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The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (PC) artwork

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (PC) review


"This is the thing with Oblivion. Just as you manage to suspend disbelief and let the high-fantasy tide wash over you, something completely moronic happens and you're thrown rather aggressively back to the dismal reality of sitting in front of a screen, playing an embarrassingly geeky computer game. I'm never usually one to moan about glitches all that much, but when they regularly remove you from the whole experience, it's difficult not to let it hamper your fun."



I've played a fair few RPGs in my time, yet Oblivion has me completely stumped. I've taken some notes during my ridiculous number of hours spent playing Bethesda's monster, and most of them are brutally negative. But each point, seemingly a damning criticism in isolation, seems to matter very little when caught up in the subversive magic of actually playing the game. It manages, despite itself, to be remarkably enjoyable.

Oblivion has shamelessly annoyed the hell out of me more than almost any other title that springs to mind, mainly because it undercuts its inherent fabulousness with a big, steaming pile of completely faecal idiocy. A particular favourite moment of mine occurred within the first of the recurrent 'Oblivion Gates' - portals to a hellish and otherworldly dimension, inhabited by the evil Daedra, who are increasingly seeping their way through to our world. A fearful knight tagged along behind me, seemingly reluctant to offer any meaningful support against the legions of impish baddies. As we progressed, a cliff to our right crumbled, huge chunks of rock rolling down the hill towards us. I sensibly took a step back, but my knight companion decided this would be a brilliant time to run forward at full pelt, get hit by an enormous boulder, and topple off the walkway into a pit of angry lava.

...Hmm.

So the AI's not great. I could forgive that: role-playing games haven't exactly been lauded en masse for their impressively intelligent characters, after all. So I reloaded, and tried again. And he did the same thing. And a third time, before the realisation finally hit me: this is scripted! This is scripted, and it's rubbish.

If you're going to kill off a character to add an element of challenge, then fair play, but at least think of a sensible way to approach it. Give him one hit point so he dies during the first battle, or something. Hell, at least make the rocks fall on top of him so suddenly that he has no chance to dodge out of the way. Do something like this, and you donít only risk making your lovingly-crafted NPCs seem like idiots. You stand a fair chance of making the game look decidedly stupid as well.

The problem is, it's difficult to differentiate between pieces of design lunacy that are actually supposed to happen, and the AI system having a bit of a special moment. Every single character in the world of Tamriel is so utterly numbskulled that they should be in a care home somewhere. On one hysterical occasion, I beat a man to a bloody pulp in the hope that I could rob his corpse of an important key. He didn't die, he just fell unconscious, and when he came round he stood bolt upright and enthusiastically welcomed me to his home.

Maybe he was concussed.

None of this nonsense ever renders Oblivion unplayable or even all that dislikeable, but it does strike me as the sort of stuff you're supposed to get right before you pour your heart and soul into all the incredibly ambitious ideas you have. Some of Oblivion's problems are so laughably awful that they almost work in its favour: there's a common tendency to simply pat it on the shoulder, give it a pitying smile, and just get on with whatever it was you were trying to do.

In this respect, I have a sneaking suspicion that I enjoyed my time with Oblivion because of what I was doing in this world, not because of what Bethesda had crafted for me. I suppose that's as good a compliment as any, because as soon as you learn to overlook these ridiculous issues, and start creating your own entertainment, the game starts to become rather immersive, particularly if you're the sort of nerdy escapist that's happy to sit through the Lord of the Rings trilogy in one go. Tamriel is an identikit world, chock full of fantasy clichť and nowhere near as interesting as Morrowind's island of Vvardenfell, but if you let yourself get wrapped up in it, it's difficult to pry yourself away.

It owes more than you might expect to a blisteringly good orchestral soundtrack, which easily matches - if not exceeds - the emotive prowess of its predecessor. But then, true to form, Oblivion spoils its aural splendour with literally some of the worst voice acting I've ever heard. Patrick Stewart's appearance early on might lull you into a false sense of security, but once his corpse is splattered across a dungeon about three seconds into the game, the dialogue never really recovers. Everyone in Tamriel sounds either hopelessly bored or insincerely excitable. The ridiculous over-delivery of some of these voice artists would sit more comfortably in the hammy confines of low-grade children's television. It doesn't help that there are about four actors in the whole bloody game, who apparently only had five minutes each to spare, considering the hideous amount of recycling that goes on between characters.

