The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is the latest game to take up residence in my Xbox360’s disc drive. I’ve since spent a few hours with Bethesda’s latest medieval roleplaying title, and while I always considered myself a gamer who just didn’t dig medieval stuff, I find myself really enjoying it this time around. The game world Bethesda has created is huge, filled with a variety of characters that seem to have real lives to go about, and there’s tons of interaction on a staggering level. Since I’ve played enough to get a feel for the game, I thought I’d give you my impressions. (I also thought that getting away from work for a few minutes at a time during these busy spells might be good for my mental health, so I decided to try to post on the site more often.)
While a PC version is available, I opted for the console version of Oblivion for a variety of reasons. Although there is no support for user-created game modifications on the Xbox platform, it seemed the obvious platform of choice for me. I’ve been shying away from PC gaming more and more lately, as I’ve found console gaming to be more comfortable, more enjoyable, and most importantly of all, more consistent. No more driver headaches, CTDs (Crashes To Desktop — yes, specific game failures even have their own acronyms now), incompatibilities, overheating, or “my mouse doesn’t work right but everybody else’s seems to; now what?” In short, playing a video game winds up being exactly what it’s supposed to be: a pleasant diversion. You don’t have to “get ready” to play. You don’t have to dual-boot, change your video card settings, close down your work applications to free up CPU cycles, crank up the air conditioner or anything else. In my case, I just turn down the lights, sit back on the reclining leather couch, and soak up the action on a 57-inch HDTV.
For the uninitiated, Oblivion is a roleplaying game set in the ancient fantasy world of Tamriel, and is the fourth installment in Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls game series. Like most RPGs, you craft a player character around the stats, abilities and appearances that you desire, choosing to be a thief, or a knight, or a battlemage, or whatever else you like. The gameplay consists of exploring the huge, seamless world of Tamriel — or specifically in this game, its province of Cyrodiil — and completing quests that advance a central, over-arcing storyline. While the main story has a series of linear quests that advance the plot at each turn, there’s also an absolute wealth of “side quests” waiting for you to take on, which will involve you in little microcosms of the universe, dealing with certain folks’ lives, or certain towns, or certain treasures.
You begin in a stinky, mangy old jail cell in the Imperial City, having been locked up for committing some nondescript crime or another. Before long, the emperor himself — whose lines are read by Patrick Stewart, for a real dose of quality voice acting — shows up at your door, and it’s here that the main plot gets going. Honestly, if I were to tell you any more, spoilers would crop up really fast, so I’ll just say that during a hasty jailbreak you’re introduced to the sinister undercurrent of dark forces currently at work in Tamriel, and it becomes your quest to find the solution before forces from Oblivion — that’s Hell, basically — consume the world.
Mechanically, Oblivion gives you a ton of stuff to do, particularly if you’re like me and can only spend a couple hours at a time playing games. It’s all presented to you in a pretty free-form manner, allowing you to choose which part of the game you want to focus on first. If you want to blast straight through the main story quests and finish the central plot, you can do that. If you want to skip the main quest altogether and just run from town to town running errands and doing jobs for people, that’s certainly an option. You can also skip questing altogether and just go spelunking in the hills, exploring old, abandoned mines, dungeons, caves and the like. If you’re like me, you might choose to do a combination of all three — a main quest mission here, a couple of side quests here, looting caves and old ruins between stops. Doing things this way, I think I’ve managed to extend the perceptual size of this gameworld by leaps and bounds. It may not be efficient, but it sure feels real.
The game actually plays out from the first-person perspective, like a typical shooter. Perhaps that is the element that really made this chapter of Elder Scrolls that much easier for me to embrace, given that I’m such a big FPS fan. You can switch into a third-person view at any time, but it’s about as useful as the third-person view 3D Realms tacked onto Duke Nukem 3D literally as an afterthought. Combat was definitely designed to be fought in the first-person here.
Graphically, Oblivion really shines. On the PC, you need some pretty damn good hardware to get all the visual effects. The Xbox360 takes it all in stride, to the point where it can produce maxed out PC-like graphics with just its stock hardware under the hood. You will notice brief pauses from time to time while new chunks of the gameworld are loaded, and there is some “environment pop-in” (where stuff in the distance is seen fading into existence as you get closer to it, and the draw distance horizon catches up). Honestly, if you read user reviews of this game before trying it, you’d think that the pausing, hitching and pop-in are the sign of the apocalypse. Personally, I barely notice this stuff ever, except once in a while. If you have a speedy PC with a good chunk of RAM, you’ll have even less of an issue with this than Xbox users.
