Review by Edward_R_Murrow
"Not exactly a stellar RPG and a lukewarm action/adventure"
I'm reviewing The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the fourth in The Elder Scrolls series by Bethesda Softworks. I'm going to go into some detail about some of the major facets of the game. Hopefully this will help you make a more informed decision.
The much-vaunted character creation system in Oblivion is interesting....at first. You can choose from quite a few races, each with different ability modifiers and abilities. You can also choose your gender. There are numerous cosmetic features upon the face of your virtual creation to toggle with great precision. It can even be quite overwhelming, even after much experience. Then the flaws start to become far more visible. For all the customization you have with the facial features, there isn't much to do with the other parts of your character. The body of your character is determined by your race and gender choice automatically. You can't choose to be somebody with a small frame, or a big-boned person. For all the effort put into the face, one would think it wouldn't be too much to have at least a little control over the other parts of the body, besides just skin color and such.
The rest of character creation, the actual nuts and bolts of your character, suffers from much the same malady as the aesthetics section does. It seems expansive at first glance, but really lacks much.
Skills and you
The skills and leveling system in Oblivion (and the rest of The Elder Scrolls series) is unique to say the least. It is one of those "learn by doing" systems. You advance your skills by using them, and when you have had 10 increases in your major skills, you can level up the next time you sleep. The attribute increases are handled well enough. Each attribute besides luck (Strength, Endurance, Speed, Agility, Intelligence, Willpower, and Personality) has three skills governed by it. The amount you increase your skills governed by any given attribute determines how much you could choose to increase that attribute. It's elegantly done, mostly. When you use something strength based a lot, you can get much stronger. Overall, the system seems wonderful at first, just like most of the game, but really breaks down under further scrutiny.
Let's look at the attributes first. While the system for increasing the attributes is handled pretty well, the attributes themselves are not. They really don't do much besides make you better or worse at killing things and looting places. For instance you could have a very low intelligence character who is able to speak as clearly and read just as well as a character with very hgh intelligence. Strength is only good for hitting objects and carrying said object's stuff away. Willpower lets you regenerate your mana, the higher the willpower, the faster the rate. Basically the attributes are only geared towards combat and "dungeon-crawling" gameplay.
Combat is one of the major parts of this game, in fact, it's something that happens a lot in the game of Oblivion. It works sort of well enough. You can see and fight in first-person or third. First person works well enough mostly because the game was designed for it. Third, not so much. You have no crosshair and it just doesn't work well.
If you're the melee-type you press a button, and your weapon swings. You can do some "power attacks" as well. It's not going to be fast and fluid like Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry, but it's serviceable. The weapon hits an enemy when you see it hit them, and at first it's pretty fun. Then it loses it's fun. The problem is that all fights pretty much boil down to blocking until you get an opportunity to strike, then striking. It wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't the same for just about every type of enemy you engage in melee.
Not into melee? Ranged more your style? Grab a bow and some arrows. You can pull an arrow back and aim using an on-screen crosshair. The only nifty feature here is that arrows are effected by the game's physics, so they will fall due to "gravity". Problem is, arrows don't do locational damage. So you can have 5 arrows sticking out of some person's head, and he will still be running at you full of vigor. Not to mention ranged combat is just plain boring. You run backwards and shoot. That's about it. Unless you face a ranged opponent, in which you basically strafe sideways and shoot. This area of the game really needed work. You have only one choice of weapon, no location damage, and generally bland, unexciting gameplay.
Stealth combat isn't all that great either. Basically if you are sneaking and are undetected, the first attack you make on an enemy is multiplied by a certain number, depending on your sneak skill. Pretty boring. No special stealth attacks or stealth kills here, just damage increases. And stealth combat just isn't done well in general. For instance, if you are in a ruined fort and you hide in a dark corner, then take a far shot at some bandit and don't kill him, suddenly he and all his friends know where you are magically and run right at you. Seems kind of sloppy to me.
