The new generation of consoles has arrived. The level of detail and realism the new technology is capable of has generated boundless excitement throughout the industry, and it’s proving to be more than the usual level of “new console optimism” that runs rampant every five years. Developers now have all the tools they need to create living worlds within these blinking set-top boxes, and the dramatic gameplay options are limitless. Bethesda’s release of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is sure to become the standard for all future “life simulators” of this generation. Its gorgeous graphics, compelling drama, and nearly-limitless open ended gameplay are sure to light the fire of many RPG fans, and upset many significant others to the point of relationship… well, oblivion.
Players start off their adventure by creating their own character. The races and character classes are plentiful and in the rare event that none of them suit your taste, you can construct one from scratch any way you like. It is not uncommon for players to spend the first ninety minutes of Oblivion gameplay on their character creation screen. The facial detail section is fascinating, and it would not be all that difficult for a player to create an avatar that looks just like themselves. Once you create your character, you are dropped into a prison where the adventure begins.
The main quest within the game surrounds your character joining up with the son of the emperor of Tamriel in a quest to close the gates of Oblivion, which are portals facilitating an invasion of demons from hell. Having been present at the death of the emperor, you are intertwined in the story from the beginning when he hands you a precious artifact in his last moments. The exact methodology in which you handle this quest (or NOT handle the quest) is up to you, as Oblivion’s gameplay is completely wide open, unlike most RPGs these days that deliver an experience “on rails.”
This is the area in which Oblivion shines, and the results of whatever actions you decide upon tend to be more satisfying than they were in previous Elder Scrolls installments. You can choose to take on the main quest headfirst, dawdle aimlessly around Tamriel and get into mischief, perform various sidequests and try to solve various conundrums for people, join a guild, contract vampirism and then search for a cure, or just gallivant around and stare at the breathtaking, majestic scenery that is Oblivion’s visuals. It’s all up to you, as it should be (and is now possible to deliver on today’s machines). The main quest will deliver approximately forty hours of gameplay, and the sidequests, all tolled, deliver an experience that lasts longer than the main quest itself. Yes, folks, if you let it, Tamriel’s charm will consume every moment of your spare time and before you know it you will feel like an inhabitant of that world yourself, right up to the moment that your girlfriend walks out. One major improvement over Oblivion’s predecessor, Morrowind, is in the fact that you can travel to any map location instantly instead of having to trudge all the way there on foot or horseback (although you could do so as well, if that’s your thing). This really keeps the fun level up and the dulling effects of slow travel on this immense world down.
Tamriel’s population will interact (and react) to you and your actions, and your appearance can also provoke any number of emotional reactions from them. If you appear ill, they will inquire about your health, if you approach people with a weapon drawn they will shy away or act defensive around you, and if you steal anything or try to hurt anyone they will raise an alarm. Pull these shenanigans in a populated city, and you will find yourself hunted by the local knights, and escaping justice is not easy (especially in the beginning of the game). The physics within the game world are as realistic as it gets, and everything reacts the way you would expect when things are done to them. Use your bow & arrow to plug a wooden bucket hanging from a rope and the bucket will swing accordingly, and when it stops you will notice that it no longer hangs straight because the weight of your arrow has now thrown off the object’s balance. It’s the small details that really make Oblivion’s world come to life.
The game’s skill progression also functions differently from most RPGs on the market, as repeated use of a specific skill causes your character to become more adept at it. Each character class has its specialties of course, so some skills will be easier to perfect than others. The interesting part of the gameplay is that it actually contains several different types of styles based upon a player’s mood at any given moment. Your character can act barbaric and play in a kind of action style, they can use projectile weaponry and play like it’s a shooter, creep about unarmed in the middle of the night stealing things like a stealth title, or seek out keys and skills needed to open doors or influence people to get certain objectives accomplished like in an adventure game. Oblivion is a title that really caters to player whimsy.
Oblivion has to be, at least at present, the most beautiful Xbox 360 game on the market. It is really easy to get distracted from what you’re doing by staring at the rolling landscapes, beautiful mason work (when one begins to refer to a computer rendered castle’s structure and texture mapping as “mason work,” you know the title really delivers in the graphics department), and compelling creatures of both the adorable and horrifying varieties. There are certain locations of Tamriel that you’ll swear are photographs of a real place on earth, and even the deepest, dankest, most evil-infested dungeon has a convincing, if not frightening air of believability to it. Occasionally, when there is a lot of on screen action, the graphics tend to chug but it is never brought down to an unplayable level, and some gamers report not even noticing this tendency.
The sound design, like every other aspect of this game, is unique, excellent, and serves to drag you into its world. The sound effects are spot-on and the music is properly majestic. It kicks into a tense, high gear performance when the player is in battle, and gets quiet again when you’re just lollygagging around town. The only problem with the sound can be noticed occasionally when entering a new room or area. Sometimes, the sound an object makes doesn’t occur right away… for instance, dropping a metal sword on concrete should create a specific clanging noise, but the noise sometimes does not occur until long after that sword has landed. Not a deal-breaking issue, but an issue nonetheless. There have been a few reports of people developing motion sickness when playing Oblivion, so be particularly aware of this if you’re one of those people sensitive to it.
Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion takes everything that was great about its predecessors and improves upon it while delivering its own brand of RPG style and substance on a new console with all the power and beauty you would expect. Although it may be a bit early in the console’s life cycle to be absolutely sure, it’s a safe bet to say that Oblivion will go down as one of the Xbox 360’s finest RPGs, and perhaps one of it’s finest games overall.