Inside Pulse 12

Review: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (XB360)


The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Genre: TRUE Action/RPG
Developer: Bethesda
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: 3/20/06

Okay, you’re looking up there and seeing “TRUE” and wondering “huh?” Allow me to explain. The standard console RPG, as we’ve come to understand it, has been all kids running around saving the world while making chibi-chibi faces and kawaii poses and so on.

I just realized how bad that sounded. Lemme try that again.

To put it in a less derogatory way: the standard console RPG places storyline, narrative, and character development over the actual concept of PLAYING A ROLE. In your traditional console RPG, you’re playing as a predetermined character on a predetermined quest to save the world from peril or what have you. This is by no means a bad thing, mind you… if you asked me to make a list of my top ten RPG’s, it’d probably have six or seven of those sorts of games somewhere on it. But these games, as they are, are your “traditional RPG” games, and are not TRUE RPG’s.

So what is a TRUE RPG? Dungeons and Dragons. Vampire: The Masquerade. Shadowrun. GURPS. TRUE Role-playing is playing a role that you yourself create. This, as you might expect, is by no means easy to translate into a video game.

So, what sort of games are TRUE RPG’s? Well, if we’re talking about in general, a prime example is Fallout. Make your character, name them, send them out into the world. You’re given a general idea of what needs to be done, then sent into the world to do whatever. If we’re talking about a more console-oriented experience, Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land, King’s Field, and Shadow Tower, while they DO have a less generalized narrative (and in the KF case, the characters are predetermined), basically amount to your character, being whoever he or she is, having to accomplish something general, without being forced into HOW you want to do it. The narrative is less “You MUST do this to progress the story” and more “You CAN do this if you want, for a reward, but you don’t really have to”.

And neatly into this category falls Oblivion. The sequel to the game Morrowind, and the fourth in the Elder Scrolls series, Oblivion is about as TRUE as TRUE RPG’s get: after waking up in the dungeon, you’re given a quest and basically told “okay, get to it”, then kicked out into the world to accomplish your goal however the hell you damn well please. Narrative, while great, isn’t really a focal point of Oblivion; rather, the ADVENTURE is the point, and whatever story you encounter along the way is ultimately ancillary. In short, it’s a sandbox game: you’re given a task, then left to your own devices. What you ultimately do is up to you.

Now, Oblivion has some massive shoes to fill. Morrowind is considered by many to be one of the greatest RPG’s ever made, and while it had its share of problems, it’s loved by many. Oblivion has years of hype behind it that has effectively made it out to be the second coming of Christ, all of which it’s expected to live up to. And, let us not forget, it’s the FIRST true system-seller on the 360 so far. You could say Bethesda is kind of backed into a corner here, and being made to stand and deliver. So, does Oblivion deliver? Is it better than Morrowind? Do you need to own it?

… oh hell, like you need a whole review to answer those questions. Yes, yes, and yes. Anything I say after this is pretty much just reinforcing that point. Let’s just go.


1. STORY


Hell has come to Frogtown. Dagon (not he of Lovecraftian fame, sadly), a bit player in previous Elder Scrolls titles, has decided he’s tired of blowing up his own world, and has turned his focus to blowing up the land of the living, starting with Cyrodiil, the land in which you live. To that end, he’s put out a hit on the Emperor and his family. As the Emperor watches his life crumble around him, he knows one thing: the end of his life is drawing near. But nonetheless, his escorts, the Blades, try in vain to protect his escape from the city to safety, through an old abandoned jail cell in the basement of the castle.

Which is where you come in. Imprisoned for crimes unspecified, the Emperor runs across you as he attempts to flee, and informs you that you stand to play a part in the shaping of events to come. After a few twists and turns in the plot, you find yourself with a mission, some ill-procured weaponry and armor, an amulet, and a quest. And from there… well, that’s up to you.

The actual narrative in Oblivion works very well for two reasons. First, the writing is very solid, and regardless of the quest you are undertaking, there’s always some sort of storyline to accompany it as you go to work. You’re left feeling like even the most menial task you can undertake is important somehow, and that you as a person really matter, which all helps to involve you in the game that much more. Second, you’re not restricted to the main quest, though you can complete it in about twenty hours or so… nonono, there’s a LOT more going on than that. Every town is rife with potential storyline and ways to build your fame and reputation; all you need do is look.

Does the game hold your hand through the various story elements? Not really, no. Are you forced to do everything the game asks of you? By no means. You WILL, eventually, want to complete the main quest, but there’s no real time limit to do so. Ultimately, you’ll probably find yourself undertaking all manner of quests, just to make a name for yourself, before you go out there and save the world. And unsurprisingly, this is okay, because really, any game that has SO MUCH story available, IF you want it, but allows you to ignore whatever you’re not interested in… well THAT’S a wonderful thing.

Story Rating: 10/10


2. GRAPHICS


Oblivion has been hyped up as a graphical powerhouse, and I’m happy to report that it almost absolutely fulfills this hype. The game environments themselves are, mostly, jaw-dropingly awesome. You probably won’t confuse Oblivion with any sort of real world or anything, but this is one of the most attractive and vibrant game worlds I’ve seen in motion. The game world just oozes with life, and everything from the simplest field to the largest dungeon is rendered with a distinct attention to detail. Forests are appropriately earthy, ancient ruins are ethereal and mysterious, and Oblivion itself is hellish and screams pain and suffering. Lighting effects are all pretty solid and quite likeable, though there can be times when things look TOO bright (having an HDTV alleviates this problem quite a bit, but if you’re not over-burdened with cash, you most likely do not have one of these). All told, the world is grand, and grand is the world.

Character models are equally impressive, which helps to sell the experience even more. Character models all look quite convincing, both in actual appearance and in individual design. Orcs look appropriately monstrous and menacing, Khajiit (cat creatures) look appropriately feline, and the various humanoid races look reasonably human, yet retain enough differences to make them distinguishable on sight. On first glance, many of the characters in the game appear more than a touch ugly, but as you play through the game you adjust to the appearance of the various game characters and find their plain faces more realistic and appealing. I mean, it kind of makes sense… you live in a medieval world, far from conventions like “heavy application of makeup” or “plastic surgery”, so the plain appearance of the characters is actually somewhat refreshing. And, of course, the much hyped visible aged-ness of the characters (IE characters will look like wrinkly prunes if they’re older) is surprisingly convincing and believable. Animation is also top notch, as the various animals and people move as you would expect them to. Of especially interesting note is the usage of rag-doll physics for those who cease to live. In most games, rag-doll physics tend to look pretty stupid, but in Oblivion their usage is largely scaled back, so unless you actively watch the dead tumble down a hill or you start picking the dead up and messing with them, it looks pretty presentable. And watching a slain foe go rolling down the hillside is actually pretty amusing, to be fair.

Not that there aren’t problems; there are, in fact, three notable graphical issues one may face. First, there’s draw-in. Now, I can rationally understand the need for such; the world is more or less assembled in real-time, IE Grand Theft Auto, with mild loading between sections. To keep things running smoothly, grass and other minor details aren’t drawn in until you approach closer to them. That said, it looks kind of ugly in practice, though you can deal with it. Second, there’s clipping. Now, some of the clipping isn’t readily noticeable, like when you look at walls and see the shadows of enemies through the walls for no reason. Other times, weapons, armor, and even faces will occasionally stick through doors. Again, these are isolated, but worth noting. And finally, as noted by one Mike O’Reilly, there are isolated slowdown issues when riding on horseback. I mean, you’re not constantly in Steve Austin mode (again, the bionic one, not the bald, beer-drinking one) every time you mount up, but in high-traffic areas you might experience some slowdown. These issues shouldn’t ruin your experience by any means, but sadly, the visuals aren’t QUITE perfect, which bears mentioning. Overall, though, they ARE pretty close, which is about all I can ask from first-gen software.