Magic, however, is quite fun in combat. With all the different types of spell effects, combined with the ability to make your own spells, you can employ quite varied tactics and strategies. You could turn invisible and then run away to throw some fireballs from afar. You could summon some creature to fight for you. You can even turn your enemies against each other, sometimes. As much as the other types of combat felt limited and stale, magic felt fun and varied. It was well done and is one of the better parts of the game. Unfortunately, even fighting with magic can get pretty boring eventually too.
Overall combat has quite a few good points and quite a few bad points. Depending on past experiences you may have, combat can be quite visceral. If you've never really experienced anything like this before, you're probably in for a treat. One of the worst things about combat is how Oblivion tries too hard to be both an RPG and an action game at once. It makes things rather awkward. The action elements seem very dull in comparison to action oriented games. And the idea of character skill over player skill, a la true RPGs, gets thrown out the window. Your character may have a great marksman skill, but if you, the player, can't utilize reflexes well, your character who is supposedly a master archer will be missing every shot. Conversely, if your character is supposedly terrible with archery (has a very low skill) but you, the player, have great reflexive skill, your character will be hitting every shot, despite supposedly being terrible at archery. Rather counterintuitive, if I may say so.
Talking it Up
Ahhh yes, one of the hallmarks of RPGs, interacting with characters in the gameworld. Oblivion does a rather poor job of this. People don't feel like people at all. Instead they seem like robots of some sort. Conversation consists of selecting a word or phrase from around two to five in a list and pressing a button on it. Then the person will spit out information about the topic you selected. Basically people are walking encyclopedias. Also every person of the same race plus gender combination has the same voice. So the male orc in one city will sound just like every other male orc in every city. Overall the system is flawed, but barely works. Not good for aesthetics, and because it is all voice acted it doesn't have the opportunity convey a lot of information. So it's neither immersive, nor functional.
Questing on a leash
Another major RPG hallmark is the abundance of quests or missions for your character to participate in. Oblivion has many of these. Alas, Oblivion does far from a stellar job on the quests. For a game all about freedom, Oblivion gives you next to none in doing quests. For instance, in one quest there is a group of female robbers plaguing a city, robbing married men by luring them in. The guards ask for you to go undercover and act like a victim. This could be a great opportunity for role-playing. Instead Oblivion removes all choices and makes it as linear and boring as possible. When you are confronted by the women and they ask you to take your equipment off, you automatically refuse and go hostile, complete with a journal popup. Then you kill them. No choice of joining the group, no choice of double-crossing the guards, and no choice to roleplay a less-than-intelligent character. Just going in and killing stuff.
Not only do you get hardly any choice in quests, but they are quite literally made for any person to complete easily. This is good in some ways, but bad in many other ways. Sometimes it is nice to get a little help finding something in a quest. Let's face it, wandering around looking for a needle in a haystack is no fun. But Bethesda overdid things with their idea of the "magic quest compass". You follow a little green (or red) arrow on your compass straight to the quest objective. It makes some sense when you are looking for a landmark on the outside world, like a cave. That's alright. But when it leads you to things in deep dungeons or some remote location in a city it's just plain ridiculous. And the fact that you often have no directions other than the quest compass could frustrate some.
There is also a glut of "journal entries" at every corner in a quest that explicitly states what you need to do in no uncertain terms. And when I mean explicit, I mean it. For instance I stumbled upon a farmhouse in the wilderness. I decided to go in. As soon as I was inside, a journal entry popped up saying that "I should search around to find things". A very short search revealed an actual journal. Then immediately I received another journal entry that told me to go to a nearby cave. When I got there and went in I got a journal entry telling me to go find this person. When I found him I got a journal entry about him being dead and then a monster attacked me. Talk about hand holding.
