Reviewed: April 30, 2006
Released: March 20, 2006
Oblivion is one of those games that, thanks to the continued support of the developers, continually evolves and grows. A lot has happened in the past six months since we originally reviewed Oblivion and with numerous expansion downloads available for the 360 and a new retail repackaging of those “modules” for the PC next month, I thought it was time to revisit the world of Tamriel and check in on my character.
The following review is mostly a reprint of my original with some new content information blended in. The scores haven’t changed…because the game is just as good today as it was six months ago.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is the fourth installment in the epic RPG franchise that has put Bethesda in the same league as Wizards of the Coast. These guys can craft some of the best and immersive role-playing experiences in the business, and now they are taking this series to the next generation with its release on the Xbox 360.
Oblivion is so much more than an RPG though. In many regards, it is a “life simulator”, not only of your character, but of all the NPC’s you will encounter in your epic quest. You are free to create a character of any race and profession of your choosing then evolve that character over the virtual years you will be playing. It is this level of unprecedented freedom, combined with a convincingly real, living, and breathing world, that will capture your heart and mind for months and possibly years to come.
As with any RPG the first thing you must do is create a character. This process alone is quite comprehensive and can take the better part of an hour if you put any thought into it. Ironically enough, the character you create from day one is only a featureless lump of clay waiting to be molded through actual life experiences and gameplay. Even so, you start off with the basics, race, class, and birth sign (and yes, astrology does come into play).
These choices factor into your primary attributes; strength, agility, intelligence, willpower, speed, luck, personality, and endurance. These attributes in turn determine your derived attributes such as health, magic (or Magicka), fatigue, and encumbrance, which determines how much stuff you can carry.
The best thing to keep in mind while creating your character is to make somebody who is like you, that way your play style will fit with the character. If you are a smooth talker then pump up that personality to charm the ladies and shopkeeps. If you like to sneak more than fight then a barbarian might not be the class for you. And always remember than you can cross train and evolve your character throughout the adventure.
Once you have created your perfect alter ego you are unceremoniously thrown into the dungeon, but just as quickly an exciting sequence of events takes place that allows you to escape, at which point you are free to do what you will. There is always a core sequence of quests that make up the primary story, but you can literally play this game for months without ever thinking about them.
Oblivion is about living and adventuring in a real world. You can join various guilds hosted by the Fighters, Mages, Thieves, and my favorite, the Dark Brotherhood. Each of these comes with their own string of missions and story arc. There is a fully functional gladiator arena complete with training rooms and a sequence of fights that will take you from nobody to talk of the town.
You can schmooze with shopkeeps and build ongoing relationships to tilt the buy and sell prices of your goods. You can buy and own real estate all around the world and you can partake in countless side missions and freeform quests that are tucked away in every last square inch of this massive game world.
The Dark Brotherhood is one of the more interesting elements in the game. You will likely hear about them before you have the opportunity to join them. To even get invited you need to kill an innocent NPC, but this can be tricky since many classes of citizens play important roles to other guilds and game elements. For example, you wouldn’t want to kill a beggar (favored by thieves) if you are in the Thieves’ Guild. Once you have killed your token NPC a cloaked figure will visit you the next time you sleep and instruct you to kill an innkeeper to fulfill your membership requirements. If you do, you are now a member of a fairly wicked organization that comes with more perks than baggage.
There is a fully functional justice system in place in Oblivion, one that will haunt you across the land if you aren’t careful. There are various crimes, each with their own level of penalty ranging from trespassing and pick pocketing to the more serious theft, assault, and murder. Anything you happen to have in your inventory that is stolen (indicated in red) is confiscated if you are arrested. There are numerous ways to lower your “wanted level”, usually involving bribes and contacts in low places. If for some reason you do decide to “do the time” you will be stripped of all your possession save one strategically hidden lock pick, and you can try to escape.
Speaking of picking locks, the lock picking interface is truly ingenious, almost a mini-game of sorts. Each lock is ranked in difficulty, as is your own lock-picking prowess. You can then attempt to pick the lock manually, using the analog stick to finesse the pins or let the game try to do it. It’s quite easy to snap numerous picks on the harder locks, but lock picks are cheap and its fun to try.
