The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion Review

Steve Klinger

Oblivion is the latest chapter of the hallowed RPG franchise known as 'The Elder Scrolls' from perennial developer Bethesda Softworks. While no cohesive and over-arching plot links them directly together, each chapter of The Elder Scrolls series is linked by a similar mythos and setting. After bringing Morrowind to the original Xbox as one of the systems most stunning RPGs, many were interested to see what Bethesda could do with the power of the Xbox 360. When Bethesda showed off Oblivion for the first time, few could get past anything other than it's staggering graphics. Even the most jaded gamer had to agree that the visuals of Oblivion were truly awe-inspiring. Fans of the series however knew better than to think that Oblivion was just a pretty, hollow game. Building on the pedigree of Morrowind, if there was one thing Oblivion wasn't going to be, it was short. In fact, Oblivion is one of those rare games that could potentially keep you busy all year long.

The architecture varies depending on the region

Before buying Oblivion, however, you might want to prepare. Write off your friends, break up with your girlfriend, drop out of school, take a leave of absence from work, and call your parents and tell them you won't be home for Christmas. With a nearly 50 hour main quest line, four massive guild quest lines, dozens and dozens of side quests and hundreds of dungeons, mines, and ruins to explore you could easily spend 200+ hours playing Oblivion, and that's before we even talk about the downloadable content. You'll find yourself completely enthralled, running around the expansive world of Cyrodiil and it's many cities and towns, getting caught up in any number of side plots and the incredible level of freedom offered in Oblivion.

The main quest line and plot of Oblivion may not be the most original story ever conceived. Uriel Septim VII, ruler and beloved Emperor of Cyrodiil, a province of the larger territory of Tamriel, has had trouble sleeping recently. He's having nightmares in which he sees his own death, and the destruction of his kingdom by dark and mysterious forces. What's more troubling is, it seems his nightmares may be premonitions rather than just dark thoughts. Assassins of a Daedric cult known as the Mythic Dawn have killed Uriel's three sons and heirs, and are now after him. The Emperor and his guards flee the royal castle through a secret passageway through one of the jail cells in the castle's prison. Your jail cell to be exact. Your character is in prison for reasons unknown, but after the Emperor recognizes you from his visions as the potential savior of his kingdom and asks you to come with them, it seems you are in for a full pardon.

At one point you are seperated from the rest of the party and embark on a cleverly integrated training mission to familiarize you with the controls, allow you to pick your character class or make your own custom class, and also design your character as you see fit. After completing your training mission you rejoin the Emperor and his party. As you, the Emperor and the Blades, the Emperor's personal guard, make your way through the bowels of the castle, your party is ambushed by assassins. While the Blades engage the assassins in battle, the Emperor hands you the Amulet of Kings, an enchanted piece that can only be worn by members of the Septim bloodline, and asks you to deliver it to a man named Jauffre, the Grandmaster of the Blades. Soon after the Emperor is killed by one of the assassins, leaving you and Baurus, the only surviving Blade left alive. As you exit the catacombs of the Imperial City through the sewers, Baurus informs you that you can find Jauffre at Weynon Priory, near the city of Chorrol before bidding you farewell.

On your way there, you hear of a portal opening near the city of Kvatch and demons and monster pouring out, nearly destroying the city entirely. It turns out that the murder of Uriel Septim and his heirs has dissolved a natural barrier between Tamriel and the Daedric home-world of Oblivion, allowing the armies of Mehrunes Dagon, the Daedric prince, to open Oblivion gates throughout the land and attack at will. It is now up to you to find the last remaining heir of Uriel Septim and help vanquish the Daedra from Tamriel for good before all hope is lost.

