Oblivion is the sequel to Morrowind, and is the fourth game in The Elder Scrolls series. It is based on a rich world with a massive backstory, there’s even constellations and unique fauna in this world. In Oblivion, you choose your own path, your own abilities, your own enjoyment. There’s no shortage of things you can do, and due to the open nature of the game, you’re welcome to try to be the good guy or the bad guy, or a little in between.
Combat, unlike in Morrowind, is visceral and frenetic. Blows connect, tendons scream when your blow glances off a shield, and if that wasn’t enough, your enemy will taunt you if he feels confident he’s going to best you. Magic combat is rich and varied, there’s nothing more gratifying than seeing an enemy go down in a flurry of flames, or keel over after being frozen to death from a frost spell. A particular foe giving you a hard time? Bring out a shield spell, suck out his fatigue, even push him over the edge of a cliff if you have to. The options you have in any given fight are near limitless, only limited by your own imagination. Intelligence plays a factor with fights in Oblivion.
One of the strengths of Oblivion is the so-called “Radiant AI”. It’s supposed to be a form of artificial intelligence that breathes new life into non-player characters. It’s no simple technical buzzword, it’s the real deal. I could spend hours recounting some of the neat experiences I’ve had in the game, and others who have played Oblivion long enough could too. Here’s a couple of examples, though.
While riding on horseback down a mountainside, I spotted a deer standing over a dead body. My first reaction was, “What the … a deer killed a bandit?” As I approached, I went into Sherlock Holmes mode. The deer ran off, and the bandit had two arrows in him, one on his chest and one on the side of his leg. I walk around, and see another dead body; another bandit. This one with no arrows in him. I move down further, and see a dead Imperial Guard. Aha, so that’s what happened. Suddenly I hear a voice behind me, and I spun around to see another Imperial Guard, this one a marksman, which explains the arrows in one of the bandits. There was also a dead deer nearby, I’m assuming it got caught in the crossfire.
Another incident involved a robber approached me shortly outside the gates of a village. The Imperial Guard nearby rushed to my aid, and started fighting the bandit. Another bandit saw his buddy getting beat up on, and joined the fray. The second Imperial Guard guarding the gate joined. So there was 4 guys fighting, plus me. I took a nasty hit, and rushed back to drink down a healing potion. Right when I was about to reenter the pound-a-thon, a blistering lightning storm obliterates all four combatants in a blink of an eye. I swing around, and see a battlemage in full heavy armor gear sitting there, smugly inspecting his handiwork. Suddenly he runs off, at an almost superhuman speed. I was lucky enough to survive to share the tale at the local tavern (while drunk, of course.)
One aspect of fighting is the ragdoll physics, utilized by the Havok physics engine. It’s nothing special, but it never fails to amuse to see an enemy die and roll down a mountainside or keel over a barrel. Even their shield and weapon will go flying. I knocked a wolf down a slight incline and it went rolling downhill like a Slinky on steroids. Physics also play a role in traps, and you’ll learn to swear under your breath everytime it happens, unless you’re better at spotting traps than I am. Let’s just say they do make dungeon crawls a lot more interesting.
Speaking of dungeons; they’re an absolute blast to scavenge. Unlike in Morrowind, where they were all similar, and quite boring, each dungeon in Oblivion are unique and exciting. The traps are one element that adds a challenge to a dungeon crawl, but also the combat and smart enemies add whole new dimensions to these dungeons. You’ll find yourself eschewing Fast Travel, and hopping on your horse, just to discover new dungeons and plunder the riches you find within. Due to this, Oblivion has become that much better as a game.
It doesn’t end there either. There’s a gladiatorial combat part of the game, where you visit the Arena and sign up as a fight. Then you can become like Russel Crowe and fight battle after battle against other gladiators. Each fight progressively gets tougher, and the gold rewards grow. If Bethesda packaged this part of the game exclusively, and charged $30 for it, I would be all over it. But because it’s part of a game that has so much more to it, it just makes Oblivion even more fun.
Quests occur naturally, and they aren’t your generic quests, each one has a personality to them, a purpose, and an incentive to complete them. When you talk to others in the game, they may give you a quest, and sometimes you don’t even have to accept or deny it, you can just follow your own lead.
Joining one of the many guilds can give you even more quests. Fighters Guild will give you combat-heavy quest, while the Mages Guild will let you flaunt and utilize your magical abilities. The Thieves Guild gives you ways to buy lockpicks, sell your stolen wares (honest merchants won’t buy hot items), and do sneaky jobs; stealing and sneaking around. There’s also the Blades, the bodyguards to the Emperor; think of them as the Secret Service, they’re specialized and deadly. Finally, if you’re the murdering and assassination type, the Dark Brotherhood will seek you out and give you some nefarious deeds to accomplish.