While it may seem out of place to single out the vampire, especially given the vast encyclopedia of monsters that populate the world of Oblivion, vampirism is not just a monster, it is way of life. Unless you are very lucky or very careful, at some point in the game you are going to get attacked by a vampire and catch the disease. This can be a curse and a blessing depending on how you like to play.
The important thing is to know when you have caught the bug so you can decide if you want to keep it and pursue this avenue of play. If not, a quick trip to the chapel (within three days of being bitten) will remove the curse. Otherwise, on your third night you will turn and then it’s going to be a whole lot tougher to get back to normal.
Being a vampire comes with its perks, including resistance to several ailments and even some stat boosts. The longer you go without feeding the higher your stats climb, but you will also start to show the disease more and people will take offense to your mere presence. Your conflict with the sun and weakness to fire will also increase and you will start to gain special vampire powers each day you don’t feed.
The world of Oblivion works on an accelerated clock and calendar. People open up shops and come to work at a certain time and they close up and go home at a certain time. Guards make regular patrols at regular times and some things happen at night that won’t happen during the day and vice versa. Being a vampire can cramp your style if you need to do things during the day, but as long as you feed every 24 hours you can stay in the sun without damage. Otherwise, expect to hear the disturbing sound of sizzling bacon – your bacon.
When you have done everything you need to do as a vampire you’ll probably want to reverse the effect. This can be as easy or as hard as you want. First you have to talk to a priest, a member of the Dark Brotherhood, or a mage at the Arcane University about a cure and they will refer you to a count who has been seeking a cure for his wife. He will refer you to a witch who lives in a house by a river, and she will want you to bring her five Grand Soul Gems before she will help you. You can either buy these or try and find them through normal dungeon crawls, but that is only the beginning. Now you have to go get all the ingredients on her shopping list including the ashes of a powerful Vampire, and yes, she has one in mind.
Thankfully, one of the new character-specific expansion modules is tailored for vampires and includes the cure as well as a safe place to sleep and a plentiful source of food, making it the perfect vampire lair. This is just one of several class-specific modules that you can purchase for a small fee on Xbox Live Marketplace and add that content to the world of Oblivion. Other options are tailored for thieves, knights, wizards, and you can even get some armor for your horse. And perhaps one of the more ingenious additions is the Spell Tomes, which randomly seeds special magic books into the treasure loot you will find while adventuring.
The best thing about Oblivion is its seamless design. Missions are integrated right into the world, usually involving everyday citizens going about their daily existence. Even the menus, stats screens, and maps are blended right into the game design so you are never taken out of the moment. There are nice features like quick travel that allow you to warp across the map to any previously visited location, and you can advance the clock/calendar if you need to jump to a specific moment for a timed event. There is also a comprehensive quest log showing completed and pending quests, and these are linked to the map to show where you need to go to complete them.
During the course of the main story arc you will get to pass through multiple Oblivion Gates and defeat all sorts of evil on the other side. Shutting down these gates is just one part of your ultimate quest for completing the game, and offers some of the game’s more truly terrifying moments.
One of the best new elements that really helps sell the NPC interaction is the massive speech system with branching dialogue trees, and a Persuasion mini-game that can either help or hurt you in your interactions with other in-game characters. A circular meter divided into four wedges appears, each wedge partially filled to various degrees of success (or failure) giving you the chance to sway an NPC’s reaction to you. This in turn can greatly affect the price of goods and their willingness to help you.
To play the Persuasion mini-game you have to pick from Admire, Boast, Joke, or Coerce and you can only pick each wedge once per round. Depending on the fullness of that wedge, you will either lower or raise their disposition and their face will animate to reflect their new attitude. It is possible to earn stat boosts that will allow you to rotate the wheel one or more times during a round giving you greater odds in positive persuasion.
Oblivion is all about freedom, the freedom to be who you want to be and do what you want to do. This is truly a life simulation set in a fantastic alternate reality of swords and sorcery. It is also this same level of freedom that led to a bunch of uptight parents forcing the ESRB to change the rating from Teen to Mature. There is nothing inherently wrong or evil about Oblivion. You can easily complete the main story arc without ever doing an evil deed, but you won’t have nearly as much fun. So rather than rating the gameplay, the ESRB is now in charge of anticipating how people “might” choose to play when left to their own devices.
