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Platform

Xbox 360

 

Genre

Role-Playing Game

 

Publisher

Bethesda / 2K

 

Developer

Bethesda Softworks

 

ESRB

T (Teen)

 

Released

March 20, 2006

 

 

- If you like sword and sorcery RPGs, this is the best of the best
- Gorgeous graphics, excellent voice work, excellent NPC
intelligence

 

 

- The game’s economy could still use some work, but that’s a minor issue

 

 

Review: Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind GOTY Edition (XB)

Review: Elder Scrolls III: Bloodmoon (PC)

Review: Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II - Sith Lords (PC)

 

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The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Score: 9.8 / 10

 

If I were asked to create the perfect virtual fantasy world, it would not involve wandering through vast fields to pick rare wildflowers. Regular church attendance would not be mandatory, I would not painstakingly scale imposing mountains to fetch obscure books for snotty jerks, and I would almost certainly never get involved in an argument between two crazy women, a bunch of giant pet rats, and a pack of starving mountain lions. Jogging would be scorned. With the exception of the starving mountain lions, these are all tasks that intrepid ex-girlfriends have tried to impose on me. So, it's a testament to the talents of the team at Bethesda Softworks that, for the past four years, I have eagerly awaited the most recent installment of their Elder Scrolls series: Oblivion, a game in which all of the elements listed above are unavoidable.

 

elder scrolls oblivion review          elder scrolls oblivion review


Actually, "eagerly awaited" is an understatement of Rumsfeldian proportions. Maybe "changed my PIN code a couple of months ago to reflect Oblivion's impending release date" better reflects my attitude. To summarize, Oblivion is a vast role playing game in which you initially find yourself imprisoned. The emperor of the land, voiced by Patrick Stewart, comes into your cell with a bunch of guards, looking for a way out of town. He says he's seen your face in a dream. Then, your group is beset by mysterious assassins, and the emperor is viciously murdered. But before he dies, he gives you a sacred amulet to deliver and says that you must help save the world from marauding demons, who are opening portals to hell everywhere, and will soon destroy civilization as you know it.


And so I set out, with a sense of great urgency, to find something easier to do.


For me, this involved making random potions using the hundreds of plants and mushrooms dotting the 16 square miles of lush landscape. In between, I fought many angry mud crabs. Now that I think of it, maybe this is why I’ve never been able to get anyone else I know interested in this game--my first 5 hours could be a Barbie: Horse Adventures quest.  (No, seriously guys! You can run and hop around while you look for flowers to pick. Check it out, I‘m sneaking past an angry rat! Sneak stat. Yeah!)

 

But, this is exactly what makes Oblivion such a great game. The ability to pick a race, customize your own character class, pick an astrological birth sign that gives you really cool special abilities and tailor your physical appearance using a huge array of sliders is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the freedom you have to play how you want. The game really does embrace virtually any style of play—if you are so inclined, you can sneak around in the dead of night, pick pockets and 

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steal from hundreds of homes and places of business. If you‘re more of a bruiser, you can muscle through hundreds of caves, ruined temples, forests--even a gladiator’s arena, spoiling for a fight. Or, you can create your own spells, make deadly poisons for your weapons, and, if you’re in the mage’s guild, enchant your own armor, weapons and other items. And, you can do any or all of this without handing over that Amulet.

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If Oblivion has any faults at all, it’s that the game is not very welcoming to beginners (although that certainly doesn‘t appear to have hurt sales). The designers at Bethesda have once again outdone themselves with the controls--which are very intuitive, even with a control pad in charge of a dizzying array of spells, potions, weapons, torches, etc. etc.--but, there are, partly by necessity, many, many, many menu screens.


Like many RPG fans, I love menu screens. They remind me how loaded I am. But newbies will likely spend several hours getting accustomed to the maps, inventory screens, quest logs, spell assignment buttons and so forth that are an essential part of the game.


