Review by DarthMuffin

"An amazing game that suffers from a few gameplay problems"

Introduction

The Elder Scrolls games are renowned for giving the player a huge world to freely explore, a lot of character customization and the ability to create custom content to further improve (or fix) the game. Oblivion manages to stay true to the spirit of the series, and is a definite improvement over the previous instalment, Morrowind. However, it does suffer from a few small problems that siphon some of the fun out of the game.

Gameplay 8

The first thing that you need to do, like in any role-playing game, is to create your character. Since Morrowind, Elder Scrolls games follow the tendency of integrating the character creation process into the game itself. Oblivion pushes it to another level by giving the player a glimpse of the different playing styles before he or she has to make a definitive choice. This is a nice improvement over Morrowind; by going through this small “prelude”, the player will learn a lot about all the features and will thus be able to make the choices that suit his or her playing style the best.

Character creation also allows for a lot of customization. First off, a lot of emphasis is put on the facial appearance of the characters: the customization is even better than in The Sims 2, which is no small feat. Once again, you can pick a premade class or create your own, this time from a choice of seven major skills. Birthsigns are back, and give your character special abilities or bonuses. Overall, the character creation is probably one of the best ever made for a role-playing game.

Elder Scrolls games differ from traditional RPGs concerning character development. You do not gain any experience points from completing quests or killing enemies. Instead, your character will gain levels from raising his or her major skills. Skills are obviously raised by using them. This unique system spawned a problem in Morrowind: players could simply pay trainers that raise skills in order to become extremely powerful early on. Oblivion corrected this problem by limiting the number of skills raised through training to five per level (you need to raise ten skills to level up). Once again, it really feels like the designers wanted to polish what they had done in Morrowind.

Oblivion takes place in the Imperial province Cyrodiil, which is in the dead center of Tamriel. By looking at the official maps, it is obvious that Cyrodiil is larger than Vvardenfell, the island where Morrowind took place (at least twice as big). However, in the game, Cyrodiil is noticeably smaller. Add to this the fact that your character can fast travel (read: click and be there) to any location he has explored (the eight major cities count as being already explored). Therefore, the game world feels a lot smaller than it was in Morrowind. While there are still many places to explore, I was a bit disappointed by this.

Since the game is called “Oblivion” (the “hell” of Tamriel), you can expect some of the action to take place there. When I first heard about that, I thought that Oblivion would be another complete world to explore. That's not the case. The main quest will have you close a series of Gates to Oblivion (which bare a strange resemblance to the gate at the end of Diablo II's Act III) which are essentially individual “dungeons”. You cannot, for example, enter Oblivion through gate A, explore the plane, and then exit via gate B. Morrowind had you explore Dwemer ruins. It's the same thing here, except that the ruins are replaced by towers in Oblivion and Elven ruins in Cyrodiil itself.

Arguably one of the biggest change since Morrowind is that the enemies now increase in level as you do. This is, hands down, the biggest mistake the developers could do. While the basic concept is good (you will never fight incredibly weak enemies, so the game remains challenging), it utterly destroys some aspects of the gameplay. First, it makes leveling a bit counter productive. You will never feel more powerful than the creatures you fight (this also include the wolves you will occasionally run into). The basic concept of leveling up is to become more powerful; that's simply not the case in Oblivion. Most of the time, you won't feel a difference… until your attack spells become ineffective, and you are forced to buy new ones.

Also, it makes the guild quests (the main way of getting quests is to advance through one of the guilds) completely unrealistic. Since the enemies level as you do, a level 1 character could technically complete every quest (apart from the Deadric quests, which require the very low level 10). Therefore, the designers took out the required skill levels to advance in a guild (and thus get more quests). The result? I was level six when I completed the Mages Guild quests. I was then arch-mage (read: leader of the Mages Guild in all of Tamriel) and I was a mere sixth level fireball-thrower. Since there is no level requirement, that also means that you can just sit there for a few hours and complete all the quests of a guild. This really reduces the length of the game (Morrowind obliged you to explore on your own since you needed to level in order to progress). And of course, no skill requirements also mean that any kind of fighter with no magic skills can become arch-mage at level 1.

Like I said, guilds are the easiest way to get quests. Apart from the main quest and the guilds, you only get quests by speaking to random people. Oblivion gives you four guilds: Fighters, Mages, Thieves and Dark Brotherhood (i.e. Assassins). While the main quest has you join, once again, the Blades (who are now the Emperor's Bodyguards instead of spies), you will never advance in this faction. This is also a step back from Morrowind, which gave you the four basic guilds, the Imperial Legion, the Imperial Cult and a choice of one of the three great houses and one of the three vampire factions.

