Review by ThE_oNe11
"An ambitious but heavily flawed experience"
I've always been a huge fan of the TES series, and it should also be worth noting that, like with the game before it, Morrowind, a review of Oblivion will be obsolete once you find the huge collection of user-made modifications which fix so many aspects of the gameplay that you may dislike. Like Morrowind before it, the TES mod community is so active and inventive that you will be getting much more content with the game than what the developers shell out. Regardless, I like to play the game vanilla in my first run-through, so I'll be evaluating it from that standpoint. Just remember that buying Oblivion is like buying several games when it comes to mod content.
Now, having been a fan of previous TES games, making comparisons is unfortunately inevitable when evaluating Oblivion. Daggerfall had a wonderfully complex, large world, and well-written storyline, but it often felt generic due to the sheer size of the world, which meant that the developers couldn't exactly dedicate a lot of time to every nook and cranny (or NPC). Morrowind gave us a smaller world, centered on one particular region of Tamriel, and as a result felt more interesting and concise. Yet it had its own problems when it came to NPCs and dialogue. Being a TES fan, I was naturally predisposed to enjoy Oblivion, and overall, I did like the game quite a bit. But it was the kind of enjoyment where annoyance hangs at the back of your mind due to several flaws.
Let's start with the storyline. Oblivion's story begins with you as a prisoner (as usual) who happens to be in a cell which contains a secret exit. The Emperor comes through and recognizes your face from his dream, and you are allowed free with a quest from him to deliver an amulet to his heir. The storyline isn't really anything special, but to be fair, the storyline of Morrowind wasn't too original either. The problem with Oblivion's though, is that it's an urgent storyline (the Emperor has died and enemies are flooding in from other planes) yet there is no sense of urgency in the world. You are free to ignore the main quest and nothing will happen. When Kvatch is attacked by demons, you can ignore it for weeks with no consequences. You can also just ignore the main quest and pick flowers for the Mages Guild while the world is being overrun, but no one seems to care. Everyone in the world goes on with their lives, apparently unaware of the invasion of Cyrodil.
Of course, ignoring the main quest and doing anything you want is a staple of TES, yet in Morrowind, for example, it made much more sense. The main plot of Morrowind started out as a scattered search for information, something that was of mild interest and not very urgent. In Oblivion, the world is being invaded. Yet the only hints you'll find of that are the fact that NPCs sometimes line up and have short conversations about Oblivion gates.
The NPCs were one of the most hyped aspects of the game. Bethesda promoted a new Radiant AI system that would make NPCs behave like real people. There are good sides and bad sides to this system. When you first start the game, you'll be much more impressed with them compared to the stiff, static NPCs of Morrowind. Oblivion's NPC's actually do things - go to shops, go to inns, sleep, eat, fight each other, and etc. When I first went into the Mages guild and saw people practicing their conjurations, mixing potions, it felt very immersive. The long-run problem, though, is the same as with Morrowind. As you play longer, you begin to notice how poor the implementation really is.
For example, the first time you hear NPCs conversing with each other, it's a cool thing to see. But when you actually listen to them, you'll discover that their conversations are so poorly written that it will be obvious that these are just scripted robots. The scripting is even worse. One NPC will talk to another about mudcrabs for about two seconds, then turn around and talk to another and say the exact same things....Again, it's a good concept, yet in execution, it feels poor. And then there's the fact that you can sidle right up to anyone having a private conversation, listen to their every word, and they have no problem with this.
Don't get me wrong - I praise Bethesda for trying something new with NPCs, god knows Morrowind needed improvements in that regard. But the result is merely a case of short-sighted improvements that resulted in an even more unrealistic world than they had without it. And it baffles me that even the simplest fixes weren't implemented while those ideas were carried out. For example, why is it that I can break into someone's house at night, go to their bed, and then wake them up and have a conversation with them as if nothing happened?
The dialogue system of Morrowind was also fairly poor, using a wikipedia-style interface where you click one of dozens of topics which lead to other clickable topics. There were no dialogue trees - your character could only think of topics to ask about, and then get a wall of text in return. Oblivion doesn't so much fix the dialogue system as much as extremely simplify it. There's no wikipedia interface, but only because text is all voiced. The topics system remains, but now each NPC only has a few topics to ask about. So there's less repetition, thankfully, but that's about the only improvement. Voice acting is a mixed bag. Again, when you start the game, hearing everyone speak is a nice experience, but as with everything else, in the long-run, it becomes a problem. The reason is because there are hundreds of NPCs in the game, but Bethesda only hired a few voice actors. This means you'll often hear the same voice actors voicing different characters. And I don't mean occasionally. It happens very, very often. It's another case of a good idea with poor implementation. Why not save money by not hiring celebrities like Sean Bean and Patrick Stewart (voices of the Emperor and his son), and use that leftover to cash to get more varied voice actors?
Let's move on to the visuals. Again, a mixed bag. Walking through the forests as the wind blows on grass and sunlight peeks through the canopy - these moments are very enjoyable. Similarly, the spell effects are very satisfying as well. But the character models are all fairly horrendous - everyone has a pudgy look to them. And it must be noted that Bethesda was rather lazy with their PC version (which was their original audience). The distant textures in the default Oblivion, unmodded, are mushy and blurry, which is extremely noticeable and ugly on a PC screen, though probably less noticeable when playing on an XBOX from your couch. This deference to console users is again apparent in the horrible inventory interface. Gone is the mouse-oriented PC interface of Morrowind, instead everything is list-based with huge fonts, tailored for a console game playing with a gamepad, not someone with access to a keyboard and mouse.
