The Triumphs Of Oblivion.
Skyrim is due out this Friday, so i thought I’d weigh in on this gem of a game!
With the impending release of the latest title in the series, The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion is an extremely difficult sell, even in spite of Skyrim. With dated visuals, awkward combat and unrealistic player-to-NPC interaction, amongst other issues, the game seems to have little chance of standing up to the titans of today. Released in 2006, it rubbed shoulders with the likes of Gears of War, Call of Duty 3, LOTR: The Battle for Middle-Earth II and, just as important, in my opinion, Kingdom Hearts 2. The game was developed by Bethesda Game Studio off the back of an extremely popular Morrowind which was released in 2002 on the original Xbox to critical acclaim, with Oblivion being released on a next-gen console, Bethesda had their work cut out to create a game that would surpass their previous.
Oblivion is a first-person Role Playing Game set in a world doused in the stories of mystics, myths and magic. You start by choosing your characters race from a list of ten including the reptilian Argonians; the tiger-faced Khajiit and the Imperials who are the the locals of Cyrodill and my choice. Then you must select your attributes, minor and major skills and your star sign. The range of customizability may seem daunting at first but it is a testimony to just how much detail and personalization Bethesda have put into the game. You start confused and imprisoned, the reasons for which are not addressed intentionally. As aforementioned, this is a first person role-playing game, YOU are the protagonist. Many RPGs choose to detail the back story of your character and therefore you immediately have this predisposition and when the choices fall to you it feels like you are reinventing your character as soon as you begin. This may be the best formula for particular games but it is in stark contrast to what Bethesda set out to do. In Oblivion you are starting a fresh character and rather than beginning as a new-born (pickpocketing would be a lot less subtle), Bethesda has gone with the best alternative. You awake with amnesia and in a prison so you have no recollection of who you are and, rather than contend with the notion as to why you have no idea who you are, you decide to start with a clean slate. From the very start of the game, you are allowed to imagine how you arrived in this situation and, with no pretense, how you wish to go on.
You go through a short introductory quest which teaches you the main mechanics of the game, allows you to practice with several combat types and introduces the main quest line to you. At the end of the prologue you are asked to confirm your attributes. Technically, your first experience in Oblivion is in the dark, dank setting of the sewers. However, when you refer to the moment you first experienced Oblivion, you will remember the moment you leave the sewers and then it truly begins…
It takes a moment for your eyes to adjust. The weariness is washed away by the warmth of an early morning sun which is carefully mediated by a soft breeze. The blurriness is cleared by a shimmering lake carrying the comforting alpine scent of the surrounding forest. Fledgling hills pull themselves towards the sky against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. But hang on… what happens now? The tutorial is linear to the highest degree, now you are out in the wild and alone with no map boundaries to dictate which way to go. Naturally you follow the in-game compass (hmmm the word “in-game” seems a little unnecessary there) which by default takes you to your next objective. Alternatively, you can ignore it all together and this is where the game opens up.
Allowing you to go wherever you like immediately isn’t an empty gesture by Bethesda. It’s not as if they say “sure you can explore, but if you want to progress you must first complete this objective”. In fact, you can complete most of the game without even looking at that very first objective. By opening your map, you can fast-travel to any of the main cities of Cyrodill straight away, as you manually walk to other locations in the game they’ll become fast-travellable. Another example of the detail in Oblivion is demonstrated in the fast-travelling feature. When you choose to fast travel, the time that it would have taken you to walk there is taken into account when calculating the time of day when you arrive. Each of these cities are noticeably unique. Head to the north and you’ll find Bruma who’s closely packed houses are adorned in snow all year round, while if you head to the most westerly point on the map you’ll find the small port town of Anvil, home to the headquarters of the legendary Fighter’s Guild.
There are mini-quests on the map which you can find if you drift from town to town, but I highly recommend joining a guild, in fact I’d recommend joining Guilds and completing their quest lines before starting the Main quest. It makes sense to do it this way. In the main quest there is the assumption that you are this great warrior on which the fate of the entire Kingdom depends. With no experience you certainly won’t feel like a great warrior and when the many NPCs claim you are, the comments will seem somewhat detached. On the other hand, the guilds make no such assumptions. You’ll work your way from the very bottom of the guild as an errand runner all the way up to the most decorated member of the guild trusted with the most important responsibilities. Now, when you play the main quest, when an NPC quips that you are a hero you’ll have the CV to back it up, adding further to the immersion.
Completing the Guild quest lines are good for a lot more than getting titles under your belt. Each of the four guilds (Mage’s, Fighter’s, Thieves, Dark Brotherhood) have their own rich stories with a whole host of unique characters and missions. You get to see so much more of the game that you would have otherwise completely missed had you only stuck to the Main quest line. In a role-playing game, story telling is key and Bethesda haven’t overlooked this. The game is brimming with an untangeable number of lines of dialogue. In previous games it was simply written text, but this time around Bethesda chose to have every single line voiced. Granted, I believe around 10 people were used to voice the entire script but I’m glad they devoted their time and money to creating the world rather than voice acting. That said, the game boasts the appearance of Sir Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean playing key roles. The game also has a Radiant AI system. The world’s inhabitants constantly adapt around you and your actions. The NPCs are not simply programmed to wander around in a circle for eternity. Instead, each character has its own routine. It will go to work, go to the tavern, eat and sleep (detail!). In some cases, it is worth finding out a character’s routine before attempting an objective. Personally I found it was easiest to steal from the guard tower at the transition between watch shifts, when the towers are momentarily empty. Mechanics like this make a game all that more immersive.
The game includes a variety of weapons, armour and items. There are miscellaneous items such as books, each of which are fully readable (MORE detail!). The levelling up system works in a way that means your character will play in a way that best suits your style of play. Basically the more you use a skill the more that skill will level up. So, for instance, if you frequently use your bow and arrow you will quickly become a masterful archer. You may suck at sword fighting, but that’s fine, you’re an archer! Plus, what may seem like fairly trivial events are given more significance in Oblivion. Attack a vampire, contract “vampiritis” (or vampirism) and slowly die… at least it’s that black and white in most games. In Oblivion, contract “vampiritis” and the infection will slowly consume you. It will start with fairly small symptoms until it really kicks in and you can’t go out in the sun light. You can choose to treat your vampiric nature by consuming the blood of a human sacrifice, in this way you can continue on with the game as a vampire! Alternatively you can go on an entire mission to find a cure. Bethesda took the idea of being poisoned to an entirely new level! Get sick in the game and rather than kill you and take you back in the game, even more of the world is opened up to you.
And so you get to see even more of this beautiful, beautiful game. Frequently you’ll stop and take stock of your breathtaking surroundings. Graphics wise, this game has a lot to be desired, but its the painter not the paintbrush that forges a masterpiece, and forge one Bethesda did. With a night-time sky bathed in the red glow of a nebula and intense clusters of stars as well as shimmering lakes and enchanting forests, the world looks incredible.
It is a culmination of all these things: the personalised journey; the immense depth of story and wondering vistas, that puts Oblivion up there with the other greats of gaming. With an engine that has been reworked from the ground up; far more voice actors; improved graphics capabilities; a fresh new batch of stories and a brand new region to explore, Skyrim will be in pole position to take Game Of The Year in 2011.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is released 11/11/11 on PC, PS3 and XBOX 360
Thanks for reading 🙂