"This could have been a Skyrim review, but was backtracked to Oblivion."
I vividly remember my first glimpse of Oblivion. After the obligatory “create your character” beginnings, I found myself imprisoned in a dank cell filled with cobwebs, rotten furniture and the remains of those that dwelled before me. The prisoner in the cell opposite taunted my situation and the guards treated me with unconcealed contempt. Then Patrick Stewart arrived, announced himself as king and vanished down a secret tunnel that just happened to be in my cell. “Don’t follow us!”, ordered one of his bodyguards. I ignored him; I was in jail, obedience to THE MAN clearly wasn’t a strong point.
I remember a very clear "is this it?" moment as I ploughed through a sewer filled with rats and weakling goblins. Whom I slew without much effort with a katana I picked off the corpse of one of the king’s slain bodyguards. Eventually, I met up with Stewart again as he and his remaining soldiers battled crazed cultists in crimson armour. I joined the fray, but the king was killed. In his dying breath, he labelled me a hero chosen by fate and promptly shuffled off to the next life. It was a claustrophobic, overly-scripted beginning that saw me take possession of a magical amulet with instructions to take it to a secret faction of royal knights. With a shrug, I made my way to the exit of the sewers and emerged into the dazzling sunlight.
Eight hours later, I stopped playing after accomplishing very, very little in the way of advancing the main plot but with a dozen or so side-quests under my belt. Thirty odd hours later and I'm ignoring the main plot while I accomplish a myriad of side quests just because. Once you’re out in the open, once the dizzying freedom of Oblivion finally hits, it's geek flavoured crack with stat rolls and D&D beasties.
Eventually, I made a bid to save Martin, the last remaining heir to the king’s throne, but not before I had raided a twisted village’s underground shrine devoted to the “Deep Ones” to rescue the daughter of a local trader, went swimming to collect the scales of rare slaughter fish so a gimpy fisherman could complete his contract with a local alchemist and liberated a farmhouse from cannibalistic trolls on the request of two long lost twins I reunited. I saved painters trapped in their own magical pieces of art, avenged the spirits of wandering ghosts and aided an orkish knight gain revenge on bandits that slaughtered her friends and family.
Martin, then, has taken refuge as a monk in the city of Kvatch, which is a little down on its fortunes.
The once great city lay in ruins, overrun by an army of hellish imps, marauding demons and festering fire elementals that convert slaughtered allies to burning minions of their own. Before the skeleton of the razed city stands a gateway to another world, shrouded in hellfire and spitting out monsters that pester and plague what’s left of the city’s militia. Someone had to go in there and shut that nonsense down, and I was the only one Captain Picard had dubbed a hero of fate. Thus, it was me who travelled to a hidden dimension, fought back waves of demons that wanted to eat my face, removed the Sigil Stone and collapsed the gate. Martin was saved, and taken to a castle carved into the face of a mountain. Surrounded by the secret sect of knights that had failed to protect his father, I’m assured of his safety and urged to gather more information on the sect that vies for his demise. “Time is against us”, I am told. “We must act with haste.”
“You don’t control me, THE MAN!”, I told my TV screen. That sure put him in his place.
Instead, I rescued giant pet rats from angry cats, solved the mystery of a haunted house (Scooby Doo style!), and became a vampire before seeking out a mystical cure in between chomping the necks of the sleeping. I fought my way slowly up the rankings of the Capital City’s Arena by beating those I could beat and tainting those I could not. The Arena champion is an ork that’s convinced he descended from nobility. At his request, I travelled to the ruined home of his ancestors, discovered the terrible secret behind his tainted family, and drove him to suicide with the news. I visited demonic shrines dedicated to taboo gods and did favours for them to gain eldritch artefacts such as staffs that turn dread zombies into sheep or magical skeleton keys that will never snap in a pesky lock. I rose through the ranks of the Fighter’s Guild until I dismissed the efforts of a competing guild and ruled over my victorious faction with an iron fist. I became a champion of the Mage’s Guild after spearheading their war with necromancers and bloodied my hands with the Assassin’s Guild. Here, I made some dirty money dropping stuffed boar heads on sleeping targets to complete contracts and played out a medieval and gruesome version of “And Then There Were None” in a staged house party.
The cool thing about the guild subplots is that you don't need to be anything specific to complete them. I built a somewhat atypical tank brawler, which is perfect for the arena, but one that also saw me through the Mage Guild quests with zero problems. Sure, said quests often have ghostly enemies that require me to put them down with my meagre magic, but I can without fuss or trouble. The ones that out-power my underperforming mana can still be put down with good old fashioned stabbing so long as you equip an enchanted weapon or one made from certain substances, like silver or ebony. You’ll never find your character specification limiting you out of certain paths of sub-quests. There’s always a way around any roadblocks. Any problems you do come up against can usually be accredited to Oblivion's somewhat buggy gameplay or your own errors.