Most quests are part of the faction questlines. There are four factions; the Fighters Guild, Mages Guild, Thieves Guild, and the Dark Brotherhood. The Arena also exists, but it's less of a questline as much as a bunch of battles. Oddly enough, you can become the master of all the factions quite easily, just by doing the quests. You don't need to have any guild-related skills, just do the fetch quests and the "go here; kill this" type of quests and you'll be on top in no time. The fact that you can join every faction without consequence to the others is a mixed bag. The total freedom is nice, but it doesn't make sense for the Master of the Fighters Guild to be accepted into the Thieves Guild, seeing as the Fighters Guild is supposedly anti-crime. Questions much like that may pop up in your mind at times.
This is the section where I review some of the more superficial (read: not gameplay) aspects of the game, such as graphics, sound, writing, and such. And let me start with the graphics; they are superb. I'm not much of a graphics freak, but Oblivion does look very good. Just looking at the scenery is pretty neat. The snowy mountain paths at night are absolutely amazing looking. I can't find anything to complain about in the graphics department. It's obvious Bethesda spent quite a lot of time on these, and it shows....in more areas than one.
The sound isn't so great unfortunately. The sounds of battle aren't bad, they get pretty repetitive though. The music is very boring, mostly due to the fact that there is very little variety. I guess you can only beat so much out of Jeremy Soule. I'm not exactly sure, but I distinctly recall only two varieties of battle music, one variety of dungeon ambiance music, and two (one for day, one for night) overworld themes along with a house theme. They aren't bad, but they get old fast, especially seeing as they scream out "generic fantasy".
Voice acting is pretty bad. As previously mentioned, there is a severe shortage of voice actors. And the famous two, Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean, don't redeem this area at all. Mister Stewart delivers a good performance. The only problem is that he has around less than six minutes of spoken lines. The big-name voice actor we get stuck with later on is Sean Bean. He's just that....a big-name. All his lines are delivered in a total melodramatic, drab tone of voice. The rest of the voice actors aren't too stellar either, though I wouldn't be if Bethesda made me record the massive amount of voice over that they had to do.
The writing is just downright atrocious though. First off, let me say that a setting of urgency (read: demonic invasion) is just downright silly in a game based around exploration and taking your time. The dialogue is pretty awful. It's flat, bland, and wooden. There's no wit or charm there. Put simply, this game takes itself way too seriously. When a joke is attempted though, things are just plain bad. The two "jokes" I recall were a dark elf women asking you about the fine for necrophilia and an orc saying something along the lines of "I'm a cat person, want to see me lick my butt?". It's just bad. Not to mention the whole main storyline is about finding someone and then going on a series of fetch quests to find stuff to save the world. How original. Not to mention that your character stops being the hero after a certain point. Throw in tons of MacGuffins, overuse of "hanging a lantern", and deus ex machina to the extreme and you have some terrible writing here.
Then there's Radiant AI, the thing Bethesda promised the world about. They said it would make the world come alive and allow for some great immersion. Well, it didn't turn out too great. See, Radiant AI was supposed to give NPCs desires to perform certain actions, such as eat, drink, work, and talk. It was supposed to make the world feel alive. It did just about the opposite. NPCs typically wander around pointlessly from place to place, staring at walls and getting in disjointed conversations about mudcrabs or such. It didn't really get that "super-important" immersion factor that Bethesda said it would. Heck, Ultima Seven, Gothic 2, and Majora's Mask all did a much better job of making a living world and they all used much less technology. Not to mention the AI in Oblivion is very artificial, and not very intelligent. If I kill a necromancer in a cave in one shot, and then turn invisible and one of his corpse-raising chums finds his body, they don't really do much. Nobody goes on alert, and they never think to patrol or something, maybe use a detect life spell (which they most likely have access to) to find out who offed their comrade. Then there is the asinine combat AI. Enemies never think of making strategic withdrawals, or using terrain to their advantage. Jump up on a high rock and fire away with magic or arrows at a sword-wielding foe or any other melee enemy and they will either run in circles around your position, or stand still. For a game bragging about "revolutionary" AI, this is just sad.
