The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Reviewing The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is by far the largest undertaking in the young 2006 gaming year. With hundreds of hours of gameplay and just as many different paths to take, no one reviewer can give a definitive opinion of the game, at least not this soon after its release. That’s why we enlisted the help of three willing victims, also known as DailyGame writers, to tackle our review of the PC version. These writers played at their own speed and chose their own path, and not surprisingly, they each came away with a slightly different opinion of their adventure. Below is the conversation that came out of their intense roundtable review session.
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Randie Kilgore: OK, I’ll keep it short and sweet. Oblivion is one of the few games in recent history that lives up to the hype. Just to give you an idea of the sheer size of this game, by the time I had around 45 hours into the game, I had only completed three or four of the main quests. I had, however, completed all of the Thieves’ Guild and Dark Brotherhood’s quests, and I still have most of the Fighter’s guild and Mage’s Guild quests to finish, if I choose to.
That’s the beauty of this game: it lets you choose what you want or don’t want to do, in the order you want to do it in. I would say you could play completely through this game three times or more and still not see every quest or hidden dungeon. Someone once said Oblivion is everything Fable was supposed to be. I agree 100 percent.
Chris Karalus: I’d never disagree that Oblivion takes place in a massive world with lots of things to do, lots of classes and lots of items. That’s just not a turn-on for me, really. I know for others that’s the holy grail, but for me the bigger picture part of my brain takes over and says “you know they couldn’t have possibly paid much attention to any one thing in the game.” I think Bethesda went for quantity over quality, and it shows.
Robert Dusseau: In comparison to other games that attempt to do the same thing (not just RPGs), they do a wonderful job of implementing so many features together. I can think of lots of other games that tried and failed. The many little pieces of Oblivion might not be very deep on their own, but they’re fun, and if you get bored with one aspect there are many others to play with.
Oblivion is head and shoulders above Morrowind, and nearly every single aspect of The Elder Scrolls franchise was greatly enhanced. You guys have to agree with me on that one. Good job to the developers!
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Chris: I never played the former, so it’s of no comfort to me if Oblivion is better.
Hey, I want to talk about the beginning. Do you guys get excited when you saw all the choices you have in the beginning? I mean, all the classes and the races and the massive character editor? Because I didn’t. I’ve never seen so much choice, yet I’m not excited by it.
Honestly I wouldn’t have been the least bit disappointed if they would have had no character editor, one class, one race and the game was only in first-person view. Yeah, I know, you can pretty much just skip past all that stuff, but I see development money being spent here that, in my opinion, could have been better spent polishing up this wounded game.
Rob : Randie??
Chris: He’s too busy playing Oblivion. I guess that says a lot in and of itself. Me? I could barely play it, although last night the game finally stopped crashing on me long enough for me to do so. Thank you, Oblivion.
Rob: Well no wonder you’re aggravated with the game, if it was crashing all of the time on me I probably wouldn’t like it either. Neither my son nor I have seen the game crash once. I haven’t seen a single bug, except maybe a little clipping and a rat that kind of wigged out in front of me, but other than that it’s been a seamless experience.
Randie: To completely see what Oblivion has to offer, you have to put some hours into it and complete quests so you can see where the storylines take you. There are some very good storylines in this game that take a lot of unexpected twists and turns. What’s great about this game is you’re not stuck in one role. I chose to be a warrior with heavy armor, but I can also sneak around as a thief or take contracts from the Dark Brotherhood as a hitman. Point being: This is the best RPG I have ever played, including all the MMOs.
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Chris: He comes up for air! Did you call Oblivion a fantasy soap opera? OK, you didn’t. I would say that’s an accurate description of the story though. I guess if you can get into the plotlines enough, you might be converted. Personally, I just had trouble staying awake through pages of conversations with NPCs. It’s the typical videogame RPG stuff.
Here’s my take on one encounter: I find a ship. And a quest. A lady wants me to go down in the hold and find her a trinket. I oblige and find myself face to face with some ghosts. The ghosts look pretty sweet, but nothing about the encounter is terribly engaging. It was just hack, hack, hack, hack, hack, … and onto the next one.
