My experience of Oblivion began in a prison cell. The cell was uncharacteristically cozy for a medieval dungeon, with a table and stool, illuminated by a shaft of sunlight filtering in through a small barred window above me. However, my prison mate, housed in the cell across from me, was being rather icy, which was ruining my otherwise pleasant dungeon experience. Thankfully, my tête-a-tête was soon interrupted by footsteps and hushed voices from the dungeon entrance. Emperor Uriel Septim was coming, accompanied by a few loyal guards.
Of course, I had no real concept of why I was in the cell, and also no concept of what on earth the Emperor was referring to when he informed me that I was ‘the one from his dreams’. Nevertheless, lacking any sense of direction outside of what he was telling me, I followed him down, through a secret door in my cell, into the sewers.
My time in the sewers was essentially a tutorial and an introduction. At first my task was to assist the guards in the task of escorting the Emperor to safety, but events led to me being told to escape the sewers and contact one of the guards, by the name of Baurus, if I was interested in assisting in an investigation of an assassination.
When prompted, I chose to be a warrior (one of the many preset classes) rather than develop my own custom-class, which would have meant picking my primary and secondary skills, and various other statistics. As a compliment to my class, I also chose the warrior as my star sign, which provided me with added bonuses to my strength and endurance.
The main story quest is a long one (compared to most of the other quests in Oblivion), made up of many, increasingly perilous, missions. However, it’s just one quest out of hundreds, the majority of which are crafted to an above-average standard or better. One of the hallmarks of Oblivion is that you can, if you wish, begin whichever of these quests takes your fancy, in whatever order you so please, and there’s no limit set on the number of quests you can have going at any one time.
You don’t even have to do quests, specifically. The moment you emerge from the dark, gloomy, rat-infested sewers, the whole magnificent province of Cyrodill is open to you. So, if the impulse takes you, you can just swim across that river and plunder that mysterious ruin, completely ignoring the demands of the main quest, which in fact I did.
Oblivion bears its RPG heritage on its chest. Cyrodill is littered with massive subterranean interiors: archetypal examples of that old stalwart of the genre, the ‘dungeon’. You might choose to randomly explore; or you might choose to devote yourself to quests. Either way, you won’t be able to avoid experiencing them. I came across three varieties of dungeon: the bog-standard cave, the imperial fort, and the grand and ancient Ayleid ruin. I’d say there’s a fairly smooth gradient of entertainment value from the dungeons, with the ruins being the most fun to explore, and the forts being interesting but not quite as enjoyable. I’ll get to the caves in a bit.
The gist of the lore behind the ruins is that, long ago, they were the cities and strongholds of a great and proud race that once ruled Tamriel (the continent that contains Cyrodill), the Ayleid. You can find out a lot about the Ayleid and their ruins both from quests (especially the main one, and the quests you get from the mages guild), and from reading.
The ruins feel tangibly alien, with incredibly elegant architecture made up of a mix of pristine squares and rectangles, and grand curves for arches. Sliding shutters wrought of metal forged in a twisted lattice often bar the way to the next level, or to a central tomb. Main entrances and exits take the form of stone slabs, with great trees etched into them in silver. And you’ll also notice glowing stones of different shapes and sizes, called ‘Varla’ and ‘Welkynd’ stones, which you can pick up and take with you.
Since I mentioned reading, it’s important to realise just how much there is for you to read. I don’t know exactly how many books there are in Oblivion, but I’d guess the number at around two hundred, and I’d say that’s a conservative estimate. And that’s excluding the many editions of Cyrodill’s newspaper, The Black Courier, and all the letters and notes that populate the world. The books aren’t all non-fiction either; there’s a great deal of in-game fiction to enjoy too. So, you can read up on the landmarks, history, religions, and factions of Tamriel; or you can read short stories. The writing in the books is very decent as well. It’s certainly decent enough that I’d recommend spending at least some of your game time browsing through them.