While engaging at times, it is not the main quest line that is the real draw of Oblivion but the vast world and staggering number of side quests, including four very large and quite expansive guild quests. There are four guild factions throughout Cyrodiil that you may join at any time. Each has their own guild-specific quest lines that include multiple missions to undertake for each guild as you rise ever higher in rank for these guilds. The four guilds are the Fighters Guild, the Mages Guild, the Thieves Guild, and the Dark Brotherhood. While the first three guilds pretty much explain themselves in their name, the Dark Brotherhood, easily the most unique and fun to play, isn't quite as transparent. Basically the Dark Brotherhood is a group of assassins for hire that will take out anybody for the right price. As such, they are not as easy to find as the two 'above-the-board' guilds, or even the Thieves Guild, which is also a bit shadowy. But if you can find the Dark Brotherhood and join, it is easily the best guild plot line of the bunch. Each guild has it's own massive plot-line and each has it's own rewards for completing the guild quests. There is also the option to compete in the Arena, doing battle with any number of beast and other warriors as you fight your way to the top. If you can defeat the champion, you are on your way to notoriety and fame throughout the land. While not as plot heavy as the guilds, there is a side quest or two that can be accomplished by finishing the Arena.

"Here there be monsters!"

Embarking on your journey in Oblivion will be much easier this time around compared to the game's predecessor, Morrowind, thanks to some much needed gameplay refinements. First and foremost is the robust map system in Oblivion. Each point of interest in the game from cities and towns, to dungeons and ruins, to things as small as camps and Daedric shrines, are all marked on your map if you've been there before. If it's on your map, then you can use the fast travel feature to go directly to that location, provided you aren't under attack at the moment. The fast travel option is a Godsend when doing some of the more time consuming 'fetch' quests that can be found in the towns of Cyrodiil. It also comes in handy when shopping around as plenty of weapons and spells are town-specific and not ubiquitous to every shop in the land. Whereas in Morrowind you'd have to hoof it on foot back and forth, Oblivion cuts short the annoying leg work and only forces you to walk to any location once. The fast travel system isn't some magical warp system however. If you have a time-sensitive quest to complete don't think you can wait to the last second and fast travel to where you need to go as the game will will spare you the actual real-world time of your journey, but the correct amount of time your journey would have taken will still pass in game. While it is still fun to explore the outer-world every now and again, the fast travel option is a helpful tool when you just want to progress the story quickly or only have a little time to play.

Another helpful addition to the series is the 'Quest Log' system. Any time you take on a quest in Oblivion, an entry is made in the quest log with information on the quest, and in the case of multi-tiered quests, will show a history of previous events in the quest. You may also set one specific quest as your 'active quest' which will give you markers to your objective on your map. This is immensely helpful as it is not uncommon in Oblivion to have more than a dozen quests going at a single time. Also in the case of longer quest-lines with multiple missions such as a guild quest, this will help you progress along the one singular quest-line if that is your wish.

The combat system and controls are another thing that got a much needed overhaul in this chapter of the Elder Scrolls series. Combat in Oblivion isn't nearly as mindless as it was in Morrowind where you could get away with mashing the attack button. Blocking or striking an opponent who is blocking may cause either party to falter. This wild card helps keep the combat a little more involved and not as mindless as previous games in the series. The enemy AI is pretty decent although it is not above just swarming and pinning you in a corner when you are outnumbered. To manage all the various weapons, spells and magic in the game, Bethesda introduces the 'Hot key' system in which the player may link up to eight weapons or spells to directions on the D-pad. This comes in great handy when needing to switch weapons or spells in a hurry, but with so many items packed onto limited real estate of the D-pad, you may end up accidentally selecting the wrong item every now and then. For the most part though, it is a great help. Along with melee weapons like swords, axes and the like, you also have the option to carry a ranged weapon like a bow and arrow, and can make use of several types of magic. The most useful for combat are Destruction magic and Conjuration magic. Destruction magic consists of thing like fireballs and lightning bolts while players adept at Conjuration are able to conjure any number of beasts or warriors to assist them. There is also a third type of magic, Illusion magic, but isn't as useful in combat. It is however more handy when interacting with the game's NPCs (that's non-playable characters to the less-than savvy), of which there are hundreds. You can influence NPCs, make your character invisible for sneaking around places your shouldn't be, or even take control of NPCs and have them fight for you. There is also Mysticism which is more of a defensive magic that can be used to counter hostile magic, detect creatures or even levitate objects.

This is what happens when you hire a Goblin
as your interior decorator.

The world of Cyrodiil feels alive, thanks in part to Bethesda's in-house artificial intelligence software known as 'Radiant A.I.'. What sets Radiant A.I. apart from the A.I. in most games is that it is active whether you are around to see it or not. Each NPC was originally given a series of needs that they must satisfy, such as hunger. How the character would satisfy such needs would be a product of that characters stats, but this proved so unpredictable that NPCs central to the games plot ended up getting killed. Instead, Bethesda went with a dumbed down version that gives each NPC a schedule to follow and certain routines to engage in such as practicing their archery or engaging in dialogue with other NPCs. In fact just walking down the streets of a town in Cyrodiil, you're often likely to overhear NPCs carrying on conversations with each other. Sometimes this will give you clues to information about a quest while other times it may just be idle chatter. In any case, it does succeed in making the NPCs seem more alive and the world that much more real, although it's a shame Bethesda couldn't get the original Radiant A.I. working correctly.

Speaking of the NPCs and their dialogue, each of the games hundreds of characters all have something to say. The amount of audio recorded just for dialogue is immense as most characters have multiple canned responses and there are always multiple responses in the games dialogue tree. The branching dialogue in the game is relatively standard for an RPG but is given some extra spice by the persuasion system in the game. During any conversation with NPCs in the game, the player can enter into a persuasion mini-game in which you can try to flatter, compliment, anger or insult the NPC. You'll have to do all four and the name of the game is to read their facial expression and based on that, persuade them with the action they like the best when it is most effective and with the action the like the least when it has the least effect. It's a little tricky at first but after practice, it can become a useful tool as persuading the NPCs will get you bonuses. In some case, you might have to get their disposition toward you to a certain level before they'll give you a full answer to a question or even answer it at all. This is sometimes the case with dialogue that advances the games story. It can also be used with merchants to get them to sell items to you at a discount and buy them back at a higher price. The more the merchant likes you, the better for your wallet. There are also other ways to persuade people in Oblivion however, if you can't get a hold of the system. Magic is one route and all characters of the Imperial class have a magic ability known as 'The Emperor's Voice' which can be used once a day and will max out any NPCs disposition. If your character isn't big on magic and you have deep pockets, you can always just bribe people, although it tends to get expensive.

As mentioned earlier, Oblivion allows you to craft your character as you see fit, from a robust and detailed character creation system, to allowing you to hand pick your skills and attributes, or go with a default character class if you're a novice. You can choose from a number of races to play as including four human races, four elven races, and two beast races. The level of customization in the character creation system is staggering. You can augment the appearance of your character with an impressively detailed facial creation system that lets you tweak everything from skin tone to facial structure, down to little things like the length and breadth of their nose. The level of customization between the character creation system and the custom class system means there are literally hundreds of completely unique combinations to be made and assure that your character will be one-in-a-million. While you can make any combination you want, there are incentives to making your character a certain race. Certain races have a natural boost in specific abilities that make a them more attuned to a certain type of play. For instance, it is entirely possible to have a Wood Elf that is skilled in hand-to-hand and weapon based combat, but that is acting against their natural talent for magic and relatively low hit tolerance compared to the more beefy Imperials that have strength and health boosts, but a low beginning MP or magic points rating.