What I really got tired of was that there were about 50 chests and barrels and bags and whatnot inside this ship. They were all searchable and the inside the ship, and they didn’t take up a lot of real estate. Realistic? Sure. But it’s tedious to have to search through every one of those containers. OK, so you don’t have to, but I always feel like I need to or I might miss a spectacular drop or something. It’s all the more annoying because each time you search something a big screen pops up showing what’s inside. I’ve grown to not really not like that screen.
Rob: Well you can’t go through this game like you do with others. You can’t be concerned about every little item and quest, because you’ll become overwhelmed or bored. You need to treat it more like a simulator. Act like you really would, in real life. Do what you would do if you were really in the game. I have no idea how to enchant items, but I know where to find the library and look it up.
Talk or listen to people who interest you. I don’t ever wonder whether this is a key quest or if there’s a super goodie inside Barrel #323. I don’t care. I just go for whatever interests me, and so far there’s a lot. I just ignore the rest.
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Chris: You pretty much explain why I don’t particularly care for this game. I don’t play games to experience the tedious tasks in my everyday life in virtual form as well. That’s the reason I don’t play MMOs and simulators.
Is there such thing as too much choice? Sure I can talk or listen to only people that interest me in the game, but the problem with that is you have to wade through all the ones you don’t want to talk to. I’m thinking to myself “just give me the Oblivion highlight reel.” I’m listening to your advice, though. I’m playing what interests me, and what interests me is not this game.
Rob: You bet there’s choice, and that’s the beauty of Oblivion! Check out this scenario: It’s evening, and all the stores are about to close. I’m waiting outside for a crooked merchant to close his shop so I can tail him and find out where he’s getting his goods. A few minutes later he emerges, and I follow him to the tavern, where he stops to have a bite to eat. He sits at the bar and starts talking with the keeper, so I sit at the other end of the bar to wait him out. Getting bored, I start to look around the place at all of the people eating. I notice a wanted poster on the wall. Grey Fox, leader of the Thieves Guild. Hmmm… I’ll have to keep an eye out for him.
The merchant finally gets up and leaves, so I follow. He meets another guy in an alley and they discuss stolen goods as I watch from the shadows. The quest screen pops up to inform me that my quest is now to follow this other man to the source of the goods, so I follow him home, and the quest screen tells me I need to enter and search his house for proof.
I try the door, but the game informs me – “He’s currently inside.”
Not willing to give up just yet, I sneak around to back of his place and find and entrance to the sewers. Maybe there’s a way into his house from there, so I climb in and light up a torch. As is to be expected, the sewers are dark, creepy, and filled with nasty creatures for me to slay as I wander around. They go on forever, but finally I find a door and manage to pick it.
I’ve entered someone’s basement. Weapon drawn, night vision ring on, I make my way up the stairs and into somebody’s kitchen. No one seems to be home at the moment, so I put my toys away and look around. Nice place. I can see the kinds of food this guy eats, the nice furniture, the lamps, and yesterday’s paper sits on the table. I notice a shelf with books and pull a few of them down to see what they are.
I take nothing. I’ve no interest in stealing small stuff. There are so many things in this world that a goblet worth one gold piece isn’t worth the hassle. Up the stairs to the second level, I find the door to his room is locked, so I pick that and enter in.
Everything is neat and expensive-looking. On his desk is a quill, paper and a small bottle of ink. The chest next to his bed has armor and weapons in it. Next to that I notice a wine rack filled with bottles.
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I run the cursor over the top of the bottles and notice that each bottle has a name, and that each one has a different value, all of which are much higher than any bottles of wine I’ve come across so far. There’s almost 200 gold in wine sitting there. Wow; talk about detail! And there are hundreds of homes in this game?
Then I notice a book on a small table in the middle of the bedroom. A candle is lit beside it. Picking up the book, I see it’s the Thieves Guild Handbook. Well that explains the nice stuff and why this guy isn’t home late at night. I skim through the book and notice at the end, “Number 1: A thief must never steal from another thief”
Hey, I’m not a thief, but he is. So I steal all of his wine, weapons, etc. and leave, but not before grabbing that book.
So this guy’s in the Thieves’ Guild, possibly the Grey Fox. Do I stalk him and see if I can join the Guild through him, or give the local Captain in town this book to see what he says? What about that other quest? Maybe that guy finally left his house. Where can I sell these stolen goods? Should I forget all of this and go traveling? Or warp to the town that continues the main quest? What about the arena? Who are the Dark Brotherhood?