This is the aspect that really could have saved Oblivion. Oblivion's dungeons weren't all that bad in a lot of ways. They were atmospheric and definitely looked nice. There were traps galore, tons of nifty obstacles, plus secret doors as well. Exploring could have really been a blast. Sure, there were only four or five types of dungeon, but they were pretty neat. A few of the things made no sense though. The "Ayleid Ruins" were supposed to be great cities of an ancient race. They don't look anything like cities. I don't think anyone would fill their cities with locked doors, traps, and such. Feels a little odd. Sometimes you would run into dungeons full of things that don't make sense, like animals locked in small rooms with no access to food and water and creatures who really wouldn't normally be together. Those flaws were pretty minor though. What deep-sixed dungeon diving is what pretty much deep-sixed the whole game.
Well, apparently someone at Bethesda had a "great" idea. Whether it was to reduce development time by many, many hours or make the game as accessible as humanly possible, it got implemented. What was the brilliant idea you ask? Scaling everything in the game, and I mean everything, to the player's level and implementing randomly spawned enemies and loot based on your level. This idea is the thing that corrupted most of the game right here. Why you ask? Well....let's run down the list.
Character creation and the freedom in it gets hit hard, seeing as all enemies grow with you in strength. But see, the game doesn't recognize your skills, only your level. So while you may have a character who is level twenty, but has never developed combat skills, the game will have you facing enemies suited for one who has. Basically you are pigeonholed into either making your character's main skills combat oriented, or exploiting the system and leaving all your main skills untrained and raising your minor skills, which don't help you level up. Not so great.
It also messes up the fun of a mage as well. See, eventually you need to create your own spells to get the desired effects against the stronger foes. For instance calming spells and frenzy spells. Problem is, they cap off at a relatively high level, but your enemies don't. Poor design strikes again.
Being a thief is no fun either. There is no possibility to go in to some noble's house and steal some very nice armor at a low level due to the scaled loot. This also creates serious immersion breaking issues like caves having more wealth than people in manors and such. Doesn't make much sense. What makes even less sense is that the loot in houses doesn't scale past level 1 loot. So when you are level 30 and go to burglarize a castle, you're going to be quite disappointed. There is no application of risk/reward mechanics. There aren't any good items in heavily guarded places that would require a lot of skills to get into or such. The risks are always constant in a way, as are the rewards.
Level scaling also completely nullifies the point of having good equipment for the most part. Whatever equipment you have, everybody and their brother seems to match you. Everything goes in tiers. At level 1 enemies have either fur or iron armor, level 3 everybody has leather or steel, level 20 everybody has daedric and glass armor. At first it sort of makes sense in a twisted way. Most enemies have common gear. But at higher levels every bandit is walking around with a set of armor they could easily sell and buy a manor with, yet they still hold you up for a measly 100 gold. That makes total sense. Not to mention it just removes any feeling of uniqueness in your equipment. No longer is having a daedric weapon a big deal in The Elder Scrolls. The only way to get something mildly unique is to do a few specific quests.
Level scaling just hammers the quests too. No matter what, any character can do anything at anytime. So some fresh of the turnip-wagon guy can show up and become the Grand Champion of the Arena at level 1. You can also be Master of the Fighters Guild, Archmage of the Mages Guild, Gray Fox (Guildmaster) of the Thieves Guild, and Listener of the Dark Brotherhood, and the Champion of Cyrodiil all at level 1. Ruins any sense of immersion. Not to mention the "Daedric Invasion" consists of a bunch of little imp-like creatures if you are level 1.
