The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Oblivious to Oblivion? Not anymore…

On arriving in the Berkshire town of Windsor, make your way to the castle's Cambridge Gate. From there it's a short walk west down Victoria Street to the inn called 'Take Two'. Enter this establishment taking care to sheath all weapons first. Within seconds of crossing the threshold you should be accosted by the cheerful wench behind the bar. She always asks strangers for their names and enquires as to the nature of their business. Be honest in your replies. Explain that you've come to gaze upon Oblivion; divulge that you seek the one known as Lawton. Hearing this she will nod knowingly and send for him.

Lawton should appear within a few minutes and tell you to follow him. Do as he says. He will lead you up a narrow spiral staircase lined with strange trophies (Platinum awards engraved with names like GTA: San Andreas and Max Payne) to a darkened fourth floor room empty except for some tables and chairs, some large phosphorescing screens and assorted computer paraphernalia. Seat yourself in front of one of these screens and press the 'new game' button.

Cat person or lizard person?

You are now playing the anxiously awaited sequel to 2002's fabulous but flawed first-person RPG Morrowind. Start by choosing a character race from the ten that are offered.

Would you like to be an agile bipedal feline that can see in the dark and pad past foes unseen? If so pick the Khajiit jaguar-man. Or maybe you'd prefer to be able to breathe underwater and resist poisons (Argonian), summon ancestral ghosts whenever you please (Dark Elf) or go unnoticed in a Stockholm supermarket (Nord)? Whatever species of adventurer you choose you will begin your game life in the same way, as a hapless inmate in one of Cyrodiil's deepest dungeons.

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Get punched in the mouth by this chap and you'll be passing molars for months.

Thankfully liberation arrives promptly. Wait a few moments and you will be joined by none-other than Emperor Uriel himself. He along with two bodyguards is fleeing the Imperial City via a subterranean secret passage accessed via your cell (fortunate eh?). Once Uriel and his party have left let a minute or so pass then follow them down into the bowels of the earth. What follows is an entertaining hour of gentle dungeon crawling that combines basic instruction with narrative scene-setting. Play it your own way, being careful to search corpses and caskets for grub, equipment and treasure (even if an item can't be traded, worn, or consumed it will probably come in handy at some point as an alchemical ingredient) experiment with combat and magic techniques, and savour the wonderfully atmospheric surroundings.

Melee has changed for the better since Morrowind, but is still relatively simple. A left click jabs, slices or bludgeons, a right click triggers a shield block or weapon parry. All arms and spells can now be hotkeyed and hit detection is far finer than it was making for much more elegant, satisfying slaughter (the new Havok physics plays its part too) Even despatching the feeble rats and goblins that infest the escape route catacombs turns out to be fun.

Cleverly Bethesda don't dump all the character creation chores on you straight away. As you negotiate this initial underground section you are asked at intervals to select your star sign (birth signs bestow special powers) and choose your character class (pick from 20 presets or make your own combi-class) and specialisations. Once these exercises are complete, character engineering becomes much less intrusive, abilities improving automatically with use.

Fresh heir

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What Orcs wear to weddings and job interviews.

By-and-by you will quit the fetid tunnel network and find yourself in the open air contemplating a characteristically awesome Oblivion vista. Enjoy this moment; let your gaze wander from the gently swaying herbage at your feet, across the glittering river and up the forested slopes beyond. Note how the faraway mountain peaks are not obscured by ugly fogging. Though the PC version is a needy creature (the recommended spec is a 3Ghz processor, 1 GB of RAM, and a GeForce 6800 equivalent video card) it rewards the well-equipped with truly breathtaking sights. It's not just the scenery that impresses either: even something as prosaic as a rough leather shield can take your breath away in this game. The crispness of the textures, the complexity of the modelling, the subtlety of the shadow-mapping... it all adds up to the best-looking dungeon delvers you'll have ever seen. If there's visual weakness anywhere it's in the facial models, a few of which look a little toon-like close-up when compared to the stunning armour and equipment.

Right, you've survived the escape and taken-in the view, what to do next? Here this walkthrough starts to unravel a bit. The Elder Scrolls titles have always offered vast lands and incomparable freedom and Oblivion is no different. An impatient player might choose to focus on the story tasks and set-off in search of the Emperor's lost son. If you do opt for this course of action be prepared for an interruption about three chapters in. On arriving at the gate of the Demon-ravaged city of Kvatch, Lawton will probably appear and request that you turn back (Previewers are not permitted to pass this point). Fortunately there's a wealth of other activities available. You could simply explore the massive game world for instance. With the new ability to teleport instantly from location to location, there's less reason to roam than there was in Morrowind, but those that do decide to wander will be rewarded with numerous interesting wilderness encounters. Self-contained cave systems and dungeons litter the countryside, as do NPCs and roaming wild beasts. Mounted explorers can expect to have creatures like wolves and mountain lions snapping at their heels as they gallop from place to place.

Bloodsports and burglary

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It looks just as good on the Xbox 360.

If rambling sounds a bit aimless then impressive settlements like the Imperial City, Skingrad and Anvil offer an abundance of more structured pastimes. You might want to try your hand/paw at gladiatorial combat. Fighting in the Colosseum-style Bloodworks in Cyrodiil's capital is a fine way to develop combat abilities, earn some Septims (ES cash) and vent some aggression. Even if you don't take to the arena personally you can enjoy the sport by betting on bouts and watching from the terraces. Slightly less risky is membership of one of the class-based societies. Joining something like the Fighter's Guild opens up lots of lucrative side-missions. If these are all as intricate and original (watch out for an imaginative variant of the classic clear-rat-infestation-from-Mr-X's-cellar task) as the few we tried then Guild life should be an attractive option. Naturally you can also make a living through commerce and thievery too. These activities involve two of Oblivion's engaging mini-games: lock-picking and persuasion.

Oblivion overflows with enticing career options and tempting locations. Inevitably by the time Lawton appears for the last time and asks you politely to leave, you'll have barely scratched the surface and be eager to play more. Your options at this point are threefold. 1. Wait for release day (still unconfirmed but definitely within the next six weeks) 2. Request a supplemental preview play-test at a later date. Or 3. Cudgel Lawton to the ground and play on into the night. Should you choose that last option then be sure to make use of the cupboard at the far end of the room to conceal the concussed corpse...

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