Review by dws90

Reviewed: 01/05/07

A masterpiece worthy of the Elder Scrolls name

Few game series are as revolutionary as the Elder Scrolls. With each iteration, the Elder Scrolls series takes its concept of massive, open games worlds with complete freedom and improves upon what had looked like a wonderful game already. The fourth iteration of the series, Oblivion, is no exception.

Oblivion begins in the Imperial City's prison, and the first segment details your escape from prison and into the wide, open world. This alone is a major change from previous Elder Scrolls game - usually, there's no tutorial at all and you're just left to figure things out as you go. The events in the prison are the first stages of the game's main questline, which can later be completely ignored if you so choose. Once you're free, you can do any of the game's six major questlines, or do some of the many miscellaneous quests.

In typical Elder Scrolls fashion, Oblivion contains a number of guilds that run completely independently from the main questline. You can choose to join any or all of the following: the Fighters Guild, the Mages Guild, the Dark Brotherhood (assassins), the Theives Guild, or the Arena. With the exception of the exception of the the Arena, each guild contains a number of quests, with each questline lasting around 10 hours. While some of the quests in each questline are random quests that don't have any real story behind them, many of them tie into an overall storyline for the guild. The quests are amazingly diverse - you can go from assassinating a pirate to going to a party in the blink of an eye. While each guild has some dull moments where you're bound to lose interest, the diversity of the quests and the fact that there's actually a story behind much of what you do manage to keep your interest more or less focused on the game, and are definitely an enjoyable experience.

In addition to the storyline components, Oblivion follows the typical Elder Scrolls policy of complete freedom. As you explore the game world, you'll receive a number of miscellaneous quests that don't relate to anything else. These can vary tremendously - one involves curing an entire town of an invisibility curse, while another involves you going into a painting to save a painter trapped in his own creation. While the miscellaneous quests are enjoyable, I really felt little incentive to do any of them. I love the miscellaneous quests in Morrowind (Oblivion's predecessor), but there feels like there's something missing this time around. Nevertheless, if you find yourself doing one, chances are you'll enjoy it.

When structure is not what you're looking for, Oblivion continues to shine. The game world is filled with ruins and caves that aren't related to any quest. When you feel the urge, you can just point your character in any direction and begin exploring. Each cave contains a number of enemies from a variety of different types (bandits, undead, or demon-like Daedra, for example) and you can happily kill things without a concern in the world. The caves also contain various loot, but, due to the leveling system (I'll get to that later), much of the fun is taken away, since you can no longer enter a cave and find a massively powerful item - everything levels with you. That said, dungeon-crawling is just as fun as it was in the previous games.

Everything in the game is completely optional: a character can choose to not do a guild, or it could choose to do all of the them. The main questline, too, is optional, and isn't essential at all. Furthermore, there's no specific order for doing anything. Once you leave the prison, you can begin doing any of the different guilds, the main questline, or spend a while simply exploring. Furthermore, there's no time limit on any of the quests (with a few exceptions), so you can take time off from your guild's questline to do something else if you so desire. This freedom works wonderfully, and makes the game a pleasure to play, though its also a bit overwhelming at first.

In a major change from the previous Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion uses an all-inclusive leveling system. Both the enemies you face and the items you find will level with you, meaning that you'll face the same amount of challenge no matter when you do a quest. This system has both some pros and cons. On the plus side, the system gives you more freedom then ever before. In previous Elder Scrolls games, you were unable to do some quests because the enemies you were facing were too difficult for your character. Instead, you had to leave, train a bit, then come back stronger. There's no problem like that in Oblivion - every quest is perfectly doable to a level 1 character. This means that if you're interested in role-playing an assassin, for example, you can go right to the killing people without having to train your character. Since the items you find are leveled as well, this also means that you can't find incredibly powerful gizmos early on that prevent the game from becoming way too easy. By the time you can find such items, your enemies have strengthened enough that the power of the item isn't too unbalancing. This means that no matter how long you play, the game will never get too easy.