Graphics Rating: 9/10


3. SOUND

The soundtrack is your standard orchestral compositions, though here they’re done quite well and are very enjoyable. Music varies depending on your location, and is consistently ambient and of high quality throughout. You can, of course, listen to your own custom soundtracks while playing, but in this case I don’t recommend it… not only is the music here quite atmospheric, but musical cues kick in to advise you when enemies are trying to hunt you down. Besides, unless you’re listening to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack or something similar, you’re really not getting into the experience.

Or maybe that’s just me. Whichever.

The sound effects are also quite solid; monsters and such sound appropriately… uh… monstrous, your various fauna sound as they should, and the sounds of steel on steel are definitely well done. Some of the sounds are occasionally off (when I dropped my silver shield, it sounded like a coin to me for some reason), but this is exceedingly rare. And as far as voice acting is concerned, ninety percent of the voice acting is very good, well cast, and quite believable, and it’s a joy to listen to. However, ten percent of the voice actors either sound miscast, sound like they’re reading off of cue cards, or just don’t seem to know how to emote. Example: Agronack Gro-malung, while his voice actor is thoroughly solid in actual sound and power, does not emote properly at the disastrous turn his life takes, as he basically sounds like the whole thing bores him. Again, this is a minor complaint (I mean, there are like a billion voice actors here, c’mon now), but it does bear noting.

These issues aside, Oblivion is still an aurally pleasing experience, and it’s obvious a lot of attention was paid to making everything sound as it should. You may well have heard games that sound better, but it’s rare to find a game that sounds so complete, so consistently.

Sound Rating: 9/10


4. CONTROL/GAMEPLAY


Oblivion can best be described as a first-person action RPG. The vast majority of your gameplay experience is spent looking through the eyes of your protagonist (IE you) as you venture forth across the countryside. As such, veterans of FPS games should have the control dynamics down pat: left stick moves, right stick looks around, right trigger performs your primary attack. You can block with the left trigger, though the success of this action depends largely on the type of item equipped; shields block better than two-handed broadswords, for obvious reasons. You can cast magic with the right bumper, and various spells can be hot-keyed to the D-Pad, so you can have whatever you need in seconds. You can also hot-key your weapons, so if you want, you can switch between your sword and bow, for instance, on the fly. Your “action” button, jump command, and inventory/status/quest/etc menu are all mapped to the face buttons, as you’ll most likely spend less time using these functions than, say, stabbing monsters in the face. You can also switch to a third person view if such a thing interests you. Everything becomes second nature within your first hour of play, as everything you can do tends to be fairly simple to execute. Most of the dynamics of negotiating the world amount largely to exploration and killing, so you most likely won’t find yourself, say, having to execute complex jumping puzzles terribly often (thank god), thus focusing on the game’s strong points and leading to a more enjoyable experience.

Aside from the vast unknown, of course, there are also towns and settlements to trek through, and numerous people with which you can converse. Each and every last one of your various townsfolk has their own lives, with schedules to maintain, places to go, and people to see. Sometimes, they will be where you’d expect; others, they might be off at the bar or sneaking around in a garden or something equally diverting. This might seem inconvenient, but you can simply elapse time at the press of a couple of buttons, so even if someone’s not where you expect them to be, you can fast-forward to get them there when needed. Aside from your standard chit-chatting with people and bartering for goods, you can also chat people up via a Speechcraft mini-game where you choose general categories of things to say, and watch the results. This can help you in your negotiations with shopkeepers, but can also open up new quests and conversation options with NPC’s, much like chatting up people does in real life (although it’s far more easy in Oblivion, for obvious reasons).

