If you’re a PC gamer and you haven’t heard of Oblivion, you may perhaps want to come out from under your box at some point in the near future. Wait, that’s a little unfair. If you’re a PC gamer and you haven’t heard of the Elder Scrolls games, you definitely need to come out from under your box as soon as possible. Something of a hallowed name, the series has romped gaily through Arena, Daggerfall and Morrowind, along with perhaps best-forgotten side trips through Battlespire and Redguard, and now rests firmly in Oblivion. Hugely anticipated by fans for the very free sandbox theme and the enormous world space for the player to wander around, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was a success story before it was even released. Backup from an astonishingly powerful graphics engine and major-name voice actors could do little else but elevate it further. Any attempt to describe the recent rise in fame started by Morrowind and further buoyed by Oblivion quickly becomes an exercise in hubris.
But is it any good? The reader could be forgiven for thinking this is a foregone conclusion; millions of PC gamers couldn’t be wrong, after all. How, then, about millions of XBox gamers, for whose console the game was concurrently released amidst tearful cries of ‘dumbing-down’ the system for their benefit? How about the waves of Morrowind modders who, as their game dwindled in the wake of the sequel, started trying to move their work across to it? How about those people who, when faced with another Elder Scrolls game after multiple expansions that were essentially slightly different sandboxes with the same rules, started to get tired of it all? And most importantly, being good is one thing but is it any fun?
The plot of Oblivion begins in classic Elder Scrolls style from long ago in the days of yore: here’s your character, says the game, locked in jail. Now, let’s let them out via improbable circumstances. In Daggerfall, a shipwreck; in Morrowind, a surprise pardon. In Oblivion, Patrick Stewart having deja vu at you. It may be a new twist on the tale but repeatedly feels like something of a cop-out, especially for players who prefer to be law-abiding and certainly in Oblivion’s case, where the setting primarily dwells around the Imperial City. In such an important population centre, it makes little to no sense for the character to have no contacts and no history. This is something of a problem with the main plot of the game as a whole, in fact. Your character will never exactly progress far beyond the role of ‘random helpful adventurer #350.’ Compounded by the lack of effective dialogue options – harkening back to the days of Ultima, such options include gems similar to ‘Name’, ‘Job’, and ‘Gimme Fetch Quest’ – any suitably-motivated character may wish to abandon the primary quest in favour of looting, pillaging, or plain and simple megalomaniacal power building.
Fortunately, Oblivion can cater for this taste. The introduction involves a foray down a secret passage, through some old ruins and caves and, more notably, the death of the emperor and his tasking you with a bit of delivery. Once the player is spat out into the bright sunshine of the outside world, if they so wish, that plot can all be safely set aside “Over There” and the world made yours to do as you wish with it. Again standard for the series, the various Guilds, Fighter, Mage, Thief, and so on, are there to advance through for more props and power. If that doesn’t impress, a budding adventurer can go turf up random villagers who need help with things, or perhaps become a landowner. If even that fails to grab a player’s attention there’s nothing to stop them wandering into any of the game’s many caves, ruins, and other such hidey-holes and beating on things until they stop moving. If by some stretch even that seems like too much work, there’s always the option to sit at home brewing potions to sell for imaginary cash.
There is, to say the least, a lot to do, but only if you like it that way. Certainly, it’s possible, perhaps even advisable, to burn through the main quest in a matter of hours, freeing the land, defeating the bad guy and all that. This is only the tip of the iceberg, though: a measly dozen or so dungeons in a wide ranging country that can take literally hours to run your virtual avatar across. A ‘full’ play of the game, all of the sidequests and major plot threads, will set even a decent player well back into the double or triple digit hours. That isn’t even vaguely accounting for the myriad of locations that are simply there to be explored through.
Furthering all of this time consuming volume is the extensibility and scope for modding within the game, a feature only available to the PC crowd. If you happen to be so inclined, there exists a wealth of tools to tinker and toy with the various data; add this, modify that, take away the other thing. Of course, many of us gamers either don’t have the time, patience, or ability for that, and thankfully there’s a deluge of websites out there to collect together the work of far more competent people to bolt onto your own copy.
And not to be foreboding, but you may need it. The critical problem of the game, sitting right at the core of Oblivion (so to speak; it’s less hellish than it sounds) is that the gameplay and overall list of things to do is deceptively simple. For all of the massive collection of quests, they all ultimately boil down to one single fetch quest repeated many times over. There’s no real way to ‘fail’ any quests in the game. Every single one involves, at heart, going to a specified location, finding or killing something there, and returning for your reward. Sometimes you might need to be sneaky to do the best you can, but it’s not a requirement. Sometimes you might need to worm some information out of someone, but the diplomacy ‘mini game’ is so terribly asinine and easy that actually getting the information is a non-issue. Even if you should fail at that, you can simply throw money at the NPC until they succumb.
There are moments of scintillating brilliance; one particularly pleasant set of quests involves killing people in a specified manner, the pinnacle of which being waiting for an elderly man to sit at his fire to read and then dropping his prized moose head onto him. Popping into the region the game is named for and trawling through the lava-filled fields of hell is nerve-wracking and tense. Moments like this are few and far between, unfortunately, and the veneer can and will wear off over time. This is not to say that Oblivion has bad or unsatisfying gameplay, and on the contrary it is a very pleasant romp through an extremely large section of countryside; rather, it could have used something to break up the standard flow of play. Wry readers may take pleasure in the thought that including the most mundane of tasks – farming, say, or fishing or crafting – may potentially have gone a long way in breaking up this monotony.
