Publisher: 2k Games
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Release Date: March 20, 2006
The feeling that you get after you've played The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion for a few hours is sort of like an epiphany. Many games tout the "go anywhere, do anything" bullet point on the back of the box but then restrict the limits of that artificially, or make that "go anywhere" play area a largely lifeless void with mere bits and pieces of enjoyment scattered about. In Oblivion, you learn that the term was previously a baseless statement, as this title is really the first time the player has had this much depth of freedom in a game this large. Sometimes, that freedom lets you save the world from hell itself spilling into the streets. Other times, it's a matter of eliminating a ship's captain on an assassination contract. Even yet, sometimes it's just a matter of doing stuff you can honestly say you haven't done in a video game up until this point. For instance, as the saying goes, I did punch a sheep once ... in anger. In my defense, the sheep was being kind of a prick.
It's really hard to fully understand what kind of game Oblivion is without actually playing it yourself, which is more a testament to the title than anything else. In the game, you play as an avatar purely of your creation, be it male or female, Imperial or Wood Elf. How you play this character is similarly of your creation. Will you be a mage? A thief? A combination thereof? How about a warrior, since they're pretty good at the whole "hit squishy things with large hammers" bit? You are given some direction at the beginning, after which you are literally let loose in the province of Cryodil. After the introductory sequence, how you go about things is entirely up to you.
In the beginning of the game, your character is a prisoner standing alone in a rotting jail cell, and across the hall is another inmate who doesn't exactly have a rosy view of you. You don't know why you're imprisoned, but before you finish that thought, the Emperor and his guards are standing in front of your cell. You see, the Emperor fears for his life and is fleeing the palace and the city, and his secret escape route leads directly through your jail cell. The guards seem to be a moment from skewering you if you so much as sneeze, but then the Emperor discloses that he has seen you in his dreams and that you are free to follow them through the passage.
Through the sequence, you are introduced to the title's various gameplay aspects, such as attacking, sneaking, magic, alchemy, and others, and you'll have plenty of opportunities to utilize all of them. For instance, you see a goblin near a fire pit. Do you sneak nearby and shoot him in the back of the head with an arrow, or do you sneak even closer and club him with an axe? Do you keep your distance and cast magic at him until he gets close enough for your blade, or do you lead him into a trap that sends a spiked ball swinging into him after he snaps the tripwire that was intended to kill you instead?
In either case, the caverns twist into the sewers, which in turn lead to your freedom, but before you do, the Emperor asks you what your birth sign is, and later, the head guard tries to guess your character's occupation. Birth signs are which star your character was born under, and the choice yields anything from small stat increases to major boosts in some areas and hindrances in others, such as being unable to naturally regenerate magic over time while possessing the power to absorb the mana ("magicka") used in the magic of others. The head guard gives an initial guess as to what profession you are, which in game logic is based on what actions you did in the introduction sequence and how often you did them compared to others. For instance, if you cast a lot of spells, he may suggest a mage, while if you snuck around and stabbed enemies in the back he, might suggest a rogue or thief. You can accept his guess as your class, choose another pre-made class from the list, or create your own custom class using any mix of major and minor skills that you see fit.
So you're a free man or woman, breathing the fresh air and looking over a beautiful lake. Now what? Do you immediately follow the main quest and visit the priory in a far-away town? Do you wander back into the city and check out the bustling activity there? Or do you cross the lake and check out what lurks in the dungeon ruins? It's that set of questions, or rather the ability to have those sort of options at all times, that really defines Oblivion as a title. There is simply so much to do in the game that you can easily follow your own wanderlust and pick up side-quests as you go, and before you know it, you'll have spent 15 hours playing and not even manage to graze the main storyline.
There are four guilds (the Fighter's Guild, the Mage's Guild, the Thieves Guild, and the Dark Brotherhood), each of which has its own sets of missions you can undertake. The Fighter's and Mage's Guilds are simple enough to join; simply find a guild hall where you can be recruited, and speak to a person in charge. Similarly straightforward are the missions that you'd expect from them. The Thieves Guild, however, doesn't have a formal means of recruiting, as they don't officially exist in order to hide from the ever-present law. If you were to get caught picking someone's lock and elect to get thrown in jail instead of pay the fine, someone from the guild just might notice your talents and find you, not the other way around. The Dark Brotherhood is a guild of assassins, and it operates under a similar veil of secrecy. If you "accidentally" kill someone in cold blood, keep in mind that unknown forces are watching you, and you just may be visited in your sleep by a recruitment officer for the Dark Brotherhood.
Meanwhile, there's the Arena, which is exemplary of any Gladiator-style movie. Want to make some quick cash? Go to the Arena and bet a few hundred coins on the next fight, and then sit in the stands to watch the combatants skirmish while the blood-hungry crowd cheers and yells. For even greater rewards, speak to the keeper of the Bloodworks underneath the Arena and become a combatant yourself, putting your life on the line and ending the lives of others in the name of entertainment and sport, all while making a tidy sum of money. Meanwhile, you can be walking around town, and thanks to the game's both unheard-of and ridiculous amount of voiceovers, listen in real-time to two townspeople get into a conversation. You may overhear that one of them has some plight that you might be able to solve, and after speaking to the person, you get a brand new quest added to your quest log.
