Saturday, March 20, 2021
For reasons that I can’t quite put my finger on, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion feels like a relic far beyond its fifteen years. Its setting, Cyrodiil, seems like a hazy, intangible memory that’s been out of reach for years, ever since its release, in 2006. Returning to it in 2021 is surreal. It is an RPG that bears all the hallmarks of its time – the barely blinking, potato-headed NPCs, the stilted combat, the wonky controls – and yet, developer Bethesda Softworks imbued its fantastical adventure with an inherent sense of magic and ethereal wonder that defies its mechanics, lending it a timeless quality, neither old nor new—familiar but, even as the years go by, fresh. As such, it remains nigh-on impossible to resist.
This dreamy feeling is heightened, playing Oblivion on Xbox Series X|S. With speedier loading times and a hiked-up resolution, some of the haze of its advanced years is wiped away, almost making it feel bang up to date. For me, Oblivion lives on in the mind more vividly than 2011’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. It was the first time I’d experienced an RPG of such ambition and scope, and its fully realised open world was dazzling at the time. The instant you emerge from the darkness of the sewers, during the prologue, into a vibrant, sprawling realm, is still celebrated as one of gaming’s great watershed moments – one that I first discovered on PS3 in 2007.
The opening has you rescuing Uriel Septim VII (voiced by Patrick Stewart) from captivity, trudging through gloomy tunnels of grime, murk, and scuttling rats. As you emerged, breathing in that first lungful of Cyrodiil air was a revelation, and, while there are plenty of elements that haven’t stood the test of time quite as well as one might have hoped, revisiting Oblivion isn’t nearly as jarring as you might expect it to be. Its most memorable moments are defined by mechanics or mood rather than graphical fidelity - Oblivion’s atmosphere immediately feels like a warm and familiar embrace.
Competing to join the Thieves Guild is also still a laugh (just let someone else steal the required item for you, then pilfer it from them); murdering people for the Dark Brotherhood is as wonderfully macabre as you’d hope, and learning magic under the tutelage of the Mages Guild is one of many enjoyable questlines to get swept up in. For me, however, it’s all about battling to the top in the no-holds-barred gladiatorial Arena, decked out in your raiment, armed with your weapons/spells of choice, journeying from lowly Pit Dog to Grand Champion, one opponent at a time. Or you can just pick the lock on the prize chest and make off with the funds.
But it’s the hours spent messing around outside the confines of questing that prove most memorable. Lithely stalking your way across the snowy rooftops of Bruma like a ninja. Asking around about the latest rumours. Pickpocketing while no one’s watching – only to be spotted by the guards and relentlessly pursued, should you refuse to pay the fine or serve jail time. Jogging through the rolling hills and throwing in some leaps to bump up your acrobatics stat – thank goodness that particular mechanic was nixed for Skyrim.
While Skyrim might have been the better game, Oblivion was the defining moment in my RPG lexicon. My experience of the genre, at that time, began and ended with Final Fantasy, and Oblivion marked the first time I’d properly role-played in a role-playing game, choosing my character’s race, attributes, and fighting style, before venturing out into a world large enough to be neither overwhelming nor intimidating. Where Skyrim became synonymous with colossal open worlds, Oblivion feels considerably more intimate and manageable. Little did I know that the out-of-reach region nestled in the northeastern corner of the in-game map was teeming with such epic landmarks and adventures – the word ‘Skyrim’ tantalisingly written out in elaborate cursive. While that game already had you cast as a legend, Oblivion made you earn the right to become the ‘Hero of Kvatch’ and write yourself into the region’s history books, renowned across the land, recognised wherever you go.
Where Skyrim’s mechanics and fundamentals have aged comparatively quite well over the last decade, Oblivion seems entirely grounded within its era, with the same few NPC voices often repeated over and over, faces almost universally ugly and ruddy, and the landscape, while undeniably beautiful, not nearly as varied as other genre examples that have emerged since. In a time before ‘Arrows to the Knee’, Oblivion shared the same gorgeous vistas and soaring orchestral score, by Jeremy Soule, as Skyrim, and both games possess the same clunky combat and funny character interactions. I still smirk at the thought of Oblivion’s daft ‘persuade’ mini-game, which would have you gauge NPCs’ reactions to jokes, coercion, boasts, or efforts at admiration. Modern RPGs owe a sizeable debt to Oblivion – all of the key elements are present and correct, and, though they would be deployed to greater effect later on, they retain a strange power here.
Not that the game is without its irritants. Closing the eponymous Oblivion gates, in order to seal off the hellish Daedric realm, is still a bit of a slog. Going from the verdant expanses of Cyrodiil to the impenetrable darkness of Oblivion’s spires is seldom enjoyable, your warm welcome being a lake of burning sulphur surrounded by grinning, shitty Scamps hurling little fireballs at you. Scamps... I hate Scamps. These occasional diversions to Oblivion make the return to Cyrodiil a sweet relief, the grass and trees seeming that much greener. It’s funny that the game’s namesake is its least appealing aspect – I recall vividly coming to dread visits to Oblivion to close another bloody gate. They appear randomly, and can also reopen at any time, making it feel like you're engaged in a game of inter-dimensional whack-a-mole.
This ultimately takes nothing away from Oblivion – it still stands out as one of the best, most memorable RPGs that I've played, and, as my first gateway into Elder Scrolls lore, it will never truly close, despite the passing years. I’ll always recall, with fondness, those first, tentative steps not only into Bethesda’s ambitious open-world RPG series but into the act of role-playing itself – via a game that paved the way for Skyrim. Though that game remains the series’ masterpiece, let’s never forget that The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion refined the formula, over five years before, while leaving an indelible imprint on my brain.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is available to play via backward compatibility on Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S, and can be downloaded through Xbox Game Pass.
Saturday, March 20, 2021 @ 10:42 AM
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Saturday, March 20, 2021 @ 04:40 PM
Thursday, March 25, 2021 @ 05:44 PM