Roleplaying games are fairly popular on consoles, the PS2 for instance is stuffed to the brim with various RPGs, while the Xbox and Gamecube have their fair share. But these RPGs are usually fairly small, have a definite linear story and don't really allow for much freedom of choice.
A while ago on the PC there was a series of games developed by a fledgling developer known as Bethesda they created the Elder Scrolls: Arena and later on Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, with their jump to 3d being Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. The latter was a massive game that made the leap to Xbox and paved the way for open ended gigantic RPGs.
Morrowind had several criticisms levelled at it, some felt it was just way too big and had lots of Non Player Characters in the game world, but very little in the way of main story to bring the player through to a final conclusion. In essence it was a victim of its own grand scope, there was a definite story there but following it took a lot of dedication and patience.
Now the wheel turns once more and the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is upon us! This review concentrates on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
The Province of Cyrodiil is the setting for Oblivion and it is a large, sprawling land mass that has seen better days. You begin the game as a prisoner in the Imperial City dungeons; it is here that you are introduced to the story and one of the game's key characters. Voiced by Patrick Stewart, the Emperor Uriel Septim must escape the Imperial City before he's killed by assassins and as fate would dictate it - his escape route leads through a secret door in your cell.
The story to Oblivion is carefully woven throughout the game and as you'll learn you can pick it up as you go along, follow it to the conclusion and call the game beaten, or realise there's so much more than just the terrible event of a demonic invasion to contend with and find every single side quest and story there is to be had...which could take a seriously long time.
You have the choice between third person and first person for a start in Oblivion, whilst the third person is a little tricky to get used to it does provide a greater sense of awareness of the world of Tamriel compared to the first person, it's very useful when you're sneaking around. But we shall come to that much later on; this could well be a mammoth review.
The first thing that you're going to want to know is that Oblivion follows firmly in the footsteps of Morrowind, only regarding the developers attention to detail, everything that made Morrowind a flawed masterpiece has been adjusted and altered, tweaked and in some cases just dropped. Oblivion is a near-open ended RPG and it shows in the way that the game has been constructed, there are a large number of side quests and the main quest is easy enough to pick up as you go along. It never forces you into the quest, you can take as long as you like to explore.
After a fairly intensive character creation, where you can change every aspect of your character's looks and face, as well as define their name and play with sliders to your hearts content you begin with a cleverly created tutorial dungeon that forms part of the story, it teaches you the skills you need to be able to survive in the world of Tamriel and introduces you to the various elements of gameplay that will become second nature soon enough. As you play through the tutorial you'll be asked some questions by the characters, the way you play this section determines your class for the game (do not fear, you can choose another).
As you shape the character you are given one final choice upon leaving the tutorial dungeon, you are presented with a screen that allows you to edit your character's race, career class and birthsign, all the things that you have chosen before you embarked on this new adventure. Here you can give yourself a new class and even make a custom one from scratch, the game will remember your custom class as well and offer it as a choice if you decide to start again as a new character.
The different races, careers and birthsigns all add something unique to your character and it might take a while to find a good balance of things that you like. Each race has a unique power that they can employ and various strengths/weaknesses, such as the Argonian (lizard types) that can breathe underwater.
Once you escape the dungeon you're thrust into the world of Tamriel, and it might seem like a daunting task set before you. Your journal and compass come in extremely handy, combined with your world map and local map, these four elements make playing Oblivion extremely easy and intuitive especially for a Console RPG.
The compass tracks your current objective and quest with a marker, red if you're far away from it and green if you're close. The marker will also appear on your world map and any local map that you look at, it will show you the door you need to go through or the place where you need to look, so this means you're not going to get lost on any quest if you follow your journal, compass and map.
A quick word about the Journal, Oblivion has one of the best RPG journal systems I've seen in any game, it quickly and easily tracks quests, it shows your current quest and entries, your list of quests and a completed quest list. The updates to the journal are also excellent, they are extremely well written and some of them are fairly humorous in nature, while keeping in character and full of important clues and information.