So, there’s a serious learning curve for the uninitiated, but despite that, one of the most impressive aspects of the game is how much it actually does have going on under the hood. Character development is an organic process. If you tend to head into every battle swinging, you get better at using your sword. If you favor spell casting, you get better at that. In fact, virtually all of your actions in the game--even mundane tasks like running from place to place or bartering with shopkeepers--are things that your character will improve upon every time they are done. Of course, this all sounds like old hat to RPG veterans, but Bethesda pioneered this type of design, and they still do it very, very well.


The hundreds of sub-quests in the game are also very well designed. Whether you are trying to rise up through the ranks of the guilds, assassinate NPCs through the “Dark Brotherhood,“ do favors for the locals such as fighting off ghost pirates or breaking up thief/prostitution rings, or simply plunder caves and dungeons, most quests can be accomplished within an hour or two, particularly with the game’s “fast travel” feature, a vast improvement over Morrowind’s Stilt Striders.

 

elder scrolls oblivion review          elder scrolls oblivion review


Other quests, such as curing yourself of vampirism (should you contract it and want to get rid of it) are almost like a game within a game, requiring you to visit multiple locations and discern clues and directions through dozens of conversations with NPCs. Still others, such as a quest to find 10 “nirnroot” plants in exchange for a potion that had better defy my previous conceptions of whoopass, naturally drop onto the back burner as you attend to whatever other business is immediately at hand.


It’s a fantastic design that makes you feel as if you’ve been dropped into an exquisitely detailed, fully realized world, with great NPC intelligence, an unexpected sub-plot around every corner, and plenty of opportunities to just get lost and enjoy the absolutely gorgeous scenery.


One minor gripe--more like an aspect of an otherwise incredible game that could use improvement--is that the game’s economy is still a bit problematic. We’re dealing with a medieval society here, so it makes sense that even the wealthiest shopkeepers have only a few hundred gold to trade with at any given time, that the hoarded treasure throughout the game will be doled out in relatively small portions, and that even the richest NPCs only carry a few “Septims” on them at any given time. But, a game where you can purchase fabulous mansions for tens of thousands of gold, and find ancient weapons much more valuable than you could possibly sell them for, begs for a better system for dealing in high level equipment and other premium goods and services, especially when everything else is leveling up around you as you advance. It’s tough to believe that all of the nobles you can meet in the game got to where they are by fighting and betting in the Arena.


Morrowind overcame these problems with a bankrolled imp at the back of a bar, and a very rich drunken, talking mud crab on a small island in the middle of nowhere who would buy pretty much anything for top dollar. By contrast, in Oblivion, you can bludgeon a man named Dorian in his own home and steal as many millions as you want through a glitch, or when your bartering stats reach a high enough level, you can “invest” in shops run by NPCs. This basically involves handing over several grand for the privilege of being able to earn some of that money back by selling your higher level loot to those same merchants.

 

Again, in a game based primarily on questing and dungeon crawling, many players are going to overlook this issue. But the economy is one aspect of the world of Tamriel that, if improved, could really take this franchise to an entirely different level. Imagine, for example, that a couple of nobles were real freaks about a couple of specific types of enchanted weaponry that weren’t tied to a quest. Or, at a more ambitious end of the spectrum, imagine if, with sufficient incoming funds through investments in shops and land, you could select and hire your own retainers, and as a result, have an entirely different set of priorities involving the politics that are already embedded in this world.


The Elder Scrolls series is really the last of a dying breed. Single player RPGs with medieval themes were once one of the primary, driving forces of the gaming industry, but now MMORPGs have overtaken them, and not really for the better in terms of innovation. I’ve still got a lot of hope for Molyneaux’s Fable series, but honestly, despite all of the hype, and the fact that, in the end, it was a very fun game, many of its supposed innovations had already been accomplished by Bethesda.


I’m very happy that these guys have made tons of dough off of Oblivion, because I still haven’t handed that Amulet over, and I already can‘t wait to see what the series has in store next. It’s become so rare to see a studio with a real hit franchise on their hands that doesn’t just sit down and milk it as a cash cow. These guys have a bigger stake though, because in many ways, they’re now bearing the burden of moving an entire genre forward.

 

- M. Enis

(May 26, 2006)

 

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