Review by velmarg
"In the end, it's like a beautifully directed movie full of really, really bad actors."
That's a pretty sore way to sum up a 9 out of 10 review... but it's hard to really express all sorts of love and admiration for a game that really doesn't affect you. Don't get me wrong, Oblivion gets a lot of it right... The graphics, the combat, the massive overworld... So much about Oblivion is top notch, above anything to come before it... and yet, certain aspects of the game are so poorly executed that they seem to suck the life out of it... There are a lot of games out there that do so well in so many areas that the few flaws the game does have seem to stand out. Oblivion follows that trend, only it's not a little flaw in an otherwise decent game, but a glaring flaw in an otherwise perfect one...
Lately, I've started to feel it's a little silly to go through all the usual hoops, talking about graphics and sound and whatnot... These are things a player can find out about by reading any review on any website, in any magazine... The reviews submitted by players here should be personal accounts of how much they did or didn't enjoy a game, not a point for point run-down of a game's performance in a few pre-determined areas... and so what follows is, in plain English, what I liked and disliked about Oblivion.
What did I like the most about this game? Easy; the game world itself. The most memorable thing about this game for me and probably a lot of other people was without a doubt the first time you step out of the opening dungeon sequence and set foot into the land of Cyrodiil. I can't remember feeling more anxious about playing a game in my entire life. You can see out for what seems like miles... The rolling hills, the mountains in the distance, the forests, the rivers... You can have so much fun in Oblivion being nothing more than a spectator or tourist, just wandering the countryside taking in the scenery. Even with the low-res textures in the distance and the fade-in grass, it is without question one of the most beautiful video games ever made.
The world isn't just there to look at, of course... Spread across the map are around a half dozen major cities, numerous inns and villages, a seemingly endless supply of dungeons... If one wanted nothing more than to locate and place on the map every location in the game, that alone would take hours... and what of these locations?
Well, you have the cities, which, while not as varied or unique as those found in Morrowind, are beautiful in their own right. The differences in architecture are more subtle because, unlike in Morrowind, they're separated by class and wealth rather than culture. It's one of the big differences between this game and its predecessor; Morrowind felt much more like a unique fantasy world, while Oblivion (or Cyrodiil) seems to feel more like a generic medieval setting. This isn't a criticism, just an observation. Truth be told, I prefer the locales in this game to those found in Morrowind.
As I said before, the dungeons in the game are numerous... Very much so. They come in three varieties; abandoned forts, ancient Ayleid ruins, and simple caves. There are literally dozens of them scattered across Cyrodiil, and one of the best parts of playing this is that feeling you get when you think of how much plundering you have to do... not to mention the surge of anticipation one feels when they actually stumble across a new unexplored dungeon.
Within these, you'll find all manner of foes... Bandits and goblins, trolls and zombies, minotaurs and vampires... What's more, they grow in strength right along with you. Some players have criticized this system, and their argument isn't without some merit. While your character will clearly grow stronger and more proficient in Oblivion, you probably won't feel like it during combat... Indeed, you might feel quite the opposite when you just pass over a certain level hump that introduces a new enemy into your game.
You might feel like a tough no-nonsense Sorceror when you walk into that fort flexing your new Lightning Bolt spell, only to find yourself at a loss for words when the Trolls you made short work of before have suddenly turned into more aggressive, more powerful Savage Trolls. It's a system that isn't without its flaws, but it ensures that the game will always present the player with a challenge. Overall, I think the good outweighs the bad here. I would much rather have my ass expectedly handed to me by a group of newly buffed foes than to continuously hack my way through the same weak monsters over and over.
It should also be noted that a lot of the treasure you find throughout the game is randomized and determined by your level... so even though the Trolls have become Savage and have started to slap your over-confident Sorceror around, when you do finally prevail, the treasure they're likely guarding will have grown more powerful right along with them.
Which brings us to the combat in Oblivion... One of the biggest problems people had with Morrowind was its combat system, in that it had nothing to do with a player's skill and everything to do with their stats. You could stand next to a Mud Crab with your newly purchased crossbow and fire bolt after bolt, but if you didn't have enough skill with the weapon, you would just miss repeatedly. It's a system that might make sense in a more conventional RPG where the actions are executed through menu commands, but in a first-person RPG such as this, that system felt terribly unnatural.
Combat in Oblivion is, to use the word the developer's used, "spacious." If you stand next to an enemy and swing your sword, no matter how skilled you are with it, it's going to hit. The enemy might block it, but the blow will connect with something. This alone probably would have been enough to make Oblivion's combat system passable, but it goes beyond that. There are many new introductions that make things more interesting, most notably the Power Attacks. As your characters grows more and more proficient with a certain weapon type, they'll be granted new, more powerful attacks. By the time you've become a master of the Blade, you'll be able to disarm, knock down, and paralyze opponents. It makes levelling up your character that much more enjoyable and rewarding.
