Review by demonduck_1

Reviewed: 03/29/06

Great gameplay, and lots of it.

Be prepared. Once you get Oblivion, you will have time for little else. Bethesda's latest masterpiece offers gamers a massive, beautiful world and enthralling, open ended gameplay. Dimly lit dungeons and gorgeous, wide open vistas vie for your attention as you venture forth against the forces of evil. With over 200 hours of gameplay and countless legions of modders at the ready to prolong the fun, Oblivion will keep you occupied until long after your family and friends have forgotten you exist. So get some snacks, write up everyone's birthday cards for the next few years, and succumb to the bliss that is The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

Right from the get go, Oblivion is both free and fun. The character creation is deep and completely customizable. The menus are clean and intuitive, and everything is well explained in convenient tool tips. In addition to selecting the race and gender of your character, you can change almost any aspect of their appearance via a set of sliders that control body dimensions and shading. After selecting your character's attributes, the game begins and you are taken through a short level that sets up the plot and serves as a tutorial. At the end of this, you select your class. Bethesda includes a cute little feature here that guesses what class you should be based on how you played up to that point. This is by no means binding, and you are free to choose from the large selection of premade classes, or to design your own from the ground up. The addition of birth signs that alter stats and confer abilities further deepens the character creation process.

The character development system in Oblivion is completely skill based; there are no experience points of any kind. Instead, leveling is done by using your major skills. Using a skill will improve it, and once you gain ten levels in any combination of your major skills, you level up and are given a chance to improve your attributes. Minor skills also level up by use, but they have no affect on character level. This means that even characters of the same level can differ immensely in power and play style. Someone who only works on their primary skills will find their character slowly growing weaker as they level up, while a well rounded character will always have tricks up their sleeve when it comes to getting out of tricky situations.

Combat, stealth, and magic are all equally effective and well developed. Combat can be done from either first or third person, and involves a great amount of timing and planning to be effective. The AI is smart and varied; goblins will swarm around you and bring you down in a storm of blows, while skilled warriors will flank you, block effectively, and use carefully planned attacks. Gameplay balance and depth is where Oblivion really shines; lightly armored thieves, heavily armored knights, and spell tossing mages are all perfectly balanced and a blast to play. The sneaking portions of the game are particularly fascinating. Your ability to blend into the shadows to defined by your skill, equipment, and the shadows themselves. The lighting system (which is quite beautiful, but more on that later) is intricately linked to the subterfuge mechanics. Skillfully using cover and shadow is the name of the game when it comes to sneaking; creeping about in the middle of the room will just make you look like an idiot. This introduces and whole new level of skill to the gameplay, and stealth game lovers will find themselves right at home. Want to clear all the treasure out of a dungeon without being seen? Doable, if you're up to it. Creeping up behind a victim and dispatching them with a well aimed sneak attack is a thrilling and visceral experience. The power of the licensed Hovok engine makes heavy weapons and magic a blast to use. That huge hammer? Watch it send a goblin flying across the room. The fun to be had from destructive pyrotechnics is almost overwhelming. Mage players will love the massive array spells at their disposal, from fireballs to summons to conjured magical weapons. Not satisfied? Make your own. Yes, you can do that.

The world of Cyrodil is massive and gorgeous. From breathtaking mountain vistas, to lush forests swaying in the wind, the graphics are beyond belief. Make no mistake, though; these incredible visual come at a steep price. Oblivion is designed for mid to high end computers; anyone running something lower than a 6600 (or equivalent) is effectively out of luck. If your system doesn't meet the recommended requirements, you won't be getting the most out of Oblivion, and this is very much a game you want to exploit to the fullest.

