The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion Review
Some would say that the death of western RPGs has already happened and that no one has actually noticed yet. Development houses like Troika and Black Isle Studios have gone out of business while Asian RPG titles continue to thrive (Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest are still going strong). In the past twenty years, only the very best American games in this genre have had any commercial success, while anything less than stellar has mostly flopped. Yes, some would say that western RPGs are dead, but I think that it's more a case of developers and gamers not connecting like they have in the Asian RPG market. While I can't say that Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion will bridge the gap where many previous great-yet-unsuccessful RPGs have failed, I think that this game can at least prove beyond any doubt that RPGs don't have to come from Japan to be brilliant.
One look at the feature list for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion might make it seem like this game is just too good to be true. We're talking about a living, breathing world that the player interacts with in ways gamers haven't ever seen. The huge, lush forests are the setting for incredible fights where combat is both satisfying and brutal, but these environments can also be serene and peaceful. Cities are filled with characters who don't just stand around waiting for you to talk to them - they have daily routines, jobs, conversations with each other (all acted out by real voice actors), and their lives don't revolve solely around the player's actions. The storyline has you taking arms alongside other warriors and fighting an old evil that's been seen in Bethesda's past games a few times, but they have never gone this far to try and destroy the world of Tamriel. In true Elder Scrolls fashion, there are so many quests built in (which are completely outside of the main storyline) that you could play for months and not see half of this game. Finally, user-made mods will expand the game's scale to unprecedented levels, taking it far beyond the game's already massive amount of things to do. Folks, it's not too good to be true. With Oblivion, Bethesda has taken everything that makes an RPG unique and has tuned and expanded these elements (while fixing many of the stereotypical problems seen in dozens of RPGs) to make it simply one of the best games I've ever seen.
The story unfolds with a cutscene that sets the stage (I'll spare you the spoilers), and in true Elder Scrolls fashion, you'll start up as a nobody who's locked in a prison cell. Now, it just happens to be that the Emperor himself, escaping an assassination attempt with a few guards protecting him, needs to use a secret passage that starts in your cell. Emperor Uriel Septim, voiced by legendary Star Trek actor Patrick Stewart, recognizes your character from one of his dreams and lets you escape on your own through the same passage that the Imperial guards open up. This leads to an introductory dungeon which will teach you the basics of Oblivion in a wonderful way that completely outshines the tutorials in other RPGs.
In the tutorial, the player will be taught how to cast spells, fight, use stealth, pick locks, look through the quest journal, use items, and manage the inventory. Then you'll get to choose your main class from a set of pre-made classes (each with a pre-selected set of 7 major skills out of the game's 21 in total) or a custom one that you build one skill at a time. After a few additional choices, you will get to choose your birthsign which will give you a decent bonus ability or strength, or in some cases, a huge bonus along with a nasty weakness.
There are ten total races in Oblivion, many of whom have a totally different look from each other, and with the gender choices and huge amount of tweaks that can be done to the character's face, it really allows the player to go crazy even before the character's finalized. The choices for race include a few elves, some human variants, Orcs, cat-like Khajiit, and the lizard-like Argonians, and each race has both genders to choose from - this makes a total of twenty body types, but those bodies can't be adjusted or fiddled with at all. Plus, most of the human-type bodies look identical anyway. With the fine detail you can use to fiddle with your character's facial features, a few slider bars for adjusting body shape and size would have made a lot of sense. It's a pretty minor complaint overall, though.
Before you're sent out into the big bad world, you get to redo your whole character if you want. Once you're finished and the game's introductory dungeon has been trudged through, the moment that follows is going to be a very big one for the player - it's time to emerge from the dank dungeon and see the land of Cyrodiil. Oblivion's outdoor scenes are stunningly beautiful in the quality of the art, the uniqueness of the world, the density of the forests, and in the technical quality of the game's special effects and massive open terrain. Visibility can be measured in miles (although those whose computers fall below the "recommended" system specs might have to scale it back), and a wonderful Level of Detail system ensures decent frame rates even as one can see this far out; what it does is it replaces objects like trees in the distance with low-quality versions, and as you get closer to those objects, it adds detail to them. Level of Detail systems have been seen in games before, but the scale and scope of Oblivion makes it that much more grand.
