The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion – Staff Retroview

“Bigger and mostly better” is one way to describe Oblivion, the fourth installment in the Elder Scrolls series. An ambitious and engagingly epic fantasy RPG, Oblivion improves on many of the problems its predecessors faced. The series’ hallmarks have always been big, sprawling worlds chock full of things to do and rich in detail, with the main plot almost as a side point to the adventures you have along the way. Oblivion capably carries this torch, and admirably gives its plot a stronger focus than that of Morrowind, the previous game in the series. For fans of the series it may be hard to shake the feeling that something’s been lost, but Oblivion does possess undeniable improvements to the gameplay that should appeal to newcomers and veterans alike.

At first glance, the controls are mostly the same from Morrowind; a first-person shooter setup with WASD keys handling movement and the mouse for camera control and weapon/spell usage. Additions to the interface include a new map and quest system, which tracks your current quests, marks the next destination on your map and compass, and allows for fast travel between major cities and previously discovered landmarks. Even more welcome are the refinements to combat and inventory management: hotkeys allow for fast weapon and spell switching, and gone is Morrowind’s ‘swing right in front of a target and somehow miss it’ combat. Shield use has its own button now, and time a block right and your enemy will be stunned, open to counterattack.

Protect the captai... er, the emperor!

Visually, the game hits the right notes, though PC users will require some serious horsepower to run the game on high settings. Oblivion’s multitude of towns, forests and ruins all look great, though there is some repetition with the game’s dungeons and caves; there are literally hundreds of such locales, all waiting to be discovered, though a fair amount of detail helps differentiate most of them. The design fares better with civilization, as each city bears a distinct architectural style, and guards patrol with their city’s crest proudly displayed on shield and armor. Battles are suitably impressive, aided by the Havok physics engine; bodies are knocked aside by weapon strikes and magic explosions, loose items tumble and spill when bumped into, and so on.

However, Oblivion lacks the sense of imagination possessed by its predecessor, replacing the unique ashlands and bestiary of Morrowind with more common fantasy fodder. Gone are the sheep-like netch, the towering insectoid silt striders used for transportation, and the daunting, byzantine architecture of the Telvanni cities, to name a few aspects. In their place are fairly typical European-styled environments, populated by the same real-world and fantasy critters we’ve seen in other games. This isn’t a major knock against the game, as Oblivion still delivers the goods in the graphics department and does come up with a few unique locales, but it somehow comes off as less inspired than Morrowind. Oblivion‘s character creation system is very robust, giving an unprecedented level of control over fine facial details, but there’s an unavoidable sameness to the men and women of each race.

Music and sound bear a similar burden of two steps forward, one step backward. The soundtrack remains suitably epic, and unlike in Morrowind the music adjusts depending on whether you’re taking a stroll across a cheerful little town, mucking about in some grimy swamp, or sneaking through a haunted dungeon. The various sound effects are serviceable, from sword clashes and fireballs to pouring rain and monster growls, though there are glitches with the sounds made by friendly NPCs during a fight. The most noteworthy aspect of the sound is the voice acting, which has been expanded from Morrowind to cover every line of dialogue.

We've secretly replaced one of this pirate ship's crew with a heavily armed escaped convict.  Let's see if they notice!

In some cases this works well; players will undoubtedly recognize Patrick Stewart as Emperor Uriel Septim in the game’s prologue, and may pick out other voices along the way. Plot-related NPCs are voiced well and the actors get into their roles convincingly. However, there is a significant problem with repetition, and it can seem like all members of a particular race were voiced by no more than two or three people. Some characters will strike up conversations with others out on the street, and you’re bound to hear the same canned lines from the same actors several times.

The Radiant AI system used by Oblivion helps give each character some life, letting them go about their days with some semblance of a schedule; eating, resting, doing chores, going to church, and so on. However, in combat and stealth matters the AI tends to be selectively perceptive; guards may notice you picking a lock from the other side of town, while a bandit may not notice a fireball sailing past him and striking one of his friends. Friendly NPCs are similarly blind at times, and will often run headlong into hopeless odds or visible traps. This is somewhat mitigated by the ability to tell certain NPCs to wait, and the fact that some characters are invincible (a perhaps regrettable concession to keep the story from being broken). That, in turn, is offset by the rather high degree of friendly fire in some of the larger battles, and it’s not uncommon to yield to a fellow soldier who interrupted your crippling power attack on that hulking Daedra breathing down your neck.

The difficulty is compounded by the game’s common enemies, which tend to be predictable, annoying, or dangerous. Wolves, bears and other wildlife can easily muscle you around and knock you off balance, while mages and bowmen can safely knock down heavily armored opponents and easily outrun them. Mana regenerates, allowing a mage to endlessly evade a fighter and recharge; melee characters tend to be at a huge disadvantage against even one spellcaster, even within melee range. This is a far cry from Morrowind’s system, which could see a mage out of mana after three healing spells, one of which failed – the living god Vivec could cast his powerful fireball spell a whopping two times – but it still feels wildly unbalanced.

Character building and the leveling system are largely unchanged from Morrowind; your character has ten primary skills and goes up a level after ten increases in any combination of those skills. Base statistics (strength, dexterity, endurance, and so on) can be improved upon leveling up, with multipliers added depending on which skills you trained in. There are new twists, such as perks for every 25 points in a skill – stunning blows for combat skills, reduced mana costs for spells, etc. – but it remains easy to abuse and equally easy to screw up. You can gain levels without ever getting better at fighting or spellcasting, and since enemies scale to your level, you can find yourself seriously outgunned if you haven’t been keeping your combat skills up to speed. Furthermore, a few skills and spells have been consolidated into each other or removed altogether; there is now no distinction in skill between leather armor and chainmail, or between daggers and swords, and some of Morrowind’s most useful spells – Levitation and Mark/Recall (for teleportation) – are conspicuously absent.

OHSHI- Sauron!  Quick, destroy the One Ring!

A major redeeming factor is the game’s plot, which benefits from a top-notch presentation. The story gets off to a running start; your character has just thrown in the Imperial dungeon for some unknown crime, and it just so happens that your cell contains the Emperor’s secret escape route, which he just so happens to need today. Assassins have killed his sons, and he knows he’s next. His bodyguards frantically try to escort him through the passage to safety, and you are left with no option but to follow. This serves as both the game’s tutorial and its character generation sequence, and it works well on both counts. What follows your escape from the dungeon are some standard fantasy tropes, involving an invasion of otherworldly forces from the plane of Oblivion – a kind of demonic netherworld – and the search for a missing heir to the imperial throne, but creative setpieces, spectacular battles and a handful of genuinely likeable characters give the story a much-needed shot in the arm.

As mentioned at the start, Oblivion is bigger and mostly better in the important respects than its predecessors. On the upside, combat has been improved, travel is much less of a hassle, the journal system is very user friendly, and the plot has the scripting and dialog to back up its text. On the downside, the character building mechanics haven’t seen any significant improvements, and Cyrodiil feels less creative and interesting than the island of Morrowind. As with the previous game, Oblivion‘s rougher spots are largely smoothed out by a vibrant mod community, but the core package is solid enough to warrant a closer look by anybody in the market for a gargantuan world to explore; the main plotline can be finished in days, but there is well over a hundred hours of content in the game. Fans of Morrowind may be turned off by the traditional fantasy stylings of Oblivion, but the improvements in the gameplay may well pull in those who’d written off the series before.

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