Wow, talk about a sandbox game. This is a sandbox game. I like it because it’s different from what I’ve been playing lately. It’s something you can really dig into. Really dig deep. You sit back, relax and try to immerse yourself in it. There’s light symphony music to help relax you. There’s no hurry. No strict “Point A to Point B” with guns blazing. You just wade slowly in until you feel like you’re in another world. Relax. When I broke into that guy’s house, I wasn’t looking to steal anything. I was just curious about the person who lived there. If Oblivion were a regular game, I would have been trying to grab everything I possibly could and so I could sell it and buy more stuff.
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Randie: You know, I also like that your character doesn’t advance in levels by killing mobs over and over to gain experience points, but by using a skill-based system. For instance, the more you use your sword, the more you will advance in blades. The more you use your fireball spell, the more powerful you will become in destruction magic and so on. This allows you to build a character around the style of player you are, not around a style the game wants you to be. I started my game with a pure heavy armor, sword and shield warrior. As I progressed through the game I started working on my stealth skills so I could become a good thief, and while I may not be as sneaky as a character with stealth as their primary skill, I can still pickpocket with the best of them. It’s really amazing how many different ways there are to complete a quest. I’ve had some funny stuff happen while on a quest that made me bust out laughing.
Rob: Ditto. I’m not one to steal. I don’t know why I don’t do it, it’s just a game after all, but it feels like cheating to me regardless of what world I’m in. But I needed a horse. I didn’t feel like warping to the next city because I’d never traveled there, and walking just wasn’t going to cut it.
So I jumped on a horse and took off over the fence. I could hear people yelling behind me as I galloped away into the great unknown. They would never catch me. A few miles down the road, I spotted something in the woods and decided to investigate. It was one of the many dungeons to explore, another large one, so after a little while exploring I decided I should leave and see if my horse was still there.
He was, but he had problems of his own: a bandit was attacking him for some reason. My horse was fighting back as best he could, but as I made my way his direction a guard from the city I had just been in appeared and attacked the bandit.
The guard easily defeated him and turned around to walk back to the city. He had mistaken the bandit for me. Good / entertaining AI is something always appreciate.
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I also appreciate that Oblivion doesn’t feel like Daggerfall, which made me feel lost and aimlessly buried under a pile of quests. So what makes me love Oblivion? One word: “warp.” The developers (finally) just let players fast-travel around the map. They removed the forced exploration, which usually led to more quests in the previous installments. I like exploring as much as the next gamer, but when you just feel like getting to Point B, it’s nice to get to where you’re going without any hassles.
The Elder Scrolls series has always sported incredible depth and content, but now it has finally gotten some more direction. With this direction, I’m able to see the game as the sum of its parts rather than the millions of parts I was never able to connect before. And it’s looking at that sum that earns the game its high marks.
Chris: I hear you on the warp stuff. Sometimes you want to travel by land, but oftentimes you just want to get to where you are going, especially after you’ve traveled the same route a bunch of times. I have to say MMOs have had this gameplay mechanic (Lineage 2, WoW and Guild Wars), as well as games like Dungeon Siege 2 and Diablo2 too.
I also played a Chibi-Robo recently, which lets you purchase warps to farther-away places once you’ve discovered them and accumulated enough moola. This is an enormously pleasing reward, because it cuts down on what would be late-game tedium. And it’s totally incorporated within the game itself so as to be believable within the game realm.
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Rob: What’s most surprising to me about the open-endedness of it all is that with souring budgets and increasing development times, single-player games are becoming more and more linear. You get placed on rails and are given a six to nine-hour ride. Oblivion stands in stark contrast to that trend, and with so much to do and discover, it emphasizes just relaxing and taking your time. Where most games seem to be trying to increase the amount of adrenaline in your system, Oblivion goes for the opposite.
Now with so many things in the mix it’s easy to be critical of the game. It’s far from perfect, but when you hold it up next to every computer RPG that’s ever been created, it’s easily the best one. There’s no other game out there that can put you in a fantasy world like Oblivion.
Chris: I don’t know, man. The presentation of Oblivion is good; sometimes it’s great and sometimes it could use some work. The buildings looked pretty darn good, and although the creatures look sweet, they’re sometimes shaky in their movement and death animations. Plus, the NPCs’ faces are ugly, and it gets tiresome when they zoom-in every time you talk with them. It would have been better if they had kept their distance. The game also opens with one of the ugliest looking kings in all of RPG land.