The leveling system has a number of cons as well. Since the enemies are always the same level of difficulty for you, there's no feeling of "growth" in your character. One of the most satisfying aspects of Morrowind was the way your character visibily improved - you might enter a cave at a low level and be slaughtered, but when you come back at a higher level you can take out the bad guys effortlessly. There's no such satisfaction in Oblivion, as, if an enemy takes three hits to kill at level 5, chances are it'll take three hits to kill at level 40. In addition, the leveling of the items applies to reward items for quests. This means that, if you do a quest at level 5, you'll get a not-so-powerful reward. It'll be good for the level you are, but when you improve, you'll quickly find better items. If you do the quest later, however, the item you receive will be much more powerful, and, if you do it at a high enough level, will be more powerful then anything that can be found randomly in the wilderness. As a result, you'll find yourself shying away from certain quests at the early levels - not because you're unable to do them, but because getting the reward no will hinder you later. This is counter-productive in the effort to give you more freedom then ever.

Overall, the leveling system is tolerable. Its pluses and minuses balance out, and while you'll likely come to a conclusion as to whether or not you like it, it won't be enough to ruin the game for you if you don't.

Oblivion's game world is divided into three parts: cities, wilderness, and Oblivion. There are 8 cities in the game, and each is fairly large. A new AI system means the NPCs no longer spend their time at the exact same spot for their entire lives. They go to various places, wander around the streets, go to bed, have a snack, get in conversations with each other, and all around feel realistic. This is a definite improvement over Morrowind, where enemies where NPCs really didn't do anything. There are some drawbacks, however - since NPCs are more realistic, there's less room overall. Therefore, there are few fewer houses in each town then were in Morrowind, and the number of people and places that are unrelated to any quests is significantly lower.

On the wild side of things, Oblivion's wilderness is quite nice. Most of the game world is either green with grass or white with snow, meaning that it's a nice place to spend your time looking at. There are wild creatures that attack you as you wander around, rivers for you to swim in, and mountains for you to climb. While the grass and snow make the game look nice, they unfortunately make the world feel about the same no matter where you go. You quickly develop a "I've seen it once, I've seen it all" type of attitude, which is really a shame considering all there is to do.

The final type of area you visit in the game is Oblivion, the hellish realm the game was named after. After you reach a certain point in the main quest, gates to Oblivion open up around the countryside, and Daedric invaders begin attacking you whenever you go near one. The gates themselves are incredibly annoying - they pop up seemingly everywhere and make the sky turn red and ugly whenever you're near one. Fortunately, the gates go bye-bye once you beat the main quest, but they do make travel unpleasant for a little while. The realm of Oblivion itself is not much better. It looks like something ripped directly from Lord of the Rings - a fiery sky, pits of lava dotting the landscape, burning corpses lying around, etc. All the realms of Oblivion you visit look more or less the same, and there's really only one thing you can do there - find the entrance to a tower, climb to its top, and close the Oblivion gate. Although its fun the first few times, this process gets tiresome and repetitive really quickly, and you'll soon be trying to rush through it as quickly as possible. The realm of Oblivion isn't a very fun addition to the game, but it fortunately doesn't play a role very often. Therefore, you can enjoy it a few times, then ignore it completely for the rest of the game.

Oblivion contains some major changes in the travel system. There are only three ways to get from place to place. The simplest one is to simply walk there. It takes a while, but it gives your character a chance to find new places and possibly pick up some quests or new items. The roads and wilderness are dangerous, though, and, when you walk, you'll have to fight off lots of enemies. The second option is to ride horse, which works like walking, except your trading your ability to use a weapon for the added speed of a steed. Fortunately, you can outrun most of your opponents when you're on a horse, but you'll still have to dismount and fight on occasion. The final method is the most controversial - fast travel. Once you visit a place once, all you have to do to return there is open up your map and click on it. You'll then be instantly teleported there. Fast travel makes the game go much faster, obviously, and eliminates the frustration that comes from having to spend half an hour walking to a cave just to find a cup. On the flip side, though, it also takes away much of the joy that comes from simple exploring. While you're certainly able to explore without fast travel, you definitely don't feel the urge to nearly as often.

The other radical change related to travel is the creation of a marker system. For the most part, whenever you get a quest, an arrow magically appears to exactly the place you need to go for the next step. Like most things, this has its pros and cons - it removes the frustration of having to search for something using only a badly written set of directions, but also removes the potential fun that comes from the exact same situation. Compounding this feeling, the in-game journal is now much more descriptive, often telling you exactly what you need to do next. Once again, this prevents you from wandering around confused and aimless, but also removes the joy of discovering it on your own.

