Review by Chauncey_Mo

"Pretty, but hollow"

I didn't want to write a review for Oblivion until I had played it extensively. When I first got it installed I was too caught up in the immersive atmosphere to really get a good feel for the game itself; now that I've played through with three characters I feel like I've seen most of what the game has to offer and I can make comprehensive judgements of it. Unfortunately, while my opinion of Morrowind climbed continuously as I played it, my opinion of Oblivion did the opposite. Take away its gorgeous graphics, and Oblivion is utterly inferior to any of the better Ultima, Might and Magic, Wizardry, or previous Elder Scrolls games.

It's been said plenty of times before: the graphics in this game are stunning. I have a fairly high end graphics card, and the level of detail in the wilderness is just astonishing. Oblivion, the nether-realm of Tamriel, is the first really scary, lifelike portrayal of hell I've encountered in a game. People and animals move in a lifelike fashion, non-stationary objects follow physics admirably well, flying about when knocked into or dentonated, and most items, weapons, and apparel are beautifully presented.

There are some slight knocks on the graphics: there are really only four dungeon environments, so every dungeon you are in is identical in looks to 25% of the other dungeons in the world, skin texturing is very uneven, giving most characters a ghoulish appearance up close, and distance fade is handled very jerkily, so objects rapidly snap into and out of existence as you travel outdoors. None of these minor issues really detracted from my enjoyment of the game's marvelous presentation.

Musically, Oblivion is nice but nothing special. The main score is a rehash of the Morrowind main score, and while there is some nice situational music it is generally just distant, ambient background stuff.

The game has moved to 100% spoken dialogue, with mixed results. I get the impression they blew the bulk of their voice acting budget on the two big name actors (Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean, the former of whom only has a couple minutes worth of dialogue) and one has-been former big name actress (Lynda Carter). As result, there is very little variety in voices among the people of Cyrodiil. Specifically, nearly every character of a particular race and gender sounds identical. This would be less irritating if some of the voice actors weren't so mediocre. In particular female Orcs and Imperials and male Redguards all flub their readings with disturbing regularity. Strangely, they nailed Khajit and Argonian voices, which I would've thought to be the more difficult ones to produce well.

As a PC user, I agree with the "consolization" charge levelled against Bethesda. The controls aren't necessarily bad; there is a simple menu system with any information you need being just two clicks away. The problems lay in the total lack of customization and searchability within the menus, along with several severely unintuitive key combinations to do very basic things. Consolization refers to the fact that these limitations in the PC world are completely the norm in the Xbox world since you have substantially fewer buttons to work with.

This is another aspect of the game that points to it being released too early (see below), if Bethesda had spent a little more time adding sorting features, more mappable hotkeys, and allowing you to have multiple menu screens displayed simultaneously, a la Morrowind, the game would've been much easier to navigate.

Besides the mediocre interface controls, the game is pretty good. Movement and camera controls are all good but not perfect, in particular zoom in third person view can be tricky. Combat controls are fine.

For all its presentational and geographical splendor, the game really fell apart in terms of gameplay.

Combat is marginally better than Morrowind. The additions of blocking as an action and being able to cast spells alongside using your weapon are both good. Generally it just comes down to a steady rhythm of block, attack, block, attack, etc. If this was the extent of combat, it would be ok but unspectacular. Combat regularly feels out of control, though. When you get knocked down or paralyzed the camera shifts to third person and tends to slow down badly, certain enemies will stagger you practically every hit, making blocking pointless and causing combat to devolve into Morrowind style "tap attack over and over", and hand-to-hand combat, while slightly improved, is still practically worthless. To their credit, ranged combat has improved enormously, as have stealth sneak-attacks.

Magic is very similar to Morrowind, save that you can't enchant items or make your own spells until doing a very lengthy series of quests to get into the mages guild proper. Spells are also governed by skill level in addition to mana, making it practically impossible for anyone besides a dedicated mage to cast the stronger spells in the game, which require both 100 skill level and vast mana reserves. In general, utility magic is still easily accessible to all classes, but making a hybrid mage is much more time intensive and bothersome than in Morrowind.

Stealth is one area in which gameplay improved substantially. The good news is you can sneak much more capably than in previous games, get more benefit out of attacking from the shadows, and complete more quests with stealth rather than mindless bashing (particularly the Dark Brotherhood assassin quests, a major high point of the game). The downside is that your opponents still react totally unrealistically. If you are hidden and kill an enemy, his friend standing right next to his corpse won't bat an eyelash. They've also kept the ridiculous crime model, where if you commit a crime then kill the only witness, you go on record both for the initial crime and perhaps the murder.

Quests in the game are for the most part very run of the mill. The main story quests are almost all "hack through Oblivion and close an Oblivion gate", which gets tiresome very quickly. Fighters and mages guild quests, as well as the vast majority of the side quests, are just "raid a dungeon, kill a boss creature and/or acquire a particular item". The above are all made all the less interesting by extremely generic storylines. I kept hoping or expecting some twist to come up and throw it all for a loop, but sadly they proceeded pretty much according to the script of any number of other fantasy games.

Thieves quests are a little more interesting, sometimes requiring you to sneak through an extensive area without being detected or killing anyone. The storyline was also unique and enjoyable. The Dark Brotherhood assassin quests were easily my favorite part of the game, many of them had interesting gimmicks, and the storyline was well written and involved.

Another strike against the gameplay is the lack of variety and emphasis on pointless repetition. This is all-pervasive, and particularly in a game whose motto is essentially "do anything", a lack of variety is fatal in my opinion. There are fewer skills, fewer class archetypes, fewer factions, fewer types of equipment, fewer spells and fewer artifact-level items relative to its predecessor. The handful of really powerful items are given out by daedra (demons) for doing quests for them, which in addition to really narrowing the game by forcing you do to evil to get the best equipment, also means that there is very little incentive to explore. You're never going to find any equipment pillaging random dungeons or ruins that is better than what you can get in the store or from any common enemy.

There is also a sad lack of variety in enemies, due to the way the game scales with you. Anything you fight is guaranteed to be around your level, using similar equipment if humanoid, and you absolutely will never see anything stronger or weaker. In addition to giving the game a painfully contrived feel, this does the opposite of what it's intended to do, ie- ensure challenge, by meaning you'll never be faced with a truly tough fight.

The final dig against the game is the highly cynical release of pay mini-expansions as soon as the game hit the shelves. It says to me "we couldn't work these into the game before release, so we're selling them instead." This seems particularly true of the Orrery, a place in the game situated behind a locked door that you essentially have to pay real money to unlock.

All this said, the game is fun for a while. The huge world is engrossing, and there are a lot of interesting characters to run into. Some of the side quests are uniquely interesting, and bits and pieces of the main storyline and guild storylines can be fun to find out. Combat takes some getting used to, but can be fun for a while, particularly stealth and ranged combat. Ultimately I see the game as something like a beautiful flower. It is spectacular and engrossing at first, but quickly wilts over time. Given the incredibly lasting power of its predecessor, I found this to be inexcusable.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 09/13/06

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