The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Review by Steerpike
April 2006

The End of Steerpike's Review

I was going to put this part at the end—it's more dramatic as a conclusion—but the fact is I'm wordy under the best of circumstances, so out of courtesy to those who don't have all day, this section gets right to the point.

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is history now. And whether or not you personally liked it, it's widely accepted as one of those games that changed the world. Opinions on how "good" or "fun" it is differ. But it is unquestionably among the most important video games ever made. Each and every Elder Scrolls game has somehow raised the bar higher than its predecessor, and people naturally expected the same from Morrowind's sequel. So does Oblivion trump Morrowind?

Well ... no. At least not in my opinion, which puts me in the extreme minority. Suffice it to say that while Oblivion is an impressive technical achievement and a very enjoyable game, if I had to choose between the two, I'd take Morrowind. For the first time in Elder Scrolls history, a new installment is a (small) step backward.

Oblivion is the worse game for a variety of reasons: structural, mechanical and thematic. Mistakes were made in its execution that were not made in its predecessor. It is still a triumph in many respects. But it is not equal to Morrowind, and, as far as I'm concerned, it is not the game we were hoping for.

The Beginning of Steerpike's Review

Oblivion is awesome ... and it sucks. There's such a split personality associated with this game that it almost feels like two titles, not one. The first is an incredibly engaging and well-designed roleplaying experience with stunning visuals and fascinating technology. The second is a frustrating and obnoxious pain that goes out of its way to constrain your actions, sacrifices gameplay to show off cool tech and includes "features" that make you feel like you're part of a secret government experiment to see how infuriated people can become before they explode.

I have two major complaints. The first is the enormous collection of little things that ruin the game experience—not bugs, but quirks and idiosyncrasies; design decisions so half-assed that they have no right being in a game this good. More on those in a minute.

The second is that no matter how hard I tried, I never felt like I was part of the world of Oblivion. I could not immerse. It felt not like a living place but like a disconnected series of questlets. And that's a serious problem, but it's also a very subjective one.

Save the World! (Whenever)

I haven't finished Oblivion. There's no "finishing" it; it never ends. I have completed the main quest, which takes about 25 hours of a 250+ hour game if you hurry. I've also finished a wide variety of side quests, but I'm not "done." Oblivion is basically a big fantasy sandbox.

The Elder Scrolls games are true epics, offering up a vast and sprawling universe full of distinct culture and rich history. The Empire of Tamriel sits on millennia of posterity. It is a vibrant place, truly real, which makes the awesome, world-shaking adventures found in the Elder Scrolls that much more engrossing.

For centuries, Tamriel—once a contentious battleground in which nine nations warred constantly—has enjoyed relative stability under the imperial rule. Led by Tiber Septim, the humans of Cyrodiil invaded their eight neighbors long ago, using trained dragons and the chainmailed barbarism of the imperial legions to conquer elves, lizardfolk, cat people and everything in between. Eventually the annexed nations learned to deal with their new role as provinces.

And the Septims have ruled Tamriel ever since. Uriel Septim VII, the latest in a long line of imperial mediocrities, has reigned for more than fifty years. He, like all emperors before him, knows the dark secret of Tamriel: should the Septim line end without an heir, the marble doors of Oblivion will open and devour the world.

The land of Oblivion is the Tamrielic Hell, a brimstony nightmare that is home to the fiendish Daedra, demons that figure prominently throughout Tamriel's history. And while individual Daedra occasionally find their way to Tamriel, a barrier exists that absolutely prevents the establishment of a permanent passage between the two worlds. Or so everyone thought.

Your character, who starts inauspiciously as a prisoner in the imperial dungeons, couldn't really care less about any of that until the emperor (voiced by Patrick Stewart in the easiest few grand he ever made) and his bodyguards appear, rattling keys and babbling about murdered sons and approaching assassins. It would seem that your cell is the secret access point to an underground passage out of the Imperial City. Someone is coming to kill the emperor, someone who has already killed his sons, and his guards are making their last-ditch effort to get him out. Figuring that death in a dank and anonymous tunnel is preferable to rotting in prison, you trail along.

But luck is not on Uriel's side. He's murdered by cloaked assassins down in the tunnels and dies literally in your arms. With his last breath, he gurgles out some instructions that saddle you with an unfairly gargantuan responsibility: it turns out that there is another son, an illegitimate son named Martin, who must be found and enthroned posthaste.