Fortunately, while you’re doing all this saving the world nonsense, you will at least get to look good doing it. There is a reason that Oblivion is the game of choice to stress-test graphics cards; no matter what your PC can handle, there will be a detail setting that will push it and then some. The overall result of this is stunning and glorious: lush bright hills and forests, far off vistas and horizons with none of the fogging you often get in this sort of game. Climb to the top of a mountain and look down; an extremely decent zoomed-out approximation of the map will appear below you, allowing you to see towns, spires and other such landmarks quite clearly. People are animated and their clothes are sharply modeled. As a bonus, upon death most characters will bounce around limply like a mildly demented rag doll, tumbling gaily down hills and stairs and if you’re lucky getting stuck in walls. Great fun.
There’s simply no way to fault a graphical system this complete beyond niggles and minor doubts, and even then any such problem areas can be neutered by either lowering the settings or turning them off completely. The standard next-generation love of bloom is there in two flavours, bloom or HDR, but either may be turned off. If fully reflective water is disorienting you during play, that can be removed. The minimum requirements for the system, which may have seemed insurmountable at time of release, have been overcome enormously by contemporary technology.
If there is anything at all that can be said, it is that the realism of the game, particularly in the character models and faces, may get too much for a player just looking for some harmless escapism. Crafting your character and trying to create a face for them is a process fraught with dozens of slider bars for every aspect of facial design, and accidentally taking one too far can ruin a lot of work as the player desperately tries to step back through the process. It is very difficult to enter the game and instantly be able to select a face that is simply handsome or beautiful – expect instead bags under the eyes, unpleasant blotches of blusher, strange skin tones and the like. Fortunately we are again saved by the modding community, which allows those members who are far better with a slider than the average gamer to paste up their homegrown features for download.
It is interesting to note that the game’s major failing is in the sound department and that this failing causes several knock-on effects in the realm of gameplay. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the vast majority of sounds in the game; while not particularly engrossing or amazing, all of the standard wilderness ambience or lilting town music is in attendance. Where there is a problem is in the game’s decision to have every single line of dialogue be spoken.
On the surface, this is a great idea; no silent NPCs, none of the suspension of disbelief that comes with having to pretend the person you’re talking to isn’t actually mute. As stated, some very major names were hired and set to work and produced a lot of silken-voiced dialogue samples. In all fairness, this does wholly enrich the game… for the first few hours. After that time, you’ll notice the problem: there are simply too many NPCs in a world as big as an Elder Scrolls game for this system to work. We do not have a full vocal set for each NPC; instead, we have maybe three or four sets of voice per race, repeated over and over with only minor concessions for those characters that have unique lines.
It gets worse thanks to the generic keyword system of dialogue. The player can ask most people in Oblivion ‘questions’ from a list of keywords. On average, your general NPC will have five or six queries available beyond any unique ones, all of which will reference these voice sets. It is truly jarring to listen to a beggar tremble and strain out a request for alms, and then the next moment have them sound hale, hearty, and occasionally completely different as they tell you about the local goings on. The overall effect is that the suspension of disbelief, the sense of luxury that comes from fully voicing the game is lost amidst this almost lackadaisical shortcutting.
Here too lies the reason that your character will quickly seem dull and cookie-cutter: in a game which has been fully-voiced, your avatar cannot as much as vocalise beyond grunts and barely do more than pick out keywords. There’s no drive or characterization behind the main character and the long-practiced RPG art of supplying your own lines in your head seems much harder when you are the only one missing out.
The sound also, by virtue of the conversations you’ll overhear as you trudge around town, serves to point out the major error in the artificial intelligence underlying the townspeople’s actions. The Radiant AI system was touted as revolutionary; a full and complex system to elevate your gameplay and really make the world seem real. Instead, it makes the game world pleasingly scatterbrained and more than a little moronic. There is a perverse pleasure in waiting around at dinnertime at a pub and, as the clock strikes 8p.m., watching all of the NPCs simultaneously cram for the door. Similarly a particularly enterprising character can, via a series of pickpocketing attempts, incite one guard to attack another. If particularly lucky this can escalate to all-out war on the streets of the Imperial City.
While highly amusing, it speaks volumes about the difficulty of making a good AI system. Unfortunately, Oblivion isn’t nearly up to the mark. Even walking around town can point out how banal the ‘thinking for themselves’ algorithms are. You’ll frequently overhear conversations that, far from being a particularly sensible narration, are merely two NPCs parroting back and forth. Add onto this repetition the same old voices you keep hearing time and time again, and you might realize that Oblivion can feel like a very long haul indeed.
Ultimately, however, all of these niggles and minor irritations are exactly that. Oblivion is a fine dungeon romp that, if you don’t mind it getting a little repetitive later on and concentrating on figures and finery than an overly thought-provoking plotline, will stand you in good stead for weeks and months to come. It’s absolutely stunning to watch, massively extensible, and really very engrossing. Even if you never complete it, a fair possibility given the sheer size of the thing, it is effortlessly easy to at least extract your money’s worth. Do yourself a favor, if you haven’t gotten a hold of this and you’re at all into PC RPGing, it’s a necessity buy.