The wide open spaces of Cyrodil are meticulously detailed; verdant bushes and long grass sway in the breeze as you walk by, water ripples realistically as you wade across streams. The weather changes as you explore the world around you, sending banks of fog (great for sneaking) or deluges of rain. When the game starts, your map is empty, except for major urban centers and the basic outline of the continent. The rest is up to you to find. To speed up the game, you can “fast travel” to any point you have previously discovered simply by selecting that point on your map. This is primarily to help with quests, however; you will find yourself drawn to the wilderness for both pleasure and profit. The wild spaces of Cyrodil are full of new locations and useful items. Nothing is useless. That pretty flower? Pick it and make a deadly poison to use on your next victim. That suspicious rock formation? Look around, it's probably the entrance to a cave full of monsters and treasure. Load times are only encountered when entering buildings and moving between ares in some dungeons; the over world is smoothly streamed as you go along, although lower end systems may get the occasional stutters as new areas are loaded. Horses are also available (to purchase or purloin) to make travel faster and more fun. While riding a horse is great fun and an excellent way to see the land, Bethesda has unfortunately decided not to put mounted combat in the game. If you find something you want to kill, you will have to dismount to deal with the business at hand. This is a truly unfortunate loss, as mounted combat would add a great deal to the game experince. However, it seems like something that may come along in a future expansion.

The NPCs that inhabit the land of Cyrodil are a great lot, full of character and always interesting. They have better things to do than sit around and wait for you to chat them up. They have schedules, and if you want to talk to them, you'll have to deal with that. All the dialog in the game is voiced, and the acting varies from good to great. This really helps create a sense of immersion that will suck you in for hours at a time. Unfortunately, after playing for a long time it becomes kind of obvious that all the NPCs are actually voiced by a small number of actors. This does little to affect the overall enjoyment of the game, and is overshadowed by the sheer amount of dialog. The sound in Oblivion is well done, and does a good job of creating atmosphere. Birds chirp in the trees, goblins shriek and zombies groan. Another great touch is that NPCs will have conversations with each other as they pass by on the street or hang out together. These conversation sometimes have interesting bits of information, but for the most part are idle chatter. The AI that controls them is a little off, so they often become rather amusing, as “how are you” from one NPC elicits a death threat from another, quickly followed by a discussion on the local mages guild.

The main storyline of Oblivion follows your character as you attempt to stop an invasion of demonic Daedra from destroying the world as we know it. The main story arc should last about 25 hours, but it simply dwarfed by the sheer amount of other things to do. In addition to exploring the massive world and talking to the NPCs, there are over 100 dungeons located around Cyrodil, waiting to be plundered. The list of quests is nigh on endless. Don't worry, though; all your quests are stored in your journal, and all entries are stored until the quest is completed. Your objective on any given quest is highlighted on both the map and your on screen compass, and you can change your active quest at any time. Quests can be obtained from almost any NPC, and there are many faction you can join to gain access to new quests, equipment, and areas. The thieves guild, mages guild, and the shady assassins known as the brotherhood of darkness, among others, all await you.

The level of freedom in Oblivion is simply staggering. Right from the start, you are free to do anything, literally thrown out into the woods to start your new life. Before you let it get to your head, know that Bethesda has done a great job in balancing the game. If you try to go around slaughtering the townsfolk, (you know you want to) the town guard will step in. Get caught stealing, and you'll get busted. When this happens, you will have the option of resisting arrest, paying your fine, or doing jail time. Resisting arrest is fun, but the guards are strong and plentiful, and killing them will increase your bounty. Your bounty is the monetary equivalent of your crimes (the ones that they know about). Trespassing is a small fine, while murder (especially large killing sprees) is a large chunk out of your wallet. Going to jail is free, but you will lose time and you will lose levels on some of your abilities from inactivity. In addition, paying your fine or going to jail will result in the confiscation of all your stolen goods. However, if you're good, you can sneak into the jail and steal it all back. The quicksave feature (and autosaves that occur whenever you rest or load a new area) prevent any irreparable blunders, and there is always another way to do something. Is your target too strong? Get him while he sleeps. Don't like the quest you're on? Talk to some people, you'll get better ones. There's always something fun to do in Cyrodil.

All in all, Oblivion is an incredible experience. The game play is fun, intuitive, and balanced. There is never a down moment; no bottlenecks or anything that could impede the freedom and enjoyment of the player. The graphics are incredible, the world vast and detailed, and the inhabitants interesting and diverse. If you are looking for an RPG that will last, one that will suck you in and amaze you at every turn, you are looking for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

Pros: Incredible graphics, immersive world, fast, fun, and amazingly open ended game play. Immense game with almost limitless replay value.
Cons: High system requirements, only on DVD, small stability issues around loading and exiting game. Will severely damage personal relationships.

Punch line: It's like the rapture, only better.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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