Maybe all their time was spent recording the dialogue for Luckless Lucina in the town of Cheydinhal. At least two of them had a crack at it, anyway. In a moment of utter bewilderment, I sat open-mouthed at my monitor as she switched from a heavily-accented croak, to a proud upper-class RP, and back again - all during the same fucking conversation.

Sigh.

This is the thing with Oblivion. Just as you manage to suspend disbelief and let the high-fantasy tide wash over you, something completely moronic happens and you're thrown rather aggressively back to the dismal reality of sitting in front of a screen, playing an embarrassingly geeky computer game. I'm never usually one to moan about glitches all that much, but when they regularly remove you from the whole experience, it's difficult not to let it hamper your fun.

That said, for those stretches where it's not throwing up a completely retarded collection of NPCs or speaking at you in preposterous cartoon voices, there is genuinely a lot of fun to be had. I'm not exaggerating when I say that Oblivion is one of the most addictive games ever - but then cocaine's addictive too, and that doesn't make it any good. It raises a really interesting point about whether an urge to repeatedly experience something makes it a product of true quality, and Oblivion is the sort of game that suggests this may not be true. Still, it would be a little unfair to cite Oblivion as 'bad' when it's so effortlessly eaten up far too many days of my life. When you get particularly involved in a quest, it's difficult to know when to call it a day, and it's even more challenging to take your own advice when you realise that spending ten straight hours in front of a monitor can't be that healthy.

It's largely because the quests themselves are absolutely brilliant. Not the main story - that's a rather insipid load of reused fantasy trash - but the tales you pick up on the side are genuinely interesting. Early in the game, I found myself neck-deep in a vampire conspiracy. Later, I spied on a woman who had been cruelly drawing mountain lions into the basement of her neighbour. I helped a group of lobbying townsfolk convince their council to relax some laws and lower payments. And, to be fair, I also killed a truckload of goblins in a dungeon Ė but it was a very pretty dungeon.

The key thing that makes Oblivion so enthralling is that there's just so much to do. The first few hours can be a bit hit-and-miss, as you try to work out where there are some quests to be found, where everything is on the map, and exactly what sort of role you want to play in this world. But once that's out of the way, the endlessness of Tamriel's opportunities starts to become the game's most remarkable strength. There's so much to get lost in, from the history of this world, to the minor details and nuances that make it what it is today. The ludicrous number of approaches only contributes to this. Even compared to Morrowind, the wealth of opportunity is astounding.

It also feels a lot more intuitive and easier to play than Morrowind, particularly in the combat department. Fighting is a lot faster and more responsive, and casting spells alongside traditional melee hack-'n'-slashing is no longer the chore it once was. The godawful journal has been replaced by a neatly structured set of quest screens, and the world seems a little better organised, making it much easier to get to where you want to be. There are also, thankfully, far less arbitrary wild baddies to be encountered between the different settlements, and it's nice to be able to enjoy a pleasant walk in the countryside without the constant annoyance of having your face pecked off by a flying stingray.

But there's still this niggling feeling in the back of my mind that the series hasn't developed enough. Aside from these few refinements, everything Oblivion does well is lifted straight from its predecessor, while the world of Tamriel lacks the artistry and variety of Morrowind's beautiful planes. Practically every single town and city in Oblivion looks exactly the same, and the stretches of land between them are as green as Quake was brown. It's disappointingly uncreative and oddly unambitious, given the phenomenal scope of the actual game itself.

The fundamental problems that plagued Morrowind largely remain as well. I was always under the impression that role-playing games were all about building the character you wanted to be, but the hideous auto-levelling system is still intact. Skill points are assigned based on the actions you perform, but it all takes place behind an impenetrable screen, with the game occasionally telling you that your skill in some seemingly random area has increased. Most frequently, Oblivion told me I was getting better at agility, apparently as a result of choosing to run around the world instead of meandering along more slowly than an elderly tortoise. Even in an RPG, I expect to be rewarded for something that actually relates to my own talents within the game. But, although having practiced my swordsmanship for an astonishing amount of time, I'd barely levelled up in that area at all. I ended up having to join the fighters' guild just to become adept enough to tackle any of the plot-essential Oblivion Gates.

Yeah, those again.

I can't even be bothered to discuss them at any length. They're mediocrity in red and brown. It's like Diablo in first-person, only far less interesting and equally repetitive, forcing you into mindless combat no matter which areas you're trying to specialise in. They're also far too difficult to tackle as a low-level character, yet the game tries to funnel you into the first one almost as soon as you turn on the PC. These are the main focal points of the narrative. I deeply wish they weren't.