Beyond the whiz-bang special effects, it's the simple things that also make this game much more special. Trees and grass sway in the wind in unison, and heavier winds will make them bend even more. Torches flicker, lighting up cavern walls, and your own magic spells cast their own light as well. The interface looks sufficiently medieval without sacrificing readability, and everything is laid out in a tabbed interface which is very easy to flip though. What it adds up to is a game that focuses on the visuals on both the big and small scales. Let me put it this way: I've thrown around the word "awesome" in plenty of my reviews before, but after going back and looking at the definition of the word and how it applies to graphics in games, I see that my past uses of it were rarely justified. That is not the case with Oblivion. This game looks truly awesome.
Once the player gets to the first town, one of the game's best and most high-profile features is put on full display. The NPCs at first seem like they're following all kinds of scripted encounters, as they'll walk around and have conversations which can be overheard. After a while, though, the player will notice that things are a lot less scripted than originally thought: NPCs will go to sleep at night, find and eat food, and go about their daily lives in ways that some RPGs have touched on, but never to this extent. Every day is a little different for these characters, and some will steal, get caught, and even try and kill others if the situation calls for it. Your interactions with them are what really bring it to life: the unique disposition system for getting NPCs to like or hate you seems so much more natural than in almost any other game out there, and even just screwing around with them in weird ways (like taking away all their food and watching them improvise to find a meal) elicits responses that are clearly not separately hand-coded for all the characters in the game.
This system is called Radiant AI and it controls the behavior of Oblivion's 1500 NPCs, but it's something that doesn't need a name or feels like it stands out once you start playing. It's just there and once you experience it, you might wonder why it's taken so long for someone to come up with a system like this. And that's what makes Radiant AI so wonderful - it just plain works and it makes the game that much better without drawing attention to itself.
Some of the game's NPCs will also turn up later as you grow in power. You might find yourself allied with someone and even get to shape that character's future, and then later in the game see the same person again, changed by whatever decision you helped them make. It's the wonderful little touches like this all over the game that really help me to forgive many of those little annoying or inconsistent things in Oblivion that nag at me as I play.
As you complete the quests either for the main storyline or for one of the many guilds, you'll find that most of these quests are much more involved than we've seen in many single-player or even massive multiplayer RPGs. And if that's not enough, then you can climb the ranks in the Arena in order to get yourself crowned as a champion in combat. Then there are the many hidden items, enemies, NPCs and artifacts out in the world, and after that, there are the dynamically-populated dungeons, and then finally, there are mods. Suffice it to say that this game has more stuff to do - and most of this stuff is of a higher quality than in the average RPG - than any single player game I've ever seen.
The combat in Oblivion, simply put, is some of the best I've encountered in any RPG. Fights will mix together varied weapons, character stats, and action-oriented hacking and slashing. Combat requires the player to time both attacks and defensive moves as well as engage the brain to develop the right tactics in order to win. Pick your poison: Fighter, Mage, or Rogue, and if you want, you can even excel at any combination of these three if you're willing to give up on certain skills. In melee combat you'll need to pick between attacks and block manually in a system that winds up giving the player the choice on how to fight without over-complicating it.
Once you've pulled out your weapon, you can tap or hold your block button to raise your shield. Defend against an attack with the right timing, and you'll stun your opponent for a second. Tap your attack key or button, and a quick attack pops out, and if you mash your attack key, you will get some nice combos as well. But if you hold your attack button instead, a power attack is unleashed. This combination of action game along with the full RPG system behind it carefully ties together the very best aspects of both genres in a way that puts combat in previous "action-RPG" games to shame.
Every skill has a few "perks" that are achieved once you raise it to a certain amount. Some are kind of boring, like the Heavy Armor perk that slows the degradation of your armor as you get hit, because you can always just repair your armor anyway. The spellcasting and attack-oriented abilities are much more interesting, though, and these perks will really motivate the player to get those skills up (far beyond just the promise of more damage, that is). Each of Oblivion's three melee weapon skills (Blade, Blunt, or Hand-to-hand) also has its own set of power attack moves gained through perks. During the course of the game, your power attacks will change and improve, giving the chance to do all kinds of neat effects, like disarm your opponent (and the weapon realistically falls to the ground for your enemy to pick back up, if you give him the chance!) or knock him out on the spot.