Oblivion is a daunting game to some and it's full of things to do, you should never be bored and there's always exploring the wilderness to contend with, since the map allows for fast travel (click on a previously explored location or a major town/city and you're taken there as time passes) to speed up trekking back and forth, or just cut out a lot of the travel (which in my opinion is worth doing because of the game's myriad of secrets).
So now we've covered a little about the Journal and moving around, Oblivion isn't just about exploration and quests - you're going to end up in a brawl or battle sooner than you think, the game handles this by meshing the physics system in with the combat system and it does it fairly flawlessly (with emphasis on fun). Right trigger swings your sword, fires your bow and uses whatever equipped weapon you have in your hand. Accessing the inventory is painless and once you learn the buttons, it's quick and fairly simple to do. You can sort items by name, weight and even attack power or worth.
Left trigger is your block and depending on your skill, it reduces the amount of damage you can take. Oblivion borrows from some aspects of Console games by allowing for power attacks and special effects, depending on your skill level in the various weapon types and/or armour/shields.
For example a Master of Blade can deliver several power attacks that can cause opponents to become paralysed, disarm them and so on. A Master of Block can cause knock-back and employ shield bashes.
The right bumper casts your chosen spell and you can hotkey items and spells via the D-pad in 8 directions, for the most important switching as you play the game.
Combat is better in first person and I get the feeling that to be honest the only reason there's a third person camera is to show off your character, especially when they get better armour and items. I have a preference in the game for first person fighting and the way the character can be staggered in combat, reacting to blow after blow really brings the visceral nature of this fighting system alive.
You have a health, magicka and fatigue bar. Health drops via a number of ways, getting hit being only one of them. Magicka falls when you cast spells, but regenerates and fatigue drops when you're engaged in combat or jumping compared to dropping in Morrowind when you ran.
You can pick up objects in the game world and interact with them by pressing the left bumper, throwing the skulls of disembodied skeletons around for instance or hurling a defeated enemies' weapon over the edge of a cliff in disgust because it's not as good as the one you're using. You have a limited amount of inventory space based on your strength and character's encumbrance value, once you go over it you'll be stuck to the spot and if you're in combat it'll be an embarrassing moment as the enemy smacks you one in the face with a mace.
Stealth also plays a greater role in Oblivion and if you're walking the path of the Thief or a Dark Brotherhood assassin, you'll want to get to grips with how the system works - there are a few things to know. A quick click of the left thumb-stick will drop your character into sneak mode and a golden eye will illuminate around your central crosshair, if this eye is dark you can't be seen, if the eye is solid gold then someone/thing can see you.
That's not the only thing however, the better your stealth skill is, the more chance you have of remaining undetected, the armoured boots you wear also affects this chance and it's wise to keep a pair of soft shoes for sneaking around in or just get better at sneak (eventually you can move in any kind of boots with no penalty) - the last factor that determines your chances of being caught is the level of the NPCs own sneak skill, if it's higher than yours then you'll probably end up being spotted.
Oblivion isn't a static world and it's chock full of places to explore and things to do, there are as mentioned previously a lot of side quests that you can find via interaction with the various people of Tamriel - clicking on them with the A button will initiate a dialogue, unless you're sneaking, in that case you'll pickpocket your target and either get away with their inventory or get caught. The GUI helpfully shows if an action is legal or illegal, if the icon turns red then that's a crime and you're going to get in trouble.
There are a couple of mini-games in Oblivion, the Speechcraft one where you attempt to raise your target's disposition with your character, by trying to gauge their emotions from four possible actions to the Lockpicking mini-game where you have to tickle the tumblers and try not to break a pick in doing so. These games get easier the higher your Speehcraft or Lockpicking skills are.
So what you have is a massive game that's got tonnes of secrets and has a definite solid gameplay mechanic, the tutorial shows you everything you need to know and I could go on and on about the various cool things in the game, but that's for you to discover and me to leave well alone.
