Review: No need to wait (and hope) for what might be with Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey? Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is an RPG that charms with its detail and overwhelms with its scope.
Bethesda Softworks' Elder Scrolls series has been going strong on the PC for years now, but only with the previous release of Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind for the Xbox did the company finally bring the RPG franchise to home consoles. That game certainly had a lot going for it in terms of scope and mythology, but the lackluster combat design, unwieldy inventory system and wandering main quest left a lot of would-be players weary of the experience (even though the game could last, literally, 200 hours). With Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Bethesda has designed a game that is meant to take advantage of cutting-edge hardware to the fullest and to truly immerse a player into a world that is so captivating and organic that it not only drives a player, RPG fan or casual gamer, to play for dozens of hours, but also to enjoy the finer points of the game while doing so.
Much of what held Morrowind back can be seen to be just the opposite for Oblivion; the detail and clarity of high-definition televisions and next-generation graphics afford Oblivion a sense of reality that just wasn't possible with Morrowind. But the visual detail isn't entirely what makes the difference ? not by a long shot. Not only is the game's dialogue (of which there is an obscene amount) completely done in full speech, but also all of the individual components of gameplay are actually fun in their own right. If you want to use your character in close-combat situations, you'll get plenty of opportunity, and Oblivion makes it a tactical and fun experience. Ranged attacks or spells are also completely viable, and these elements work in concert with the up close action quite well. Even working out of the shadows with stealth works for many of the game's sequences, and this can even lead to further reward and advancement.
It really is this variety of gameplay and the overwhelming choice throughout the adventure that makes the experience of Oblivion so rich and enjoyable. Right off the bat, you'll be thrust into the world Tamriel by hearing Patrick Stewart's (Star Trek, X-Men)
voice narration about the province of Cyrodiil and how he, as Emperor Uriel Septim VII, is having dreams of a coming apocalypse for the land. After this prelude, you'll find yourself locked in the Imperial City jail. At this point in time, Oblivion allows you to create a character by using an extremely deep and flexible creation interface, one that allows you to customize race, body type, skills, facial features, clothing, and much more. This sequence of the game is crucial, as many choices you make about your character will affect how the upcoming adventure will play out. For example, picking the Orc race will provide a boost to blunt and up-close fighting skills, but it will limit certain magical abilities. Just the same, picking which skills to ?focus? on is important, especially since many skills will be honed just by playing the game in a conventional way. In other words, picking major skills like athletics or blade as a primary focus is a bit redundant seeing as you'll be swinging a lot of swords and running through many dungeons, no matter what. With this said, the customization options are fantastic, and you'll even be able to create and name a race if you want a very specific presence within the province of Cyrodiil ? hey, being able to create a dude named Lando who is of the scoundrel race is good times.
After making these key choices, the game proper commences and you'll meet up with the aforementioned Uriel Septim. In short, Septim believes you are the one who has been prophesized in his dreams, and he knows that his time is short. For this reason, you are set free and must follow him (and his legion guards) through the prison halls and city sewers.
The sewers provide a tutorial of sorts, familiarizing you with all of the games well-though-out mechanics. Oblivion, like its predecessors, can be played from the first or third-person perspective. The game was obviously designed with the first-person view in mind, and this really shows in the way everything moves and feels in this mode; there's a sense of immersion and precision of control that is not found with the other view. Third-person perspective can provide some helpful sightlines when riding on a horse or when traversing some odd terrain, but the game should be experienced in the first-person mode, for the most part. Playing this way may seem odd to players unfamiliar with this type of game, but even if you are wary, it is worth sticking with, as the feel and movement of the first-person perspective becomes quite natural very quickly. In the sewers, you'll be introduced to basic melee/blade combat against some giant rats, and you will also get a quick chance to test out your bow and arrow skills with a bit of target practice. The combat in the game proves quite serviceable, and at some points it's downright intense. Admittedly, adversaries don't always react the way you'd expect when clubbed with a mace or stung with an arrow, but the mechanics of blocking and striking are much more satisfying than Morrowind, and this goes a long way in making the action in Oblivion ? of which there is a plenty ? much more palatable. In fact, later on in the game, you'll find yourself fighting all manner of demons, animals and humans, all of whom are cunning and attack with varying levels of ferocity. The sewers will also familiarize you with lock picking (which takes the form of a timing minigame with the lock pins), as well with Oblivion's deep inventory and menu system.
The inventory is actually quite easy to manage, and you really get the feeling that it was, for the most part, designed with the console version of the game in mind. By hitting the B button, you'll end up in the game's menu system where the inventory can be accessed. The inventory has various filters that allow you to scroll through and see items in different ways; in other words, you can see just weapons, just potions, all items, etc. The system becomes quite intuitive after a few uses, and you'll also be able to ?hotkey? items to an in-game wheel (accessed by using the eight d-pad directions during gameplay) for instantaneous selection. The only quibble about this is the annoying diagonal directions on the d-pad; these often result in the selection of the incorrect item/spell during tense battles ? a small flaw that would not be an issue on the PC version, but noteworthy, nonetheless.
The other aspects of the menu system are easy to manipulate with the 360 controller, and each of the sections navigate very well when delving deeper into them, as well. At first, searching through the ?pages? of the menu system might seem a bit strange, but you'll soon understand that the inventory works well with the map system, quest guide, and player status page. In fact, the quest guide borrows a good deal from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, as you'll be able to keep track of active quests and pending quests, each with specific names, dates, and current status. As quests are accumulated in the game, you'll be able to select them from this quest guide, and it will then make that quest an immediate priority, even going as far as to put a suggested waypoint on the game's world map.
The map has also benefited a great deal in Oblivion over its predecessor, mainly because of the (thankfully) included ?fast travel? system. Of course, much of the adventuring will still be accomplished by running around the enormous Cyrodiil landscape conventionally (or on horseback), but the ability to use a traveling system is most welcome for this edition of Elder Scrolls. Major cities in Cyrodiil ? of which there are about eight ? are accessible from the get go, but smaller towns, settlements, mines, caves, and other unique locations are only available via fast travel after they've been visited once; it makes sense, as you'd need to know the way to some off-the-beaten-path locale. Either way, this feature is a real boon to the game experience, and you'll definitely get in the habit of using the fast travel after a good while of playing the game, especially since it keeps a lot of the tedious parts of quests short enough that they don't really distract or annoy.
Be warned, though, Oblivion is a game that can distract quite easily, and this is meant in the most positive of ways. After making your way out of the Imperial Sewers, Oblivion opens itself up in ways few other RPGs can even hope of doing. You'll immediately be awed by the scope of Cyrodiil as it stands before you, and the terrain ? which is detailed by all manner of foliage, rocks and structures ? can span on for, literally, miles. The size of the game world is completely overwhelming in some ways, and it would probably take in the realm of an hour to cross the entire land on foot.