truly dull. Homes and houses are built in distinct architectural styles, many plants both above and below ground can be harvested for alchemical ingredients, shops display their entire inventory on the shelves, and the city's guardsmen bear their regional crest proudly on shield and armor.

   And speaking of characters, the cast is both large and diverse, with over a thousand well-rendered NPCs spread out amongst ten human and humanoid races. There is a degree of sameness amongst some of the cast, specifically with those of the same race - and this is accented by repeated voice actors and canned responses - but the detail in, and variety of, facial features, expressions and equipment helps create a believable assortment of actors. The animals and monsters tend to all look alike, but are nonetheless convincing in both appearance and behavior. On a mid-range or better PC, performance shouldn't be too big a problem; though a dual-core processor is highly recommended, the game ran solidly on high settings with a gig of RAM and a 256mb video card (in my case, a Radeon X1300Pro), and managed to keep a decent framerate even during large battles with upwards of twenty participants.

Caption Ten bucks says that big thing opens up into some kind of laser. What? You mean it doesn't? Man, what a waste of a perfectly good big thing.

   The music and sound deserve considerable praise, especially where voice acting is concerned. Every single line of dialogue is accompanied by speech, and most of it is quite good. NPCs will often converse with each other about local happenings and gossip, and usually it works, although some of it will sound awkward and stilted. Where it matters, however, the developers spared no expense. The plot-related characters, and indeed most of the important NPCs, are all well spoken and written; players will almost undoubtedly recognize Patrick Stewart as the Emperor, and a few other veteran actors have lent their voices as well. Seeing as each character, important or not, has speech for almost every situation, the effort put into the voice work is staggering. Sound effects are also done well, with believable sword clashes, explosions, monster growls, and so on. The music tends to be quiet, with few memorable tunes. However, in another improvement from Morrowind, it does feature more appropriate music for the environment, so that cheerful melody playing in the city of Chorrol won't be heard in a forgotten, monster-infested dungeon, and vice versa.

   One less commendable facet comes from Bethesda's Radiant AI system, and to a greater extent the difficulty as a whole. Human enemies display some measure of intelligence, and can be formidable opponents, but tend to be selectively perceptive. A guard might see you picking a lock or stealth-killing someone on the other side of town, while a bandit may not see or hear the fireball you just flung at one of his companions. Friendly NPCs are occasionally blind to the point of being suicidal, and will sometimes willingly run into overwhelming odds or fairly obvious traps. Some can be instructed to wait, and certain mission-critical NPCs cannot be killed. Unfortunately there tends to be a lot of friendly fire, particularly in some of the big battles; allied NPCs really like to get in the way, and will turn on the player if hit too often.

   Meanwhile, common enemies tend to be either predictable or annoying, with wolves, bears and other wildlife tending towards the former and ranged attackers (mages and bowmen) shoring up the latter. Mana for spellcasting recharges quickly, and so mages can safely and almost endlessly blast enemies while on the move, often outrunning those wearing heavy armor. Thus, fighters can be at a huge disadvantage against even one spellcaster, even at melee range. The difficulty supposedly scales to match your level by spawning tougher monsters later on, but in reality most players will find the first few levels unreasonably difficult, with later levels more manageable once you acquire better equipment and skills. Shop inventories also scale according to level, which neither makes sense nor works well, as by the time good hardware becomes available you've probably found something better already.

Caption "Did we leave the stove on?" I guess we did, Billy. I GUESS WE DID.

   The leveling system is identical to that of Morrowind, in that your character has ten primary skills and goes up a level after ten increases of those skills, in any combination. Skills are improved through use; weapon skills through hitting things, armor through taking hits, magic through casting spells, and so on. Once you level up, you can improve three of your base statistics (strength, dexterity, luck, etc.), and multipliers are applied depending on which skills you've worked on. While the system adds new twists, such as perks and special abilities for every 25 points in a skill, it still bears the same crippling flaws it had in Morrowind. Namely, it is both easy to abuse and easy to mess up. You can gain levels without ever actually getting better at important skills, like fighting or healing, and due to the scaling difficulty an unprepared player can find themselves seriously underpowered. Some NPCs can train you in skills for money, but no more than five times per level, and early on this tends to be cost-prohibitive.

   It's a shame that the actual gameplay hasn't come all that far, because Oblivion's presentation is top-notch. The story starts with a bang: you have recently been thrown into the Imperial dungeon for some unspecified crime, and it just so happens that your cell contains the Emperor's secret escape route. Perhaps coincidentally, his highness needs to make use of that escape route today, as assassins have just killed his sons and they're coming for him next. A desperate escape attempt ensues, and it serves as both the game's tutorial and character generation sequence, and it works very well on both counts. The story that follows takes some predictable turns, involving an invasion from the forces of Oblivion - a demonic netherworld bent on conquest - but it features some amazing setpieces and genuinely likeable characters, and overall the main storyline is nothing short of spectacular.

   The bottom line is that Oblivion does everything its predecessor did, and does most of it better. There are legitimate balance issues and problems with the difficulty that are bound to frustrate at some point, and given the system recommendations the game is definitely not for the budget PC. However, those who were turned off by Morrowind's lengthy travel times or lackluster plot should definitely give Oblivion a try. The game is big enough to keep even dedicated players busy for a while, and once again the mod community has done a stellar job of adding new content, most of which really helps bring the world of Oblivion to life. Put simply, if you like your adventures big and have a machine that's up to the task, Oblivion is well worth a look.

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