Oblivion is a gorgeous looking game and definitely looks great on a 360. The sheer amount of eye candy is enough to make most people begin to drool over their controllers and there have been several cases where friends of mine have brought the console just so they can play Oblivion, their PCs are certainly not up to scratch. It has some excellent lighting and shading as well as various next gen effects, HDR lighting and various levels of anti-aliasing combined with good solid design in the look and feel of the game world.
It's not hard to loose yourself whilst playing Oblivion and become engrossed in the game, from the architecture and landmass creation, every wall, tree, rock and feature has been replicated in various amounts of detail. It's pushing landscapes as far as the eye can see and there is some pop-up, noticeable as you traverse the game world, objects and buildings do appear suddenly as the game runs and there are a few frame drops here and there - but it's hardly a racing game and if you can live with that kind of problem then there's more than enough graphical power as Oblivion is doing a heck of a lot.
It models weather for one, either snow, rain or a good old thunderstorm as the wind picks up and time passes. It models day and night cycles and the passage of time, the transitions are seamless and there's a good deal of fun just to be had watching these effects as you're moving through Cyrodiil's wilderness. The water in Oblivion at least on the surface, is rather nice and reflects the landscape/buildings effectively - below the surface it's rather murky and fairly hard to see anything.
So the long and short of it is that Oblivion has gorgeous graphics and is probably one of the best looking 360 games on the market, so far.
The previous game had some pretty dire models to be honest; they were out of proportion and looked just plain odd. Oblivion suffers from a little bit of Bethesda's art style from Morrowind but not to the detriment of this game, since they have used a model generator capable of making fairly interesting faces for all the various races and on the whole I'm pleased with what they've done. Some people have said that they think a lot of the game's characters are ugly; this pleases me since I'm sick of pretty-pretty fantasy worlds and heroes, it's about time we saw some dodgy looking faces and people.
The level of detail and textures on the models is nice, they have a wide variety of clothing and armours, the features from the faces are all well done and there could have been a slight more variety in eye colours for the races at character generation for your player, that's my only quibble really.
The various items in the game world, from armour to weapons are all likewise given a good level of design and texturing, there are some really nice weapons on offer and the elven swords are particularly good looking.
Oblivion has a lot of animations, from the lowliest mudcrab to the biggest...well let's not spoil things. Each animation is fairly well tuned and the combat animations are some of the best ones seen in a game of this type, they stand nose to nose with such titles as The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay for example. The world is alive, the grass sways, and the signs move under their own physics when the wind is heavy enough and the people smile, frown, change emotion and have a wide variety of motions/expressions.
Their eyes move and they blink, when talking to each other they will go through a range of postures and various small animations you might miss if you're not looking. Oblivion is one of those games that you need to regard the smaller details in, or you'll probably just breeze right on past it. I have sat and watched them interact for a while, they sometimes go over the same thing but it breathes life into the world.
There are some animals in the game (not enough, Beth really needs to bring out a wildlife and animals mod) like deer and these roam around acting like deer should, there are horses you can buy that help considerably as you travel around the world, these are really well animated and although I have seen various forums where people complain about the horse motions, I can't see it myself.
Even the sky is animated, several layers of cloud can be seen moving through the heavens and in a thunder storm the lighting lights up the sky in a dramatic fashion, this also adds to the heavy sense of immersion and allows the player to feel as though they are a part of a living, breathing world.
If you've been following the development of the game for as long as we have then you'll probably be sick of hearing about RAI by now. RAI attempts to bring a new level of realism into the game world by taking the standard AI archetype and putting even more complexity over the top of it. The result is that you have a far more interesting, and unpredictable AI than a normal game.
Every NPC has a schedule, they eat, wander, sleep and do most of the things that you'd expect people to do. They have likes, dislikes and jobs to do. They might farm or work in their fields, they might be a member of the City Watch or they might be a thief or assassin in disguise.