Hellgate: Cyrodiil

If at some point while playing you start to tire of dungeon crawling, there are a great number of things to do in Cyrodiil that don't involve combating the forces of evil. For one, there is property to be bought. Almost every town in Cyrodiil has a house your character can purchase and use as a base of operations. Once bought, you may also go to shops in town to buy furnishings for your home to liven the place up a little. You never know what you'll find in your newly bought property. For instance a newly bought home in Skingrad has a map hidden inside that leads to treasure in your house. Other properties might have a decidedly more spiritual find, like the ghosts haunting your newly acquired domicile in Anvil. You'll have to embark on a miniature quest to exercise the demons that have possessed your plot. Once you've done that, kick back in your medieval crib and read one of the many books in your library. While not complete stories, there are literally thousands of readable pages in the books of Oblivion. Some give even more insight into the story, others a past history of the lands you now roam. Others still contain anything from children's stories to information that will help your character level up a certain skill.

Once you've established yourself in town and rested a little though, what is there to do? Rob your neighbors of course! You can do this one of two ways. The more direct approach, and more fun in my opinion, is to use your lock-picking skills and do a little old school B&E (that's breaking and entering for all you goody two-shoes out there) and steal anything that isn't nailed down and sell it to the nearest fence. If that isn't your cup of tea, perhaps you prefer to go into 'legitimate business' as a trader. It seems that even merchants in Cyrodiil are interested in having a silent partner and if your bartering skill is high enough, you can start earning a nice little income provided you have the buy-in. If trade isn't your thing, there is always hunting. Fur is definitely 'in' in Cyrodiil and there are no shortage of traders that need a good woodsman to retrieve them some quality pelts. If your looking for something a little more dangerous, how about treasure hunting? With all those Alyeid ruins out there, there is bound to be something of value hidden in one of them. Show the right piece to the right person and you may have found yourself a lucrative part-time job. But then why work for mere mortals when you can do the bidding of the Gods? Throughout the countryside of Cyrodiil there are many Daedric shrines to visit. Complete the tasks they ask and you will be handsomely rewarded, almost always with exclusive loot that isn't available anywhere else. After breaking your 900th lock-pick on a tier four lock, how good does an unbreakable lock-pick sound? All you need to do is answer the Daedric God's beck and call and it's yours.

"Hey pal, my eyes are up here!"

The graphics of Oblivion are simply stunning at times. Whether you're walking through the lush green fields outside the Imperial City, or through the hellish scape of Oblivion plains, everything about the visuals pop. Every city has unique architecture and the textures are all rendered beautifully. In the outer-world between cities, the foliage moves in the wind and looks beautiful. While out exploring the outer-world, you'll often come across streams and rivers that look so beautiful and inviting you can't help but jump in. Dungeons on the other hand, while still good looking, get repetitive and almost seem to be built with some kind of dungeon Erector Set, as the layout of certain areas of dungeons are almost always the same. You'll swear you've seen the same chest on a raised flat area in the corner near two stalactites nearly a dozen times in the same dungeon, let alone in multiple dungeons. A little more variety would have been nice, especially considering how eclectic and varied the buildings and other ruins of Cyrodiil are.

Characters faces, both friend and foe alike, are very detailed, although oddly enough almost every character in the game is ugly. Whether this was a purposeful on Bethesda's part or just something else, I can't be sure. But rest assured, it's the most beautiful ugly you've ever seen. Oblivion uses the popular Havok physics engine and it adds an impressive level of detail to the death animations of characters and the world in general, although it does have some bugs. Kill an enemy too close to a door and the body will get stuck in the doorway once it closes and will perpetually shake and spasm like someone having a seizure. While funny to watch, it can get rather annoying, especially when the door becomes no longer usable.

This deer gives you +1 rabbies! Crap!

While the outer-world is visually breathtaking in the foreground, the draw distance isn't as far away as it should be as there is considerable pop-in at times. Also, the textures in the distance can look quite muddy and out of place, but word is that Bethesda has revamped some of it's texture shader code and should alleviate most of the problems with the far off textures in a forthcoming patch. Unfortunately, there is no word on if the patch will alleviate the other big problem with Oblivion's graphics and that is loading times. While in a city or dungeon, or any confined area for that matter, gameplay is smooth and flawless for the most part. However when traveling between towns, your progress will constantly be impeded by loading of new textures into memory and during such time, the game will freeze for a couple seconds. This isn't even too bad while traveling on foot because honestly you are moving too slow for it to cause any major problems. When riding a horse, however, you can hit spots where you get these stuttering 'Now Loading...' sections every 5-10 seconds. It is extremely frustrating and is no doubt there so that the world can look so detailed, but all it serves to do is make you never want to ride a horse in the outer-world. If you need to get somewhere fast, you are better off just using the fast travel option. If you feel the need to go sight-seeing in the country, best to stick to walking.

The game's sound is also fantastically done in Oblivion. From the crack of shooting lightning, to the weapon-specific sound effects for melee items, every little detail was taken into account. The sound effects rarely get repetitive and each has a distinct and clear sound. The death rattle of each enemy is even different, down to the different races and sub races of the game. As mentioned before the amount of dialogue recorded for the game is vast. While Bethesda did a wonderful job or recording plenty of responses for each character, it would have done them well to vary their voice talent a little more. While the cast of voices for the main characters is fantastic and includes actors Sean Bean, Patrick Stewart and Terrance Stamp, all of whom do a fantastic job, it seems like the same 10 or so people do the voice work for all the other characters in the game. It takes a little something away from the game when you run into 3 characters in a row with identical voices. The music of the game is nearly flawless however. Dark and foreboding when it needs to be, and light and cheerful when appropriate. It really helps to distinguish the realm of Oblivion from Cyrodiil on an altogether different level.

"I'm no assassin. I just need to find the
Emperor because...I owe
him some money."

The achievements for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion are quite well-balanced, if not run of the mill. All of the games achievements can be earned by playing the main storyline and completing each of the guild quests as well as the arena. While not terribly interesting in the way the achievements are awarded, it has to be said that Oblivion does a fantastic job of giving you an achievement at the same time that you really feel like you have achieved something in the game, such as advancing in any of the guilds, or having made great progress in the main storyline. It is also worth mentioning that with the release of Shivering Isles this Spring, Oblivion will be the first Xbox 360 game with a total achievement score over 1000 points. The new download-only expansion pack will add 10 new achievements worth a total of 250 points to the 1000 points of the original game, along with an estimated 30 hours of gameplay.

With a nearly 50 hour main quest and enough side quests and guild missions to add another 100+ hours, Oblivion will keep you busy as long as you want it to. Add in multiple extra missions for download and a fully-fledged expansion on the way and you may never finish this game 100%. Should you complete the game and want more, the vast skill and attribute set means you could create a new character and have a completely different experience the second time through. Oblivion is easily the most expansive and most engrossing game on the 360 right now. There's no reason NOT to own it.

Fantastic audio all around is marred slightly by the lack of variety in the voice talent. The orchestral score is powerful and moving and the sound effects from the clanking of swords to the woosh of magic is spot on.

A visually stunning game with a couple of annoying hiccups, some of which will be fixed in a soon-to-be-released patch. Loading times are also a problem. The Havok physics engine breathes even more life into a world that already looks beautiful.

Features like the quest log and fast travel mean that you always have a quick route around which helps to make the game feel less daunting compared to other such massive RPGs. An improved control set makes combat fun and natural.

This is the pinnacle of gaming. Every piece of Oblivion is up to the highest production standards of the games industry from the visuals, to the gameplay, to the Collector's Edition packaging and pack-ins. This is how all games should be. Bravo, Bethesda!

Nothing too flashy here but the game does a great job of rewarding you at the right time and spreading out the achievements and points evenly. Oblivion definitely isn't the easiest 1000 points to earn, but if you take the time to finish the storyline and do the guild quests which is certainly no hardship, it's probably one of the more fun 1000 points to earn. It might just take you a couple months is all...

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is simply the most comprehensive game and experience on the Xbox 360 to date. While a few other games on the system might do one or two things as good or slightly better than Oblivion, none of them come close to overwhelming experience that is Oblivion. Simply put, it is the one Xbox 360 game that everyone should own.

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