One thing that’s really distinctive about Oblivion is the way that Cyrodill changes over time, in more ways than one. The levelling system adjusts the world to match your character’s ability, so that as you progress in level, the creatures in the world will scale upwards in potency. If you plunder a cave when you’re at level three, you’ll probably encounter some lowly goblins, with a shaman commanding them. If you plunder that cave at level twenty, you’re more likely to run into some far more formidable health-regenerating trolls, or perhaps even a fearsome minotaur swinging a six feet long warhammer in your face!
Levelling-up is not the only factor that determines how many and what kind of creatures are roaming Cyrodill. The main quest, being as momentous as it is, has a singular impact on the world. As you learn more and more about the conspiracy surrounding the assassinations, and as you confront more and more of the conspirators and their efforts, an increasing number of portals materialise around the countryside.
The portals all lead to the titular realm of Oblivion, which is home to all manner of sadistic, freakish creatures, called Deadra. Unfortunately the Deadra aren’t content to mill around on their side of these portals. Instead, they choose to slide through into Cyrodill and, in most cases, roam aimlessly. In rarer cases, they choose to pour through in waves.
As part of the main quest, you are forced to clash with the Deadra repeatedly, and also in many instances, you must enter Oblivion, collapse particular planes, and thereby also close the Oblivion gates. There are plenty of Oblivion gates to keep you occupied outside of the main quest too.
There’s an incredible level of detail in Oblivion. Cyrodill is inhabited by hundreds of NPCs, and what’s amazing is that each and every one of them has his or her own established daily routine. One quest in particular made me acutely aware of this. It began in Skingrad, one of the seven major towns in Cyrodill. A short and quite ridiculous looking high elf approached me with his concern that he was the target of a conspiracy.
He set me the task of spying on various residents of Skingrad, observing them as they went about their business around the town and its environs. As it turned out, none of them were doing anything that looked especially conspiratorial. What they were doing was carrying out their various duties, meeting other residents for conversation, or in one case, taking a pew in the local chapel.
Apart from a few exceptions, all of what I’ve talked about – Cyrodill, Oblivion, the creatures, the people, the cities and towns – looks pretty damned spectacular. At least, it did when Oblivion first came out. Admittedly, the game is beginning to look slightly dated, with stupidly good-looking titles like Crysis on the horizon, but Bethesda’s fine artwork shines through. What the art in Oblivion does is make the most of the graphical prowess of the engine; just as WoW makes the most of its engine.
Much has been made in other reviews of the beauty of the landscape, in particular the woods and forests, with their delicious canopies of foliage, luscious grasses and aged trees. For me, it’s the cities and towns that account for the greatest beauty in Oblivion. I still remember the awestruck feeling I had the first time I stepped back away from The Imperial City, looked back, and gazed at the wonder that is White Gold Tower, gleaming in the light of the sun – a fully HDR-enabled sun, I might add.
The grandeur of The Imperial City is echoed in the seven surrounding towns. Each town has its own distinctive architectural style, in most cases explained by its being twinned – either by history or by proximity – with Cyrodillic or provincial cultures. The styles range from Bruma’s crude but sturdy huts, which, as the residents will tell you, are a part of their relationship with Nord culture (the Nord province of Skyrim is directly to the north), all the way to Skingrad’s grand, spacious estates.
I rate the towns and cities higher, graphically, than the landscape outside of them; but I don’t want to give the impression that there’s nothing amazing-looking to find ‘out there’. Apart from the forests, I think the skies are a major visual highlight. On a fine day, a glorious sun beams down, revealing a perfect blue sky; but on the next day, the sky might turn to soft, pale grey, dotted with clouds being blown from horizon to horizon.
You’ll also notice that the sky undergoes a striking transformation when you near an Oblivion gate, gradually morphing into the hellish blood-red of Oblivion itself, streaked with lightning. On a clear night, the stars shine brightly, and you can very clearly make out neighbouring planets, exquisitely painted on to a pitch-black void. If you’re like me, you’ll frequently find yourself gazing upwards.
