If you remember our preview coverage on Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, you’ll remember me saying that it was by far my most anticipated game on the horizon. Those familiar with the Elder Scrolls series will be happy to tell you how expansive the worlds are, championed by Bethesda Softworks’ mantra, “Live another life in another world.”
Well, after a short delay that caused the game to miss the holiday rush, Oblivion has descended upon us. Was it worth the wait?
An Overview of the World
First things first: Oblivion is not a sequel to Morrowind. Though it takes place in the same world of Tamriel, it is in a different province altogether and the two stories are completely unrelated. What does this mean to a player? It says that all of the same concepts that people who loved Morrowind for will still be there, but allows its own storyline so newcomers don’t feel behind getting immersed in the world.
The world of Tamriel is a big, and this particular province takes up roughly 16 square miles of in-game real estate. Unlike many games, a lot of design has gone into the geography of the terrain. It is a fairly consistent, temperate zone with mountains, forests, and an occasional grassy field. Bethesda has carefully avoided attempting to make this too much of a ‘world’ map by including unrealistic terrain transitions. It feels much more like you’re in a realistic, big ‘part’ of a much bigger world, rather than running from desert to polar ice cap within seconds. Mountains look properly looming, trees and forests realistically dense. When wandering in the wilderness, grass is even of varying length from boot-high to up past my waist, depending on slope, proximity to water, etc. In fact, this is the first game that I feel is ‘properly sized,’ so to speak, as compared to my environment. The details (as you can tell by the pictures) are amazing and immersive, though you pay for it through the graphics requirements.
The only effect that I wish could be altered a bit is the ambient light at night. Tamriel has at least two visible moons, which helps explain some of the brightness; I, however, still find myself wishing that it was just a little less bright as my thief picks a lock. Speaking of characters, let’s take a look at some of what Oblivion offers in character creation and development.
Meet Your Alter-Ego: Character Creation
It was aptly described that Oblivion is character creation that has gone wild, mutated, expanded, and then squared itself four times over. In most games, you create an “Elven Thief”. In Oblivion, you create a Wood Elf (nicknamed “Bosmers”) who is fairly good at running (though not much of a long jumper), a penchant for picking the occasional lock, who enjoys a bit of trickery and dabbles lightly in illusion, loves a good debate, and doesn’t like paying full price for anything (if he has to buy it at all).
Oh, and he has green eyes, rusty brown hair, a bit of five o’clock shadow, a slight overbite, and cheekbones that look as if he may have some High Elf blood in his past. In other words, you can control virtually every aspect of his visual appearance.
Creation of starting abilities is nicely done through a ‘tutorial’ beginning, which also starts off the main story. As you progress through the opening quest (as a prisoner who’s lucky enough to happen to be placed in the same cell as the Emperor’s escape passage), you are given the ability to just play as you feel like, and are exposed to three basic weapon types (blade, blunt, and bow) as well as scrolls of spells from different fields.
About halfway through the tutorial, you’re asked to choose a ‘class,’ so to speak, which gives you bonuses to some skills. You can go with one of their recommended ‘templates’ or completely build your own from 21 different skills. The complexity of the custom builds is well beyond the scope of this review, but there’s enough there to satisfy even the most hardcore RPG player, while the templates will nicely fit most players.
Levelling up afterwards is an ‘as you like it’ art form. You will level each time you increase major skills five times, at which point you must rest for an hour, which allows you to raise your stats (but only the ones tied to your skills, and some get extra bonus from your class). If it sounds confusing, it’s because it is almost meant to be... it’s so complex, it’s simple. Oblivion inter-twines things together well, so that things which seem to go together increase together. Basically, a person who swings a sword all day for their level (by gaining five ranks of “blade”) doesn’t get smarter in magic by doing so - but they do get more arm muscle, endurance, and a better chance to hit things.
The system is designed to take your mind off of “attaining the next level” and allows (actually, encourages) you to just go do things you like to do. Experience, at least as it exists in other RPGs, is notably absent, and you can’t number-crunch your way to a super-character. The only way to be a good character in the game is to simply play the game in the way that best suits your style. If you need to raise skills that you don’t use as much, fear not, there are trainers that let you get a quick point or three in a skill here and there… for a pretty penny, of course.
Speaking of leveling, “Power” leveling is about useless. Bethesda built the game so that monsters increase just like you, so any character of nearly any level could theoretically be at the same place in the game, completing the same quest. If you make yourself into a superman, you should prepare for some super-monsters (and cooler loot), wherever you may be.
Forging Ahead: Quests, NPCs, and a Brave New World
The world of the Elder Scrolls series is unique in several respects. First, it is entirely single player. Second, it is entirely non-linear. Third, it’s frieking huge. One of the biggest complaints in Morrowind, however, was that it was TOO huge, and it took almost 15 hours of game play to even find the main quest. It was almost so expansive that it was intimidating, and you were left with so little clue for so long that many players grew frustrated. Bethesda listened to this complaint, and in Oblivion you are introduced quickly to the main plot from the start of the tutorial section. Where you go from there, however, is completely up to you.
Side quests abound in the game. In fact, you could log a quick hundred hours of playtime into just completing them, without ever touching the main storyline (which weighs in at a hefty 30 hours on its own if you play it straight through). This is completely avoiding the very time consuming “gawk” factor, where you see things that just simply have
to be explored for their beauty, even though they have nothing to do with any part of the game. There are guilds to join, disputes to settle, problems to solve, people to save, things to steal, and (if you’re a bit on the darker side) innocents to slay. If you let your dark side out too much, you may even attract the attention of the vampires…or become one yourself.
Thanks to the game’s new “Radiant AI” engine, NPCs are more lifelike than ever before. They no longer wander aimlessly, and the cities no longer contain only a few people. Now, there are people everywhere, and they all have their own schedules, goals, and issues. The game actually keeps track of every NPC at all times, making sure they show up in the proper places at proper times. The world feels more ‘alive’ thanks to this, as people get up, go to work, go shopping, eat dinner, and other things based on real schedules. All this comes at a hefty price of CPU cycles, but hey, ’s worth it.
Did We Like It?
Sorry, dear readers, but I won’t even write much in this section…because I’m going through withdrawal at the moment and would like to get back to playing the game.
My fair warning, this game will eat your spare time (whether you had some or not) like a hungry wolf gnaws on a fresh deer. The graphical quality is bar none, and if you can handle the system specs and have even the slightest interest in a deeply involving and engrossing game, you owe it to yourself to buy this.
For our breakdown of the graphics and system options, as well as benchmarks, hit the next page.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion