Summary: The gates to Oblivion have opened, daedra are spilling forth from their domain and trying to destroy your world. And you must save it. No, actually, you don't have to. This is The Elder Scrolls, after all. If you'd rather become grandmaster of the Thieves Guild and ignore the world peril, you can do it - and be stylin' in the finest-looking game this year.
Like all Elder Scrolls titles, Oblivion has a vast, open environment and a game world that places very few limits on what the player can do, where he can go, and when. Want to take the top spot in the Thieves Guild? If you know how to game the game and are patient, you can do it while still being level 1. Of course, such openness and freedom has its downsides, which we’ll delve into shortly.
As an open-ended game, Oblivion starts the player out in the game world and places him in a position to pursue the main storyline, but he doesn’t have to. From that point forward, it is possible to join any guilds you like, complete quests in whatever order, explore freely and enjoy – or get lost in – the expansive game world.
Oblivion’s setting is not actually that large; roughly 16 square miles if the Bethesda marketing department is to be believed. This is almost certainly smaller than Morrowind and absolutely smaller than the massive world of Daggerfall – where it literally did take the player days to cross between towns. By way of comparison, on a medium-fast horse, it should take about half an hour to an hour to get across Cyrodiil (the province where Oblivion is set).
Despite the smaller world size, the amount of content is more impressive. Daggerfall was known for its huge world and empty wastes. While there was no shortage of dungeons in it, the probability of finding one by random exploration was minimal. Morrowind also had a fairly large world, though one where you could cross between towns on foot in reasonable time, but it too was rather empty. Oblivion goes the completely opposite tack, it is almost impossible not to stumble upon some ancient elven ruin, abandoned mine, mercenary hide-out or other dungeon, even after a mere five minutes wandering in the open. Later on, Daedric cult circles and Oblivion gates appear, the latter in fact popping up like the heads of a Hydra – take one down and two seem to appear elsewhere.
To be honest, however, we didn’t progress too far along our main quest – rather being sidelined by the Thieves Guild and Assassins Guild experience. Both provide more opportunities for sneaking, and theft, with the Assassins adding an unhealthy dose of murder and intrigue in the bargain. The setups for some quests between the two guilds are similar – the player in both instances has to involve himself with dealing with a traitor in the guild. The Thieves take a witty, Robin Hood-like approach to it. Our friendly neighborhood assassins, by contrast… well… they have a bloody solution like you might expect, but the scale of bloodshed is remarkable. Assassin missions also have a very dark sense of humor and hints of irony surrounding them. One mission in particular will be very satisfying to those who were annoyed by a certain character at the very start of the game.
The game world generally acknowledges the player’s change in status though not how he might like. After completing the Thieves Guild quests, for example, you’ll acquire a certain daedric artifact that was stolen from the daedra lord by a thief. Yet if you run into the followers of this cult and commune with the daedra himself through his statue, there’s no mention of it even if you’re wearing the item in question. Also, by joining the Assassins, the player becomes rather notorious and most characters do not like him from the get-go, just based off his reputation. You can compensate for this by playing the speech mini-game and trying to get others to like you, but it’s disappointing to see that a town you just saved from an Oblivion gate will acknowledge the fact in speech, yet still not change its actual attitudes towards you.
Of course, like with the rest of the issues with the game – it’s all the open possibilities that make this problem appear. There’s just no reasonable way to compensate for everything the player is going to do. In general however, the writing and presentation are quite good, with some moments of brilliance and others being a bit lacking, but the game definitely delivers the story well.
Where things get problematic is when you combine the skill and leveling system. Your character will choose seven major skills of twenty-one available in the game. These skills are rated on a scale of 0-100 and will increase through use – so if you want to improve your Blades skill, you need to attack enemies with swords and daggers. When the player ranks up any combination of these skills ten times (total, not each), he gains a level. The game notices this, increases the difficulty of enemies and away we go.
