Friday, August 18, 2006

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion review

Day 5 is all about The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, pretty much the only RPG availabe for the 360 right now. Luckily, it takes so long to complete that some more should have been released by the time you're done.

Format: Xbox 360
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Genre: First-person RPG
Region: PAL (Europe, Australia)
Price: Around £50
Where to buy:,
The Elder Scrolls series has been around for many years now (at least a decade, it could be more). It all started with Arena, an epic first person RPG set in the world of Tamriel. Together with games like Ultima Underworld it pushed the boundaries of what could be done in the RPG genre and amazed all those that played it. Since then there have been several sequels and spinoffs, which added the ability to become a werewolf for example, and all of them were lapped up by the fans. Until the release of Morrowind on the Xbox in 2003 all of the games in the series were PC exclusives, mainly because there hadn't really been a machine capable enough to run such a huge ambitious game. Because the Xbox had a hard drive this was all changed, and the game did rather well. Thanks to this, Xbox 360 owners get to enjoy Oblivion, one of the most finely crafted games that I have ever played. The control system has even been created with the 360 controller in mind, and it works very well. The game isn't without it's faults though, as you're about to find out.
Graphics: 8 out of 10
Although the sights you will see while exploring the nation of Cyrodiil are very pretty, the Xbox 360 doesn't quite have the grunt to keep the frame rate steady and the game suffers from immersion-breaking stutters, especially outdoors. I have also played the game on the PC and the same thing happens there, except you can tweak various settings like turning the grass off (which is the biggest culprit of the slowdown). Unfortunately you're stuck with the default settings on the 360 version, so unless Bethesda release a patch the dodgy frame rate is here to stay.

The problem goes away almost entirely in towns and dungeons, and it's here that the game really gets to show off. Dungeons are typically dark, dank places full of mist and half-light, and they're very atmospheric indeed. Outside, night turns slowly to day and back to night again thanks to the accelerated day/night cycle. These days there are many games that have a similar feature but it's still impressive and helps you feel part of a living breathing world.

Character models all look a bit waxy (a common problem with 360 titles it seems) and some of the people you meet are very ugly indeed. Monsters are quite traditional in their range (rats, skeletons, wolves, demons, vampires) but are well designed nonetheless. The lighting in dungeons can actually be an aid to gameplay - for example if there's a skeleton standing around the corner with a light source behind him, a shadow will give away his location on the ground. In combination with the sound effects this can be a great help in locating and sneaking up on enemies.

Ooh, what a shiny shield!

Sound and Music: 8 out of 10
The music in Oblivion is very reminiscent of Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings soundtrack, which suits the style of the game just fine. There's only one problem - there's not enough of it. You will hear the same pieces of musc over and over again throughout the course of the game, especially if you take time out from the main quest to join the many guilds or complete the dozens of side quests. Good as the music undoubtedly is, you will still probably start to get tired of it before long. My recommendation is download the Lord of the Rings soundtrack from iTunes and then play that using the Xbox Guide - it's a perfect match for the style of the game and will give you something different to listen to.

The sound effects can play a very big part in the gameplay, especially if you choose to play as a stealth character like I did. Often when creeping around a dungeon or trying to break into somebodies house unnoticed, you will hear the moan of a zombie, the rattling bones of skeleton, or the owner of the aforesaid house saying something like "Who's there?!". If you're quick enough you can freeze and the person in question will assume they were imagining things and go back to their business. It really helps you feel immersed in the game, and when you hear those bones rattling and creaking from somewhere out of site it will freak you out.

The third and final part of the sound category is the voice over work. Now, just like the music, this is very well done, but there isn't enough variety. You will hear the same 4 or 5 voice actors playing almost every part in the game, with the exception of the Emporer Tiber Septim played by Patrick Stewart (Jean Luc Picard), and Martin Septim, his long lost son, played by Sean Bean (Boromir, or Sharpe). Patrick Stewart adds a certain air of gravitas to the opening scenes of the game, but his contribution is rather brief because his character is bumped off not long after the game begins. Sean Bean has much more to say, and does a pretty good job at it too. The other actors in the game do put in good performances, but it's a great shame that Bethesda didn't hire a wider range of people because hearing every second person speak with exactly same voice does detract from the realism and reminds you that you are playing a game.
Plot and Character: 8 out of 10
You will meet a wide range of characters on your journey, both minor and major, all of which have a distinct personality and their own daily routine. This does help maintain the illusion that you are exploring a real world. Unfortunately there are a few quirks that break the illusion somewhat - such as the city guards. If you are in visible range of someone - anyone when you break the law, the guards will be after you wherever you go in the entire world. It doesn't matter if you travel hundreds of miles away to the far ends of the world, you will still be arrested. As far as I know the guards in Oblivion haven't got mobile phones or email, so how do they know they should be on the look out for you so quickly?
The main plot of the game is fairly standard fair, dealing with prophecies, long lost heirs, demon lords - you know, the usual. Some of the side quests actually have much more interesting tales to tell, and there is plenty of background detail if you are willing to stop and look at your surroundings rather than blasting straight through to the end of the game. There are many books that can be picked up and read should you wish to do so, and if you don't then nobody's forcing you.