Also, the views in the distance are plain, and the grass being redrawn 20 feet in front of you wherever you walk is annoying, as is the tree and building popup. But you know, it’s nice to be on a hill and look out over your world and not see a 2D background. Anything you can see you can travel to, for the most part.
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The interface, though, is obviously catered to the Xbox 360 version of Oblivion. Items are listed 10 at a time or so, despite the fact you can quickly find yourself carrying 200 items. On the PC you can hotkey to the four main parts of the interface, but each part has another five tabs to navigate. Compared to what’s been out there on the PC for the past five years, this is terrible. And I was quite disturbed that every time I checked a body or chest a big menu would pop up to take over half of my monitor. It’s very intrusive and breaks the immersion, in my opinion.
Basically the shortest and clearest analogy I can come up with to describe the presentation is that it’s a mixture of both the first-world and third-world, first-world being the realistic-looking graphics, and third-world being the grass draw-in, uglier rendering in the distance, low frame rate, shaky animations and clumsy interface. The game also isn’t quite as pretty as some reviewers would have you believe. Statically speaking, yes, it can be quite pretty. In motion, however, it’s a different story.
Rob: I have to agree with you there. Even with my new rig, whenever you’re fighting a couple of monsters at one time (outdoors), the frame rate takes a dive. I’d still say it has very good graphics, though. Not “OMG” graphics like F.E.A.R. and Half-Life 2, but very good.
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Chris: Yeah, the graphics are good. They definitely added more detail than what’s found in older games. The problem is it isn’t terribly smooth. And that’s where older games would have the leg up on this one. A game like Far Cry (which is two yrs old) has massive, wide open views that today would run super smooth on my PC. And the graphics are probably close or equal to what’s in Oblivion. Of course, Oblivion is a different game. There are probably a lot more CPU-intensive tasks in the background of the game.
And then there’s the sound. That’s good too, no complaints there. But nothing that has made go “Wow! They’ve got a lot of voices in the game.” It doesn’t really change the game, but it helps the presentation most of the time. Sometimes you get sick of hearing the NPCs and their generic problems, though, or you wonder whether you just heard that same voice a minute ago in another town. In other words, voices are re-used. I was also thinking one thing this game could use is proper lip synching.
Unfortunately it isn’t there, but I’m thinking since this is an RPG laden with a ton of voice work and story, then this is money that would have been well spent. After all, the story elements are a big part of the game. Really, they are the game.
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I know folks will forgive Bethesda for some of these faults because of the size of the world, and I can understand that. We don’t want all games to be the same. And Obviously Bethesda goes the route of making a massive world that stretches technology perhaps too much at the time of its release and sacrifices polish for the large scope.
But man, license Valve’s technology already. One thing about Half-Life 2 that was so good was its lip synching. And that was one and a half years ago. It was the first in-game NPC voice work that was close enough to the real thing to be believable, in my opinion. Half-Life 2 really was enormously ahead of its time in this regard. Eighteen months later, and the next game we’ll see with this technology is Half-Life 2 Episode 1.
Obliviously I don’t know the particulars, but if I was making a big-time RPG I would be onto Valve’s lip-synching technology like a fly to poo. A moth to a flame. A Randie to a big-time RPG release.
Randie: Well yeah, I do like me some RPG goodness….
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Chris: If you guys don’t mind me moving on to the controls, I’ve got to say that the first-person combat is decent at first because it’s a shock that the developer gives you FPS-like freedom to move and aim. But after a while, at least for me, it felt a bit clunky. I liked shooting fireballs, that felt pretty good, and it’s sweet that you can swing a sword in first person, but both felt sort of “meh.” I have to say too, that I sometimes had problems switching between weapons or holstering them, like the game wasn’t always responsive, and I had to hit the keys a second time.
The third-person controls, though, are terrible for fighting. They just seem too squirrelly. Maybe it was just a sensitivity thing, but you quickly learn first-person is the way to go. Overall the controls never give you a feeling of confidence, but they aren’t showstoppers either, except for third-person fighting. Some traditional RPG diehards might say they have to do too much FPSing, while the guys who like first-person shooters might say the controls are clunky.
