Bethesda knows how to make RPGs. Oblivion’s predecessor, Morrowind, has a cult following of players and numerous expansions. Already with two expansions out for the 360 version, as well two of the most prestigious awards (both RPG and Game of the Year), this latest installment in the Elder Scrolls series looks to share the same prestige as its formers.
What has made this game so fascinating to Western gamers? Stunning graphics? Freedom of choice? Expansive setting? Replay value? You’re bound to get different answers, as tastes in RPG are as varied as the games themselves, but the largely unique style of storytelling and gameplay offered by the folks at Bethesda have captured not only the attention of gamers, but of other game makers.
Prior to entering the game, you’re thrown a plethora of character options. Most adjust your character’s looks, largely unimportant in a game designed around first-person play, but deciding upon a race becomes an important decision. Choosing a Khajiit, for example, increases your natural skill with skills like acrobatics, blade-fighting, and sneaking: the perfect thief/assassin. Most races offer up a few supernatural strengths and weaknesses for your consideration.
After building your character, you’re set loose into the beautiful Cyrodiil
Oblivion, as with past iterations of the Elder Scrolls series, tells a “zero to hero” story. Your first minutes spent in the game are inside a dungeon, punishment for an unknown crime. A chance for redemption is given through chance: the Emperor himself, along with a few of his elite guards, use your holding cell as an escape route through the Imperial sewers. You follow them through the rat-infested underground, picking up weapons and useful tips, and gain the trust of the Emperor.
Before being released into the large province of Cyrodiil, you’re given a pair of character choices: your class and your birth sign. Though all skills are available for use, the pre-formed classes allow you to specialize your oft-used skills and maximize your power. Birth signs unlock supernatural abilities, above and beyond those given by class.
Once free of the dungeon, you’re given a choice: continue with the primary campaign, or search for adventure elsewhere. This fact alone is likely to be the most exciting factor in the game, since it takes replay value to a new level of complexity. Want to play the part of the Empire’s chosen hero? Ignore the selfish desire for adventure and follow the path your Emperor has given you. Has ambition taken you to become a Guild Master? Sign up as a grunt and work your way up. Just like killing people in the dark of night? The Dark Brotherhood will find you and take you in.
Or, if you play carefully, you can do it all.
Quests will fall into your lap with little effort on your part. Simply talking to citizens of the various towns and cities will unveil tasks: quests of these sort are typically unconnected to any larger plot. A player can also join one of the various Guilds and take part in a larger string of plot-driven quests for big rewards. In addition to set quests, a player can enter a gladiatorial arena, hop around the map closing Oblivion gates, or hunt indigenous creatures.
Closing Oblivion gates like these is one of many things you can do in Oblivion
As mentioned before, all of these ways to spend your time were designed for completion in the first person. This makes combat familiar for gamers used to first-person shooters and eases the transition from twitch to RPG. A third-person view is available for the adventurous RPG fan, but the lack of dynamic animations creates the unwanted effect of gliding across the ground.
Combat controls are also similar to those seen in shooters: one trigger attacks with your melee weapon, another sets a block, while a third casts a selected spell (unlike many RPGs, all characters can cast magic, though characters with a caster-template will enjoy a much wider variety of spells). In all but the tightest of areas, you’ll find it easiest to use guerrilla tactics against opponents, using a bow or light weapon, but close-quarters combat is hardly useless.
Be careful who you attack in this game: even accidental attacks that strike a friend or ally will likely provoke them to attack you, including the powerful city guards and Imperial Watch. One of the more annoying instances of this is your horse: stealing a horse is common for characters lacking the thousands of gold required for their purchase, but even a glancing blow to one of these unowned horses will cause them to chase you across the entire map until either you or it are dead. For this and other reasons (like a guard’s uncanny ability to realize a crime without evidence), crime doesn’t pay unless you’re in the right Guild.
Many of the longer quest chains, particularly those dedicated to the Guilds, have you racing across Cyrodiil on simple errands. Purists may travel everywhere by foot, but for the rest, a “quick travel” function allows you to travel to the major population centers and any discovered locations of interest through the game menu. You’re unable to travel like this while in combat or inside a building.
However, those who travel without this method have plenty to enjoy during the trip. The scenery is fantastic, changing as you progress from region to region, and is only improved with impressive lack of load times (though this has warranted a small complaint for the 360 version, load times for the PS3 are mere hiccups). Draw distances are outstanding on both versions, though pop-ups happen more than infrequently. For those who take closer looks at the detail put in the game, you’ll thoroughly enjoy the texture work done…even though those textures are reused ad nauseum. Building models are much the same, though you will indeed notice architectural differences between those built in different regions.
Audio is one area that Oblivion lacks dramatically. Immediately, you’ll notice the voice of Patrick Stewart (Cpt. Jean-luc Picard, from Star Trek: The Next Generation) as Emperor Uriel Septim, and Sean Bean (Boromir, from Lord of the Rings) as Martin Septim. This is where the voicing excitement stops: a total of thirteen voice actors fill the roles of hundreds of important and unimportant NPCs. You’ll find that a single actress plays the voice of all Argonian females, and if you ask one about a rumor, a different actor will spit out the info in her stead. It’s difficult to immerse yourself in a game where talking to one NPC instantly reminds you of the other twenty characters voiced by the same actor.
Voiced by Patrick Stewart, Emperor Uriel Septim starts the game off on the right foot
Sound effects were ignored as well: the sound of galloping your horse over stone is the same as galloping over grass, for example. Bethesda didn’t completely drop the ball with audio, as their soundtrack, albeit quite short, does wonders for establishing mood without drawing attention to itself.
Owners of the 360 version have access to two downloadable additions to the game: Knights of the Nine, a multipart quest, and Shivering Isles, a full expansion including several quest chains completed in a brand new area. PS3 owners received the Knights of the Nine expansion for free, included on the Blu ray disc, but Bethesda continues to port the other.
PC players have their own set of goodies beyond the expansions. An extensive modding community has sprung up, offering additional models and add-ons, as well as console-activated cheats.
In an age of shrinking games in lieu of better graphics, Oblivion undoubtedly stands out. Hundreds of hours of gameplay await prospective buyers, with each experience being wholly unique. The full RPG experience was missed, however: gorgeous yet repetitive texturing, along with the star-studded yet incomplete voice cast, fail to top off the almost perfect package. For those who bought the game for 360 or PC, the PS3 port doesn’t offer anything new except sharper models, static lighting (whereas the other versions sported dynamic effects), and faster (as well as fewer) load times.