But the marble doors of Oblivion didn't get that memo, so they dutifully creak open, and soon demon gates are popping up all over Cyrodiil, with an extensive selection of infernal Daedra pouring through to terrorize the countryside. Getting invaded by demons is rarely good news, and for an empire already in decline, it's likely the final nail in the coffin.

As with all of the Elder Scrolls, it's really up to you whether or not you do anything about it. The main story of Martin Septim and Daedric incursion is just one of approximately ninety million paths you can choose to walk. But in Morrowind and its predecessors, the "main" quests were never particularly urgent; they were more like slow-moving mysteries. You felt free to ignore them because there wasn't any pressure associated with your objectives—or at least none that was readily apparent.

In Oblivion, the world is literally going to hell. From a roleplaying perspective, there's no practical reason not to deal with it immediately, which creates an unpleasant sense of tension and exigency that made me feel very rushed. It disconnected me from the world, made me unwelcome. Morrowind absorbed me. I was part of Vvardenfell. It became my home. I never felt that way in Oblivion. I felt hustled along by an impatient tour guide, because ignoring the main quest would be like playing DOOM and choosing to explore the Martian surface rather than fight the monsters.

What a Lovely Engine You Have

Technically speaking, Oblivion delivers on all of its promises and more. It is startlingly gorgeous, breathtakingly so, to the point where I couldn't stop taking screenshots. The codebase, which is a combination of proprietary Bethesda work and Emergent's middleware Gamebryo engine plus Havok physics, is simply astonishing. The outdoor vistas are too glorious for words, with only the tiny complaint that distant objects such as grass tend to "pop" in rather jarringly. Indoors, the game shows nigh-criminal attention to detail, with every locale perfectly modeled and populated by hundreds of lovingly designed unique objects. Oblivion is quite simply the most beautiful game on the market today.

I'm reviewing the PC version here, and I've got a reasonably powerful PC—3800+, 2 GB of memory, a Radeon X1900 XT and two Raptor hard drives in RAID 0, which dramatically reduce load times. Oblivion's performance is perfectly adequate on my machine—25 to 80 fps with all features maxed out. Forums suggest that lesser PCs can handle the game provided users are willing to lower their screen resolution and disable GPU-crushing effects such as high dynamic range lighting. The 360 version, I'm told, stutters occasionally but is otherwise a solid performer.

I never had technical problems with Morrowind (seriously), though I guess others did. Oblivion, also, is surprisingly stable for such a massive and complex game. It's not reasonable to expect a product this colossal to ship without a few bugs, and it definitely has some issues, but to describe Oblivion as broken or even particularly buggy would be unfair. Everything works more or less as advertised, which for Bethesda is still kind of an aberration. It's good news, though, especially considering it could have been a technical train wreck given Bethesda's history. Programming gnomes are already working on the first of what's doubtless to become many patches, so watch the website.

You should also watch it for new goodies. Like its predecessor, Oblivion is mod-friendly. The Elder Scrolls Construction Set is improved over its previous iteration, and fan-developed mods are already available for free online. Just be advised that Bethesda is charging money for its own official plugins. Horses that don't look like a four-year-old drew them? Ching! Two dollars. New quest that wasn't done in time for the release? Ching! Two dollars. I can't fault Bethesda, but these things might add up for fans.

One of the game's chief selling points is the Radiant AI system, which establishes individual identities, needs and solution paths for literally every living thing in the game. Radiant, though still experiencing growing pains, really does work; follow a single NPC all day and you'll see that. It is far from flawless, as AIs occasionally forget what they're doing, often get stuck in endless conversations with each other and tend to bug out of work after lunch, but it's nowhere near as busted as I thought it would be.

And yet, to my enormous surprise, it doesn't affect play much. In all honesty, I didn't see that much difference between a Radiant-controlled NPC and one of the scripted robots of Morrowind, except that the scripted robots didn't wander too far from their first position. This is partly due to artificial constraints designed to keep players (and AIs) from breaking the game. I suspect we'll see a more ready-for-prime-time version of Radiant in the upcoming Fallout 3.

Composer Jeremy Soule, who also scored Morrowind, returned to provide his awesome talents to Oblivion. I tremble at the thought of Soule teaming up with Irrational's mighty sound design god Eric Brosius; they could probably rule the world through audio. Oblivion's soundtrack is exquisite and minimalist: mostly haunting, lonely violins and flutes. It's a big change from the sweeping orchestrations of Morrowind and testament to how diverse and talented Jeremy Soule is.

