Reviewed: April 10, 2006
Released: March 20, 2006
In 1994, Bethesda Softworks introduced their successful Elder Scrolls series with Arena, a first-person single-player RPG that had the character-intensive feel of an old-fashioned pen-and-paper role-playing game. Arena was followed by Daggerfall in 1996, and then Morrowind in 2002. All three games were known for their grand scope, epic story, character customizability, and, most of all, open-ended gameplay style.
Released March 21 this year, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion manages to fulfill all these expectations and more. With its beautifully-rendered graphics, fully voiced dialogue, Radiant AI system, and player-choice-oriented quests, the latest installment of the Elder Scrolls provides a more lifelike, immersive, and customizable RPG experience than ever before.
True to the form of the Elder Scrolls series games, Oblivion provides a very open-ended gaming environment that encourages you to explore, have fun, and play your character as you see fit. This central aspect of the game is emphasized from the very beginning of the game, as the player is treated to a very detailed character creation process, which, like in Morrowind, is integrated more or less seamlessly with the tutorial.
The player begins by choosing from ten playable races, each of which has its unique advantages and disadvantages. Once the character’s name, race, and gender have been chosen, his or her facial appearance, outward age, and skin tone can be customized and fine-tuned to your heart’s content using a variety of adjustable sliders. Everything from hair length and custom hair colors (yes, even purple and neon green are possible for most races) to nostril size and jaw shape can be modified. I was very impressed by this aspect of character creation; games like The Sims 2 and many MMOs have similar character customization capabilities, but Oblivion takes facial customization to a new level. There are virtually limitless combinations possible.
After choosing your character’s appearance, rather than having you choose your character’s occupation or anything else, the tutorial throws you straight into the game, introducing you to Oblivion’s main storyline (which, of course, you are free to never participate in after the initial tutorial, if you prefer). In this first segment, you are given the opportunity to experiment with various possible skills, and based on skills you favor using during the tutorial, an existing character class will be suggested to you. You can take their suggestion, choose another existing class, or even create your own. As with all the previous Elder Scrolls games, however, no matter which class you choose, all the skills will still be open for you to use and improve throughout the game.
During the tutorial, you are also invited to test drive the game’s physics engine, a feature new to the Elder Scrolls series. In Oblivion, you can interact with many objects in the game using the “grab” button, which allows you to do anything from flinging a sword across the room to dragging bodies along the ground to arranging decorative objects in your home. Sometimes, interacting with the environment is useful (such as when avoiding traps), but other times (especially because the rag doll physics on the corpses are so well done), it’s just plain fun. All joking aside, though, the physics engine really shines when you see the in-game bow and arrow in action. You may have to experience this for yourself, but the arc of the arrow is so beautifully realistic that you feel almost as if you were really pulling that bowstring.
Anyway, with the tutorial finished, you are set free in the Imperial Province of Cyrodiil and can basically do whatever you want.
For instance, Tahirah Six-toes, my nimble-footed and silver-tongued Khajiiti cat burglar, began her post-Imperial-Prison existence with a head start in a life of crime. While trading in her tutorial dungeon loot for some quick Septims in the market district of the Imperial City, she noticed the first clues—and I won’t give too much away—which, after she blithely chatted it up with the locals, eventually led her to a secret Thieves Guild meeting.
Tahirah’s skills in unearthing information and moving both quickly and silently were immediately put to the test, as she was pitted against other guild applicants in being the first to filch an item from a man’s home. Several plundered homes and broken lockpicks later, she arrived at the scene, only to discover that another contestant had already gotten there first—but Tahirah, the better thief after all, pilfered the item directly from the pilferer and won the day.
The next day, Tahirah defended an outlying farm from marauding goblins, then lightened the coffers of the local church after dinner. Half a week later, she rescued a friend from certain death by a town full of raving cultists—an experience which played out alarmingly like an X-Files episode. A few days after that, she helped the countess of Chorrol investigate the mystery of a stolen painting, pocketing valuable items from the castle as she went.
Thus began a Khajiit’s successful adventuring career, which has since only gotten more interesting, as her portfolio now includes such memorable events as infiltrating a secluded mountain monastery, running off with a noblewoman’s entire prize collection of ancient artifacts, slaying the occasional prissy vampire, and snagging the pants straight off an unsuspecting city guard. Ironically, to Tahirah’s mild confusion, she’s also been dubbed knight-errant and now brings roadside bandits to justice while earning herself some extra cash. Not a bad life for a young Khajiit.
Note that Tahirah’s is just an example of the myriad of paths your character can take in Oblivion’s world of Tamriel. For example, I have also tried playing a High Elf pirate, an Orc barbarian, and an Argonian monk. So much more is possible, and it would be a great challenge to accomplish everything Oblivion has to offer.