Ewww, nice rotting corpse!

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
Oblivion is an RPG in the PC mould, rather than the usual console style. By this I mean that you are in control of every facet of your character and what you do is left entirely up to you, rather than playing as a predefined, usually whiny teenager with spikey hair, accompanied by his female best friend with unfeasibly large norks. Traditionally I haven't really got on with this sort of game - I've tried Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights and even Morrowind, and couldn't really get into them. They've always felt quite innacessible, and it's often easy to get lost or find yourself wandering into an area where you're totally out of your depth.
Oblivion gets around this by making the enemies in the game level up along with you - so you'll always have a fair challenge but you won't get annihilated just for wondering what's over that hill. There's also a clearly defined main storyline and easy to follow markers that help you find your objective should that be your focus, but you're completely free to wander the land, taking on any quests and joining any guilds that take your fancy. There are four different guiilds - Fighter's, Mage's, Thieves and the Dark Brotherhood, as well as the Imperial Arena to sign up to, and each features it's own lengthy chain of quests for you to complete as you progress through the ranks. This is also the key to most of the achievements in the game - as you become Bloodletter, in the Arena for example, you unlock some gamer points for that. You can join all of the guilds, or none at all, it's entirely up to you.
The controls are very well done - everything feels logically mapped on to the 360 pad, including the ability to put weapons, items and spells on one of the d-pad directions for quick access. If you desire, you can almost play the game as an FPS - storming through dungeons and shooting enemies with your arrows. Or you can sneak about, queitly assasinating anyone who gets in your way with a poison tipped arrow, unlocking treasure chests and stealing valuables. Or, you can play as a mage, throwing fireballs and cursing people as you go. Or, you can play as a brutish orc, violently clubbing anyone and everyone with a huge warhammer. The way you play the game is left entirely up to you and if you're in the right mood it's brilliant. Sometimes you may wish for a little more structure in your game and it's unfortunate that there isn't really a japanese style RPG available for the 360 at the moment. Hopefully Namco's Trusty Bell will get a western release though.
Innovation and Cleverness: 7 out of 10
Oblivion is more a refinement of an existing idea that anything radically new, but it's the way it does what it does that make it revolutionary. It's very easy to get used to the game for RPG veterans and novices alike thanks to the interface and the way it can be played like an action game if you so wish. It's also a true example of what next generation console technology can do - no previous machine could have produced something as huge and good looking as Oblivion. But there are problems, especially the frame rate which really should have been locked down before the game shipped in my opinion.
Value and Replayability: 10 out of 10
Oblivion is such a huge game that it can quite easily take you in excess of 100 hours to finish if you are willing to put in the time. If you're not, you can reach the end with 25. Take on every single quest and guild available if that's your thing, or just try one of them and then try a different one when you play again as a totally different character type. The broad range of things to do, see and try in Oblivion make it well worth a 10 in this category.
Overall: 8 out of 10
This game is an incredibly ambitious project for anyone to undertake (both for developers and indeed players), but it doens't quite reach it's full potential. In certain circumstances, such as when you are deep in a dungeon crawling with the undead - it's fantastic. But at other times, including when you are travelling accross the oveworld and the game slows to a juddering crawl thanks to the bloody grass, or you hear a yet another villager with the same voice, the level of immersion is broken. It's a bit dissapointing that Bethesda didn't invest a bit of extra time or money (or whatever was needed) to fix these problems before the game was released. If you crave an RPG, it's pretty much your only choice on the 360 right now, but don't be surprised if somebody manages to top it some time in the future. Maybe the similar looking Two Worlds will be the game to do so? We'll have to wait and see.

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