Review by Great_Khan

"The Price of Freedom"

Ever since the invention of video games man has sought to gain freedom over what he can do with them. When he was shown Space Invaders, he longed to fly his ship onwards into the oncoming force away from the flat bottom of the screen and confront them on his own terms, and thus Galaga was born. Such dreaming has led to the ever expanding realm of open world games over the years, much popularized by the famous Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. It offered freedom in never before seen levels, a huge, living, breathing world, full of people to interact with, plants to harvest, and creatures to maim. It offered the freedom to not only change the way your character looked and behaved, but also how it grew and what type of being it would be. The freedom man had always dreamt of was here, but it brought with it new problems which hold the style back, many of which are still present here in the improved follow up; Oblivion.

Open world games always seem to hit the same stumbling blocks, it tends to be that either you have a very in depth gameplay engine, or you have a sandbox game, but the Elder Scrolls team have a pretty good record of avoiding a lot of the common problems such as boring worlds with nothing in them, having nothing to do, or dry characters with nothing to say. This is more to do with work ethic than work quality, Bethesda aren't the best coders around and their games are always buggy, and really these games don't do anything that a hundred other companies couldn't do, apart from maybe the graphics. Bethesda work around their problems with huge levels of man hours being put into these games. All of the dialog has an audio track, every corner of the huge globe is brimming with different plant life and geographical touches. If you head out to any blank piece of earth in a far corner of the world, 5 minutes walk from the nearest obscure miniscule dungeon and you'll still find a whole bunch of variations in geography, and a whole heap of plants to harvest. Same goes with the number of jobs and missions, hundreds and hundreds of them are available for you to complete, each with more original dialog and voice acting. These games are lovingly hand crafted to be as huge as they are. This quality cannot be understated; it's this huge excess of manual labour, not gameplay quality, not graphical power, not plotlines, that makes these games stand out from the crowd.

However, all the problems with open world games that can't be solved by throwing 1000 code monkeys working on 1000 computers for 1000 (four) years are still present and probably more crippling than in their competition. These types of games rarely have top of the line gameplay, there's no denying that Grand theft Auto isn't as good of a shooter than Call of Duty 4, but since its a sandbox, it doesn't matter so much, and the plots are usually under developed due to the lack of a continuous narrative. Oblivion still isn't a brilliant combat game, it's an average spell-casting/sword fighting game which covers up for its general lack of brilliance by being open world. There's still quite a lot of boring wandering around actually getting to where the missions begin, and the plot often takes a backseat to general exploration. And the storyline, while more realized than the Elder Scrolls games have been, still isn't anything above ok. These are very common problems with almost all sandbox games, and the Elder Scrolls games do not avoid them.

To be honest, I couldn't call Morrowind a good game as such, sure it was huge, and there was nothing really like it in existence and it was a technological feat to behold, but the gameplay sort of sucked, the animations were poor, the storyline was a mix of non-existent and sub-par, moving around the world was tedious and boring, there was a lot of stat grinding, the millions of missions on offer in the game were made up of 90% boring and uneventful fetch quests, the AI while in some ways clever and interactive was in other ways totally idiotic and by level 15 or so you could basically destroy every being in the game without any trouble. Oblivion does an admirable job at fixing some of the problems, but still displays all the problems that plague almost all open world games suffer from. But yes, I can freely call it a good game.

Of course, Oblivion will initially strike you as being exactly the same as Morrowind, but not as epic in scale. This is because it is. Oblivion's gameplay is virtually unchanged from the previous game. The menu system is more complex with a system of tabs never marked out with words, just images, which is one of my pet peeves with modern menu design. The English language is a helpful tool, designers should remember this. Some elements of the menu are better, such as the new quest menus, which give important information much faster and much more naturally than the old disorganised journal entries, and some things work worse like the horrible method of dropping items, which is far more complex, irritating, and tedious as you try to find a location to drop items where nothing is blocking your placement. Combat is the same, spell casting is the same, stat development is the same, apart from the persuasion mini-game which is far easier to master than the random guessing of Morrowind, the game really doesn't play any differently.

Oblivion is a smaller, or at least shorter, game, but this is an absolute godsend. It doesn't try to hide behind hours and hours of needless bloating. I'm not sure if the world map is smaller, but it very well could be. Even if it isn't, Cyrodil manages to lose a little of the grandeur of Morrowind thanks to fast travel. But seriously, screw grandeur, fast travelling from place to place in an instant is pretty much the greatest thing mankind has ever made. Sure, Morrowind had its big insects to travel about on, but every little town which wasn't connected by these had to be manually walked to, and really, playing a game with a sea urchin for a mouse would be more enjoyable than the endless walking that you had to face there. Now you can warp from any outdoor location to any other outdoor location you've visited in just a few seconds, this cuts down on your game time by countless hours. Also cutting down on wandering time is the world design, based around a central hub; the Imperial City; rather than messy scatterings of cities featured in the predecessor. It also seems to reign in the world a little bit more, making Cyrodil feel like it's a little smaller and interconnected. This lack of real, manual travel does make Oblivion less of a huge adventure than Morrowind was, but it's a million times more pleasurable to play through.