Oblivion is a system killer on the PC and I know numerous people who had to build new computers just for this game. Obviously, the 360 is a bit less-powerful than your high-end PC but that shouldn’t scare you in the slightest. Oblivion is one of the most amazing and beautiful games to ever grace a console system. What the game lacks in overall resolution it more than makes up for with overall visual style and a draw distance that reaches for the skies and gets there.
Now I won’t lie. There is pop-up but not in the conventional sense. You won’t see trees and mountains magically appearing on the screen. Instead, you get grass and flowers and subtle layers of texture detail than slowly blend into the mid-ground and foreground imagery. It’s so seamless you actually have to be watching for it to see it. Chances are you'll be blinded by the detailed grass, tree bark, and colorful flowers, many of which can be picked for your various alchemy needs.
Cities are not only logically constructed, with unique areas for stores, temples, poverty zones, etc., you also have thousands of square miles of wilderness, forests, lakes, oceans, mountains, and more. It’s all woven together so perfectly it’s like you are explore a real world. There are no defined lines between a forest and a mountain. It gradually shifts just like you would expect it to. Even the weather will dynamically shift to allow for snow in higher elevations and mist and fog down in the swamps.
Lighting is exquisite and something as simple as a torch will become your new best friend, especially when you start crawling around those poorly lit dungeons and caves. There is even a convenient system in place to swap a shield for a torch with a single button press, but it is still awkward fighting in the dark.
Character design is beyond words. Each NPC is expertly modeled and animated with wonderful detail. Sure, a few of the guardsmen will start to look like they came off the same cookie cutter, but anybody who matters (and there are thousands of them) all look amazing, and they all aren’t human. Some of your best friends might just be an Orc or a creepy (but cool) lizard guy.
Featuring an orchestral score composed by Jeremy Soule (who also previously composed the soundtrack for Morrowind) and the voice-acting talents of famous names such as Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean (just to name two), Oblivion sounds every bit as good as it looks and plays. There is so much dialogue I thought it would start spilling off the DVD. You can talk to just about anybody and conversations go several levels deep.
The world comes to life with stunning environmental sounds, wind, water, and the subtle rustling of leaves and foliage as you trample your way through a dense forest. Flames crackle, wood splinters, and footsteps all make the appropriate sounds for the ground on which you walk upon. It’s all treated with appropriate environmental effects like reverb inside dungeons and with full support for Dolby Digital, you will become totally immersed in the audio presentation of Oblivion.
No game before Oblivion and likely not many to follow will deliver the sheer incomparable value this game has to offer. I’ve heard tales of people who can plow through the core quest in 20-30 hours, but to what end? The sheer joy of playing Oblivion is immersing yourself in the world and living life. At the time of my initial review I was only 20% through the main quest and now, six months later, I am only 60% through the game.
There are numerous guilds to join, an arena league to conquer, and countless side quests and random missions just out there waiting to be discovered and completed. And while I don’t normally encourage the use of a strategy guide, I would encourage anyone who wants to fully explore this game to get the Prima guide. It is a vast tome of knowledge that will easily pay for itself in just a few weeks of adventuring.
And thanks to Xbox live you can now download all sorts of new content for the various character classes, and even some perks for your horse and new items for your random treasure findings. Horse Armor, The Orrery, Wizard’s Tower, Vile Lair, Thieves Den, Mehrunes’ Razor, and Spell Tomes are all available for individual purchase and download for a very reasonable fee. I would have paid twice what I did for the vampire cure.
For those looking to bolster their gamer score, prepare for a lot of work. There are 50 objectives in Oblivion ranging from merely escaping the dungeon or closing your first Oblivion gate, to going through the various levels of the arena, and becoming the head of each guild. There are some extra points for finishing the Dark Brotherhood plotline, as well as a cool 110 points for finishing the main story arc.
If you love adventure, if you love role-playing, or if you just want to experience a new way of life, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is a fresh take on an established genre, yet one we seldom see on console systems. The Xbox 360 is more than powerful enough to deliver this landmark achievement in game design, and the word is just out that the PS3 will be getting its own version of Oblivion.
So whether you are a PC gamer, Xbox 360 gamer, or even a potential PS3 gamer, you have no excuse not to partake in one of the ultimate RPG’s of our lifetime. It is an experience you won’t soon forget and possibly one that might never end.