The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Heard about The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion? It might just be the best role-playing game ever made. Oblivion is a fantastic achievement, a fitting sequel that bests its predecessor Morrowind in every conceivable way. Just make sure you have a grip on reality before you start playing, however, as the world depicted here is so lifelike that you might not want to return to our humdrum land of office work and traffic jams.
All of the legendary hero stuff is right where you would expect it in a magnum opus RPG. Assassinated emperors, mysterious heirs, ancient prophecies, burned-out villages, trips to other worlds, and much more give the main story a Tolkienesque grandeur. Some design elements adapted from the Lord of the Rings movies make it clear this wasnâ€™t accidental. Portals to the daedra (think demon) plane of Oblivion look a lot like Sauronâ€™s burning eye, and towers in the fiery dimension bear a resemblance to Barad-dÃ»r.
Borrowed visuals or not, the wide-open game world is in a class of its own. Cyrodiil, a territory in the world of Tamriel to the west of the lands depicted in Morrowind, is crammed with things to do and see. Venture off the beaten path and you immediately stumble across abandoned shrines, haunted fortresses, goblin caves, necromancer hideouts, and more creepy lairs scattered in a realistic landscape of forests, lakes, and mountains. Itâ€™s damn near impossible to stick with the principal storyline, as you canâ€™t travel anywhere without discovering a mine or a crypt or some such spooky place that just has to be explored.
Side quests are everywhere and are surprisingly original and fun. They are constantly on offer from NPCs, and surprisingly few are of the stereotypical “fetch item X” variety. Instead you play private investigator for a loon who thinks everyone is spying on him, search the spectacularly detailed flora and fauna of Cyrodiil for a rare plant needed to make a magic potion, check into a murder mystery, wade into a lake to help a down-on-his-luck fisherman, enter a work of art to battle oil-paint trolls, orâ€¦ well, you get the idea. Far from being tiresome, the side quests of Oblivion are a joy to solve.
These optional missions also involve a number of multipart expeditions. You need to visit every corner of the map to join the gameâ€™s guilds. Ruined forts hidden all over the map are key to a quest to find rare bottles of wine. Many missions that seem simple, like the opening mage-guild task to recover a ring, turn into broader excursions, link to other quests, or vaguely tie into the main story.
Part of the gameâ€™s â€œjust one more questâ€ appeal comes from incredible sound and video. Thereâ€™s a subtle, operatic Jeremy Soule score, and the look of Oblivion is actually more striking for art direction than sheer sex appeal. It is more fitting to compare the aesthetics here to great Hollywood cinematography than with those of another game, because every rock, ruin, tower, setting sun, and rising moon has been situated just so to create breathtaking scenery.
Turn one way and youâ€™re struck by the sadness of an abandoned fortress fallen into rubble. Turn another, and youâ€™re awed at the sun going down behind the majestic spires topping Imperial City. Wander in a certain part of the woods at night, and you might be fortunate enough to see the moon rising eerily over an ancient elven mausoleum. Venture into goblin caves and youâ€™re treated to the sight of rusty spike traps and giant rats roasting on spits.
There is so much to see here that Cyrodiil needs a Frommerâ€™s more than a gaming strategy guide. Once you get a virtual wanderlust going, expect to spend weeks roaming the hills and valleys. Whatâ€™s more, there is a logic behind the pretty sunsets and shadowy woods. All of these cities, caves and old ruins make sense. Goblins donâ€™t just hang around underground waiting to kill you: they pen up rats for food, set traps for visitors, and stick skulls on spikes to warn people away. Look hard enough in a crypt and you can always find the coffins that used to house zombies and skeletons that.
And there is more here than maudlin scenery geared to tug at your inner Arwen. Oblivion is also all about heading into the breach clad in mithril mail, swinging a magical sword, ripping off magic missileâ€”er, flare spells. The action is fast-paced and catchy, thanks to a smooth, punishing combat system that feels like Morrowind on steroids. Blocking and counter-attacking at key moments is vital in close quarters. Some AI issues do exist. Enemies seldom recognize when attacks arenâ€™t working. Fire demons, for instance, pepper you with fireballs even when youâ€™re completely immune to flame. Horseback riding is a nice new amenity in theory, but itâ€™s slow, awkward, and causes weird bugs.
Even though you could easily spend 200 hours solving all of Cyrodiilâ€™s riddles, aspects of the game are aloof. While level advancement is mercifully free of the stats that clog up D&D-inspired games and is wildly freeform, with a dozen races and 21 different classes plus a custom option, you boost skills solely by using them in the field.
This wonâ€™t surprise Morrowind veterans, and it is still a more natural way to handle character growth than picking specialties from a list (â€œIâ€™ll take â€˜Two-Handed Fightingâ€™ for $200, Alexâ€). But simply picking core attributes to buff when leveling up isnâ€™t good, as it makes you think of your character as more of a stock twitch-game protagonist than an RPG individual. Enemy scaling doesnâ€™t help, either. Having the same degree of trouble killing bandits at level 16 as you did when you were starting out makes you feel like youâ€™re treading water, not like youâ€™re becoming a great hero.
Other features generate a bit of a â€œstranger in a strange landâ€ sensation. Although generic NPCs now have daily routines and are far more realistic than their Morrowind counterparts, they arenâ€™t great conversationalists. Unless an NPC has a quest to offer, your only speaking options are generic selections like â€œRumors.â€ Each of the nine towns in the game has only a handful of conversation topics, too, so after 10 minutes in each place youâ€™ve heard everything there is to hear. Man-on-the-street NPCs donâ€™t just dwell on the same subjects, eitherâ€”they speak the exact same lines and tell the exact same anecdotes.
The developers apparently whipped up one script for each burg and then had a handful of actors voice the dialogue to make it sound varied. Still, these thespians do a great job with limited material, and they perform admirably when they get unique lines. Quest dialogue is brilliantly written, with a great sense of the epic and a parallel sense of the absurd for comic relief (youâ€™ll howl over a Dark Elfâ€™s questions about the fine for repeat-offense necrophilia).
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The new persuasion system suffers from some flaws. Although it is an interesting idea to turn conversations into minigames where you manipulate a wheel to boast, coerce, joke, and admire, there is no context for the banter. Characters repeat the same dozen or so lines throughout the game. â€œNot then, not now, not ever!â€ will echo in your head long after you shut the game down.
There isnâ€™t a good payoff most of the time, either. You might work for five minutes to get a guy to spill what he knows about crazy Glarthir, the village nut everybody in Skingrad is muttering about, only to hear something like â€œHey, did you know that Glarthir isnâ€™t all there?â€ Hysterical hype and a few technical warts lessen the appeal of Oblivion. But the epic storyline, consistently alluring side quests, evocative scenery, and addictive action have no peers in the role-playing game fraternity. Artistry and game design are blended wonderfully, creating what can only be deemed a masterpiece.
System Requirements: Pentium III 1 Ghz, 512 MB RAM, WinXP