The combat system has changed quite a bit from previous Elder Scrolls games. There are now only four weapon skills (Blade, Blunt, Marksman, and Hand-to-Hand). The first two types are much broader than in Morrowind - Blade contains both long and short blades, while Blunt contains axes as well as regular blunt weapons. The later two are mostly the same, except that Marksman is exclusively for bows - throwing stars, crossbows, and the like have been taken out completely. Combat is no longer a Dungeons and Dragons style dice-rolling game. If you point your reticle at a bad guy and swing your sword, they get hit. There's no luck involved. Instead, all the skills affect is the amount of damage done to your opponent on every swing. The new combat system is infinitely better than the previous games. It's quite fun, and removes the frustrating feeling that comes from missing due to a roll of a die. From a defensive standpoint, there are now only two types of armor - heavy and light, and each works just as you would expect - light armor weighs less but doesn't offer as much protection, while heavy armor is the opposite. Of course, you can choose to not wear any armor at all, and Oblivion has a number of different pieces of clothing to protect your modesty. Some of this clothing is enchanted with special effects, making going unarmored a viable option. Unlike previous Elder Scrolls games, though, there is no "Unarmored" skill.

There have been major improvements to the skill system in its entirety as well. There are now five levels of mastery for each skill, each with its own special bonus. Each time you use a skill, you get "experience" and, after you get enough experience, the skill levels up by one. Each level makes a slight difference in how well the skill works - armor gets better with each skill level up, for example, but the real changes come when you reach levels 25, 50, 75, or 100 in each skill. At those levels, you gain a special bonus to that skill. For example, if you get your heavy armor skill to level 100, any equipped heavy armor no longer weighs anything. This feature is quite nice, and it really encourages you to use your skills to get them higher.

You designate 7 skills are major skills at the beginning of the game. Every ten times you increase one of the skills, your character levels up, giving you more health and the ability to improve some of your attributes. Each skill is associated with a specific attribute, and using a skill enough provides a multiplier to that attribute when you level up. For example, if you increase an Agility related skill 10 times, you get a 5x multiplier for Agility at level up, meaning you can increase it by 5, not 1. This system, the same as it was in Morrowind, forces you to be careful about increasing your major skills - if you increase them before you have a chance to get your multipliers up, you miss out on quite a few attribute points. This system has its pros and cons - it makes you plan out your character and gives you the satisfaction of actually "building" them, but it can also cause your character to be significantly crippled at the higher levels.

Oblivion's magic system is a large improvement over Morrowind's. There are fewer spell effects, but most of them have a very useful purpose - ranging from shooting lightening from your fingertips to summoning a Daedric servant. As a nice bonus, increasing the various magical skills decreases the cost of using a spell from that college. This means that a basic fireball spell might cost a lot for an inexperienced character, but hardly costs anything if your character is a master. This is a massive improvement. In addition, not every spell can be cast by a character of any level. Each spell has a level of mastery associated with it, and, in order to cast that spell, you must be at the appropriate level in the proper skill. That means brand-new characters can't create a genocide spell to wipe out an entire town, giving you something to look forward to and giving you a sense of improvement.

The most important element of any RPG is its story, and Oblivion doesn't disappoint. It has, in fact, 5 different stories (the 4 guilds and the main quest), and each one is very, very good. As I said before, the stories are completely unrelated, but each one has the twists and turns that all good stories need to have. The main storyline is one of the weakest of the group, but its still quite good, if not a bit cliched.

From a technical standpoint, Oblivion is fantastic. The graphics are absolutely superb, and the music is wonderful. Though none of it is especially memorable, it generally fits the current situation in the game perfectly, and adds to the mode. Oblivion is much more stable then its predecessor the game hasn't frozen on me once. There are still a good number of in game glitches, some of which can prevent you from finishing a particular questline, but their numbers have greatly decreased from Morrowind.

Overall, Oblivion is one of the best games every made. Many of the new changes were attempts to make the game more "mainstream" and playable by non-hardcore RPG fans. This "dumbing down" makes many aspects of Oblivion different then previous games in the series, but they don't hurt it. Instead, they allow Oblivion to take an existing formula and improve upon it, while still retaining the incredible fun the series is noted for. I highly recommend that anyone with the slightest interest in RPGs buy this game. If you give yourself time to get used to the massive game world and the free form game Oblivion is, you'll almost inevitably begin to enjoy it.

Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

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