It’s very easy to become jaded as a gamer when you play as many games as I do. Between game reviewing and playing other games that I want to play that I don’t review, I probably go through about 50-60 games a year, about a game a week. It’s rare that a game will grab me or surprise me with a hugely dramatic moment, it’s more like “Oh, so my boss turned out to be the bad guy? Like that’s never happened before.” The fourth entry in the Elder Scrolls series starts in a dull, claustrophobic cell with stone walls and rusty iron bars as you serve your sentence for some unspecified crime. The king (voiced by Patrick Stewart) and his guards show up – your cell holds a secret passageway to the sewers that the king plans to use to escape assassins in the castle. The king and his party pass through, the guards leave the passage door open, though warn you not to follow (like I’m going to rot in this cell when there is presumably a game out there worth playing). Traipsing through the sewers, attacked by rats, walking in the fetid water, the bare stone tunnels – it doesn’t bode well for Oblivion if this is the quality of the adventure they have in store for me. Except for better graphics, I could be playing Daggerfall. Then you see the light at the end of the tunnel, literally. The tunnels lead to a drainage pipe sticking out of the side of the mountain. As I step out of the tunnel onto the hillside, I am in awe. There is grass, and flowers, a rippling lake in front of me, the sun in the sky, a huge town in the distance. There’s fog, and sun glint, and a campfire in the distance makes a thin plume of smoke. Two deer run past me and I think about trying to kill one of them to satisfy my hack-and-slash bloodlust, raised but not quenched by killing simple rats. But this thought lasts only a moment as I watch the deer bound across the field; I don’t want to kill something that beautiful. The level of detail in the Oblivion environment has completely staggered me, a feeling that a videogame has not given to me in years, perhaps never.
I travel to the town, the streets are not teeming with people but certainly there are a lot of people around, walking, talking, shopping. I listen in, talk to some of them – the town is abuzz with the death of the king (I’m probably not giving away any major secrets by saying that the king dies down in the sewers). A shopkeeper tells me that there is another shopkeeper undercutting her prices, prices so low that they don’t make sense, and would I be willing to look into this for her? Sure, why not? I have my first quest, an entry of which automatically appears helpfully in my journal. Technically, this is actually my second quest; my first quest was given to me by the dying king to find his secret heir and give him an amulet that the king has given me. I’ll help the shopkeeper first because that is nearby, and then travel to find the king’s heir. I solve that quest (he’s getting his merchandise from grave robbing – ick!), but along the way I run into another one, a corrupt Captain of the Guard who is shaking down citizens. I’ll solve that one, then I’ll help the king. Well, you know how that goes. I’ve fought in the local arena, joined the mages guild, killed a ship’s captain for the assassins guild, searched through local caves and ruins, bought a house (it turned out to be haunted, anyone want to buy it from me?), and broken a local crime ring. Where’s the king’s heir? I don’t know, but I suspect I’ll get around to looking for him eventually. In the meantime, there are dozens of other quests to occupy my time, and while I can’t say for sure because I haven’t been playing more than 40 or 50 hours (probably 6 months of game time) I think the main quest will wait for me, that the world won’t collapse while I’m off doing other things. I can say for certain that there are things you can do the mess up the main plotline though, as a friend of mine riding the plot train sold a book he had found, only to need it for a quest later, but now of course it’s gone forcing him to start over. Keep that in mind when you’re hocking your loot.
Under the hood Oblivion appears to be a fairly advanced AD&D model. You have seven primary stats (strength, dexterity, endurance, etc) and a large number of skills underneath that, things like athletics, security, bladed weapons, ranged weapons, different schools of magic. Your primary stats are determined at the start of the game by your race and class and some kind of die roll (though you get to increase them with levels), but your skills are dependent on how much you use them. Use a bow and arrow a lot? You’ll get good at ranged weapons. Cast a lot of fireballs? You’ll excel at destruction magic. But what Bethesda has cleverly done is link level experience to a number of skills, so if you want to gain levels, you can’t just concentrate on one skill, but have to spread your gameplay style to include several skills. The interface allows you to easily cast spells, perform melee attacks, or swap weapons in or out of combat. The inventory has a tendency to get clogged with crap and it’s a little hard to tell what is worthwhile and what is garbage – I have about 40 books for example, but given my friend’s experience I’m hesitant to throw any of them away. I do store lots of stuff in my house, and that’s convenient.
Is it a perfect game? No, but its damned close. The theft system is unrealistically difficult. If you steal anything anywhere, so much as a coffee mug, the item is flagged in your inventory as stolen and no legitimate shopkeeper will buy it from you. And if you run across a guard in a city, even hundreds of miles from where you stole the coffee mug, he’s going to know you stole it immediately, take the mug and make you pay a fine or throw you in jail. I could understand that if I had stolen something particularly valuable or unique like the Hope Diamond, but even cheap, anonymous items are unstealable. Picking locks, which involves a sort of lock-picking mini-game, is just easy enough to be boring and just hard enough to be frustrating. Worse still is that, lacking sufficient magic to cast the lock open, there’s no way to get inside a chest if you don’t have a pick to open it – you can’t bash it open with a warhammer or blast it open with a lightening bolt. The chest and lock are invulnerable, and unless you’re a member of the thieves guild (from which you can buy picks), you have to make due with the ones you find in dungeons and such. I’m not presently a member of the thieves guild, I have like 15 picks in my possession, and the average dungeon contains about 10 locked chests. You don’t break a pick every time you open a chest, but the math as a whole is not in your favor.
The world of Oblivion is big. Really big. It takes a really long time to walk across it, though you can buy a horse to ride and save yourself some time. There are a dozen major cities, a multitude of smaller villages, untold numbers of dungeons, mines, caves, ruins, forts, temples, shrines and camps. I’ve run across many different weapons, pieces of armor, a couple of dozen potion ingredients, magic rings, necklaces and jewels. I’ve battled imps, goblins, bears, boars, spiders, rats, crabs, fish, orcs, ogres, giants, mages, thieves, wolves, and the lists go on and on. I regret (insofar as the review is concerned) that I have not played World of Warcraft so I can’t make any comparison there, but other than a couple of thousand people running around with names like Giantschlong177 and server lag, I can’t imagine what it could add to the experience. Oblivion is by far the closest I have come to playing D&D Sunday afternoons with my friends (yes, I did that, though I’m on medication now), all wrapped up in a stunning package with tens of thousands of lines of spoken dialog and good music. Oblivion is supposed to have hundreds of hours of playtime inside. As I’ve solved about 20 quests, have another 10 open in my quest log, and have yet to even get involved in the plot, I find that very easy to believe. What more could an RPG fan want?