Traveling around the world is also a hell of a lot easier than it was in Morrowind this go round. Aside from the standard “walk everywhere” dynamic found in Morrowind, you’re also offered the option of riding horseback to and from your various locations. This doesn’t do anything for your Athletics skill, sadly, but it’s better than walking every freaking where. In addition, you’re also offered the option of “fast travel”, which basically instantly drops you at your desired location at the simple press of a button. You sacrifice discovering any hidden areas that are en route, of course, and you can’t fast travel to locations you’ve never visited, but it’s still an awesome addition for simplicity’s sake. And if nothing else, those who were tired of walking half an hour to and from towns and dungeons in Morrowind have a reason to give Oblivion a second chance.


But the real meat of the game comes simply from exploring the world and doing things, and in that regard, players should find tons to do. Whether you’re descending into the deepest dungeon, traversing a hellish Oblivion plane, performing a task in service to your guild, picking locks (which is actually mini-game based, in a mini-game that is surprisingly logical and pretty fun, I thought) or what have you, there’s always something to do almost all of the time. You’ll find that plenty of people have quests they cannot complete for one reason or another, and if you’re interested in undertaking their quest, hey, more power to you. And hey, even if you’re not the questing type, there’s still plenty for you to accomplish. With the exception of anything romantically inclined (dating and the events that transpire following such, IE Fable), you can pretty much do whatever you damn well please, so long as you can accept the consequences. And hey, if you have the gold, murdering half the town and paying your fines after the fact is A-OK by the city officials.

Oh, did I mention you can become a vampire? Because you can. Nope, sorry, not going to make the obvious joke about you know who, let someone else do that. Anyway, you can also cure yourself of vampirism if you so desire, but it’s really up to you. The fact that such a thing exists, and is actually really well developed to boot (you receive special powers the longer you go without feeding, at the cost of your human appearance), is surprising, considering how it changes the whole play dynamic.

The various game systems are also very easy to work with, not just in the gameplay department, but also in character creation aspects. You can customize your character’s race, appearance, and sex from the get-go, and the various options are all simple to work with and complimentary to one another. Once you get going, you can dictate various other aspects of your character’s personality, from their birth sign (each with different benefits/deficiencies) to their job class, either a pre-set one or one you create yourself. Building your own job class is highly satisfying; not only does it mean you’re the only person who does what you do (in theory), but it’s an interesting way to keep the role-playing dynamics strong. I mean, hey, which is more interesting: when “Ringo the Knight” comes to town, or when “Drak the One-Man Army” rides into your camp? Thought so. Anyway, building your own job is pretty easy, too: you pick some governing stats (strength, endurance, you know the drill), then choose what skills you’d like to be associated with said job. So, for instance, your job can be associated with clubs, light armor and spellcasting, or blades, heavy armor, and athletic abilities. Want to blow enemies away with your awesome spell-casting? Go for it. Want to use stealth and ranged weapons to get the job done? You can play that way, and the game allows you to arrange your character just so as well. Indeed, building your character as you desire is almost as fun as taking them out into the world to slay all of its inhabitants.

Soooo… what’s wrong? Wellll… one of the many dynamics of the game is the ability to steal stuff. Basically, you press A in front of anything that isn’t yours, be it a door, a chest, a horse, or a loaf of bread, your character will attempt to acquire it illegally. If you watch the screen, a red icon will appear over things that are not yours, and if you crouch to enter “stealth mode”, you’ll know if anyone can SEE you performing this horrible act. This is fine. However, if you’re, say, trying to talk to someone and highlight one of said items which is not yours on accident as you attempt to speak with them… well, it’s off to jail for you, unless you pay the fine (which still transports you off to prison most of the time) or run like hell. This is a touch annoying, and perhaps moving “Steal” to a button that isn’t constantly used might have been a better choice. Gameplay can chug slightly when zones are loading, which mainly occurs when outdoors, so it’s not crippling, but it can be annoying.

I’m also kind of wondering where the spears are. Swords, axes, staves, maces, all accounted for… no spears. The idea of a stick with a knife on the end of it is hardly a new concept, so I’m kind of disappointed with this. And what about crossbows? They’re hardly an obscure concept in the grand scheme of things. I mean, yeah, okay, there are plenty of weapons not included in the world of Oblivion (spiked maces, chain knives, the Shaolin spade… what?), but one would think spears and crossbows are a touch more universal. On the other hand, Bethesda has stated they want to release all sorts of goodies in Live downloads, so maybe we’ll see this sort of thing before too long.

