Friday, March 31, 2006
Good: Incredible visuals, Radiant AI for NPCs, vast amount of playtime, excellent voice acting
Bad: Enemies in dungeons/quests always scale to your character's level, combat can seem a bit lacking
Videogame worlds more beautiful than Oblivion's Tamriel: Zero
As one of the games originally touted as an Xbox 360 launch title and the fourth game in the highly-touted Elder Scrolls series, Oblivion is a title that has been hyped and anticipated like few other titles. As the follow-up to Morrowind and recipient of numerous Game of the Year awards, Bethesda Software truly had a tough act to follow when developing Oblivion. Thankfully, Oblivion surpasses its predecessors and manages to weave together a fantasy world that is not only completely believable in beauty and majesty, but also in the way that the characters that inhabit that world "live" thanks to Bethesda's amazing Radiant AI system.
While there is an almost unending list of quests to do and places to explore in the world of Oblivion, the main quest of the game is very well laid-out and just by itself will take you around 35-40 hours to complete. The story for Oblivion is set up around the world of Tamriel, the setting for all of the Elder Scrolls games, and this in particular is set around the province of Cyrodiil, the main province of the Septim Empire. The story starts out when the Emperor Uriel Septim VII is killed by an unknown force, along with his three sons, and he charges you with the task of finding his fourth son, which no one knows of except for him and his closest bodyguards, the Blades.
This normally would not be that big of a problem, except for the fact that if no member of the Septim bloodline is on the throne, then the gates of Oblivion (the world of Tamriel's version of Hell) will open and spew forth demons and such until the world is destroyed. The main quest of the game basically tasks you with finding Uriel Septim's lost heir, keeping him safe, and shaping him into the man who will hopefully become Emperor; thus stopping the invasion into Tamriel from Oblivion.
Now with most RPGs, that main quest alone would be enough to just ship out and call a full game on its own, but not with Oblivion. Not only can you deal with the main quest line, but you can also join any of the four different guilds that are located in Tamriel: The Fighters' Guild, Mages' Guild, Thieves' Guild, and The Dark Brotherhood. All of these factions have quest lines of their own that will have you searching and fighting all across Cyrodiil in an effort to climb the ranks of the guild until you basically become the head of any (or all) guilds.
And the quests don't stop there.
You can also listen in and talk to any of Cyrodiil's citizens and find out more about quests through rumors and then take those on as well. Along with all of these quests and missions you can take on yourself to supplement your income in the world, or to just strengthen your character as you go, there are also well over 100 different caves/mines/Ayleid Ruins that you can simply go in, take out all of the inhabitants and take the spoils.
So yeah, this game has the potential to be huger than huge. None of this would amount to much unless you had great gameplay to build those around. Fortunately for everyone, Oblivion delivers in spades.
One of the biggest complaints people had with Morrowind was that the combat system just was not very convincing. The combat was all based on dice-rolls with a first-person viewpoint and because of this, sometimes even when it looked like you were hitting an opponent; the character was actually just whiffing at air. Thankfully, Bethesda listened to their fans and detractors and Oblivion's fighting system is much more satisfying than Morrowind's in most respects, but it also leaves a bit to be desired.
Unlike Morrowind, in Oblivion whenever you swing your sword, fire off a spell, or shoot an arrow at an enemy or any other character in the game, it will hit, as long as the attack actually makes contact with that enemy. This system gives you more instant gratification with your attacks and it is much less frustrating than the combat in previous Elder Scrolls games. However, even though the combat is in real-time, it still feels like it is not quite as robust as something as say, Fable. This is basically the crux on which many [probably more casual] players will decide whether or not they will truly get engrossed in the world of Oblivion.
Oblivion features a character-building system that puts Tiger Woods to shame, but you also can completely customize your character's skills, star symbol and class based on presets, or you can come up with your own. The way you want to play the game is truly up to the player and really adds to the replay value of Oblivion.
As you play through the game, your character levels up in skills as you use those skills. So for example, if you want your blade skill to increase, just keep fighting enemies with your sword. You can play once through as a total fighter that specializes in swords and heavy armor so you can just beat down every enemy you face and then create another character that is a mix between a thief and a battlemage, and completely sneak your way through tight situations. This customization is one of Oblivion's greatest strengths.
