Review: It's hard to believe that Bethesda could add another sizable adventure to the world of Oblivion, but the Shivering Isles is here to do just that.
Editor's note: You can find a review of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion by clicking here
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion provided one of the most amazing gaming experiences of 2006 for Xbox 360 users. And recently PS3 gamers have been able to get in on the action with their own version of Bethesda's masterpiece. The 360 version has already been supported with plenty of downloadable content, but Shivering Isles marks the first full-fledged expansion to augment the original game (as if it hadn't justified its price already). While the cost of Shivering Isles is certainly hefty ? 2400 MS points definitely kicks you in the pills ? the adventure is still worthwhile to those who love Oblivion, and it holds up in terms of the original adventure's entertaining action and top-shelf presentation.
Much of what made the retail version of Oblivion great was the effective balance that Bethesda managed to reach between open-ended exploration and compelling individual adventures. While there was certainly too much cave-crawling in parts of the Oblivion experience, the game remained exceedingly fun because of the quirky characters, creepy locales, and in-your-face combat. Shivering Isles pretty much follows suit in these regards, as the experience satisfies by adding more interesting locations to explore, enemies to fight, and mysteries to unravel. Sure, there is a bit too much cave-crawling and fetch questing as before, but the pros far outweigh the cons.
When you download the Shivering Isles, you'll have to wait through a quick Xbox Live verification at the start of the game that lasts about 20 seconds, and while this isn't the end of the world, this certainly could be problematic to those who have lost their Internet connection or who want to play offline. After the check, you may proceed to load up a new game or previous save and then enter the land of Tamriel as before. You won't be able to just find the Shivering Isles right away, as the game waits about a day of in-game time and then informs you (randomly) that there are rumors of an island in Niben Bay? time to go check it out. You'll have to swim out to the tiny land mass, but once you get there you'll see a strange, magical door guarded by an imperial soldier. Even more curious than the door are the crazies running around outside it, and you'll soon witness the guard cutting them down in the middle of their madness. He cautions you not to enter the enigmatic entrance, but alas, it's not his job to keep you out, just to warn you.
When entering the gate, you'll hear a loud, boisterous Scottish man shouting about needing a ?mortal champion? and someone who is ?worthy? to enter his realm. After materializing through the gate, you're intercepted by a man named Haskill, and he sits alone in a room that contains a desk and a metronome that ticks away. Haskill explains that you can either turn around unharmed or enter the realm of the Daedric Prince of Madness, Sheogorath, and live with the consequences of your experience in the Shivering Isles. Upon agreeing to go inside, the room undergoes a beautiful and memorable transformation that really demonstrates the different graphical techniques being employed for this expansion.
Now that you're in the realm of Sheogorath, you'll notice there are two distinct areas of the landscape. One side is considered to be that of ?Mania,? and the other is that of ?Dementia? ? you are in the Realm of Madness, after all. Dementia is a familiar, but dreary locale, with lots of overhanging trees, swamplands, and dingy environments. Mania, on the other hand, has all sorts of Alice in Wonderland
touches, such as giant mushrooms, bizarre trees, and vibrant colors. You'll soon find yourself in the Court of Madness, and you'll encounter the duke and duchess of each realm, as well as the Madgod himself, Sheogorath.
The main city of this realm houses a palace and two sub-cities ? Crucible and Bliss ? and will be your home base for the main quest of the Shivering Isles. This city almost functions like the Imperial City of Cyrodil, as you'll be able to find most key characters here, and most of your quests revolve around the inner-workings of this area. This being said, your travels will take you to all reaches of the Isles, and the entire land mass is probably about 25-35% of the area found in the retail release of Oblivion ? quite a substantial place to explore.
The core gameplay remains unchanged for this expansion, and you'll find yourself doing a fair bit of cave-crawling, fetching, exploring, fighting, sneaking, and looting. The combat once again proves to be very serviceable, as the sword swinging and magic using remains satisfying and manageable, especially from the first-person perspective. Sure, the game still could've used a bit more ?feedback? when you strike an enemy, but the combat is still miles ahead of what was offered in the previous game, Morrowind. You'll find plenty of items within the Isles, and these include many pieces of enchanted equipment, plus new materials like amber and madness ore. Managing these items is still easily accomplished through the game's masterful inventory system, but when using this interface for the second time, it still does make one yearn for slightly better sorting options for certain item pages (going down to the repair hammer can takes a lot of scrolling).
In terms of what you'll be doing in the adventure, Shivering Isles provides fairly decent variety, especially in the early going. Almost at the outset, you'll have to think of a way to take down a giant gatekeeper, who is essentially a monstrous flesh atronach who guards the gates to the Realm of Madness (there's a sort of ?fringe? city outside the gates). Of course, you could outright attack him, but your offensive capabilities and current level will greatly dictate how long the battle will be. As always, there are other ways to solving the problem, and the villagers of the city of Passwell seem more than interested in getting into the Realm of Madness, themselves. Further on in the main quest, there are some good ?inquisition? quests based around the dukes of each madness realm, and many other quests also allow you to really let your darker side shine. The missions do eventually get a bit pedestrian, though, and you will find yourself going into countless caves and tombs in order to complete objectives, and sometimes you almost wish the designers would allow for more ?mystery? type missions or outdoor combat (as opposed to 95% of the dungeons being in caves or tombs) so that things wouldn't get quite as familiar. Still, the gameplay remains fun, even if the style and trappings of some of the missions get a tad repetitive in parts. The entire main quests will likely take in the range of 15 to 20 hours, but this will all depend on what strategies you use in certain situations and how fully you complete all of the main quest's potential objectives.