On the overall, minor technical issues (and my personal whining) aside, Oblivion plays smooth as silk, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. There’s a ton of depth to the experience, the gameplay is solid and responsive, and running up on a bandit while screaming “I SHALL BRAIN THEE!” never really gets old. Yes, I do this, it’s my house, I’ll do what I want. Anyway, bottom line: if you can’t find SOME kind of fun here, then feel free to enjoy your stamp collecting or whatever.

Control/Gameplay Rating: 9/10


5. REPLAYABILITY

Multiple different races, astrological signs, job classes and specialties make this a game you could play multiple times without repeating anything. And hey, if you get tired of the job classes as they are, build your own! You most likely won’t find every single thing the first time you play through, and even if you somehow DO manage to do so, finding it again should prove to be quite a bit of fun. Oblivion offers a deep, involved, open-ended experience few games can truly match, and after you’ve beaten the game once and put it on the shelf, it won’t be long before you find yourself jonesing for a dungeon to hack through. That it can remain fresh and different on multiple playthroughs only adds to the desire to play everything again.

Replayability Rating: 10/10


6. BALANCE

Enemies are scaled to your level, so each area will offer up the same challenge no matter when you choose to play it. As you level up, so to do enemies, so you’re never left entering low level dungeons, as no such thing really exists. And hey, right in the options menu there’s a difficulty slider bar that you can adjust at ANY time, so you can make the game easier or harder in seconds. I can’t say it any plainer than that: this is quite possibly one of the single most balanced games you will ever play, not only because the game rises to meet your skill, but also because you can, at any time, change the experience to meet your demands. THAT’S balanced gameplay.

Balance Rating: 10/10


7. ORIGINALITY


Uhhh… well…. not exactly…

Well, it’s the fourth in the Elder Scrolls series, and in most respects it’s a very similar experience to Morrowind. That the environments are different, and that Oblivion fixes many of the problems Morrowind suffered from, does not change the fact that Oblivion and Morrowind are very similar experiences. Oblivion does a lot to make what it does its own, and it all mostly works, but you’re ultimately left with something of a feeling of deja-vu if you’ve spent time with both titles.

Also, as a game set in the “fantasy” category, it’s hard to do a lot to distinguish yourself from other titles in the same category. Oblivion seeks to make distinctions and forge its own path, by inventing new names for established creature concepts (the Daedra) and by re-inventing established concepts under old names (Trolls as moldy-looking apes), but much of the game ends up being reminiscent of other games by proxy. Looking at Oblivion portals might make you stop and go “hey, Diablo”, and the game intro kind of sort of screams Lord of the Rings in scope and presentation. Ultimately, none of this is going to ruin your enjoyment by any means, and most of the game elements have enough done to them to make them different from their predecessors, but what you’ve being given ultimately isn’t a wholly original experience. Does that matter? In this case, not really, but it does bear noting.

Originality Rating: 7/10


8. ADDICTIVENESS

I’m sitting here, writing this, and no offense, but I’d rather be playing Oblivion than telling you why you should be playing it. Walking around the countryside, finding new dungeons to explore and de-populate, talking to people in town to find new things to see and do, finding new equipment as you become stronger, all of it contributes to a highly addicting experience. There’s a ton of different things to do, a ton of different dungeons, caves, ruins, and hellish Oblivion worlds to see, and a pretty large amount of weapons, armor, spells, and other things to find and use. The sheer volume of quests and tasks alone make the game heavily addictive, especially when you ultimately realize that, no matter what else goes on, it’s all about you, baby.

