Review: I've got your Second Life right here
One year ago, around this exact time, the Xbox 360 and PC were blessed with what's one of the finest role-playing games ever burned to a disc ? Bethesda's Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (simply Oblivion if you're nasty). One could argue that it was the first truly next-generation game, and personally I consider it the game of 2006 across all consoles. And now it's made the move to PlayStation 3, and you know...this could be the best game PS3 gets all year; and there's some doozies coming later this year. It's a clinic for the rest of the business ? how to convert a game to a different console and make it just as good as the others; and with the Knights of the Nine mini-expansion included for free, it might be an even better value than previously known. Those foreign to the adventures in Cyrodiil, class is in session ? and by the time you're done, grabbing this masterpiece should be the first thing on your agenda.
Before the massive, free world of Elder Scrolls IV is opened to you, a character must be created. Sure there's something odd about creating a character you won't really even see because playing this game in the 3rd person defeats the entire purpose of a first-person RPG (and truly does feel like an afterthought, however it has been touched up a tad for the PS3 version unless my mind is playing tricks on me), but you must. Like the game itself, this is a complicated, lengthy task which allows for tweaking and precision ? you might spend your first hour or longer making him or her a perfect hero. Once you do finish off the basics, the quest begins. Emperor Uriel Septim is on the run, knowing he's next in a set of assassinations that's already taken 3 of his sons who would be the heirs to his throne. You are imprisoned in the Imperial City, and fate has it that a secret underground passage just so happens to begin in your cell. Today's secret word is convenient
. Septim's guards tell you to stay in your cell and not to follow, but of course, you can't do that and end up following, mostly because the Emperor 'knows you' and effectively gives you a pardon. Following a brief tutorial dungeon that further explains what's going on and also fleshes out a few character details, you're set free in the world of Tamriel.
And by set free, I mean set free
. Once you hit the mainland, there's no direction you can't take. Oblivion is so wide open that it can be intimidating to even veterans of the sandbox gaming king, GTA. If you wish to follow the main quest, you can do so. Rather just wander the territory and discover caves, tombs, ancient artifacts, and small settlements? That's your prerogative. Want to head into town and tackle non-essential quests or join up with some guilds? Go for it. Short of murdering any vital main quest NPCs, there's nothing you really can't do in Oblivion. However, in a very smart step, Bethesda has made strides to make such a huge game accessible to all, thanks to intuitive quest sorting and map markers to point you in the right direction and keep you from getting lost. Many times you're pointed to a destination away from cities, and while you can't fast travel to them (unless you discovered them while wandering around) to save some time, they're pointed out for easy finding. It might be 'dumbing down' the game, but it's not like anything was really sacrificed, and it's easy to just turn off the active quest option and go exploring on your own. Compared to Morrowind, where it was very easy to get lost and thus many unfamiliar players would simply give up, adding some direction in Oblivion eases in newbies without much trouble.
Along with that, the all-important combat has been revamped in the same fashion. The enemy AI scales to you; if you're level 1, they're less dangerous, but as you gain levels, they become tougher, and in many cases the low-level baddies are replaced by more vicious and deadly creatures. Also, through the options screen you can adjust the overall difficulty, ranging from incredibly stupid to extremely tough computer intelligence. It can be scaled on the fly, so if one part is giving you trouble it's easy to fiddle with it and get through, and then readjust it to normal. Leveling up is simple ? just increase your major skills, though it's smart to use your minor skills too, because you never know when it might become necessary. Thankfully you really don't have to do anything out of the ordinary ? whatever skills you use will level during normal play. If you spend a lot of time using swords, your blade skill increases, if you spend time using magic, the various magical skills will increase, and if you run around the world jumping constantly, it'll make your athletic and acrobatic skill better. There's even stats for how well you barter with merchants and your skill repairing busted weapons and armor.
While many of these things were present in the previous game, Morrowind was notorious for having some horrific combat mechanics, where most fights revolved around whiffing air and occasionally hitting stuff, or readying complicated magic spells. It just wasn't much fun but it was tolerated because the same rules applied to the enemies. All that's changed in Oblivion. Now, if you land a strike, it will cause damage, though indeed the same can happen to you. Firing spells off is very intuitive, with a simple press of the right bumper along with a mostly easy to use hotkey system designed around the d-pad. It makes the frequent battles fun rather than a chore and not only that, it's fast and fluid without any cumbersome commands. In general most of the fights take place in uninhabited areas, like wilderness or abandoned mines, caves, ruins, and the like; walking the roads to towns is usually a pretty safe affair unless some bandits come after you. Sometimes you might find a wolf or an infamous mud crab (but no mud crab salesman this time around) floating around too but it's rare.
When you're not fighting, you're questing, and no matter what direction you take in the game, you'll run into hundreds of unique quests. Along with the main quest, there's 6 various quest lines to tackle; 4 guilds, the Arena, and Daedric. To go along with the Fighters, Mages, and Thieves Guild you'd recall from Morrowind, there's a new one ? the Dark Brotherhood. If you're the sort who does things in a less noble manner and have a tendency to take the lives of innocents, it's possible the Dark Brotherhood will recruit you for a series of assassination missions; in short, you're a hitman, but you better be a hitman with the ability to pick locks since thievery skills are pretty important if you wish to kill in the shadows (don't fear though, most of these people do deserve what they get). The lockpicking interface is a game in itself, since you have limited lockpicks and the process ranges from easy to brutal. The Arena is a series of battles to the death; by beating everyone there's a reward of becoming Grand Champion and getting a spiffy set of armor that can get you through almost every quest. Finally, the Daedric quests are a more...evil collection of missions that deal with the built-in enemies who live in the realm of Oblivion.