Scenic Cyrodiil on $20 a Day

Oblivion didn't exactly have me at hello. The tunnels where the emperor meets his fate also serve as a bloated and rather dull tutorial, taking more than an hour to complete. Moreover, it does nothing to help you understand the impenetrable menu system. The interface is, frankly, obtuse. It requires countless clicks to get at controls and information that should all be accessible from one screen. Some critical information isn't available at all. How it made it out of testing is beyond me. Default mouse controls are clumsy and require considerable remapping, and the instructions fail to describe important interface elements and world effects.

The big full-color map included in the box has nowhere near the level of detail that Morrowind's did, depicting instead a world that seems rather barren. Which is weird, because it's anything but barren. That world, in addition to being so beautiful it could stop hearts, shows signs of handcrafting that border on the creepily obsessive. The landscape is overwhelmingly peppered with places to visit and things to do: haunted ruins, plundered mines, huge cities, old castles, mysterious caves, tiny hamlets and, of course, those terrifying Oblivion gates that keep sprouting up like malevolent orange mushrooms. Every corner of Cyrodiil is an embarrassment of adventuring riches. In fact, I suspect that's why they made the map so bland, because they want you to find everything on your own, lawnmowering back and forth across a game world that is actually larger than Morrowind's until you've uncovered every farmhouse and crumbling fort. No thanks.

As always, Bethesda learned hard lessons from the previous game and enhanced play in many areas, such as a dramatically improved new stealth interface that allows you to slink around and attack from the shadows if you so desire. Combat in general has been significantly improved: it's visceral and hectic, often involving multiple parties on both sides. The addition of Havok physics and more effective sound design shivers every blow and parry through your wrist like a gong, while combos and power attacks greatly increase the frantic bludgeapalooza of the game's battles. Slamming an enemy against the wall with your sword, seeing his shield clang to the ground and spin away like a top while he sinks slowly to his knees ... very cool.

Alas, nonviolent encounters are another matter. The characters with whom you interact are very much on the wrong side of the Uncanny Valley (that means they're ugly), and the limited dialogue tree makes conversation seem like a highly directed affair. The AIs don't tend to respond dynamically to what you do, and the inclusion of voices for every single character in the game is a mixed blessing.

Actor Sean Bean, perennially excellent and often underappreciated, provides the voice of Martin Septim. Instead of the bored phone-in we usually get from Hollywood stars, Bean delivers a layered, subtle performance that he clearly considered carefully and put his heart into. Unfortunately, he and Patrick Stewart represent the beginning and the end of talented voices in the game. Everyone else is so painfully wooden that it hurts, it physically hurts, to listen to them. Inexplicably, they got like three women and three men to voice all of the (literally thousands) of speaking roles in the game, so get used to hearing the same voices over and over. Worse, characters often change voices in midconversation, so without warning the hiss of a reptilian Argonian becomes the whiny tenor of a wood elf.

In the interests of freeing you up to do whatever you want in the world, several hundred unique side quests are available. Of them, many are clever and well-written; others are simple FedEx tasks, and more than a few are tedious and dumb. Unfortunately, some of dumb ones are also some of the most important—such as ones that offer advancement in a faction or guild or progress the plot. In two significant quests for the Mages Guild, you never even leave the grounds. In one main quest instance, you're forced to drop what you're doing and follow a character, on foot, to another location—which, if you're far away (and I was very far away indeed) can take literally hours.

That Works Fine. We'd Better Fix It.

I think Bethesda believed a lot of things to be broken in Morrowind when they really weren't, which is the only way I can explain some of the more imprudent design decisions found in this game. Despite grandiose promises, Oblivion is a highly structured, regimented experience that makes little effort to conceal the massive checks and constraints on player liberty. Though nonlinear and freeform in a global sense, Oblivion denies the player the small freedoms that are the heart and soul of a truly open game.

For example, if you touch the wrong thing at the wrong time (like the door of a shop after hours), it's a "crime," even if it's just an accident, even if you make no effort to pick the lock. I can't count how many times I got tossed in the slammer because I tried to enter a merchant's shop without realizing that it was closed. The cursor turns red when some action is criminal, but if you're in a hurry or not paying close attention, it's easy to miss it. How about a warning dialog?