Combat is more satisfying overall here than in most RPGs. Since you choose when to block, you'll have the option of picking your counter-attacks carefully. And unlike Morrowind, your weapon will always score a hit if you can get it to actually collide with your enemy; of course, if your weapon skill is low and his defense-oriented skills are high, you could be doing almost zero damage, but at least now it won't do an internal dice roll, tell you you missed, and make your weapon pass harmlessly through the opponent. The same goes for marksmanship, which now always scores at least some kind of hit if your arrow actually hits the enemy.
Realistic physics is one of those things that should have been in RPGs years ago, but few have tried. With Oblivion, Bethesda has licensed a popular physics engine called Havok which has been seen in many top-rated action games over the last few years. From using the traps in come dungeons against your enemies, to smashing in the faces of the game's many enemies and watching their bodies fall or fly away with realistic ragdoll-style physics, Havok adds a lot to this game. There's also the ability to drop a huge fireball in a room which has been littered with junk, sending all movable objects flying away from the center of the blast. And while you can't pick up furniture or send that flying, the game still has plenty of items which you can grab, steal, sell, and interact with in some way or another. I've even managed to use physics to steal items from stores, as I can hit an object with an arrow, send it flying off into a dark corner of the room where a shopkeeper can't see me, and pick it up there.
Your success with stealth is not a simple measure of your character's Sneak skill; some player skill will be needed as well, as the light and darkness of your character's environment is taken into account. This will make some well-lit places almost impossible to sneak around in, while other darker spots will be much easier - and that's something that's a big change from the overly simplistic system that Morrowind used. Backstabs are an important part of being a rogue in Oblivion, so learning to use the Sneak skill to get in close will be vital for thieves and assassins. If getting up close is not to your liking, a bow and arrow is now very useful and lots of fun with the game's fully-modeled physics system, and this can be used with the Sneak skill for some nice high-damage bow shots. There's also a lockpicking mini-game that's fun yet tough where you can either control the picks yourself, or skip the mini-game and rely on your character's Security skill to have it automatically done.
I've gone over being a fighter as well as a rogue, but it's spellcasting that I'm really a fan of. Sure, anyone, even fighters, can cast a few spells here and there with an offhand key that doesn't require you to put away your weapons. This way, you can mix together spells and swords almost completely seamlessly. Mages, though, will find that the power of charged up magical weapons like staves and their own offensive spells, when used simultaneously, will make for a hugely powerful combination. That's right: you can hold a staff in your right hand straight out, firing out whatever custom-created spell you've enchanted it with, while you're also flinging custom-made spells like fireballs (or other, more devious inventions) with your left hand. Your Magicka (also known as Mana in the rest of the RPG world) will also regenerate slowly on its own, which is a nice change from Morrowind. Of course, you can also make or buy potions to recharge your mana instantly in mid-combat as well.
But it's not all big bada-booms in Oblivion. Mages will find that many higher-level enemies will resist or even reflect the basic elements that make up Destruction magic, like fire, ice, or poison. To succeed as a mage in the later game, you'll need to not only experiment with various spells, but strip your enemies' enchantments with certain types of "debuff" spells which enable your real damage to actually work. While these types of debuff spells were available in Morrowind, they were rarely necessary. But with Oblivion, those spells are going to be needed; you'll have far more power in your hands as a Mage than in most RPGs, but you'll also need to wield it more delicately to succeed. Overall, this magic system is so vastly different and infinitely more fun compared to Morrowind that it's one of my favorite parts of the whole game.
Leveling up in Oblivion is a little different than most RPGs. The system is similar to Morrowind, where improving skills (like Blunt weapons, or Destruction magic, or one of many others) by actually using them triggers the level up. While every character can build up all of the game's 21 skills to their top levels eventually, only the seven you pick as "major" skills will allow your character to level up, and these major skills will go up faster for your character than the other fourteen. There's no experience points here, although one will find that much like most RPGs, the level-ups will come slower later in the game because your skills go up slower.
