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Platform

Xbox 360

 

Genre

Role-Playing

 

Publisher

Bethesda Softworks

 

Developer

Bethesda

 

ESRB

M (Mature)

 

Released

Q2 2007

 

 

- 30 extra hours of Elder Scrolls between major releases

- Showcases the teams brilliant new take on in-engine cut scenes

 

 

- This is the Elder Scrolls, chief—do you have some sort of problem with that?

 

 

Review: Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (360)

Review: Bullet Witch (360)

Review: Psychonauts (XB)

 

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The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles

Score: 9.5 / 10

 

It’s tough to write convincing dialogue for characters that are supposed to be insane, but upon entering the Shivering Isles, the major new world in the Elder Scrolls’ Tamriel universe, I quickly found my character engaging in small talk with a guy whose idea of a conversation perfectly straddled that fine line between “cold-blooded sociopath” and “airplane glue aficionado.”

 

shivering isles          shivering isles

 

“Do you realize why things always look better without the skin on?” he said. “You can only see the bones when you take them out; you can hear them better that way, too.”

 

Fortunately, this Charm School graduate wasn’t in the mood to chat for long. He was on a mission to kill someone he called The Gatekeeper, which turned out not to be the figment of a paint chip fueled imagination, but a hairless and invincible 12-foot tall abomination who ruthlessly guards the entrance to bipolar realms of manic beauty and abject despair. Also, [spoiler alert!] The Gatekeeper has “mom” issues.

 

But so goes a day in the life in the Shivering Isles, a world willed into being by the Daedric Prince of Madness Sheogorath. Available for PC via download and retail,

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and on Xbox 360 as a download through Xbox LIVE, this expansion pack for Oblivion again showcases the talents of one of the most gifted teams of storytellers currently working in interactive entertainment.

 

It’s initially thrilling to see this group take on the topic of insanity in depth. These are the guys, after all, that

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channeled just enough H. P. Lovecraft into the plot of Morrowind to make key threads of the story hum with a sense of dread, all while remaining totally original in context and concept.

 

Here instead, we’ve got a totally original concept—The Shivering Isles are about to be destroyed by a once in a millennium event known as The Graymarch that you must somehow stop—which frequently lacks that sense of dread, partly because most of the NPCs you meet are already so insane that they don’t seem to really care. They asked me to steal the diaries of people who were reading their minds and find them places to sleep where there weren’t too many walls nearby. One gave me a skinless dog as a gift, and the thing wouldn’t stop following me around until, in a classic moment of Elder Scrolls randomness, it was viciously attacked by a mob of golden saints.

 

That’s not to say that the plot doesn’t hold together.  The main storyline is as excellent as any fan of this series would expect. But similar to earlier Elder Scrolls titles, the side quests generally don’t have a direct connection to the main plot. And however paranoid they were, most NPCs seemed to lack concern about or theories regarding the looming apocalypse. In some ways, this works atmospherically, and gives a little comic relief. But, there may have been some missed opportunities in an otherwise tightly knit world where the landscapes, the city of New Sheoth , the dungeons and ruin designs all work together to give the game a subtly sinister feel throughout.

 

That’s my nitpicking for this round, and there are several early spoilers below, so if you’re a fan of the series and you haven’t picked this up yet, go do that. With about 30 hours of new content in a unique new world. It’s definitely worth the $20, especially if it’s been a while since you’ve played Oblivion. Otherwise, since it’s been out for a couple months already, I figured I’d talk about how the guys at Bethesda are reinventing the in-engine cut scene rather than discussing the game’s great graphics, new enemies and cool mushroom forests.

 

shivering isles          shivering isles

 

Oblivion makes such frequent use of in-engine cut scenes that they’re easy to take for granted. Occasionally, though, there are standouts—like the scene between Janus Hassildor and his wife that concludes the cure for vampirism quest—that are so brilliant you just hope other developers are taking notes. The solemn walk down the long hallway. The scene itself, where you’re still in control of the camera, but you hang back just a bit, because you feel almost like you’re intruding on something deeply private. One of the few truly touching moments in any game, and they make you the director, through your character’s own eyes. Exceptional stuff.

 

At several points in the Shivering Isles, the direction—or really, the development team’s ability to allow players to direct cut scene action while still keeping their story on the rails—feels a like it’s become even more seamless.  