For example! While merrily running through the Fighter’s Guild quests I came to a mission where I have to recover a holy artefact from some thieves. You find the only one of the miscreants alive, and he confesses that ogres took the artefact. I hate ogres. They may be the only thing left in Oblivion that causes my slash-happy avatar problems.
I wander off to this ruin where the ogres live and painstakingly progress through their ranks. I kill an ogre, taking significant damage, forcing me to rest up, kill another ogre, rest up and so on and so forth. I find the room with the McGuffin in, but the door can only be opened remotely. I carry on through the ruin, slowly killing ogres and looking for a switch. Nothing.
I go back to the door and notice there’s a pressure pad I trod on. It’s down, it’s clearly meant to open the door, yet, the door is closed. I tread on the pad again, jump up and down on the pad and even pelt it with magical fireballs. Nothing. I quit and sulk before deciding to reload a previous save some hours back and see if I can sidestep this bug.
Knowing my enemy and my route, I go back in . This time I charged my lightning blade so that the monstrous ogres would die quicker (and continue to vastly enjoy each killing blow from my electrified sword sends the hulking bastards flying, twitching as they soar). Through the ruins I trudge, trying to draw the ogres away from groups and take them one-on-one. It's painstaking at times, but a group is bloody tough to deal with.
There are a lot of ogres.
I kill the first three (only two stand in your way initially, but one a distance off must have heard me or seen me from afar somehow and ran the entire length of the ruins to try and kill me. Nice to be wanted) and got back to the sealed gate. I held my breath and, like last time, I trod on the pad. Still nothing. There was much swearing. Then I looked up. There was a walkway above my head.
Bringing up the map showed it connected up with a passageway a little to my left that I had completely overlooked the first time somehow. I killed the ogre that was in my way, explored and found a button. Gates open, mission complete, handful of hours wasted. It’s easy to point the finger of blame on me, but the game radiates a sense of minor incompletion that steals away confidence. In a game feeling more complete, I would be happy to admit that I was overlooking something and not be so ready to call the game’s programming into question. But any play through of Oblivion will, in one way or another, present you with a slew of simple-to-game-breaking errors. Sometimes, pressure pads don’t open the doors they’re meant to open, leaving you unable to progress. Sometimes, the quest arrow will point to where a quest-specific person will be and you’ll find this location uninhabited. While working through the Thieves’ Guild, I needed to meet with my sponsor to receive my newest assignment. I followed my mission marker to a shanty hut on the edges of a main town. A shady figure begs me to hurry inside before the town’s guards become suspicious. I glance to the sides to ensure I'm not being watched and steal inside.
The hut is barren.
This shouldn’t be. The big green quest arrow is clearly pointing at an empty patch of air where a dark thief should be. Multiple reloads and several instances of tearing the hut apart still result in nothing. I despair; I ignore the arrow that’s only purpose in life is to guide me to where I need to go, and visit the last location I met the guild leader at. Though the marker points in the opposite direction, there he sits, looking almost smug about the wild goose chase I’d spent the last few hours running. “What kept you?”, he growls. I decide I quite hate him.
But these things are forgivable in the grand scheme of Oblivion‘s greatest strength, and that’s the title’s vastness. If I wanted, I could tell the Thief Master to shove his guild up his arse, and continue on with the game without giving him a second thought. Indeed, the game is at its very best when this kind of attitude is employed. Wandering around aimlessly brought me to a simple farm in the middle of nowhere. Out in the farm’s vegetable field toils a single maiden. Stopping to chat to the girl finds her cold to your approaches at first, but you can win her over, and hear how she lives alone as her husband stole away a priceless family artefact before joining a den of bandits. Deciding to help the distressed girl, I started off in the direction of the ruined fort that served as the bandit’s home, but was distracted by a cave filled with lumbering zombies along the way. Exploring the cave found it a haven for a forgotten coven of evil vampires, who I merrily slaughtered, looting the valuable weapons and items they hoarded. Full of goodies, I decided to wander back to a city to sell off any unneeded items, but stumbled across a chapel on the way. Deciding to pay my respects to the gods, I let myself in and found the once-Holy grounds decimated and a group of Necromancers instead using it as a base for twisted experiments on the dead and dying. Oblivion can be more than just a list of quests if you let it: it can be a living, breathing world, full of life and never static.