If you leave stuff in chests or cabinets, it vanishes after a few days. Were the effect limited to public places, I'd be fine with it—I wouldn't leave my stuff in a box at Taco Bell, after all. But it's everywhere, even places that should be secure. And you simply can't carry all of the stuff you need all of the time. Your only solution is to mod the game or buy a house, which, as you can imagine, is a rather pricey alternative.

Thinking I'd come up with a clever way around that, I killed a guy to steal his house (so sue me, I needed a house). I was professional. No one saw me do it. And yet despite possession being nine-tenths of the law, touching anything in my new home was still a "crime." If I put anything in "his" cabinets, getting them out again marked them as stolen property. I couldn't sleep in the beds because I was "trespassing." There was a corpse that I couldn't get rid of on my living room floor. And my stuff still disappeared if I left it there for too long. In a game intelligent enough to assign unique objectives to every one of a thousand NPCs, it's not unreasonable to expect it to be able to reset possession when the original owner dies.

Look, house theft is probably not something that you'd get away with in real life. And if the townspeople, with their vaunted Radiant AI, had suddenly started wondering where the guy was and checked his house and found me there, that would have been okay. But no one did. No one missed him. The game decreed that I couldn't have the house. In fact, the game's habit of doing stuff simply to mess with me, and its habit of forgetting important things I owned or did, contribute massively to my frustrations.

There are also simply asinine mistakes. Apparently no one at Bethesda bothered to download Mount & Blade before implementing an appalling horse system so grossly and inexcusably dreadful that whoever's responsible for it ought to be whipped. As if to counter that, you can fast-travel to any location on the map at any time, turning the game experience into a series of disparate segments and excluding the player from the linear thread of a world.

The addition of minigames for speechcraft and lockpicking tasks is a good idea in theory, but the execution of both games is trite and ultimately frustrating. It's impossible to lose the speechcraft game once you figure it out, no matter your character's speechcraft rank. And once they finish whipping whoever did the horses, they should turn the whip on whatever malice-driven gremlin implemented the shockingly exasperating lockpick game. Minigames for tasks are fine, but if you're going to do it, do it right.

Here's another example of stupidity rampaging through an otherwise undeserving game: using their personal psychic twinkle, legitimate merchants just magically know if you're carrying stolen goods, and they won't buy them. If you're not a member of the Thieves Guild with access to their fences, you simply can't make a living as a thief. Guards automatically know what property is stolen, so if you get arrested, all your stolen stuff is taken away, even if you quite literally stole it five years ago a thousand miles away and were never ever suspected of the crime.

They even managed to screw up the procedure for putting thing down, for crying out loud. If you "drop" an item, it falls to the ground at your feet and rolls away, or it gets kicked away when you move. If you try to "set down" the item by dragging it out of your inventory and into the game world, you fling it halfway across the room because the physics are on crystal meth. Why can't I simply arrange my objects in neat, orderly rows? Why provide bookshelves if it's nearly impossible to put books on them? Why? Honestly, we're talking about dropping stuff here; it's not a new game concept.

These are all little things, but, as I said before, it's the little things that bring Oblivion down. Examples like those above (and there are others, believe me) tarnish a game that actually has almost nothing wrong with its big picture.

The Beginning of the End of Steerpike's Review

Based on the tirade above, it must seem that I hate the game, and that's really not true at all. There is much to love in Oblivion, much to experience and enjoy. In a lot of ways, it's simply excellent, one of the greatest RPGs ever unleashed.

One of the coolest things about Oblivion is Oblivion. Soon the gates are everywhere, and even approaching one incites thrills of terror as the sky goes bloody and ominous thunder roils. Wildlife doesn't usually approach Oblivion gates, and there's always the chance that some hideous Daedra lord found his way through and is waiting to eviscerate you. Entering one of those chilling portals takes real intestinal fortitude. The Plane of Oblivion won't win any awards for creativity in art direction, with its lava, spikes, impaled stuff, red sky, creepy towers, and more spikes, but each visit is a nail-biter. Enemies level with you in Oblivion, meaning that you'll always be challenged by whatever you face—no more god among insects (actually, this makes the game really, really ridiculously hard later on, so ratchet down the difficulty level). And making it all the way through one of those Planes of Oblivion to actually shut the gate and get the hell out of there will take everything you've got, whether you're first level or fiftieth. They're like encapsulated superdungeons. You come out battered, exhausted and torn, bleeding from a million wounds, all your stuff broken from overuse. Sealing an Oblivion gate is one of the most wonderfully exhausting experiences I've ever had in gaming, and the effect remains strong since it's fed to you in small doses and you can do it whenever you want to.