The visual effects here are simply amazing. Trees and grass sway in the breeze, there’s a beautiful day/night cycle and realistic, randomized weather effects. Overcast skies cast a gray tone on everything and reduce the ambient light, and incoming storms bring audible gusts of wind. It’s all very immersive. At night, the stars twinkle overhead, crickets chirp, and all you hear are your footsteps crunching through the foliage as you make your way down the lonely road to the next city, wondering what kind of foes you might encounter on your way. Environments come alive not just with people (who are all going about their daily lives, rather than sitting around waiting for you to come talk to them), but with animal life including deer and sheep.
Sound quality is also fantastic, with very realistic hard effects and foley (sword handling, armor clinking, etc.), as well as rich atmospheric effects like moaning winds and dripping water when you delve into those abandoned fortresses and caves. The voice talent is good overall too, featuring some big-name actors for some of the main story characters, but there is not enough variety in the voices for the less integral characters. It sounds like there are two male and two or three female voice actors for an entire world’s worth of people, to the point where you often hear two people making conversation with each other in the same voice. It’s a little weird.
I never really got into the previous installments in the Elder Scrolls series, despite owning II and III (Daggerfall and Morrowind to be specific). However, old hands will recognize a lot of the game universe’s conventions that reappear in Oblivion. There are the various guilds, for example — one each for fighters, mages, thieves and…murderers, apparently (the Dark Brotherhood). The fictional world in which you play is the same featured in the previous games, and I hear that Morrowind players may occasionally recognize NPCs talking about events or characters from that game. Apparently the game world in Oblivion covers 16 square miles, which is larger than Morrowind’s 10, but so far the game doesn’t seem quite so big — because you can instantly transport to anywhere via the map. Just point at a location and it takes you there. If you use the instant transport feature, an appropriate amount of time passes to simulate how long it would take you if you traveled there by manual means.
The actual roleplaying element of the game is implemented a little differently than I’m used to. In most RPGs that I’m familiar with, as your character levels up, it gets easier and easier to beat up on the lowly creatures you first encountered when you began the game. Rats and mud crabs, for instance. Typically you could advance to level 8 or 9 and kill a rat by sneezing on it. But in Oblivion, enemies level up with you. That means that the game is auto-balancing itself against you, preventing the experience from being either too difficult or too easy. My opinion on this? I’m not quite sure. In some ways it sucks, because part of the fun of an RPG is leveling up to insane proportions and beating up on the bullies who ran you out of a treasure-stocked cave early on. Then again, it means that even at level one, you can go pretty much anywhere in the game; there aren’t any artificial, difficulty-induced barriers imposed. I’ve seen a lot of debate about this on the various message boards; it seems to be a very polarizing issue. As far as I’m concerned, the jury’s still out — I don’t yet have a tangible reason to either love or hate the new leveling system, but as it stands, I’m kinda leaning against it. We’ll see how things progress.
There’s one other thing I don’t like. Being a thief is hard. Of course, I decided to become a super-stealthy, archery-specializing, pickpocketing purloiner. But what I find is that if you pick someone’s pocket, or break into their house at night and steal stuff, the local guards are immediately aware of what you did, even if no one saw you making off with the goods. The authorities just automagically know you’re a crook, and they’ll take all your stolen goods away, charge you a fine and force you to rot in jail…where your vital statistics will actually drop proportional to the amount of time you’re locked up. Not only that, but if you succeed in pulling off the perfect heist, you can’t sell any of the stolen goods. Shopkeepers won’t even touch hot property. The only way to unload the stuff (and get paid for it) is to fence it through a local thieves’ guild, which only works if you’re a member. Lastly, if you’re browsing the inventory of a local shop and see a really awesome enchanted weapon worth 10,000 gold, you can’t break into the shop during the night and steal it. The super expensive items simply don’t show up there; they can only be bought legitimately. Kinda takes all the fun out of being a thief, really! But I’m going to go join the Thieves’ Guild this evening and see if it gets any easier. (Not that joining isn’t difficult…you have to be invited by a beggar, basically, and so far none of them have invited me.)
To wrap this up, I think Bethesda has an excellent game on their hands. Whether it lives up to the success of the critically-acclaimed Morrowind I cannot say, not being familiar with the latter. But I can tell you this: it makes me want to dust off my old copy of Morrowind — a game I grew pretty bored of pretty fast — and see how the two compare, and that’s saying something. I probably won’t go to the trouble, though. Why?
Morrowind is a PC game.