So it’s a shame that, to beat the game, you have to see Oblivion at its worst. You need to see the game as repetitive -- you’ll find yourself exploring the same caves, the same ruins over and over again. Once you realise this, you’ll realise that every location you’ll ever visit is already one you’ve seen before. If you’re not exploring a ruined castle, you’re exploring an ancient ruined castle. Or a cave. If you’re not walking through forests, you’re either swimming or scaling a mountain. Or in a cave. Worst of all, the main plot hinges heavily on Oblivion Gates. You’ll see nearly as many Oblivion Gates as you will caves.
Once this happens, wave goodbye to the choice paralysis of agoraphobia, and prepare to embrace suffocating claustrophobia instead. Beating the game means cutting yourself out of the rest of the world, forcing yourself into a small tunnel instead of skipping around in a limitless field.
Follow the main arc and, soon, you'll find yourself at the point where, to raise some allies, you have to go around closing Oblivion gates that have popped up right outside all the major towns. It’s somewhat optional, but not closing the majority of these gates means giving up on allies for the final assault, allies that, strictly, you need. Though I can continue to complain about the limitless amount of caves, Oblivion gates are, by far, the dullest points of the game.
Because each gate is the same thing over and over. You storm through some Daedra -- the big, bad demons trying to take over your dimension via the gates. Some of these are hackers and slashers, some are mages and some exist in between. They fight beside big lizards creatures that spit lightning, spider demons that produce tiny clones of themselves and rock-formed golems. The landscape is always the same red sky, the same violent backdrop of sharp, jutting rocks and blood-hungry fauna, and it’s always a mini-maze dash to get to the big tower in the middle of the map to nick a stone and close the gate. It’s something that’s amazing the first time you enter it, but by the tenth time you’ve climbed a spiral tower with corpses strung from the ceiling on differing length rope (there’s some vitality here, at least; some of them are on fire) Oblivion‘s reliance on this morbid realm is overplayed, especially when you’re forced to do half a dozen or so gates back to back.
One of these attacks on the gates tries to be different in that there are already seven people inside: a group of amateur knights with illusions of grandeur. But, it just so happens, that the leader of these knights is the son of the town’s Count. Before he’ll agree to align himself with you, you need to go in and rescue his son or bring back proof of his death. Relieved at the slight change of pace and looking forward to not being the only person hacking at the foes within, you stroll through the gate.
As soon as you enter, you see your first dead knight. As you progress through. You see the landscape stained with blood and you find corpses dotted around. Enter a stand-alone tower and find one poor soldier spread-eagled on the floor, topless, and surrounded by cackling demons. It’s unexpected and new, a great change of pace from the same old trips into the gates that you’ve had to endure thus far.
Finally make your way to the bridge leading to the last tower and find the last remaining knights waiting at the mouth. They’re bloodied, surrounded by the corpses of lesser demons and one of their number lies slain just before them. The leader approaches, full of bravado and demands help in finishing his noble mission. The second knight gives a more realistic appraisal of the situation, but all agree to press on. In number, you storm the bridge.
Halfway in stands a rock elemental. Being the fastest and best prepared of the group, you will reach it first. It falls with ease, so you watch your two knight chums rush past to tackle a Daedra warrior beyond. The Daedra takes a few blows, stumbles back under the ferocity of their attack, and falls over the lip of the bridge, into the sea of lava below.
Job done, you turn towards the now unguarded door. The knights promptly jump off the bridge after him.
Roll your eyes and peek over the lip to watch all three spasm in pain before dying. A little task window pops up telling you that the guy you needed to protect is dead and that you need to take proof of his demise back to his father, the Count. The proof needed is his signet ring. Which he is still wearing. In the middle of a sea of fire.
It brings sharply into focus exactly why Oblivion’s quick save and save anywhere features are downright vital. There’s a reason you and you alone are tasked with saving the entire world aside from Patrick Stewart telling you so: this reason is because everyone else in the region is a bloody moron.
To see the game at its best, attack the plotline in manageable chunks and make time for random shenanigans. Parked in Central City’s dock lies a pirate ship jealously guarded by scallywags and ne’er-do-wells. Draw near the tattered craft, and the shapely vice captain growls a warning: set foot on their barge and face cutlass-themed doom. This prompted me to immediately leap on the main deck, get everyone good and homicidal, then use a magical pendant that allows me to walk on water to jump into the ocean and run across the waves, giggling like a loon, while scurvy-ridden hooligans curse at my disappearing form.
You need to make your own path in Oblivion for the world to work. Let the game guide you and you’re led through a gallery of highlighted bugs and broken promises.
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