Oblivion doesn’t only excel in its visuals either. Everything sounds marvellous, from voices, to rainfall, to the ringing of sword on sword. The voices are the most immediately impressive, because no previous RPG has ever been furnished with such a totally comprehensive library of voiced dialogue.
Leading the charge in the voice-acting are a select few master actors: Patrick Stewart, the womanizing Sharpe himself, Sean Bean, and Terence Stamp. These guys were well picked, because they stunningly raise the bar in terms of conveying raw emotion and creating suspense, such that the characters they portray and the story that they are part of are hugely enhanced.
I mustn’t forget to praise Oblivion’s melee combat system, which I rate as probably the best in its class, next to its counterpart in Dark Messiah. What can you fight with? The range of weapons isn’t as comprehensive as it is in other games (I’m thinking of the massive arsenal in Neverwinter Nights), but more emphasis has been placed on getting the look and feel of a smaller selection as close to perfect as possible. Quality over quantity is the order of business. You’ll see what I mean when you first pick up a sword, or a hammer: even the basic weapons (those unenhanced by magic) have been given an expert design treatment.
The weapons aren’t just pretty sculptures, either. Oblivion’s melee is incredibly kinetic. It feels just right: from the moment you rip your sword from its sheath, or you lift your axe off of your back and bring it around to face the enemy, to the matching ring of steel on steel, or the ‘thwack’ of your adversary’s head being caved-in. That ‘thwack’ will at least shake your opponent, if not knock him back so that he’s off-balance and vulnerable.
The choice is there for those who prefer a zwei-hander combat stance over a sword-and-shield one. Those wielding two-handed weapons will find that they have a much greater reach, so they can keep a safe distance between themselves and quick knife-strikes, or cunning slashes from a short-sword. They’ll also find that they do a much greater amount of damage with a successful hit, and can more easily bash people around.
Of course, these bonuses come with a price. A two-handed weapon is always slower than a one-handed one, so you’ll need to time your strikes well. Furthermore, you’re forsaking the – in my opinion indispensable – benefits that come with carrying a shield in your off-hand. Of course they endow you with a vital protective barrier, as is the norm, but as you increase your skill with shields (by successfully blocking), you’ll unlock a passive ability that turns your shield into a weapon, making you bash back at an opponent when you’re holding it up. Shields are very much in the player’s control as well. They’re not, as has been the standard in RPGs of the past, ‘always up’; you have to bring it down to strike when your enemy is vulnerable, and then back up when she’s about to strike back.
The impression you’ll get is that the combat isn’t just about blind hacking and slashing; it demands close attention from the player, and constant awareness of the environment. I’m not saying that melee combat has reached its pinnacle in Oblivion; but Bethesda have definitely taken it in the right direction.
I know that most of what I’ve written so far has probably given the impression that I think very highly of Oblivion. I do, in many respects, but I also think that it leaves itself open to a lot of criticism. I actually feel more at-ease being negative about it than I do praising it.
For instance, I know I’ve rambled on about the great visuals, but the fact of the matter is that I was tip-toeing around a massive, ugly elephant in the room. When you’re travelling across the land, everything looks pretty flawless as long as you’re not looking out over a vista. Occasionally, I would emerge from the concealment of a forest, anticipating a magnificent view, but instead distant land would be rendered horribly glitched and undefined. This is the kind of thing I would expect on my old computer; not on my new Core 2 Duo/8800 GTX with all settings at maximum. Very disappointing.
While I’m on the subject of glitches, I think I have to talk about the lag I was suffering from. That’s right, lag. Oblivion was one of the reasons I upgraded to my current specification, but it turns out that even now I can’t play through it without stuttering. I get drops right down to around 5 fps when in combat, and all too predictable choppiness when riding around outside. I’m obviously not lacking the right hardware, so I can only conclude that there’s something wrong with the game-code itself.