Elsewhere, there are the occasional mini-games. Lockpicking - that's good. A simple and relevant little task. More of this, please, and less of the utterly laughable speechcraft system: one of Oblivion's ultimate immersion-breakers. I don't even know how to describe it, it's that offbeat and ill-fitting. Basically: imagine matching slices of a pie with the appropriate funny face - but only when it lets you, which isn't all that often.

...Hmm.

We're kind of back round to the beginning here. There's no denying that Oblivion is an exceptionally enjoyable and fiendishly addictive game, and it's worth experiencing for that alone. It's full of intrigue, and time flies by absurdly quickly while lost in the environs of Tamriel. But it still feels like the prototype: a spectacularly less complete game than its predecessor. Its ambition is highly commendable, and commend it I shall; but, through its often woeful presentation, it manages to cripple the otherwise outstanding atmosphere a little too frequently.

Still, there's an undeniable charm to its broken beauty. Best bit? I was walking down a dusty road, in pursuit of an important man in a nearby village. In complete darkness, I began to worry for my well-being. I was low on healing potions, and my weapons were in dire need of repair. I'd heard feral nasties were rife in the area, so I broke into a run as clouds formed above me, cementing an atmosphere of dread and doom. As I trudged along through the woodland, I realised I was lost - so, scared and alone, I changed course for the nearest settlement. As I approached its gates, the morning sun peaked over the horizon, and a friendly face smiled back at me. "Welcome," he said.

But he said it in a stupid voice, and then walked into a wall.

Rating: 7/10

Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (December 19, 2008)

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zippdementia posted December 20, 2008:

Ha ha, great ending, Lewis. Nice tie-in to the Morrowind review.

I also think this review hits the mark in terms of what really is the problem with Oblivion. You obviously wanted to like this game a lot, and thus were able to pin point exactly what took you out of the experience. Good writing, good arguments... bravo.

My one complaint is that the review is VERY long. Even for a game of this size. It's not so much WHAT you say, but how long you dwell on each point. The providing of the examples is nice, but it definitely adds length... sometimes unnecesarily. The first example with the knight drives home one of your main points: that the NPCs take you out of the experience. After this, though, the review sort've gets muddy... not touching on any points as strongly as that first one. You mention the quests, but you basically say you like some and not others, which is a "here-nor-there" point. While not badly argued, it could be taken out, ultimately, and the review wouldn't suffer.

I think your best point (and the focus of the review, really) is that Oblivion is an immersive experience that suffers because of the lackaluster in the details, especially the NPCs. That in itself, especially how you wrote those points, makes for a great concise review.
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Lewis posted December 21, 2008:

Thanks for reading, and for taking the time to comment.

There seems to be a slight tendency towards shorter, snappier reviews at HG. This would roughly be five or six pages in a magazine - standard fair for a big new release. I never intended to go on for so long with this one (my Pathologic review would be another example), but - contrary to your suggestion - none of it seemed extraneous. If I'd chop anything, it'd be the short paragraph about the mini games.

With regards to the stuff about the quests... I'm surprised you picked that out as something to be chopped, since the quality of the side-quests was one of the things that edged Oblivion towards true greatness for me. Replace them with standard fantasy RPG nonsense and I'd have enjoyed the game far, far less.

Oblivion alternates between superb immersion and moments of complete idiocy that snap you right out of it. That'd be my one-liner review if I did one. It's funny - I never felt ambivalent towards Oblivion; I just swayed between absolutely loving it, and falling about in hysterics at how bad some of it is. Very weird.

"I also think this review hits the mark in terms of what really is the problem with Oblivion. You obviously wanted to like this game a lot, and thus were able to pin point exactly what took you out of the experience."

This is what I struggled with, so I decided to make it the focus of the introduction. Its good bits (ie. the majority, to be honest) are so effortlessly enjoyable that it's difficult to acknowledge exactly why you're having such a good time - and it's probably just down to how much there is to do and how easy it is to get lost in all of it. Its bad bits destroy this so heavily that I found myself formulating a huge list of ridiculous problems, and then maybe felt the need to go into too much detail about the negatives. For a 7/10 review (which is a very harsh score, I must say. If we were doing percentages, it'd be a 79, but one that doesn't quite warrant being rounded up to an 8), I spent an inordinate amount of time discussing its downfalls. I guess I've just never lapped up all the Oblivion bumming.

If it did anything at all, it drove home how much better Fallout 3 is.

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