Many of the balance problems from past Bethesda games have been fixed - for example, in Morrowind one could find and easily steal expensive items, sell them to the right vendors, and then use NPC trainers to gain dozens of levels within only a few hours of play. Between that and alchemy and enchanting exploits, it was really pretty easy to break the game and make it ridiculously easy. Oblivion has fixed all those past exploits, although with a game so large and with so many things to do, I'm sure that there will still be at least a few new ways to break that delicate balance. For some this will be bad thing, but for those players who actually have fun tipping the balance in their favor no matter how, it should be plenty of fun.
There are both upsides and downsides to a game that doesn't lead you by the nose through it. Many gamers out there just felt lost when Morrowind gave them the freedom to go anywhere yet told them hardly anything about what they should do next. With Oblivion, Bethesda wanted those who actually liked playing like that to be happy, while also satisfying the gamers who want a little more structure and more clues as to where to go next. I'm happy to say that they have succeeded: both casual RPG players as well as the Elder Scrolls veterans should be very happy.
So how was this done? To start, there's a brand new quest journal system that's been beefed up and simultaneously streamlined. It winds up looking a lot like the quest log from World of Warcraft, where each quest has a name and you can see what your current goal is by clicking on it. But here, it's not just the most recent "piece" of the quest that you can view: all the relevant information for any single quest goes into one long entry, even for those parts you've long finished. To avoid confusion, the data is sorted from the newest information at the top, all the way back to the oldest information at the bottom of this single quest entry. This way, you can look back to what an NPC told you five steps back if you want, or just look at the top to find out what you need to do next. Any quest you select as the "active" one will pop up a pointer on both your map and compass, leading you to the next place you need to go, although some quests have more general goals that don't require you to do something specific - those won't supply a pointer.
For those who are used to MMORPG-style quests where your goal is to collect 10 thingamajigs, clear out some abandoned office or warehouse of enemies, or deliver some stupid item to Ironforge, you might be very surprised once you start doing quests in Oblivion. For some gamers, the depth of quests that this game offers are going to really blow some socks off. That's not to say that every quest is hugely complex and totally awe-inspiring, but they certainly are compared to what we've seen in the last several years from RPGs. I'd like to elaborate here and give you specific quest descriptions, but it will most certain spoil some of the fun for many gamers so I'll hold my tongue.
The game's main quest, which involves separating the dimension of Oblivion from Tamriel and saving the world, will take upwards of 25 hours to complete. This alone might take you longer and get you more involved in the game than many RPGs are in their entirety. But on top of that, there are major guilds and factions throughout the land of Cyrodiil, and they all want to recruit you to do their dirty work. It'll take you a long time, but you can rise to power in every major guild through their own series of quests. All told, this comprises a total of over 200 hours of gameplay according to Bethesda, and most of that time is spent actually doing stuff rather than just traveling to your next destination.
Of course, you'll still have to hike on out to the more remote spots in the wilderness, but since you can buy or even steal a horse to make those trips go quicker, the time spent traveling to a new location is shortened. The game's major cities will be instantly available to all players at once via a fast travel option on the big map, where you can click on a location and you'll automatically travel there without having to wait. Additionally, you'll be able to uncover many more fast travel locations on the map, like ruins, smaller towns and villages, and other highlights, by discovering them yourself.
While the fast travel aspect does take some of the time-consuming hiking out of the game, it's important that players try not to get too crazy with the instant travel, because that will likely mean missing out on some of the best aspects of Oblivion. The richness of the world and the many little things littered throughout it really do add something that will keep you coming back, whether they are hidden quests, unique and useful loot, or the hundreds of other little easter egg-style touches. If you only ever use the map to travel between cities, you'll miss many of these little things.