The dungeon crawl aspect is completely devastated by the inclusion of level scaling. Those two-hundred plus dungeons have next to no point. Care for some explaining? Ever dungeon uses either a cave, mine, Ayleid ruin, fort, or Oblivion tileset. Some of the tilesets can have some of the different creature groups which include conjurers (mages), necromancers (more mages), animals, bandits, marauders, fantastic creatures, and goblins. Oblivion gates use only Daedra creature-sets. All loot in dungeons comes from basically the same loot tables and are based totally on your level. So basically, if you know your level, you have a good idea what you are going to find. If you are level one, it's going to be a bunch of weak creatures and not-so-shiny loot. There is no surprise in finding something really nifty, you are always just finding generic items or maybe a generic item with a generic enchantment. Basically every dungeon feels pretty much the same, almost negating the point of 200 plus to explore. The dungeon-crawl aspect, if done right, could have really redeemed Oblivion for it's lack of choice plus consequences, linear quests, and lack of any real role-playing aspects. But alas, level scaling and randomization happened.
-There is an option to modulate the difficulty at any time and you have quite a degree of freedom in doing so. Cranking the slider all the way to the left makes just about any enemy fall within one or two blows from just about anything, whereas sliding it to the opposite direction all the way makes any enemy able to kill even the stoutest player character in a few hits. It's a great feature, but made slightly useless by the enemies all being scaled to your level.
-Guards seem to be omnipotent. If you assault and kill an innocent in the wilderness with no one around or something akin, you will get a bounty. Strange, to say the least.
-Shopkeeps seem to have some degree of psychic power as well. Any item that is stolen is unable to be sold to any "legit" shopkeeper because somehow they know it is stolen. The only way to be able to sell stolen items is to join the Thieves Guild. Pretty much pigeonholes a character who wants to steal stuff into joining the guild.
-The cast and fight magic system is done pretty well. It flows well, and just feels pretty good. Better than equipping your hands every time you want to cast a spell.
-Somehow this game has less spell effects, weapons, weaponry types, armor types, skills, and RPG elements than the last game in the series.
-Horses add next to nothing to the game. You can't fight on horseback, and fast travel really axes their usefulness.
-The game is pretty stable and doesn't have too many hiccups. I've heard of problems after hitting the thousand hour mark but didn't even hit a tenth of that time so I can't say. And I doubt anyone who played the game for that long is going to feel cheated.
Now comes the part everybody is waiting for, the place in which I explain my placing of a numerical rating upon the game. Forget all that other writing and nonsense, you just want the number, right? I'm going to do this a little differently.
As an RPG Oblivion falls flat on it's face. It would get a 1/10 as an RPG. You have no real choices in how you accomplish things. All you can do is kill things in different ways. There are no meaningful choice/consequence scenarios, everything in the game is a minor setback. Hand-holding devices like level-scaling, the quest-compass, and immortal NPCs screw up the linear quests even more.
As an action game, Oblivion is alright. It might get a 4/10 or maybe a 5/10 at best. It's average at best and is heavily marred by a lot of factors. The RPG elements to combat feel tacked on and only seem to make the combat less "actiony". Not to mention the combat can get pretty dull. Throw in level-scaling which pretty much destroys challenge and the action dulls even more. Oblivion would have been much better if Bethesda had gone either full RPG, or full action. The two genres don't seem to mix well in this game.
As for my recommendations about this game:
If you are new to the RPG genre, this might be your type of thing. It's simple, "actiony", and definitely made for the more "casual gamer". I'd recommend checking it out via a rental or borrowing it from someone if applicable.
If you've only played RPGs on a console, you might enjoy this game. Do the same as above.
If you played Morrowind and hated it because you couldn't find Caius, your weapon never hit, and you couldn't kill anything this might just be the game tailored right for you.
If you loved Morrowind (or Daggerfall), you might find this game pretty repugnant. It takes away a lot of the charm of the series, probably to "mainstream" the series and appeal to more "casual gamers".
If Fallout, Planescape: Torment, Arcanum, or Baldur's Gate have any fond memories in your mind you may just want to avoid this game.
To really make an informed decision read some other reviews and do some research on your own. Hear the good and the bad and then investigate on the matter. Trusting your money and time to one person's opinion is about as smart as trusting a PR man of a company. Good luck in your endeavors people, and thanks for reading my nonsensical ramblings.
Reviewer's Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Originally Posted: 06/26/07
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