If someone decides that they're hungry and they have no source of food, they might steal a loaf of bread or a hunk of cheese. Woe betide them if the guard catches them doing so, it usually ends in a quick and brutal battle where the offender is left lying dead on the street. They will also adhere to a proper schedule, some might go shopping in a far off city, or town, some might decide that it's just a nice day for a walk in the forest and promptly get attacked by a ravenous brown bear.
It could be said that the AI in this game is the most realistic yet, since we often go wild at the complexities of other games where the AI uses team tactics, cover and other elements. RAI blows a big raspberry to this and gives every personality their own unique set of instructions, their own hatreds and so on. If someone decides to get drunk and punches someone on their hate list, then so be it.
The game handles this fairly well, there are a few hiccups, but to be honest the AI can usually reset itself and wander off to do something else if it gets stuck on an object or particular path - you just have to wait for a few minutes, or if you're that bored you can press the back button and allow time to pass, up to 24 hours at a time.
This is the next big step forwards for AI and it doesn't just govern the NPCs, whilst some of the Foresters will hunt deer there can be a moment or two where a monster or bandit attacks and spoils the happy life of the AI's schedule. For example I was wandering near Bruma when I caught sight of a forester hunting; I decided to tag along and watched the man shooting a few deer. He was content to do so until a pair of bandits decided he was fair game, they let fly an arrow and caught him just as he was about to kill the deer - he wasn't at all happy about being shot and took time out from his busy day to kill them both.
This wasn't scripted, this happened because the Forester decided the Bandits had annoyed him sufficiently, he'd have probably come hunting me had one of my spells or arrows misfired and hit him.
Here's another example. I decided to tag along with a really irksome fellow as he made his way from Bruma to the Imperial City, he wasn't at all talkative and made several threats...I was pondering using the man to enter in the Dark Brotherhood, but as he was rounding a corner he was attacked by a bear, it didn't kill him and it demonstrated to me how powerful this guy really was, he took it out. I decided to keep up with him again, and a few more bears, a Minotaur and he was still going strong.
Then he was ambushed by a mountain lion and died, I looted the corpse and left him there for the rest of the world to see.
These are two pretty mild examples of the AI governing the world; it's certainly one of those games that require extended play to see some of the incidents that I have heard happening, happen. There are also AI sets that govern creatures like goblins, these little things have a hatred for you, everyone else and other goblin tribes...it's said that by stealing something important to them you can cause war between the tribes.
Radiant AI marks a great step forwards for AI in general and sets the bar for other games to follow.
Havok Physics is married into Oblivion, it runs through the combat system and can cause some hilarious events when you hit someone with knock-back and smash them into a table full of objects, sending plates and glasses/food flying all over the place. It gives everything in the world a specific weight and mass, for example if you smack a bottle with a plate then the bottle will be knocked over.
If you kill a bandit on the top of the stairs, then their dropped weapons will roll down the stairs, clanking down the steps as they do so. Bodies will fall and roll down inclines and in combat you'll suffer from the various effects that your enemies do, if they hit you with a hard enough blow you'll be knocked off your feet and if it's a big creature that hits you, then you might even end up being slammed across a room or down a cliff.
One word of warning, or perhaps advice, Oblivion features traps in most of the dungeons and these are also based on the physics system - get hit by a moving spiked ball or press the wrong pressure plate and you will be restarting from a save point. It's also nice to know you can use these features to cause trouble for any enemies that you might find.
To Zone or not to Zone?
Oblivion is broken up into zones, you have for instance the main world map which is largely seamless and is populated with a huge amount of things to explore. Hidden dungeons and side-quests wait as well as various dangers and monsters that are only hinted at by scared townsfolk. The world loads in areas as you travel; this occasionally causes a tiny wait as the segment loads.
Then there are the town/city zones like the Imperial City, this is a large area that is broken up into several segments all accessed by doors. Click on a door to go into someone's home or enter a new area, the game loads that area in and the loading times aren't too bad - we have seen worse, it's a minor quibble.