Technical issues aren’t my only grievances. I said that the characters are well-voiced, but it’s not all good news, I’m afraid. Stewart, Bean, and Stamp are truly brilliant, but that only accounts for three characters out of the hundreds in the world, all of which have their dialogue voiced as well. Hiring a new actor for every character, or assigning only a few characters to each actor, would’ve been an unprecedented undertaking, but that’s just what you ought to do if you don’t want the master-work of ‘the trio’ to be dragged further and further down into the mud every time the player is subjected to ‘the Nord woman’ actress, or ‘the Imperial man’ voice.
It strikes me as downright foolish that Bethesda managed to attract star talent like Patrick Stewart and then assign one actor or actress to play all characters belonging to particular gender/race combination. Also, while I’m offering retrospective advice to the developer: don’t get rid of the great Jean Luc Picard within the opening chapter of your game! At least have him speak to the player from beyond the grave, or come back as a ghost in the style of Obi Wan.
Not only are the bulk of the NPCs generically voiced, they also have some of the most ridiculous and most repetitive conversations that I’ve ever been witness to. They all go about their business in a procedural (non-scripted) way, so if they have a conversation, that conversation is constructed on-the-fly by the game, drawing from a large, but sadly insufficient, range of questions and responses. The inevitable result of the small amount of effort that’s been made in this area is that, in your wanderings around the town of Anvil, you’ll hear the same conversation about ‘Imperial goods being boycotted in the land of the Altmer’ far too often. The dialogue is also very disjointed, and often nonsensical, to the extent that you’ll get the impression that you’re exploring a world inhabited by toy robots rather than people.
Things like persuasion and lockpicking – typically relegated to an unseen calculation in most RPGs, followed by a ‘you have successfully persuaded’ or ‘you have picked the lock’ message – are implemented as mini-games in Oblivion. For a while, I quite liked them, but after that early period of being mildly entertained, I began to feel the irritation crawling up my spine (or whatever brain region irritation does its daily-rounds in). The mechanics of speechcraft – the skill that allows you to get on someone’s good-side – are okay, but what spoils it is that every time you click on a wedge (I can’t summon the energy to explain how the wedges work), the NPC you’re talking to blurts out some pithy, and of course generic, comment. The lockpicking is just plain frustrating.
Finally, with regard to caves (and you thought I was going to break my promise and forget about them!), I have to say that they’re among the few areas in the game that tend to rapidly induce boredom. I know there’s not much to work with when you’re creating a cave. When we get down to basics, caves are just hollowed out rock formations. But surely Bethesda could’ve mustered a bit more of the design genius that they evidently possess, when they were making theirs?
The majority of your time in caves will be spent staring at dull greyish walls, thankfully interspersed with the odd shaft of light piercing through the darkness from above, but that’s really it. I occasionally had this reaction to Oblivion planes as well, and I’m not just talking about the caves inside of the planes, I’m talking about the planes themselves. Sometimes I found myself just going through the motions, instead of becoming engrossed in exploration, and experiencing feelings of heroism.
If I’m asked straight-up, I have to give Oblivion a thumbs-up, but that’s not to say that it’s anywhere near the kind of game-of-the-year material that so many reviewers have said that it is. Yes, it’s a bold attempt, and there’s no doubt that the staff at Bethesda have some serious talent, but it falls drastically short in presenting a world full of believable characters, and it can often feel like a chore to play. It’s also plagued by technical shortfalls and crappy mini-games, which can effectively ruin whole sections of gameplay. Ultimately, if I have to recommend a single title as a champion for the genre, it’s not going to be Oblivion; it’s going to be my old favourite, Planescape: Torment.
✓ Involving main quest
✓ Great melee combat
✓ Beautiful graphics and spot-on sound
✓ All of Cyrodill immediately open to you
✓ Patrick Stewart, Sean Bean, and Terence Stamp
✗ Some glitches and lag
✗ Moronic conversations with NPCs
✗ Sometimes feels like a chore