The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion Review

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Graphics: 9.5
Sound : 9.5
Gameplay : 10
Multiplayer : N/A
Overall : 9.8
Review by Andreas Misund Berntsen
After what seems like an eternity of waiting, it’s finally here. PCs have been upgraded and consoles have been bought. Oblivion is a fantastic game, and unless you dislike awesome things, just go and buy it right now. I assume a few of you won’t take my word for it just like that, so read on if you need further convincing.

Oblivion is the fourth game in the Elder Scrolls series by Bethesda Softworks. In each of these titles, you tend to play as the unlikely hero; a chosen one who begins in jail but eventually learns that there are evil doers giving non-evil beings a hard time. You have to find its source, and smash it. This might not sound overly clever or innovative, but the game world is both big and fascinating and it’s got enough of a background story to satisfy most bookworms. You see, the daedric lord Mehrunes Dagon wishes to invade Cyradiil, the province in which the game takes place, by opening big oblivion gates where his evil minions can come and go as they please. To prevent this from happening, a certain ritual has to take place, one that’s going to take quite some effort…

In Oblivion, you once again start off by defining the appearance of your character. Just about every facet can be adjusted using levers, such as the size, shape, and even the position of the nose. You can choose between tons of hairstyles, grow the facial hair you always wanted, and of course, choose things such as race. There are more means of customization than in most MMORPGs to date.

The game begins in jail, where after walking into chains to see them respond realistically, you’re visited by Uriel Septim, the emperor of Cyradiil (voiced by the excellent Patrick Stewart), and his guards. He informs you that assassins are out to get him, and that you’re destined for great things. During the next 30 minutes or so, you follow the party through a dungeon, leading not only outside, but also to the place where Uril would be content to die in. On the way, he asks you a few questions, which define your class and birth sign, which awards you with bonuses of various kinds. I ended up with a wood-elf (for speed and archery prowess) named Garrett – thief by class and birth sign. Fast forward a little, and you’re helping the new emperor, saving the world, and probably doing a whole lot of other things on the side in the meantime.

Your character can be one of very many classes, but typically, some flavor of fighter, mage, or thief. Custom classes can also be quickly and easily created.

Once you’re outside of the dungeon, you’re presented with a wealth of options. Even though you’re only a level 1 ‘newbie’ you can choose to follow the main quest line, explore the countryside, or maybe even join a guild. The central story itself should take you around twenty hours or so to complete, which isn’t a whole lot, but unless you’re incredibly determined, you’ll find yourself playing through countless side quests, as they tend to just hop right onto your path.

Tamriel, the part of Cyradiil where Oblivion takes place, consists of quite a few towns and cities. The most important one being the Imperial City, where many of the governing bodies live. Outside of there, you have quite a number of diverse areas, with one major town, lots of NPCs, gorgeous scenery, and plenty of dungeons and camps to raid.

Every NPC in Oblivion has his or her own personality. Humans are no longer just instances of “human male”, “wood-elf female”, and so on. Someone living in the imperial city may work in the fields during the daytime, go to the pub in the evening, and head home when it’s time to sleep. There aren’t any pre-defined paths either, so characters are simply given goals that they have to fulfill at some time, and they’ll figure out the right way of doing it on their own. This may very well involve just chatting with people on the street, and it’s quite funny to hear the sometimes peculiar conversations that arise. NPCs also remember your behavior, and will usually respond accordingly as you pass them on the street. In developing the Radiant AI, Bethesda looked to Gothic 2 for inspiration, another superb open-ended game that, well, everyone should play. The Imperial City, in particular, could’ve benefited from additional citizens, and it would’ve been nice if kids had been included for diversity’s sake, but it’s understandable why there aren’t any present though.

Not everyone will start off neutral towards you, but fortunately, you can use your speechcraft skills to improve your relationships. If that doesn’t work, there’s also a bribe button that never fails.

That’s one example of changes seen compared in comparison to Morrowind. This time, there are so many fewer things to be annoyed by. There aren’t any cliff racers, and some of the more “hardcore” mechanics have been replaced to satisfy newer players.

Direction is another important keyword. This time around, you won’t be wondering what it is you’re supposed to be doing while on a quest; the journal has improved quite a bit, and you get markers on your map that’ll should you almost exactly where you’re supposed to go. Most locations can be traveled to almost instantly, and when you don’t feel like “cheating” there’s also the option of buying a horse.

The quests in Oblivion are probably the best in any RPG to date. Due to the huge environment and the excellent AI, the quests can finally involve a lot more than “Go to the swamp. Kill 20 lizards, and bring me their hides.” One quest may involve stalking people to eavesdrop on important conversations, or stealing items from heavily guarded buildings, defending buildings from attacks, and an unimaginable number of other tasks. The nice thing about the game is that if you’re playing as a thief, you’re very likely to play through it again as another class, because there’s an immense amount of content you probably missed out on, like in the mage’s guild, the fighters’ guild, and so on. When you’re done with the main quest, you’ll still find a ridiculous amount of dungeons to raid and locations to explore. Most people will have a lot of “oh, I’ve never seen that before” moments after the storyline is done, and that’s excellent in my book.