Of course, whether or not you choose to follow the main quest, you're going to find your dance card very full. You can join any of several guilds and factions and work your way up through the ranks—assuming you can survive the cutthroat politics—or just live the life of a freelance adventurer. Or both. Or neither. It takes about five or six hours of play to really get established in Oblivion, but after that you'll never be at a loss for things to do.

And for all the little things done wrong, they did plenty of little things right, like adding the ability to cast spells while your weapon is still out. You'll find yourself in some long fights, and it's nice to be able to heal up or blast an enemy without having to put away your weapon and get out your spellcasting hands. Blocking is now an active move—it's up to you to parry or shield yourself from blows in combat. Archery is spectacularly implemented; thanks to Havok, you feel each shot, whether you're on the giving or the receiving end, and it's satisfying to lurk in the shadows of an ancient ruin, Garrett-like, and deliver a killer arrow to the throat of an unsuspecting foe.

Dungeon design is very clever, including everything from simple caves to huge subterranean complexes, the remnants of an extinct elven race. Again thanks to Havok, many dungeons feature deadly booby traps, deadfalls, tripwires and even complex Rube Goldberg slice-and-dicers. You can trigger these traps to damage an enemy, using the environment as a tool to aid you. Since most players will spend a lot of time underground, they were smart to focus so much on it.

And, as always, the writing is exceptional. The Elder Scrolls are famous for their devious, convoluted plots and unpredictable outcomes. It's really nice to see writers who are willing to give us more than the usual rote fantasy fare. All of the dialogue is good, the quest concepts are for the most part terrific, and the hundreds of readable books scattered throughout the kingdom are just as engrossing as ever, especially the creepy Daedric cult initiation texts.

Perhaps most important, despite my laundry list of complaints, the game is fun. It is consistently enjoyable, minus several moments of intense frustration when I try to drop something and instead send it into low earth orbit, or return to a cupboard in an abandoned farmhouse to find that my collection of alchemical ingredients has wandered off, or get arrested for accidentally picking up an apple. I have not, however, been playing it obsessively for hours on end as I did Morrowind; I think that ties in with the fact that I just can't feel part of this world for some reason.

Socks Still On

Bethesda has always been ambitious, and this is its most ambitious game yet. It's visually stunning and usually a lot of fun to play. During development, the true focus was the Radiant AI, and to Bethesda's credit, it does mostly work. NPCs get up, go to work, break for lunch, chat in the street, hit the bar for a drink, visit each other's homes, all driven by the remarkable technology of Radiant. It's just that none of that had any effect on me.

This game has already sold two million copies and is showing no signs of slowing down. It's the fastest-selling Xbox 360 title yet and is topping all of the PC charts. Most reviews have been almost gushingly positive, and most fans, as far as I know, are perfectly thrilled with the game. Considering the recent shortage of single-player RPGs and the alarmist claims that indeed the single-player RPG market is about to go the way of the brontosaurus, Oblivion's release couldn't be better timed.

No review has ever given me as much difficulty as this one. I've honestly never been at such a crossroads in my view of a game. I owe Oblivion a fair shake, I have a responsibility to get my opinion right. I've questioned everything from my grammar to my objectivity during the agonizing course of writing this, and in some ways I feel no closer to touching the pulse of Oblivion than I did when I started.

It's good. It just could—it should—be a lot better. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Bethesda
Publisher: Bethesda
Release Date: March 20, 2006

Available for: Windows Xbox 360

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System Requirements

Windows XP, Windows 2000, Windows XP 64-bit
512 MB RAM (1 GB recommended)
2 GHz Intel Pentium 4 or equivalent processor (3 GHz recommended)
128 MB Direct3D compatible video card (ATI X800 series, NVIDIA GeForce 6800 series, or higher recommended) with DirectX 9.0 compatible driver
ATI X800 series, NVIDIA GeForce 6800 series, or higher video card
8x DVD-ROM drive
4.6 GB free hard disk space
DirectX 9.0c (included)
DirectX 8.1 compatible sound card
Keyboard, mouse

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