 

The initial quest to defeat the Gatekeeper is an excellent example.  As players first make their way up to the hilltop where he stands guard, half a dozen fully armored fighters rush past. Hang back or join them—either way, you’re treated to a fight in which the Gatekeeper opens a 12-pack of import quality whoopass and does not offer to share. The party is quickly over, and the search for clues on how to defeat this thing is on.

 

I chose to see what my crazy new acquaintance knew, leading to a sidequest where we went to a place called the Garden of Flesh and Bone and fought a new breed of skeletal undead called “shambles.” He offered to turn their bones into arrows, and he’s a pretty fantastic archer, so I took him up on the offer.

But for my money, the most brilliant moment in this little story takes place when you break into the hotel room of a mysterious and clearly disturbed woman named Relmyna to find the place littered with a human torso, a few other body parts and a shovel. Turns out she’s a necromancer that just can’t leave the job at the office while on vacation, I suppose. Fans of survival horror might find these macabre flourishes a little tame. But, it’s still pretty jarring, and things only get weirder as you read a note that indicates this woman created the Gatekeeper, and seems to have an unrequited crush on Sheogorath himself.

 

Ultimately, you find yourself following Relmyna to a tearful midnight meeting with the Gatekeeper, her ‘child.’ Dr. Phil makes an appearance and explains that his anger is due to being born hideously malformed with a sword for an arm in an insane world where he has no free will whatsoever.

 

OK, just kidding about that last part, but the tearful reunion that you have to sneak up on to see and hear—great.  The fact that it happens right before you must kill this unfortunate creature—brilliant. It adds layers and layers of meaning to the quest’s conclusion.

 

What’s notable here is that almost all of this story’s exposition is handled visually, even though the game never asks you to take your hands off the controls and watch some mini-movie that tells you what to think. You learn that the Gatekeeper is supposedly invincible by watching him fight, you get hints of the brutality of his creator by breaking in to her hotel room and just looking around, and you discover his vulnerability by sneaking up on a quiet conversation.

 

In another fairly early scene, players are ambushed in the middle of a dialogue by some phantoms in super creepy armor. In print, it doesn’t sound so exciting, I’ll grant you that. But the action itself—and remember, this is in-engine, so if you’re not paying attention, you can just be listening to this guy talk, minding your own business, and get punk spanked with a claymore before you realize what hit you—comes as a total shock.

 

There are a few other, more subtle touches as well. For example, in a couple of instances, players are engaging in a dialogue, and another NPC will join the conversation but won’t enter the frame. You’re still fixed in place, but have to turn to look at them. It may be that I’m forgetting times that this was done in Oblivion or Morrowind, but if I am, the technique at least seems more pronounced here, and it makes several important moments feel a little more spontaneous and natural—a little more like an actual conversation.

 

There are some disappointments, most notably in the Felldew dungeon, where it seemed like the team could have used a little more “Eternal Darkness” and a little less, “screw it, we’ll let the effects of a deadly addictive drug play out on the stat screens.”  But overall, their skill at building action into scenes that communicate crucial information is clearly becoming more fluid. They are putting more thought into breaking down those inherent barriers between storytelling, interactivity and open environments than anyone else in the industry right now. (Argue it out on the Armchair Empire message boards!)

 

All of this sort of indirectly brings us back to the issue of side-quests. One of the most brilliant side-quests in Oblivion is “A Shadow over Hackdirt.”  An amiable young Argonian woman has disappeared after making a visit to a backwater little town. If players choose to get involved, they arrive at the town to find the place inhabited by a verbally belligerent group of people who are apparently all members of an ancient religious cult. It gets weirder from there.

 

I may have more appreciation for that little mystery plot because I didn’t personally uncover it until I was well into the main quest, and gates to Oblivion were opening up all over the countryside. But, it seemed to perfectly encapsulate the unpredictable results of paranoia and fear that ordinary people would probably be experiencing, given the buildup to a supernatural conflict brewing outside their strange but tightly knit community.

 

That’s fantastic stuff. The Shivering Isles may not have as many side quests of that caliber, but the Elder Scrolls has always been a slow-moving revolution. Each game and each expansion is always just better than their last mind-blowing accomplishment, and here, the camera work and scene integration is the new star. As always, can’t wait to see what they’ve got in store next.

 

- M. Enis

(August 23, 2007)

 

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