Here’s the problem: some skills are useless in combat, but if you make them majors they still contribute to your leveling. Worse, some of them are useless and improve quickly by themselves. Acrobatics, Athletics, Alchemy, Armorer, Speechcraft, Security are generally not useful in combat and/or increase too quickly by themselves. The end result is that yes, you’ll find better equipment in stores and on enemies, but you’ll also be fighting much tougher enemies with combat skills that are more suitable to earlier levels.
Then again, with deliberate planning and a lot of patience, it’s possible to do the complete opposite – stay a low level while enjoying very high combat skills. By taking abilities you don’t plan on using as majors, you can improve your combat minor skills and not gain a single level unless you want to. The problem is that minor skills rank up more slowly than majors and, while the game is generally open-ended, it does have quests which have a minimum level.
However, as long as you understand the system and don’t make bad choices at character generation, you should be fine. Even non-combat skills can make combat easier, and there is of course the difficulty slider. It takes a truly gimpy character to be unable to progress in Oblivion.
Morrowind had tons of text and almost all of it was repetitive, with key words being replaced here and there. Oblivion has tons of speech, and yes, much of it is repetitive but it feels much better. Characters move around the game world with a purpose – perhaps not any significant purpose but they do so anyway. They wake up, get something to eat, sit around the inn, chat meaninglessly with people, get lunch and dinner and then go to sleep. Shopkeepers go to work, farmers farm, and so on.
The interface we’re less keen on. It’s clearly designed for the 360 and has big, giant icons and text that don’t work too great on high-resolution monitors right in front of your face. Fortunately, there are mods to shrink those images and the text to show more lines of inventory. Mods will also take care of annoying “loading area…” and other routine messages that really don’t add much to the game. In fact, we wonder why it bothers mentioning it’s loading an area since we’ve never actually witnessed these load times in the outdoors when they’re announced. Crossing between the outdoors and the city, or any other gated entrance, is a different story however.
Combat works well on the PC, whether melee, archery or spellcasting. The graphics are better on the Xbox 360 version, or at least will be for most users, but the mods on the PC make us lean towards the PC as the preferred platform. The numerous fixes and customizability available to computer gamers are definitely worth the eye candy and performance trade-offs.
Oblivion isn’t completely bug-free but it’s generally very stable and performs reasonably well on a modern PC. We’d recommend a X800/6800 or better card as minimum; the 6600 series probably won’t push enough texels and Oblivion definitely puts the final nail in the coffin of the 9700 Pro/9800 Pro days. We’re not saying it won’t run, just that we’d rather not be there to witness the grand old card struggling so. We’d also recommend 2GB of memory and a processor in the 3GHz range or better – the game definitely wants a modern computer in all meanings of the word.
So open, it hurts
Oblivion starts fairly slow, if you’re not aware of what you’re supposed to be doing, how the game differs from previous titles, you may be initially disappointed. There are no giant random dungeons in Oblivion as there were in Daggerfall. The game world is not as large as either Daggerfall or Morrowind, yet it definitely has a ton of content to explore.
It’s only once you get started, understand the game, get a few levels and start doing quests that you begin to appreciate what a fine achievement Oblivion is. It is open yet not overwhelmingly so – you need not travel hours to get from town to town if you want to do it on foot, yet you can auto-travel anyway. The game world is ridiculously packed with ruins, forts, dungeons and other content just waiting to be discovered – so much so that it requires active suspension of disbelief to imagine that there could be so much in such a relatively small space.
The main quest is satisfyingly epic and the guild quests are detailed and generally get better and better as you progress along their mini-storylines. This creates the pressure to get better at those key skills needed for the guild quests too, especially in the Thieves and Assassin’s guilds where sneak, security and a weapon skill are so vital.
Oblivion has been a long time coming and it finally delivers what Daggerfall and Morrowind hinted at. There’s certainly room for improvement, we could in fact stand to enjoy some randomly generated quests like in Daggerfall and a bigger game world, but Oblivion is as close to free-form RPG perfection as you can get nowadays.
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