Travel takes place either on horseback, by running, or using the Fast Travel system. Fast Travel is simply clicking on a marker on the map. All major cities are accessible right at the start of the game, but small villages, caves, and other locations have to be visited first before you can Fast Travel to there. Exploration is encouraged however, and doing it on horseback is great. You may get lucky and snag a rare Unicorn out in the wild. Stolen horses leave you once you dismount, so it’s recommended to actually own one, so you’ll always have a horse on you.
Touching on the graphics in Oblivion is a daunting task. Most who have seen the screenshots have been drooling over its cutting-edge style. Bright, vibrant colors outside, and dark and creepy in dungeons. Lighting and shadows in Oblivion have to be seen to be believed. While facial animation could be better on characters you talk to, the lip syncing is spot on. The water effect isn’t anything to write home about, however, although it does an amazing job of reflecting objects like trees and rocks. Each town has its own distinctive style, with differing architecture and materials used.
The trees are realistic and stunning, swaying in the wind and even filtering out the sunlight appropriately using the excellent HDR technology. The grass are plentiful, and they look gorgeous, especially as they sway in the wind alongside the leaves on the trees. Oblivion has an amazing draw distance. You can see a very long way into the distance, without any fog (if your machine can handle it, that is.) The sky, whether it’s raining, sunny, snowing, or foggy, evokes a sense of wonder. Sitting on top of a high mountain and watching the sunrise early in the morning is an experience in of itself. The stars and moon looks great, and if you studied the lore of the gameworld, you would even recognize the constellations.
Other effects like magical enchantments, destructive fireballs, and poison all look great, and convey a true magical feeling to the game. Armor and weapons are all shiny and detailed, even going so far as to have runic carvings in them to give them a real fantasy feel to them.
While most of these graphical touches are little in scope, when you add it all up, it makes a remarkable visual experience that leaves an impression on you the moment you experience it all. Three to four years from now, Oblivion will still have impressive graphics, and that’s a testament to the power of the game’s engine. It takes a beefy system right now to enjoy the game at the full visual splendor, but it is scalable for those with slower systems.
Since sound is physics-based, the world of Oblivion is more immersive. Drag a sword across concrete and it’ll make the appropriate sound. Drag it across the dirt ground, and it’ll have a different sound. The sounds of your sword hitting your opponent’s shield is bone-jarring to say the least. When you fry your first enemy with a fireball, a satisfying sizzle takes place. Everything just fits perfect. The same can be said about the music, composed by Jeremy Soule. It is elegant, soaring, and when in battle, uptempo. I don’t purchase many soundtracks, nevermind game soundtracks, but I had to for Oblivion’s soundtrack because it’s so well composed. There are hours upon hours of voice dialogue recorded, so every spoken word actually has a voice behind it, and the voice acting is strong and professional. This helps bring the game alive moreso than ever.
Finally, there are the modifications, or mods. Oblivion’s mods are like optional patches, with thousands of people creating all kinds of mods to enhance, change, and manipulate the game. Oblivion is insanely flexible, with an downloadable Construction Kit that allows anyone to go in and change any mechanic and inner workings of the game. This means that if you don’t like a certain aspect of the game, chances are there’s a mod out that fixes it, and if not, it’s likely being made.
For example, the water in Oblivion isn’t as great as it can be — so someone released a mod that made it much better. Don’t like the fact that there isn’t a cursor when in 3rd person? Grab the mod that puts it in. A new mod that I like is one that makes the interface display more item, allowing for easier navigation. The game hasn’t been out for a week, and already a slew of mods are coming out, and they will get better as time goes on. Soon people will release new content, new quests, new dungeons, possibly even a new land. A lot is possible using the Construction Kit.
With all this praise, it’s not to insinuate that Oblivion is entirely perfect, because it’s not. I’ve encountered a few bugs, and while they weren’t showstopping bugs, they were annoying nevertheless. There’s been times when I’ve got stuck in the ground, couldn’t mount my horse, or crashed to the desktop when the game tried to load a saved game or a new zone. The characters you talk to have facial animation, but that is all. Nothing else moves, which gives the impression that they are lifeless. The constant “Loading new area” message when you go about traveling is, while necessary for the Xbox 360, isn’t for the PC version, since it loads in the background (there’s a mod that disables it, too.) The interface suffers from consolitis, where it was designed to work well with the Xbox 360 version of the game, but is inefficient and annoying on the PC. However, the list of negatives is small, and they are far overshadowed by all the positives in this game.
There’s a lot I could still touch on in this review, but it’s already getting long. Oblivion is large enough in scope, that you could easily write a book about the game. There are so many ways to play the game, so many places to visit, so many ways to accomplish a quest with combat, that it can be overwhelming sometimes. It’s not often in my gaming life that I’d be overwhelmed by a game, but when it happens, it’s a sign of a great game. A mistake would be to play the game, thinking you’re going to scour the whole land, do all the quests, and see everything all at once. That will just drive you crazy if you try to do that right out the gate.