Sometimes while playing Oblivion, you don't want to do a quest; you just want to get into a dungeon and knock in some heads and grab some loot. The title boasts over 200 hand-crafted dungeons for you to explore, most of which are based on your character's level. If you enter a dungeon at level one, you may find a few gold coins and some basic armor protected by silly goblins and crabs, but if you were to come back to that same dungeon at level eight, you might find some nice Dwemer bows and swords protected by bandit berserkers. You can clear out a dungeon, but a few days later, it will be repopulated with new enemies storing new loot, meaning that even if you were to clear out all 200+ dungeons in the game world, you could just start over. Not only will the first dungeon be filled with enemies again, but they'll also be enemies close to your level and protect the same caliber of loot.
The core gameplay in Oblivion is a mix of various aspects of play that can be used interchangeably in the hands of a creative player. In a few typical hours of Oblivion game time (mere minutes in real time), you might first use your personality skill to charm a defenseless shopkeeper to your will, and then use your mercantile skill to seal the deal and buy a nice sword, bow, and some alchemical ingredients at a largely reduced price. You may then choose to sneak into his basement by picking the lock, slip into the shadows to avoid detection by one of his customers, and then steal some more of his wares for future sale to your fence in the Thieves Guild.
From there, you want to test out your new equipment and check a local mine rumored to be filled with bandits, so you leave town and, much to the dismay of local law enforcement, steal a horse and ride it to the mines. For yourself, you make a series of potions to restore health and magicka, and you also create some stronger detrimental potions, which you'll use to tip your arrows and poison your sword. You enter the mine and get a critical shot with your bow on a bandit sitting on a stool, who, thanks to both the strength of the poison and the sneak attack, immediately falls face-first into the fire pit, stone dead. At the sight of his dead friend, a nearby man wearing leather armor and a bad mood attacks you with an axe, so you blast him with a fireball spell, which seamlessly engages him in melee combat.
Breaking away from the series' precedent every time you swing at your foe, you do connect, as opposed to missing a large amount of your attempts at low levels of the skill, but thanks to your medium skill level with bladed weapons, you're causing a somewhat respectable amount of damage. Using your shield, you parry his attacks, and though your skill in blocking is low and you still take some damage due to his savage blows, the poison on your sword fatigues the bandit to the point where he can't swing his weapon without falling over. After promptly dispatching that bandit, you loot their corpses, pick the lock on a chest to grab some silver arrows and gold, and then progress deeper into the mine, where undoubtedly more bandits, and more importantly more loot, await.
That's just one example of how open-ended Oblivion is, in that you really can do just about anything within reason. However, the world doesn't revolve around your character as it does in other role-playing games. Indeed, the characters all have their own lives to lead and schedules to follow; shopkeepers will wake up and open their shops at their opening time in the mornings (if you're a thief, you might want to bust in at 1am or so and definitely keep quiet), townspeople will visit friends and family by walking around town and engaging in real, largely meaningful conversations as they go, and every action in the game has an effect. If you provoke a man enough, he may just run off suddenly, giving you a smug feeling that you just scared a grown man into running until he reappears with a mace, shield, and a burly friend. More than any other game, the NPCs in Oblivion feel like actual people.
It doesn't hurt matters at all that Oblivion is one of the first Xbox 360 titles to really bring forth what the system can do as a console. The graphics are beautiful, thanks to the high degrees of detail, authenticity, cohesion, and special effects such as lighting and bump-mapping. The faces and character models are striking, although the animations can look a little awkward at times, such as how your character remains totally motionless while jumping through the air. It is somewhat amazing that on a clear day in the game (as opposed to the rain, fog, and snow that can occur), you can easily see across the entire province and spot trees on the opposing mountainside, a distance that can take hours to traverse.
Physics are implemented fully, not only allowing for more common things such as rag-doll physics for enemies who have been slain, but also more subtle effects, such as jostling things around when you walk into a table or sprint down a mountainside chasing after a wayward enchanted dagger. You can pick up bodies and objects in the game, which is useful in hiding the bodies of those you've killed, or decorating one of the many houses you can purchase with the spoils of your latest dungeon exploration.
Overshadowing both of those, however, is the excellent audio that Oblivion brings to the table, which easily raises the bar for the role-playing game genre and the industry as a whole. Big names like Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean steal the marquee of the voiceover department, but the talent is far from limited to those two actors, as the voiceovers are mostly excellent across the board. It is really quite immersive when you hear a townsperson introduce himself by name, or when you hear the conversations that people can have. The sounds weaponry makes, such as the shriek of a flying arrow or the meaty clang of sword meeting shield, is a pleasure to your eardrums, while not having to read every line of dialog as you would in, well, any other game is a pleasure to your eyes.
Honestly, there has never been a game like The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, and even The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind, which was considered as one of the best RPGs of its generation, looks unrefined and basic in comparison. Simply put, Oblivion is now the title that all other RPGs will be measured against, and now more than ever, Bethesda is one of the crown princes of the genre. Some games showcase beautiful graphics but have horrid gameplay; others have lots of ideas and gameplay elements but are thrown together in a mismatched and complicated way. Oblivion not only raises the bar in the visual and audio modules but also in the gameplay and presentation department, making it easily one of the most recommendable titles to anyone who has ever enjoyed the thought of truly doing whatever they want in a video game, in a world where actions actually mean something. Besides, admit it – you've always wanted to throw down and get into a boxing match with a barnyard animal. Just be sure to block and parry their horns and punch when there's an opening; those horns can be pointy to the unarmored adventurer.