Each of the three main character style, combat, magic and stealth, have been reworked. Combat skills now allow you to perform advanced attacks when the skill is high enough. For example, when you reach a certain level in blade, you can perform an attack that has a chance of disarming the enemy. You now also manually control the block skill, which is much better. Also, the designers finally gave us magicka (mana) regeneration, which makes playing as a magic-focused character much more fun. Stealth characters also get a few extra brownies, notably the ability to do the famous “backstab” sneak attacks common to Dungeons and Dragons games.

Besides all these improvements, it still feels like combat-oriented classes are favoured. While it is not as flagrant as in Morrowind (which severely limited mages and thieves alike), you still get the feeling that the designers expect you to take up sword and shield and use magic or stealth skills as secondary skills. However, it does remain an important improvement since Morrowind, and that must be taken into consideration.

Finally, Oblivion also gives the player the chance to buy houses and horses. Houses are basically a place where you can store your items and sleep (sleep, which is needed for levelling, is now limited to beds only; so it's actually useful to have a place where you can always go for free). Horses are a big disappointed. Basically, it only lets you travel faster. And the overall control remains really superficial. I simply cannot understand why they did not improve this; Zelda 64 was released eight (8!!) years ago and horse riding was better in that game. Oh, and you cannot attack or do anything else than move on a horse.

Video 10

The graphics are simply stunning. Everything looks real and life-like, from the characters to the cities to the nature.

The only annoyance is that the terrain that is far from you is treated with lower textures. This is necessary however, since giving everything high resolutions would require even higher system specifications. Some people have already fixed this with a mod anyway.

There is really nothing else to add here. The graphics in Oblivion are clearly the most impressive I have ever seen.

Audio 10

Music in Morrowind was quite good. In Oblivion, it is excellent. Composer Jeremy Soule (easily one of the best video game music composer) is back, and his music in Oblivion is miles ahead of his failure in Guild Wars.

A huge step forward from Morrowind is that dialogues now have a complete voice-over. Since Knights of Old Republic, games that did not offer voice-overs felt kind of dull. Oblivion feels extremely alive in that respect. Also, NPCs occasionally have conversations with each others. Walking in a street, you now hear something else than the music and your footsteps. Entering a room full of people is also quite interesting.

Of course the sound effects are still top notch. From a sword hitting a shield to a fireball exploding, everything is well done. Of special note is the sound arrows make when you fire them. Simply awesome.

Story 9

The story is pretty good, and it is developed more extensively than in Morrowind. Since it really starts out with a “punch”, I cannot really say more without spoiling it.

I chose to give it a 9 because it has a “save the world” feel (more so than in Morrowind), which has been used over and over again. I really think that newer RPGs should have more original storylines.

Replay Value 9

The replay value of Oblivion is clearly superior to some of the newer games on the market. It is obvious that one can spend a lot of time doing quests and exploring the world. Then, you can always create new, different characters and experience the adventure with a different point of view. At least each of the three specializations should enable you to create vastly different characters that vary greatly in their gameplay. The toolset also allows you to create modifications and add-ons for the game, and the Internet will most likely become a limitless pool of mods (Morrowind still has a dedicated community of mod-makers).

The only downside I can see is concerning the quests. Morrowind gave you three different great houses and vampire families to join. Each represented a specific specialization, and you could only join one of the three. This obviously increased the replay value by making sure that some quests were accessible only by certain classes. That's no longer the case in Oblivion. Also, since there are no longer any skills requirements, a fighter can do all of the Mages Guild quests. So if you go around the game and do every single quest with your first character, quests might become a bit boring after the third time or so.

Conclusion

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is a great game. While it is a definite improvement over Morrowind, the game still has a few problems. As with Morrowind, it's most important features are open-endedness of the world, great character customization and the ability for players to create new content using the Construction Set.

In a way, I must say that I was disappointed a bit with the game. The thing is, there was so much marketing surrounding it that it made you think that Oblivion would let you live another life in a fantasy world. In that respect, Oblivion is a step (and a huge one) in the good direction. That being said, it is not as deep as you might be led to believe by looking at screenshots and videos.

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion remains a great, enjoyable game for RPG and fantasy fans. Expansion packs and modifications from the community will hopefully correct its issues and make it into the superb game it can be.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 04/30/06, Updated 05/05/06


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