For those who are looking for a quick combat-based challenge, there over two hundred hand-made dungeons dotting the landscape. Some of these serve specific purposes for a few quests, but most allow you to simply go in and have a good time. Dungeons are populated with monsters and loot based on your character's level and will often have a challenging boss at the end with something nice (and appropriate for your character's level!) as a reward, and once you've cleared a dungeon, it will repopulate again after about a week's worth of in-game time. What this system adds up to is convenience, as the player rarely needs to hunt too hard to find something challenging. Many creatures out in the wilderness also follow this system, although you'll find a few locations that are only meant for players of a certain level or higher, and those will be guarded by much tougher enemies than you might be able to handle.
While Oblivion doesn't get too silly with large numbers of trade skills, the few it does include have been very well thought-out. The big one is Alchemy, which is one of the game's 21 skills. You can pick various plants throughout the land (there are over 100 different kinds in total) and combine these with various things in the game world to create potions or even poisons. The Blacksmith skill allows you to repair your weapons out in the field. And with the help of certain NPCs, you can also enchant your items with custom-made spell effects. The enchanting system is surprisingly deep when one considers how spell effects interact with each other, and it's most certainly a way for the player to feel like they're really custom-building their character.
The poison effects are great, if maybe a little tedious to use. You can poison your weapons for combat, or even apply it to food and try to get an NPC that you need assassinated to eat it. The annoying part is that Oblivion requires you to reapply your poison to every single arrow before firing them, and the poison you applied to your melee weapon only works for a single hit - then you've got to go back through the inventory and manually set up your weapons or ammo repeatedly to get these effects multiple times in a fight.
I've talked about the visuals a little already, and while Oblivion is much more a game to be played than seen, the graphics here are still definitely one of its best features. This game has forests that are dense enough to actually make creeping around them quite dark, even during the daytime. The trees aren't all a bunch of evergreens either, like we've seen in many games; there are plenty of very complex deciduous trees to be seen along with many kinds of foliage and ground cover. When all this is put together with the game's dozens of towns and villages along with the major cities and hundreds of indoor locations, it makes for a cohesive world that you could get lost in for months. Well, ok, since you will get a poster-sized paper map in the box, as well as a very useful map system in-game, it's actually pretty tough to get lost unless you do it on purpose.
Beyond the natural-looking world, it also helps that this game uses many bits of eye candy for its effects; Oblivion requires a video card that's at least halfway decent at doing Pixel Shader 2.0 special effects at an absolute minimum. These special effects add all kinds of stuff to the world: they make water look truly fluid, give character models a certain lifelike quality that goes beyond just what sharp textures and art can do, turn foggy mornings and sunny evenings into eerily beautiful experiences with High Dynamic Range lighting, and give the two-dimensional art real 3D depth.
If I had to point out some bigger flaws in Oblivion, they would probably be the NPC conversation system, the animations and body language that the game's many, many characters use, and the high system requirements. Let's start with the conversations and NPC mannerisms. Even with fifty hours of dialogue in Oblivion, listening in on conversations gets old quickly. NPCs will go through some stiff animations while they talk, and while you'll see them exhibit facial expressions, something just seems, well, off about them. Here, it seems like quantity was focused on rather than quality, and while nothing looks hilariously bad, sometimes NPCs' actions just don't "fit together" like you might expect out of a game whose world feels so alive in other ways. Still, I have to ask myself: would we rather it be like Half-Life 2 with twenty immaculately modelled and animated characters, or instead have 1500 characters who will occasionally throw out some awkward sayings and mannerisms? There's merit in either choice, but I'm pretty sure RPG fans are going to prefer the latter.
Conversations also will often have different characters sharing identical lines of dialogue, so players might get a little confused as to which character out of the game's 1500 they're talking to if they've heard a line that stands out to them before. Some characters will all of a sudden lose or switch accents if you switch to the Persuasion mini-game as well. Still, Bethesda made sure that the really important lines that are part of major plot points are done exceedingly well, especially by the big-name Hollywood talent.
The other big downside that I see for Oblivion is that the system requirements are steep. While the visuals are breathtaking, they come at a price of very short, but frequent load times and big hits on the frame rate. Still, the time it takes to save or load a game are impressively short, and are far better than they are in Morrowind - even to this day.
