The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion Reader Review
Yes, I know, this one's an old 'un. As of the time of writing, Oblivion's a little past its six-month anniversary... And yet, I feel, it's still worth revisiting, especially now that the rabid BEST/WORST GAME EVAR!!!?!-type rants have died down and opinions have had time to mellow a little. Retrospect is a wonderful thing, so let us gaze together into the recent past, constant reader, upon what remains a unique experience on the 360 (and perhaps the closest game the console has yet to a flagship AAA title, despite its imminent defection to the PS3).
Even now, Oblivion is an experience unlike any other on Microsoft's curvy white box. The only significant Western RPG to be released for it so far, this latest installment of The Elder Scrolls series has some serious pedigree, with clunky, muddy, glitchy but thrilling Morrowind being perhaps one of the great overlooked titles for the ole Xbox. Like its predecessor, Oblivion deposits the player in a massive open world and leaves them to get on with it, setting them free in a largely nonlinear and ridiculously content-rich playground. There's no denying the sheer scope of Oblivion, right from the moment you step out from the Imperial Sewers and gaze up at the mountains rising in the distance. Also like it's predecessor, Oblivion is insanely addictive and has a worrying tendancy to polish off your social life as a mere appetiser, then go on to eat into time you should be spending working/sleeping/caring for basic personal hygiene. And yet, as the 360's first AAA hopeful, Oblivion feels strangely under-developed.
Another review (God knows where... this was six months ago, after all) summed it up nicely by stating that playing Oblivion felt like playing the beta test version - this game does not feel finished. On the one hand, you get a unique and at times nirvana-like RPG experience, a sprawling, highly-detailed world, household names doing voice acting and production values that might make even Peter Jackson's eyebrow twitch. On the other hand, repitition begins to set in around the 25 hour mark, the graphics are spotty, and the levelling system is badly unbalanced. Which is a shame, because with a little more polish these issues could easily have been resolved, and Besthesda could have unleashed a near-perfect game on an unsuspecting public.
Level Me Softly
It's the Elder Scrolls' unique levelling system which forms the basis of the majority of my gripes with Oblivion. For example, whilst one of Oblivion's main selling points is the freedom to do pretty much anything you want in the open-ended world, you're effectively forced to do the first few main quest immediately after leaving the sewers if you want to complete the main questline, as this mission becomes unplayably difficult later on. Why? In the world of Oblivion, the bad guys level up as you do, but NCPs don't. Most of the first mission involves you fighting alongside NCPs (I won't say against who or what, as this is a cool early plot twist) against hordes of enemies. If you hit even level 5 before tackling them, your allies will quickly get ripped to shreds by levelled-up enemies, leaving you to fight them by yourself when the game deseigners chucked enough foes into the level to make it a challenge for 4 or 5 allied fighters.
But the problems don't stop there. You become more powerful in Oblivion mostly by raising your skills - levelling up only provides a modest boost to your stats. This means if you create an unbalanced character at the start of the game (which is very easy to do - creating a playable character is actually fairly counter-intuitive. I'd recommend heading over to gameFAQs.com and reading the character creation FAQ there before starting this game) your level will skyrocket whilst your skills only increase slightly. This has happened to me twice now - both times I created characters who I got 40+ hours into the game with before they hit level 14/15 and I was frequently getting my face kicked in even by normal, wayside baddies. Completing some dungeons (particuarly Oblivion gates) was impossible without a truckload of healing potions, and all the fun got sucked out of the game, even with the difficulty slider taken down. Oblivion actually feels like its punishing you for levelling up, and you never really get the sense of Godlike power later on like you do in many RPGs. Conversely, earlier on you don't feel particuarly weak, and there's nowhere you're afraid to go, because you know the enemies there will be weak too. Good levelling systems should reward you for levelling up and force you to do so by including quests and areas you can't complete at low levels. Not only does Oblivion turn this on its head, but in this respect it is actually a step back from Morrowind.
The other main issues I have with Oblivion are the graphics and stability. As you have probably susses by now, I played Morrowind through to its conclusion - certainly no graphical powerhouse, or byword for reliability - so I had some idea what to expect, but people looking for a truly next-gen graphical experience here will be disappointed. Don't get me wrong, this is a pretty game - art design is well-done if uninspired, everything's very detailed and being able to see a hill in the distance it'll take you half an hour to walk to is impressive - but you pay for this with very frequent, very long load times (especially in the Imperial City, for some curious reason) and the occasional crash (the only ones I've suffered on my 360, actually). In the outside world, major objects like forts and ruins will often appear out of nowhere only when you're almost on top of them. Items like rocks and trees also tend to lurch into existence at the last minute. Many of the animations also feel rushed - as in Morrowind, the 3rd person perspective is basically unplayable, there for novelty value only. NCPs frequently get impaled on collision-detection glitches, especially when following you, and the horses feel like a late addition - not being able to fight or even spellcast from horseback is a rather questionable design decision... if you choose to ride a horse, you'll frequently be getting your ankles mauled by a timber wolf whilst the camera jolts to a 3rd person perspective and your character clambers jerkily to the ground. Not what we were promised next- (or is it this- ?) gen.
But enough grumbles. Oblivion is certainly good, frequently great, but not perfect. To be clear - even now, this game has already given me more hours of fun than any other in my 360 collection and I'm nowhere near through with it. The graphics would be wondrous were it not for the few, infuriating issues mentioned above, the menu system is slick (which is just as well, you'll be seeing it a lot), the theme gets your pulse pounding and the music mainatains a high standard throughout, the voice-acting is impressive both in its quality and the sheer amount of it, the plot is involving, the gamplay is addictive enough to see you past the repetition... The list of good things about Oblivion goes on and on. And yet, it's frustrating to know that with another six months of polish by Bethesda, (were it being releasing round about now, in fact) we could now be playing the 360's first truly next-gen, must-have title.
8 / 10