Oblivion is one of the best-looking titles ever made. The world of Tamriel is, for lack of a better word, stunning. It is completely seamless, save for brief loading screens (if you have the Xbox 360 Hard Drive, they are slightly longer without) and the world does go forward in real-time, albeit sped up. So an hour of actual play time rounds out at about one day in the world of Tamriel. You can actually sit outside on a hilltop and watch the sunrise or sunset and just gawk at how incredible it looks. The hills, mountains, caves, plains, ruins, and just about every part of Cyrodiil comes together to create an incredible fantasy world that has different regions that are all blended together to make travel seem like you are actually traveling between different ecosystems and climates, as well as giving you a sense of size and scope into just how large the province of Cyrodiil really is.
All of the various flora and fauna that you find in the wilderness is usable in some form or another if you decide to take up alchemy, or even if you do not. Your character can harvest seeds from flowers, pick berries, all kinds of different actions with the different plants that are scattered across the world.
Even all of the cities have their own unique decor and architecture to them. So even without the climate differences, you'd know exactly which town you were in, based on the architecture style, which is a rare quality.
The characters that inhabit the world are also quite astonishing. Throughout the game, I did not run across a single NPC that looked like another and with the character creation system the game has for players, I can only assume that I would never run into any character that looked like another, just because there are so many different possibilities. The lip-synching for all of the NPCs is also some of the best that I have ever seen in a videogame in which everyone has spoken dialogue. Oblivion definitely raises the bar for character interaction as well as overall graphics and style.
The characters are all governed by Bethesda's "Radiant AI system." It gives each NPC, which includes townspeople, enemies, and wild animals, a set of goals to achieve during their day. Most go to work all day, some just wake up and decide to drink and others have more suspicious behaviors that can lead you to new adventures and treasures if you pay attention to them. Radiant is something that most players will not notice at first, but if a player decides to start having a bit of fun with the townspeople in the world, it becomes very evident.
If you decide to start stealing from a character and he wants to get food, he may, based on his disposition, try to steal it since he does not have enough money to honestly buy the food he wants. Or, if a character is being annoyed by something and all he wants to do is sleep, he will try many ways to get rid of the annoyance, just so he can get some shut-eye. The schedules that Radiant produces for all of the NPCs in the game is quite amazing and it factors into many of the quests that you'll have to finish throughout the game. Sometimes you might have to find out when the best time to steal an item from a character is, so you can case him for a day, find out when he goes home from his job, and then go in the next night while he's at home, and clean the place out.
The score for the game is simply amazing. Oblivion has tranquil, soothing music whenever the character is traversing the world of Tamriel and engaging, exciting pieces whenever you are in conflict with an enemy. The music of Oblivion really helps to pull the player in to the exquisite beauty of the world and accentuates the different moods expressed by situations and surroundings throughout the game. The soundtrack alone is not what makes Oblivion such a treat for the ears, however.
Oblivion has an incredible voiceover cast that does such a great job for all of the dialogue that is in the game. The first time you hear Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation) as the Emperor, most players will just simply sit in awe of the great voice-over he delivers as a man who realizes his end is near and what that means for his country. Also, Sean Bean (Ronin, Lord of the Rings Trilogy) voices Martin, the Emperor's illegitimate son and heir to the throne and Terrance Stamp (The Limey) provides the voice for the game's antagonist, Mehrunes Dagon. While those are some big names and they all deliver their lines incredibly well, the supporting cast of voice-over actors do a great job with what they have.
One of the only real complaints I have with Oblivion is the difficulty level. While it can be scaled, the difficulty pretty much remains the same, for the most part, as all enemies in the game level as the main character does. So if you decide to take a quest on at level 2, you will fight different enemies, or at least the same enemies with different skills, than you would if you were trying the same quest at level 14. This also hinders a sense of accomplishment that you might find from being able to decimate enemies you fought early on in the game that seemed tough beforehand.
Other than those minor quibbles, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is the defining RPG for the Xbox 360. If you have a 360 and even a remote interest in RPGs, you simply must play Oblivion. Between the engaging combat and the sheer size and scope of the game, players will be ensnared by its charm and beauty for weeks, if not months. Oblivion is one of the best RPGs to come out in years on any system, and one that will definitely have gamers enthralled for quite a while.
First Play: B+
Last Play: A-
Overall: 94% A