I would’ve liked to see some things done differently in many of the dungeons though. While they’re essentially more interesting than every other RPG except perhaps World of Warcraft, more “named” monsters; basically bosses and mini-bosses wouldn’t have hurt. As a thief especially, you can take down most of the larger monsters without them even knowing of your presence. Combat certainly changes if you’re a fighter; the fights are a lot more visceral than last time. You really “feel” the weight of attacks this time around, and your body literally shakes as you block the immense Orc with the warhammer that’s half your size. The moves you can do are diverse and interesting, and you won’t bring people down by mashing the attack button. However, the combat mechanics aren’t radically different, so don’t expect to have to spend very long learning it.

Next up is the graphics, another area where Oblivion is ahead of, well, everyone. Bethesda designed a new 3D engine, and there’s a lot to say about it. The rendering distance is colossal and the trees look extremely lifelike. HDR (High Dynamic Range lighting) is used, but, thankfully, not overused. The water refracts light, reflects scenery, and makes you wish you could stay and have a picnic. Characters are exquisitely detailed. Some people dislike the facial expressions, but that’s a matter of taste. The armor is even more detailed and is prettier than what you’ve seen in any game, ever. The individual pieces move and interact, as they should.

Things like arrows are actual game objects that can be fired, picked up, and fired once more. About half to two thirds of the arrows you fire at monsters can be looted, so you won’t have to break the bank at the vendor. And as previously mentioned, the physics are generally great.

Oblivion’s graphics are excellent, not just from a technical standpoint, but also thanks to the amount of content and the supremely high attention to detail. There are so many moments when you’ll just stop and go “Ooooooooooh, pretty”, like when you’ve just looted a fancy new weapon and you see the sunset reflecting on the blade and its many carvings.

The biggest annoyance, however, is how geometry that’s reasonably far away from the player has a very low level of detail, even at the highest draw distance setting. This is particularly noticeable when you’re going downhill, in which case it would’ve been nice if the engine drew things accordingly. Additionally, the mouse speed is very slow when you’re navigating the menus, and there’s no way of changing it. Navigating the map is especially annoying, but it helps when you know where the various towns are located. I was actually surprised that there’s no way of zooming out, and I find it shocking that they didn’t change it by the time of the release. Either way, the two issues should be fixable, and I’m sure we’ll see them fixed in an upcoming patch.

Doom 3 and Quake 4 have better in-door lighting, but then again, they’re optimized for that. Even so, from now on we’ll probably say things like “but it’s no Oblivion” in future reviews. In fact, looking at many of the recent titles, it is clear what’s next-gen and what’s not. Of course, all of this comes at a cost. Oblivion requires a beefy system, but it pays back every investment in spades. People didn’t know what I was thinking when I ordered my ATI Radeon X1900XTX, but now it’s the reason why I can play the prettiest game ever at 1600x1200 with maximum detail. Fortunately, the game still looks great on a much lower resolution and detail setting. There is of course of the Xbox 360 version as well.

Oblivion’s audio department is almost as good as its graphics. Every NPC is voiced, which is extremely impressive, considering the huge number of characters in the game. If I were to nitpick, it would be that some of the voices change greatly in pitch from one line to the next; especially the introductory line and the various dialog you can choose between. In addition, while it’s inevitable that you’ll recognize the various vocal talents, it would’ve been nice if they avoided using the same person for as many as three out of four characters in a room.

Jeremy Soule composed and produced the music, and it does not disappoint. You can hear the similarities to the Morrowind theme, but the big difference is that the score is much less dramatic and pronounced this time. It’s clearly to avoid people getting sick of the theme, and in that regard, they’ve succeeded. Personally, I still enjoy the Morrowind score, so I would’ve liked to hear something similar, even if it was only rarely played.

Sean Bean (of LOTR), Lynda Carter (of The Dukes of Hazard), Terence Stamp (of Star Wars and Smallville), and Patrick Stewart (of the USS Enterprise) are the game’s four famous voice actors. They all did very well, although Sean Bean and Patrick Stewart stand out in particular, as they voiced the more emotional characters.

The sound effects are plentiful, dynamic, and powerful. Basically, it has everything you’d expect, and melee combat, in particular, gets even better because of it. This game alone warrants the purchase of a surround-sound setup, and a hugely expensive 3D card for that matter.

There’s so much I could say about the game. I could go on and on about a whole lot, but I have to stop at some point. Oblivion is far from a perfect game, but I can think of very few titles that come as close. It’s among the very best in terms of gameplay, audio, and graphics. It doesn’t have multiplayer, but neither have any of the previous Elder Scrolls games. Personally, I think it’s a joy to finally have a huge, offline RPG where you won’t run into kids asking you to give them gold, people leaving a quest because of dinner, and unstable, laggy servers where you have to wait for 30 minutes or more just to play, only to be back in line when the connection dies.

It’s not a game for everyone, and it does start off slow, but boy does it grow if you invest a few hours.

There’s also the quickly growing mod community, which has already released many rather small, but useful and interesting modifications. Many of the minor annoyances will probably be solved this way, and yes, there is a nude patch already.