The FPS guys will also notice the performance not being all that great. I noticed lots of framerate issues on my 7600 GT card with the settings toned down, and had numerous crashes to the desktop. If Metroid Prime on the Gamecube is a 10 for best frames-per-second performance, then this game is about a four. For another comparison, the video card I have smokes through Battlefield 2 at medium settings with 2x anti-aliasing. Those settings are much smoother and better looking than this game. And what’s interesting is that, like Oblivion, Battlefield 2 is a game where you have a lot of wide open views and grass.
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Unlike BF2, of course, Oblivion is an RPG, and if you’ve played RPGs then you know what to expect. To me, that was a bit of disappointment. The only difference is the open-ended sandbox world and the sideshow being bigger and arguably more fun than the main event. You have a big, seamless world and can go wherever you want. This is both good and bad.
It’s good because if you don’t like a quest or a particular area then you’re free to go somewhere else. You can do whatever you want. The main quest not turning you on? No need to do that. Go to a guild or just wander the lands and you’re likely to happen upon something to do. There’s a ton of choice here.
It’s good too in that there’s that feeling sometimes that you’re wandering around this living world where people go on about their day even when you aren’t there. Altho this dynamic is mostly smoke and mirrors. Quests wait for you. And the physical world is fairly static in that trees and grass and buildings and what not aren’t affected by your actions.
On the flip side, there’s nothing I encountered in the game that was particularly polished. Really that’s the tradeoff this type of game (big huge world) is going to have though. There’s definitely a bit of a quantity over quality vibe.
Randie: Yeah, I’ve run into a few glitches here and there, such as an NPC getting stuck in a door or wall, but none of them were game breaking. I did have the game crash a time or two on my PC, but it hasn’t crashed in days now. One big gripe with the PC version of the game is the high system spec requirements that are needed to run the game with acceptable performance. So if you want to play this game you’re going to need a pretty beefy system. Oblivion has raised the bar for future RPG’s, and you might think I’m a fanboy, but I have to give it a 9.5 out of 10.
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Chris: Yep, I’d have to call you a fanboy. My start to the game was to just wander off and walk the world. I found three or four ruins and hacked my way thru the dungeons while encountering a few fairly been-there-done-that bad guys. I fought zombies in one. I fought magic women in another. I killed a big bad magic user. But nothing really grabbed me in my initial journey. What am I doing here again? I killed some big bad dude, but was there a reason for it? So there’s the chance you play it and you have a terrible first five or 10 hours and get turned off. The dungeons looked good, but there was still something fairly static and shaky about them. And the wet wall look wasn’t a turn-on. Honestly, I started to get bored.
Later I tried to do some story stuff. I found the first Oblivion gate and went about dispatching it, but there just wasn’t anything magical or fun about it. I retrieved an item in the hold of a haunted cargo ship for a lady and ended up with a cool red sword. But you know, it just didn’t wow me over. It was just five to seven monsters stuffed into a couple of small, unremarkable inside-a-ship levels.
Along the same lines, certain aspects of the game got tedious for me. I found that opening chests and whatnot started to get annoying because there were just too darn many, and every time you do it, you’re looking at a big menu on your monitor. Lock-picking was fun at first too, but it was another task that makes you wonder how many hours you’ll spend doing it when all is said and done. Too many.
Then again, you don’t have to do any of this if you don’t want to. In my opinion, this game is more for the MMO crowd or the I-would-play-those-games-if-it-didn’t-cost-$15/month crowd. I say that because the game’s selling point is its immense world and do-whatever-you-want-to sandbox nature, and to really take advantage of this selling point (the big world), you need to put in the time to find out all about it. You need to take a lot of bad with the good, ala an MMO. If you can do that, and if swords and magic and monsters and lots of videogame story reading and dialogue are something appeals to you, then I think this game is for you. If I had to score Oblivion, I’d give it an 80 percent. I hate to give it a score, though. Really, you’re either into or not. For folks who are into this sort of game it might as well be a 100 percent game. For me, it might as well be a zero percent game.
Rob: And for me, Oblivion represents a true next-gen role-playing game. Its depth coupled with its beautiful graphics and impressive AI make it a product we only dreamed about 5 years ago. It’s difficult to sum this up, other than to say it’s one of the best games, RPG or not, that I’ve ever played.