The storyline is also a lot shorter, it only takes a few hours to run through because it has very little if any padding with useless quests, almost every quest has a plot related purpose. This shorter main quest makes Oblivion an easier game to get into, this time from the outset you're being exposed to regicide and action, rather than you having to go off and find it yourself. It's much faster to get to the point, in fact from only about the second quest you're off helping save cities from being burned to ash and repelling demon raiders. It's not a great plot by any means, but at least it's fast and punchy and it doesn't meander about filling up needless time. The same thing goes for most of the other large quests in the game, the guild halls. Anyone who has played the guilds in Morrowind should know that all but maybe the last 3 or 4 missions in each guild were totally superfluous, and were padding the game out, while the Thieves Guild and Dark Brotherhood still have a lot of those in them, the Fighters and Mages guild are impressive in their almost total avoidance of the obligatory fetch quests that were scattered all through Morrowind. It's almost like you've got another two main plots with those guilds.

Of course, the game still has a lot of side quest missions, and most of those are just fetch quests, and they still bore effectively and will drive you away from the game if you do them first. The point is that those types of missions don't show up in the important storylines much. Still, there are about 60 of them, so that's more than enough; it's not a bad thing since it makes the game shorter. Where Bethesda have problems with side quests is they forget to make them fun, which is of course the point of side quests. Some light side entertainment from away the main game, and apart from getting the Wabajack, there's not many which deliver on the fun. Of course the other purpose of side quests is rewards, but thanks to Oblivion's new levelling system both rewards and levelling in general are ruined.

If there's one area when Bethesda has made a mistake, it's the brand new levelling system that the game uses. In Oblivion, everything is levelled, not just your opponents stats, but also their equipment, what type of creature they are, even what shows up in treasure chests. This works badly for a few reasons, firstly, you can't get good weapons early by simply doing a side quest while you're weak because now your rewards are determined by your level, effectively meaning you can only get good weapons much later in the game. It just seems to restrict the freedom to do what you like that this game typically tries to nurture. This is also reflected by the equipment your foes will be using, Which also levels up, so again, the only way to get good loot is to level up a lot, hell, certain creatures that drop objects you need for some quests can be replaced thanks to the levelling of creature species. So, from those two points, clearly levelling up as often as possible would be the way to go right? Right? Sadly, no, thanks to all your opponents levelling up with you: and the only stat they can boost is their combat skill. So what happens is your enemies level up in a fashion that means you'll get new weapons, but the foes will be able to take more damage. Eventually this gets the point where things actually take LONGER to die as you increase your arsenal. So, clearly, your next plan to combat this would be to make sure you level up your Strength and magic stats every time you level up to try to keep this curve under control. This works well enough until about level 20 where you'll have your combat skills maxed out, and from then on whenever you reach a new level things will get stronger and there's nothing you can do about it.

The other element of the game which holds back on the fun are the dungeon crawls. There's a lot of dungeon crawling, and only about 5 different dungeon skins, it gets boring pretty fast. Honestly, it's not a huge problem while the plot sort of carries you forward (Apart from undead dungeons, disease is irritating, as is the huge amounts of health high level ghosts have), but when you do dungeon crawls for no purpose other than little side quests from farmers with the hope of being rewarded a few hundred gold, they get extremely tiring. In fact most of the locations here feel similar, there aren't any cities with noticeably interesting themes, and they all feel fairly similar. There are differences in the towns and cities, but not to the standards that there were in III. The final thing you'll realise is reused often are the voice actors. I swear this game has 6 or 7 people doing all the voices, tops. Hearing the same voices so much does take away from the immersive nature of the interaction in this game.

The fourth instalment of the Elder Scrolls series doesn't push any boundaries, it is in effect exactly the same game as the previous incarnation, but it uses it's tools of simple, slow paced first person combat and a large open environment in a far better way. The events occurring in Cyrodil are much more exciting and thrilling, and the world is livelier and as a whole is much more of a game, and less of a technical demonstration. It's still not a great game, the actual game play is slow, physics are odd and floaty, and the game is buggy, but it utilises its setting in an effective way, and well, it's at least attention grabbing. I can't see much enjoyment in putting hundreds of hours into this in order to get it too 100%, but for the actually important parts of the game Oblivion is a success.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 02/27/09

Game Release: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (AU, 03/23/06)

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