Addictiveness Rating: 10/10


9. APPEAL FACTOR

On one hand… fans of the “traditional” RPG might not like the lack of hand-holding narrative and fully dictated objectives, strange as that sounds. Being given full freedom and the ability to basically do whatever floats your boat might be too much for some, especially those that are used to the sorts of games that cater to storyline advancement over actual role-playing. And, of course, Oblivion is ultimately an RPG at its core, which might put some off.

That said…

Oblivion is probably the single greatest game experience presently available for the 360 at this point, and if you own a 360, you pretty much NEED to own Oblivion. The sheer amount of hype behind it has probably convinced gamers who would otherwise not cast a second glance at an Elder Scrolls title to plunk down their cash. And frankly, it’s one of the LEAST disappointing high-profile titles released in years, so more than a few people will most likely end up owning it simply by word of mouth. Not everyone is going to dig the theme, the setting, or the RPG elements, but pretty much everyone should be able to appreciate cleaving a bandit in the face with a two-handed katana. At the end of the day, that’s what makes the game universal: first-person breaking stuff.

Appeal Rating: 9/10


10. MISCELLANEOUS


I love this game.

There. I said it. I feel better.

I wasn’t too terribly much of a fan of Morrowind, to be honest. Walking everywhere combined with what I felt were obscene loading times basically killed whatever enjoyment I could get out of the title, though I did give it the old college try. But Oblivion rectifies these issues quite well; fast travel, horseback riding, and some minor but ultimately reasonable loading times all come together to provide me a product I can more readily appreciate. That I can work outside of the game’s confines to define my own enjoyment is all the better; the game allows far more amusement when one creates a character archetype in their head and actually role-plays it out in the world. Oblivion allows for this sort of play simply by placing very minor restrictions upon the player, and as a very open-ended product, it’s one of the best I’ve ever played.

Though I do have to wonder where the chamber pots are. I mean, no, there’s no indoor plumbing to speak of, and I can get that, but no chamber pots? Come on now. Of course, if there were, I’d probably end up trying to pick one up and dump it everywhere, though if such a thing were possible, I’d probably find a way to give the game a ten out of principle, so it’s just as well.

Okay, enough of that. Let’s move on.

Is Oblivion the best game ever made? Probably not. Is it the best RPG ever made? I wouldn’t make such a claim, personally. Is it the best game on the 360? Probably, but that’s still ultimately a matter of opinion. Is this version better than the PC version? Depends on how good of a system you have, but probably not.

So, the real question is this: is Oblivion a great game? Yes. Yes, it is.

The few things that are done wrong here are things that, while they may be disappointing to some, aren’t dealbreakers by any means. The many things that are done RIGHT, however, are done very right, so much so that even people who aren’t normally RPG fans will be able to find enjoyment within the world presented to them. Very rarely does a game live up to the hype that surrounds it; in the case of Oblivion, I can safely say that the hype was justified, if not entirely exceeded. I mean hey, there are plenty of games I like/enjoy/whatever, but this is probably the only game I can point at and say, “This makes me glad I own a 360”. I can’t say it any plainer than that.

And hey, remember, these are the guys that own the Fallout license now. If they made Fallout 3 like this, I do believe I might weep tears of joy at such a game. Just saying.

Miscellaneous Rating: 10/10

The Scores:
Story: 10/10
Graphics: 9/10
Sound: 9/10
Control/Gameplay: 9/10
Replayability: 10/10
Balance: 10/10
Originality: 7/10
Addictiveness: 10/10
Appeal: 9/10
Miscellaneous: 10/10

Overall Score: 9.3/10
Final Score: 9.5 (CLASSIC!).

Short Attention Span Summary
Even if Morrowind didn’t do anything for you, Oblivion might be right up your alley. An engaging and free-form storyline, massive yet easy to travel world, in-depth character creation system, and overall well designed experience make this, easily, a must-play game. There are flaws, to be certain, but no game is truly perfect, and Oblivion comes very close to such a lofty goal in my eyes. Hell, it’s so good, it’s almost enough to make me swear off BAD games. Almost.