360 owners rejoice! The day you’ve been waiting for has finally arrived! Since it’s announcement, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion has been perhaps the most eagerly anticipated title of this (and, thanks to an extensive release date delay, last) year. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was well received by many in the gaming world, including several “Best of the Year” honors, however there were many gamers who were turned off by the open ended nature, and sheer depth of the title. With Oblivion, Bethesda has brought back the incredible scope that made the first title so revolutionary, but they have also added several new tricks to help keep players from feeling lost. This combination of size, direction, and choice has created a title that stands in stark contrast to the often linear world of RPG gaming. That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t a great story to be found in the expanses of Tamriel.
Your journey begins in an small cell in the Imperial City Dungeon. The first piece of business to attend to is creating your character. The CAC system is much deeper than in Morrowind, allowing you to adjust nearly every facial feature of your character using sliders. All the familiar races of Tamriel are represented here, and they all have their specific strengths and weaknesses. The choices you make here will decide not only the way your character looks for your stay in Oblivion, but will also go quite a way toward impacting your play style, so choose carefully. Once your Avatar is created, you will be introduced to the story. It seems the Emperor (voiced by the great Patrick Stewart, who should be on every developers speed dial for “Stately sounding English guy” ) is dealing with a rather pesky problem in the form of an assassination attempt. He needs to get the hell out of Dodge, and guess what, your cell is the escape route. He recognizes you from a prophetic dream, and tells you that your destiny doesn’t end in a prison cell. Score!! You follow them out and into a tunnel which serves as your training ground. With his last words before being struck down by an assassin’s blade, the Emperor implores you to find his only surviving heir, and “Close shut the Jaws of Oblivion”. And thus your journey begins.
The melee combat has been crafted to near perfection.
The most compelling story in the game though, isn’t this quest to rid the world of evil and return an Emperor to the throne, it’s the story you create yourself. This game is built for exploration and open ended story progression. There are 200+ hours worth of quests to embark on, dungeons to crawl, and innocent townsfolk to murder (Hey, it’s your story-.so one says it has to be all sunshine and rainbows). This freedom is one of the things that really sets Oblivion apart from every other title on the market. But it’s not the only thing.
Graphically, Bethesda has really outdone themselves. Not only is the world of Tamriel absolutely breathtaking, but it has a size and scope not seen previously in the gaming universe. The amount of detail in the environment is so amazing, that I found myself just looking around for long stretches of time. Everything about the environments is so engrossing, it’s very easy to lose yourself in the game world. The draw distance is, barring some minor pop in problems, is incredibly impressive. The sky is dynamic, realistic, and oddly beautiful. For instance, wandering around the world one day I happened to look up. Clouds were building up near the horizon, and the first thing I thought was “Man-it looks like it’s going to rain”. Sure enough, within a couple minutes, the wind had picked up (causing the tall grass and trees to sway in an incredibly life-like fashion) And within another couple minutes, the rain had begun. Little things like that will happen to you all the time during your time in the game, and I can’t express how much that adds to the immersion.
Cities are also very well designed. You’ll notice subtle (and not so subtle) differences in the architecture, social structure, and populations of the different cites and areas that make up the game world. Dungeons lack the variety of the rest of the game world, but their textures are solid, if a bit repetitive. Character’s in the game offer a great degree of expressive facial expressions. They also, with the exception of several goofy looking human facial models, look fairly realistic. They aren’t quite as varied as I would like, but they are still very well designed. Armor and weapons reflect light realistically, and their detail is unsurpassed. Very few games manage to make both the largest environments, and the most minute details look as good as this one does. Simply put, Oblivion is the best looking game on the 360 to date.
What good are stunning environments and an intriguing storyline, without engaging gameplay to keep you coming back. Luckily, Oblivion packs plenty of bite to go with it’s visual bark. The combat is greatly improved over Morrowind’s “Roll the dice” system. The simplification is genius really-.You swing and hit something, it’s a hit. You swing and miss, it’s a miss. No more stabbing someone with a sword for a half hour, while they stand there like Hulk Hogan no-selling your offense. This adjustment should really help bring back some players that Morrowind lost due to it’s clunky interface.
It seems like realistic physics are making their way into everything in games nowadays, and Oblivion is no exception. Simply put, the physics (while sometimes a little suspect) are pretty impressive. I can’t describe the feeling you get when you peg someone mid-air with an arrow and watch their body flip backwards and roll down a hill. Well-.I probably could describe it, but they’d take me away on the handcart again. The physics don’t just apply to the characters, however. Drop something on a hill and you’ll have to run after it while it bounds defiantly away from you like this was “Free Willy: The Game”. Shoot an arrow into a bucket, watch it hang crooked from the weight. Feeling William Tell like? Put an apple on a table, take aim, and hope to God you don’t scratch the wood work. This depth really adds another layer of realism to the already engrossing game world.
The environments are some of the best found on the XBox 360 console so far.
One of the main things that Morrowind was heralded for was the sheer quantity of the available missions. There was never a lack of things to do. Oblivion takes that concept and runs screaming with it. There are four main guilds in the game (Thieves, Fighter’s, Mage’s, and The Dark Brotherhood), as well as a hierarchical combat arena and an incredible amount of stand-alone missions and quest lines hidden throughout the Empire. All this, as well as the excellent Main Quest leads to at least 200 hours worth of distractions. The guild storylines are exceptionally well written, and the main quest’s run the gamut from funny, to strange, to heroic. Oblivion is the closest you can get to a video game version of the classic “Choose Your Own Adventure” books (at least until my letter writing campaign finally wins someone over), and that amount of freedom is welcome in a genre so filled with straight line “go here, do this, save her” stories.
While Oblivion (like all 360 titles) supports custom soundtracks, I don’t imagine you’ll be using them to often. The music really sets a great tone for both exploration and combat. I can’t count the number of times I wandered blindly into a combat situation, only to have the “Evil Action Combat Music” come on and save my ass. The sounds are all crisp and realistic, from the satisfying ’Thunk’ of an arrow to the snow crunching underfoot. Voice acting is also incredibly solid, including voices for every piece of dialogue in the game. Of course, when you’ve got top stars like Patrick Stewart doing the honors, it can’t help but be good. There are some dodgy voices every now and again, and I could have stood some more variation among characters, but overall the sound quality is top notch.
Of course, in a game this size one should expect some bugs. I’ve run into several minor clipping issues (including an enemy stuck in the ceiling that could hit me, but was oblivious to my attacks) and a couple times experienced some incredibly frustrating crashes. Hopefully some of these issues can be fixed through patching, but none of them occur frequently enough to be game breaking by any stretch.
There is no doubt in my mind that The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion is the best title on the 360, and that it is the most groundbreaking title in its genre to come down the pipe in a while. With its enormous amount of quests, the beautifully expansive environment, and a degree of subtlety that most games don’t even dream of, Bethesda has created a gaming masterpiece that will be hard to knock off come Game of the Year voting. But hey, why are you still reading this? If you already have the game, get back to it. If you don’t, go get it. Right now, I’ve gotta go. Those Oblivion gates aren’t gonna close themselves.