Some of the lack in variance found in the main quest is helped out by the random quests and tasks you find in the smaller cities of the Shivering Isles, and you'll likely be amused, creeped out or outright entertained by some of these smaller storylines. One mission will have you searching for the cure to someone's illness, while another will have you assisting someone with their paranoia regarding native species to the Isles. One of the more amusing missions (and one of the quicker ones, too) involves a man who no longer wants to live, but is afraid to kill himself for fear of ending up on the Hill of Suicides (an actual place). It's up to you to kill him, but ? by his request ? without him knowing it is coming. The ?proper? way of doing this results in a morbidly humorous action by yourself, and an even funnier bit of dialogue by a nearby guard. There are also other rumors and quests you will get wind of on the Shivering Isles, and they all help add even more value to the overall experience.
But as before, there's still plenty of other exploring and orienteering to undertake, and you'll be able to find many small forts and encampments all around the Shivering Isles that aren't made obvious by any of the main quests or side adventures. And this element is something that just works so well in Elder Scrolls games, as it's really quite easy to lose yourself in this fantasy realm and just wander off, even when you think you know where you are going.
Visually speaking, Shivering Isles delivers striking detail and imagination with the canvas used and the scope reached, and it really is quite hard to (still) not be blown away by how much obvious passion went into designing the world. The sheer detail in all of the interiors including individual food items, books, weapons, clothing, and foliage remain impressive, and the expansive outdoor environments provide more sprawling vista than you can shake a mace at. The character models hold the same charming design as before, and some of the new insect-like enemies demonstrate a decidedly different feel than the adversaries found in Cyrodil or its outlying cities. The few quibbles from before remain, such as the ?stiffness? in the characters' delivery and the lack of animation during certain situations, but the game is so visually striking overall that it's hard to fault things like this in any meaningful way.
Much like in the retail version of Oblivion, the sound for Shivering Isles is extremely well done, with full speech for all of the characters, convincing effects work, and a sweeping orchestral score. Many of the familiar voices from the retail version are used for characters here, and while there aren't many actors used, it once again does manage to order the races and archetypes of those you interact with. The two standout characters are Haskill and Sheogorath, and each of them ? for better or worse ? are memorable to the experience. The voice of Haskill projects a dubious dutifulness towards you, and his dry delivery is perfect for the moments that he gets (especially when you employ the ever-amusing ?Summon Haskill? spell). Sheogorath tends to grate a bit more than he charms, as the (as has been humored by some) ?Mr. Krabs? delivery gets a bit much in certain scenes. He certainly has some funny moments, but after a while you just end up wanting to get to the heart of an issue or whatever, and he's prattling on about his mind? and your mind? and you in his mind? but, presumably, that's something of the effect Bethesda wanted. The Foley work for much of the combat remains satisfying, and you'll hear some interesting new squeaks, moans, and shrieks from some of the new enemies you'll face. Just the same, the range of sounds used for walking, items dropping, doors closing, magic, and everything else remains impressive, as before. The music is quite similar to what was heard previously, and this is definitely a good thing, but a bit more variety in some of the work would have been nice, but this is a small nag. Maybe a distinct Shivering Isles ?theme? could've been subtly introduced to really separate this location from the rest of Tamriel.
The Achievements available for Shivering Isles are not that complicated, and they function much in the way the original Oblivion Achievements did; that is to say, you will advance in rank as you complete quests in the main story. There is one story thread that diverges in the main quest, so Achievement fiends will want to ensure they save before making key decisions. The only noteworthy aspect of the additional Gamerscore for the Shivering Isles is that this is one of the first games to be enhanced by additional points beyond the conventional 1000 point/50 Achievement limit, meaning you might have more points than some of your buddies just from purchasing this extra download (lucky you). All told, you'll be able to collect an additional 250 points for your Gamerscore.
The only real issue with this whole package is the price of admission, as 2400 MS points is pretty much unprecedented at this point on the Marketplace. There's the school of thought that this price is acceptable in light of Bethesda making one hell of a game with Oblivion, and that they remedied previous DLC issues by listening to the community. On the other hand, $30 USD ($40 CDN) is quite a high price for something that is maybe only one quarter or one third of the original game's value, and that requires no packaging. This latter question may not come into many gamers' minds if they immensely enjoyed the initial offering (more of the same greatness is fairly digestible for most gamers), but does a high price like this leave the door open for future developer to get lazy and use this price precedent for maximum gouging? It certainly is disconcerting to imagine the wheels turning in other companies' minds, especially in light of much of the bloated and overpriced offerings on the Marketplace. At the end of the day, though, this content is worth it to those who love the Elder Scrolls yarn, and ? clearly ? there are many out there who fit that description.