But beyond the actual graphics engine, the visual artwork of the game is too bland to be memorable. The pretty forests are a nice touch the first time, but they become repetitive and uninteresting as they're plastered all over Cyrodil. The towns are also very repetitive and bland, typical Medieval environments common to any fantasy game. That is where the game fails, compared to Morrowind. Morrowind was a strange world with odd creatures, strange architecture and a generally alien feel. Cyrodil, as portrayed in Oblivion, feels like any other bland medieval fantasy world. This extends beyond the visuals - the dialogue, books, and general tone of Morrowind gave the impression of a very troubled place with a lot of history and culture. You had warring factions, rival political houses, things of that nature. Oblivion feels more simplistic, more cookie-cutter. The biggest disappointment is the childish way that guilds are handled. There are no inter-guild politics, no rivalries. The Thieves Guild has been reduced to one man who hands out quests occasionally near the Imperial City.
The world feels a lot smaller than Morrowind as well. This may not actually be true in terms of sheer size, but Cyrodil in Oblivion feels very monotonous and repetitive. The same forests litter nearly every corned of the province, and there are only a couple of major cities, perhaps 6 or 7, which dot the landscape. Granted, these cities are larger and more believable than many from Morrowind, but they just don't have the same level of variety to hold interest. The addition of fast travel also helps to make the world feel small. Now, obviously, if you don't like the concept of magical fast travel, you shouldn't use it. The problem is, since fast travel exists the other believable and realistic options of travelling were removed. There's no transport spells, no transport devices (like silt striders or boats in Oblivion), no mages guild transports. So it's either use the fast travel system, or walk to and from every single location in the game. To Bethesda's credit, they added horses to the game for travel. But like with so many other parts of the game, introducing a solution created a new problem. You have horses, yet there's no mounted combat. So every time you're roaming through the landscape, being attacked means getting hit as you dismount the horse, fight, then get back on. Why can't I shoot arrows from atop my horse? Or cast a spell?
One area of clear improvement, though, in terms of enjoyment, is the combat. Morrowind's click-fest combat became repetitive after five minutes. Personally, I've always felt that RPG mechanics work best in turn based game. While Oblivion is definitely not turn-based, at least they made a clear decision to be an Action RPG with action-based content instead of doing a pseudo-RPG clickfest combat like in Morrowind. But it's also clear that they tried to make the combat appeal to "casual gamers". For example, rather than having to ready magic or ready weapons, there is just one combat mode where you can easily cast spells and fight with weapons together. And even if you choose to be a warrior, there are staffs you can pick up that have magical effects, and work like rocket launchers from any FPS - not to mention they are overpowered. It can be fun, but it's not RPG combat. The combat is obviously intended for everyone to just be a warrior-thief-mage character who does all of these things. I would be disappointed if they continued on the path to being an action-adventure game and not an RPG with future TES games.
But now, let's move on to what is what completely ruined my Oblivion experience, and what led me to shelve the game entirely until user made mods began to appear - the levelling system. By this, I do not mean the player levelling system, which follows the Morrowind style of levelling skills as you use them. I mean the dynamic levelling of the world around you. When you are level 1, the world adapts to you in difficulty. When you are level 5, NPCs around you become stronger and monsters become more challenging. But not only AI is levelled - so are items and loot. So if you raid a cave for a quest, what you find will always be relative to your level. So what does this mean, altogether? If you're a level 1 character, all your enemies will also be low level and have low worth items, and all the items you find will be fairly poor. When you reach a high level, all your enemies will be a high level too, have great items, and all the items you find will be good.
I cannot imagine why or how anyone would think this system would be fun for an RPG. It completely eliminates the entire point of even labelling the game an RPG. What is the point of having statistics and levels if the entire world is always relative to you? But even beyond that, what is the point of a game that focuses on exploration if the exploration is always predictable and pointless? There is no challenge, no surprise, no sense of tension at all. Whenever I enter a dungeon, I always know I can handle whatever is inside. But I have no desire to explore the dungeon in the first place because I already know I will find nothing great within it. In Morrowind, I would sometimes have the great experience of finding myself in long, extended battles, finally defeating a difficult enemy, barely surviving, and being rewarded for it with an excellent item. Or, I would accept a dangerous quest, find myself far too weak, pursue other quests, increase my skills, then return as a stronger character, able to handle it. That's the whole point of RPGs. In Oblivion, this just doesn't exist. There is never any sense of real progression nor any incentive for it. You can beat the entire game at level 1. You can become the mighty Champion of the Arena at level 1. If you level up to find great items - what's the point? Everyone else will have them too. Why can a level 1 player save the entire world so easily? And on the other side, why is a high level character having trouble defeating monsters in the forest? Why are bandits on the side of the roads wearing expensive armor just because I'm at a high level? It makes no sense, is unrealistic, and just isn't fun.
So, overall, there are a lot of little flaws about Oblivion involving NPCs and dialogues. Yet those existed in Morrowind in some way as well, and that was an enjoyable game. The real core of the problem with Oblivion is its gameplay system and dynamically levelling world, which simply disrupts the entire experience. If you want to make a world that is always adjusted to the player, never too difficult nor too easy, then make an action game without levels at all. Thankfully, there are tons of user mods which fix these problems, and with them, Oblivion can turn into an unforgettable, amazing game. Just don't expect too much from the vanilla product. In the end, I can only thank Bethesda for providing the system on which modders are able to turn Oblivion into a great game.
Reviewer's Score: 5/10 | Originally Posted: 02/08/10
Game Release: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (US, 03/20/06)
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