As a general rule, if it's a dungeon, quest area, home or other such building then the game requires another zone for it. Monsters will also track you through zones unless they get bored, the same as the guard, they'll hunt you down as you try to run from them.
With a game like Oblivion you need good sound; thankfully it has bundles of excellent sounds in all the game's various places. The clash of steel in combat is great, the grunts and crunches as blow after blow lands or is deflected joins seamlessly with the rest of the system and provides a much rounder experience. The sizzle of a fireball spell or the tell tale zap of a lighting based spell soon clues you in to the kind of attack (as if the visuals weren't enough).
The ambient sound is also excellent as the world is brought to life before your eyes, the whisper of the wind in the trees on a balmy summer's day or the thrashing howl as the rain crashes down in the middle of a storm, are all done with an excellent attention to detail.
As you're sneaking through the various dungeons, you learn to pick out these audio clues as well, since the creatures all have various sounds they make like for instance, the creak of a skeleton as it stands idly by before stomping off to guard somewhere else.
Jeremy Soule provides the music for Oblivion and he captures the same feel as he has done with the previous game, it has a stirring score that truly matches the epic nature of the unfolding adventure and provides a dynamic change when you're about to enter combat, this is one of the ways you know you're in trouble when the stirring music kicks in and has you scanning the horizon for enemies.
There's a lot of spoken dialogue in Oblivion so it's hardly surprising that there are a number of voice actor repeats for certain characters. But where the likes of the bit-part voices add excellent parts to the game the stage is stolen by the inclusion of Terence Stamp and Sean Bean as they enter the world of Tamriel as various characters, joining Lynda Carter and Patrick Stewart.
I have no problem with the dialogue in Oblivion, since it's a mammoth undertaking and the developers must have made some tough choices when casting the game.
No multiplayer and so on, but it's LIVE enabled so expect downloadable content. There's already some Horse Armour on Xbox LIVE's marketplace and 360 owners can expect at least two more official mods from Beth in the coming weeks, allowing for fresh new content and some areas that were previously locked like the quest to rebuild the Imperial Orrery.
Oblivion is a massive game and there's so much to find, explore and do here that it might appear extremely daunting to the first time gamer, the way the game is designed however is intelligent and well thought out enough to ease in the first timer while appealing to fans of the series. The advances in AI make the world come alive in ways that most other games cannot capture, everything moves on around you in Oblivion and the world cannot be called static.
The controls are fairly simple and require little or no time to learn, once you pick them up navigating the world and the interface becomes second nature, freeing you to concentrate on the quests, combat and exploration.
Oblivion's game world scales enemies with you, so if you're level 22 and only just starting the main storyline then you'll discover that the enemies are all armed with appropriate weapons and armour, loot and goods. This has been a bit of a criticism from some of the fans, but I don't seem to be as bothered by it than a lot of people - there are always mods for the PC version and perhaps there'll be some for the 360 version, this option is highly unlikely unless it was a stunning mod.
It is however unfair to mark the game down because of this, Oblivion succeeds in delivering a great experience however you play it and this freedom of choice is what makes the game so special. You can choose the skills you want as your major skills, these will level up quicker than your minor and if you want to rocket through the levels then you ramp up the difficulty slider and pick the skills you're going to use the most, be prepared for a serious challenge though as the game on even just half-way becomes a lot harder at the higher levels.
It is possible to ignore the main story until you're a really high level, I know of at least one person that's level 22 and just gone to the first story objective, they've been having fun just exploring the game and doing the side-quests, with various factions to join and faction quests the game should keep you occupied for a long time.
The save system is simple enough, you can save the game in a slot and when you move into a new area the game will auto-save as well, it will also auto-save when you sleep and so on.
It is a Console RPG at its heart but it has broken new ground for the genre and deserves to be in any Xbox 360 owners collection, even if they usually hate this kind of game - there's something in Oblivion for everyone and the challenge is finding the right game balance for your style of play.