Another problem many had with Morrowind was its main quest, and how it didn't seem to really pick up or become interesting until near the end of the game. Oblivion's main quest, thankfully, will hold your interest throughout. The story is well written and wonderfully executed... Of course, an interesting story isn't the only leg-up this game has... The things you do in the main quest and others are much more varied, and while Oblivion has a few generic fetch-this, kill-that quests, for the most part, they feel fresh and unique.
Which brings me to the other side of the review... The disappointed side. As a role playing game... and by that, I mean a game in which you play the role of a character through actions and dialogue... Oblivion is mediocre. Weak, even. Very rarely in the game will you actually have dialogue options when you're talking with an NPC (non-player character). If you're engaging in an actual conversation that's driving the plot or a quest and you have a chance to say something, you're either given one response to push the conversation forward, or you're given a basic choice between "yes" and "no." Maybe not in those words, but in so many... and that's really all you'll have to say throughout the game. You'll never really feel like you're saying much of anything... The NPCs probably feel the same way.
The NPC's in Oblivion are... well, they're dull. For the most part, when you walk up to someone and talk to them, they greet you, and you're given a list of topics you can ask them about. Now, the fact that there aren't a lot of voices to go around between the characters is forgivable... The actors could have tried a little harder to very the different lines for the different characters as they do in games like Baldur's Gate, but I digress. What really makes things dull is the fact that most of the characters will say, word for word, the exact same thing about most of the topics. More often than not, if you walk up to two NPCs and choose a certain topic of conversation, they will say the same thing. Different characters, different voice actors, the exact same line. What sense does this make...? How did the developers not see that this is, I don't know... kind of stupid? Hang on, it gets worse...
The "radiant AI" that Bethesda talked so much about really isn't all that compelling. Sure, it's interesting to see all these NPCs going about their own schedules... Hell, it might've felt a bit immersive, maybe, perhaps - if only the NPCs never talked to eachother. The conversations I heard between the NPCs in Oblivion were some of the most stilted, unnatural, poorly written/acted I've ever heard, in any form of entertainment, video game or otherwise. They're that bad. You will hear a character greet another, only to be met with a gruff, unfriendly reply along the lines of "leave me alone." The two characters will then enter a friendly conversation about some random subject, as if the second party has suddenly forgotten about their dislike for the first. Almost all of these NPC to NPC chats follow the same script.
Greeting -> Return greeting -> Random topic/advice/tid-bit -> "I've heard others say the same." -> Goodbyes
If you want to really preserve the feeling of immersion you can get from walking around in a city in Oblivion, I would advise turning the Voice Volume bar all the way down. I'm serious. It's the kind of stuff that makes you wince.
I'd also like advise that in the next game, Bethesda provide some sort of ambient sound track to play in the cities... Y'know, hearing villagers arguing in the distance, bells ringing, hammers pounding... It's bad enough that the people in the towns are lifeless; the fact that all you really hear aside from the bad conversations and footsteps is the music and the wind only serves to rub it in.
Then there's the brilliant "persuasion mini-game," in which you must alternate between admiring, coercing, boasting, and joking with an NPC. They will always like two options and dislike the other two... So no matter how high your speechcraft and Personality stats are, there are some characters that are just never going to get your joke. It's all really, really stupid.
All of this serves to suck out whatever emotion or life Oblivion has. You will never grow attached to any character in this game. There are a few characters you'll come across in the main quest that are kinda-sorta interesting, but for the most part, it's a bunch of wooden planks walking around town having moronic conversations with eachother. When you walk into a new city, you're not excited to meet new people... You're there because the shop might have a weapon you want, or because there's a Fighter's Guild that needs some questing done... NPCs exist in games to drive a player's character forward with quests and experience and items and information. This basic game function is usually covered up with an interesting character who talks to you, whom you might even grow attached to. This isn't the case in Oblivion. Because of the way the developers put this part of the game together, you won't want to talk to the NPCs, you'll just want to get things from them. That's not how it's supposed to be.
...so you have this big, beautiful, immersive world full of interesting places and terribly, horribly uninteresting people. You can still have a lot of fun with Oblivion, of course... I wouldn't have given it a 9 if that wasn't the case... The reason I'm so hard on it is because this part, this role playing a character part of the game was so shoddibly executed... I mean, it's hard to believe the people who designed this system are the same people who designed the rest of the game... Hell, maybe they're not. Maybe Oblivion is a prime example of what happens when you mix very talented people with people who don't really have any talent at all.
So yeah, in the end Oblivion is like a beautifully directed movie full of really, really bad actors. Like "The Day After Tomorrow." The story is lame, the acting melodramatic, but it's still worth paying to see that news reporter get hit by that sign. It's just that when you have a game that's so excellent on so many levels, except for one, in which it's almost pathetic, it feels like a real missed opportunity... Oblivion could have been the greatest RPG ever made. As it is, it's a cross between an amazing adventure game and a weak role playing game.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 04/27/06
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