There are eight main cities, each with its own distinct culture, cast of characters, and available quests. More questing possibilities open up if you join one (or more) of the three guilds—Mages, Fighters, and Thieves— initially open to your character, and if you delve deeper into the game, you will find additional factions you can join and advance in.
Besides joining guilds and continuing the main quest, there is still a lot that you can do in the world of Tamriel. There are a lot of bandit caves, abandoned ruins, and backwater towns to be discovered (and perhaps pillaged). There are stores to rob, horses to steal, lives to save, shipwrecks to excavate, and houses to buy. The possibilities are just about endless.
Like the previous Elder Scrolls titles, Oblivion plays well as a standalone game, but it’s still useful to compare it to its predecessors. Gamers like me who have enjoyed this series since Arena will be happy to see that some of the endearing features from previous Elder Scrolls games—like fast travel, horses, buyable houses, the Dark Brotherhood, and greater racial diversity—have been reinstated. Some features, such as the portal and levitation spells, however, have been removed for “gameplay reasons.” (I was surprised, though; I didn’t find myself missing flight or teleportation too much, since the game was designed to work so well without those abilities.)
Perhaps most notably, however, are the numerous improvements in character interaction. NPCs now follow a Radiant AI system that guides them toward their own goals and to react realistically to the environment and one another. For instance, I have, at least on one occasion, seen the guards kill a hapless NPC who chose to steal a loaf of bread, and most NPCs will sit down and eat breakfast after waking up in the morning. Additionally, the dialogue system has been improved dramatically and now feels more natural. Instead of relying on a dialogue box, the player’s view zooms in toward the NPC and only displays dialogue options when they are necessary.
Overall, the features subtracted do not detract noticeably from the game, and Oblivion still has the familiar feel of an Elder Scrolls game while improving on a well-loved series.
The graphics in Oblivion are downright gorgeous. Bethsoft evidently took great care in making Cyrodiil a believable and breathtaking game universe; the trees were “grown” using an algorithm mimicking the growth of real forests, each city has its own architectural style influenced by its cultural environment and geography, and characters and creatures interact realistically with their surroundings.
Every environment I’ve encountered looks painstakingly crafted, from the dank crypts and ancient elven ruins to richly furnished castles and sprawling countrysides (complete with butterflies and leaping deer). Even on a three-year-old graphics card (mine is slightly below the recommended specs), the graphics render beautifully and with great detail, and the game still looks reasonably crisp at low screen resolutions.
One thing I particularly noticed was the system used for generating character appearances. As I mentioned earlier, nearly every aspect of a character’s facial appearance, including outward age and coloring, can be tweaked using a multitude of modifying sliders. As a result, just about every NPC your character encounters has a unique look, much like a real person.
Besides the minor issue of finding it a little unusual that all races (including the feline Khajiit and the reptilian Argonian) have the same upright body posture and animations, I certainly have no complaints in the graphics department.
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, there really isn’t much to complain about here, either. All of the in-game dialogue is voiced over, and the ambient environmental sounds (water dripping in caves, birds twittering, rain and thunder, et cetera) are well placed for realistic effect.
The beggar characters sometimes seem to experience split personality disorder (parts of their dialogue are voiced by the generic racial voice actors rather than the beggar voice actors), and I’ve experienced a few negligible sound glitches possibly due to my particular sound card, but not much detracts from Oblivion’s audio experience.
At the usual game software retail price of $49.99 for the regular edition, Oblivion’s open-ended nature, huge game universe, and resultant replayability mean more bang for your buck. The Collector’s Edition, retailing for ten dollars more, includes a copy of the Pocket Guide to the Empire (a little manual-sized, soft cover booklet bound in embossed faux leather and filled with illustrations and bits of Tamriellian lore), a replica of a Septim (the currency of Tamriel), and a bonus DVD disc including “The Making of Oblivion,” all encased in an attractive DVD disc folio.
As a longtime Elder Scrolls fan, I enjoyed the bonus Collector’s Edition materials, but either way, Oblivion is a decidedly worthwhile purchase for any gamer who enjoys similar computer RPGs.
Of all the games I have played in the last year, I would have to say that Oblivion is probably my favorite. With its immersive environment, stunningly beautiful graphics, nonlinear gameplay, and extremely customizable player experience, this game accomplishes more than I have expected in a game and is simply difficult to put down.
Though it’s still early in the year, Oblivion will certainly be a strong contender for RPG of the year for 2006. If you enjoy computer RPGs (and maybe even if you just enjoy good games and don’t usually enjoy RPGs) and haven’t tried this one yet, I would highly recommend that you pick it up and give it a spin.