I reviewed this game on a pretty powerful computer that handily exceeds the "recommended" requirements, but still found that setting all the options to high or maximum settings at a 1600x1200 resolution turned out inconsistent frame rates that dropped well into the teens. Gamers whose computers only slightly exceed the minimum requirements (I'm talking about hardware like non-64-bit Athlon XP CPUs and Radeon 9800 video cards) are not going to be terribly happy when they are forced to turn down much of the eye candy that makes Oblivion so immersive in the first place. The recommended specs that are listed are pretty reasonable, but even then you shouldn't cruise in with "just" the recommended system and actually expect to get smooth gameplay with details jacked up and a high resolution set.
I do want to mention, though, that while Oblivion uses the GameBryo engine (which is a direct descendent of the engine used in Morrowind), this game doesn't have near as many odd performance issues like Morrowind did. Even almost four years after its release, some towns in Morrowind still drop my frame rates down to unplayable levels, and in many ways Oblivion actually runs better. It's not because the same computer will run this game faster than the last one, because in most cases that's not true, but I'm talking about a more relative scale. This time around, the engine is more scalable: unlike with Morrowind a few years ago, faster computers this time will show some real performance improvements over middle-of-the-road machines. That's an odd way to gauge performance, I know, but when you're talking about a game that you could still be playing on and off two or three years down the road, it's nice to know that feeding it faster hardware will actually make an appreciable difference.
One of the best features of Morrowind was the inclusion of an editor CD in the box. One could load up the Construction Set and make their own mods, many of which resulted in miniature files (even for long, involved quests) that added many hours of fun if the player was willing to sort through the crappy user-made mods and pick out the best of the best the community had to offer. That's going to start all over again with Oblivion, because the wonderful tools that the developers built the world and the quests with themselves are now available once again to anyone who wants to make a mod. Not only can you make new items, areas in the world, quests, and more with the TESCS, but now you can custom-create NPCs and use better scripting along with Radiant AI to truly open up a new realm of possibilities that modders have never seen in an Elder Scrolls game. It'll take a while for the community to truly master Oblivion's TESCS, but we'll start seeing new mods pop up most likely within mere days of the release.
As far as future support from Bethesda goes, they have promised new mods which will be sold at very low prices for both the PC and for the Xbox 360. Now in my crazy ideal world, Bethesda would get together "packs" of the greatest community-made mods and repackage those for sale and splitting the profits with the creators, but it seems like they'll mostly be focusing on making their own mods. Oh well.
During the development of Oblivion, audio was given a major focus. The ambient sounds of the world are some of the best I've ever heard, and the clangs and scapes of combat are sharp and crisp. Bethesda also took it upon themselves to record over fifty hours of voice acting so that every piece of NPC dialogue was given a voice-acted counterpart. Sean Bean, who played Boromir in the Lord of the Rings movies, does the voice acting for a key character in Oblivion, and he does an absolutely fantastic job - much like he's done with just about all of his movie and TV roles over the years. Patrick Stewart gets the game off to a wonderful start by voicing Emperor Septim, and the rest of the game's many other voice actors usually do a pretty decent job as well.
The soundtrack was done by composer Jeremy Soule, who has made music for quite a few RPGs over the years (including the Baldur's Gate series, Guild Wars, and Bethesda's own Morrowind). While the soundtrack contains less than an hour's worth of music, his stuff this time is just as great as his other notable past works. The is good enough that I imagine most players will be able to leave it on for long hours without finding it repetitive.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion moves the RPG genre forward with a massive world, a beautiful presentation, deep gameplay and action, and many great plots and quests to finish. Add in the Construction Set and its huge potential for fueling a nearly unlimited number of great mods, and it's hard for me to even start complaining about high system requirements or the complete lack of any multiplayer modes. Oblivion is not quite a revolution in gameplay, but it adds so many new and great things that after weeks of play, you might start wondering about whether it is a revolutionary game just because of its massive scope and the consistently high quality of nearly everything in it. Either way, it's not only a true masterpiece, but it's also a shining example of the deep, engrossing experience that the ideal RPG should deliver.