For PlayStation 3, Oblivion gets what Xbox and PC owners had to pay 10 bucks for ? Knights of the Nine. Something of a Dark Brotherhood for heroic characters, it's considered a faction quest but functions differently from the 4 main guilds. Long as you're dedicated to being a good little boy or girl, and keep your infamy at zero (reducing it is easy if you visit Wayshrines), you can participate in a bunch of quests to revive the legendary Knights of the Nine and at the same time, put a stop to the terror that ruined a church in the city of Anvil and prevent a crisis on top of the crisis originally designed. It's a bit of a high-ended quest for better characters, so think of it as something to do once you finish the main quest, and more importantly after you're done with the Brotherhood and Thieves Guild stuff. As of right now, the plugins from the Xbox 360 aren't here, but it's more a matter of when than if; they'll be there down the line most likely, once the game has been out a while. Same with the official expansion, Shivering Isles ? I'm sure it will be here soon on PS3, but not until people have time to play through the Oblivion game itself.
There's also dozens of unrelated 'miscellaneous' quests that net you some fancy loot or other helpful items to progress through other missions. If you're a wanderer and talk to many people, chances are you'll have a huge book of quests, all of which can be sorted and made 'active' to point you in the right direction, which helps out the lost and also helps cut time on traveling around. Traveling can be done in 3 ways ? by foot, by horse, and by fast travel. The horse is a tricky thing, as you can't just take any horse unless you don't mind getting a bounty for theft, unless you find the Unicorn. Yes, a Unicorn. So you buy one and it'll be where you need it at all times, as it will stop at the stable of the city you're in. Fast travel is the most economical form of travel, as you just highlight a location and head there automatically, simulating the amount of time it would take you on foot. Aside from the various cities, all the map markers have to be found by walking around; some are placed on your map but can't be selected until you reach the location. So even if it does reduce the travel time, it doesn't let you just hop from place to place without a little exploring.
Because after all, exploring is the name of Oblivion's game. Even if there's no active quest, half the fun is wandering around the world, finding old mines, full of loot and enemies, caves with ancient artifacts, and a whole bunch of abandoned ruins that seem to contain some major secrets about the world of Tamriel, Cyrodiil in particular. Along the way there's a bunch of inns and taverns, abandoned forts, even civilizations. That's not even mentioning the Oblivion gates that pop up when you're halfway through the main quest; though optional (since they respawn), it's always fun to go through the gate, kill a bunch of creepy Daedra, and close the sucker up and become a local hero. It's pretty easy to see why Oblivion is such a great game; it provides a seemingly endless amount of things to do and enjoy, and Oblivion simply doesn't care if you spend time wandering around harvesting supplies for alchemy (yet another possible pastime) or attack the main quest right away without abandon, and any other combination in between. The game simply bends to your will...but never breaks. It's safe to leave one quest line, and when you return, everything is as is. Not every quest is great, or memorable, and some are really boring, but it's the option to tackle them which carries Oblivion.
On the visual end, Oblivion is stunning; a true showcase of what next-generation graphics should be, and on PS3 they look remarkable and show what happens when a developer spends time making a conversion the best it can be. The world is truly huge, and it's not just the same sort of terrain everywhere; there's snowy, mountainous land in the north, beautiful oceanic towns and locales, and heavily forested flatlands all over the place. The cities are huge and complete with their own special details to stand it out from the rest. The textures are fantastic and lighting effects are amazing; when it's dark, pull out a torch and see for yourself. Admittedly most of the dungeons are a bit too dark and require a torch (or a night-eye spell) every step, but then there's no electricity in this world. Torches aren't infinite and they're also not always abundant which can result in running around in the dark. For the most part the game has zero loading time while you explore, aside from very short pauses in play. If you're fast traveling or waiting, there's a chance a load will come if weather or a change in time of day occurs; from day to night, for instance. Alas sometimes the frame rate gets a little choppy which is a bummer, but usually only when there's rain or a whole bunch of stuff on the screen at once.
Character designs are pretty good, but with one flaw; there's not a lot of them so many people will look the same unless they're one of the 'talking non-human' sort. Plus their faces are really farked up and in many cases, creepy. One of the Orc characters in a church almost made me crap my pants, she was such a freakshow. They also stare at you a lot, which creates a need to join the Dark Brotherhood. Stalkers aren't cool.
Like the lack of many unique character models, the same thing applies to voice acting. It's good, but so many people play so many different parts, so everyone sounds the same. Case in point, the guy who plays the Arena Blademaster plays like 100 other characters and thus it's like the dude is stalking me incognito. It really hurts the incredible immersion of Oblivion by hearing these people over and over and over and over again. At the least, hire actors with some range and the ability to do different voices. The lone exception is the Emperor Septim, played by Captain Picard of the USS Enterprise. That's Patrick Stewart for those who aren't Trekkies. It's easy to say that yes, there's thousands of NPCs and thus it'd be impossible to have a unique voice for all, but dang, there's gotta be more than this around. Aside from that, the audio is pretty stellar. There's a handful of overworld themes (and at least one new one missing from the 360/PC versions) that plays a lot, but it changes when an enemy appears, which is the tip that an attack is forthcoming even if there's no enemies in your line of sight. Which happens a lot. There's plenty of tunes for the different towns, dungeons, and the like.