This game is massive. Gigantic. I’ve been at this for two years now on and off and it just keeps going. A recent highlight was completing a shrine quest and watching a rain of burning Alsatians drop from the sky as a present from a trickster daedra. I definitely didn’t expect that. I’d only come across this quest by wandering about the countryside in a far corner of the map because the horse I’d bought earlier and left outside a ruin whilst I went in to steal everything not bolted down I then found dead when I came out of it again, apparently gored to death by a warthog. In what other game would your horse be attacked by a rampaging warthog? Or invisible rats? Making it fall off a cliff? I seem to have particular bad luck with horses – the super duper lean mean fighting machine of a horse that you get when you work your way through the assassins guild quests was so gung-ho that it charged at an Oblivion gate and I never saw it again, landing me with having to use inferior horses that can’t even face down a warthog.
All of the minutiae of Oblivion and the other Elder Scrolls games can be found here in this incredible resource, but here’s a quick overview. Oblivion is the fourth game in the Elder Scrolls series, released in 2006 to follow Elder Scrolls: Arena (1994), Daggerfall (1996) and Morrowind (2003), as well as various expansion packs. Sandbox in style, you can go pretty much anywhere within the bounds of Cyrodiil, the heartland of the continent Tamriel, which contains the capital city as well as eight other cities and numerous villages, small settlements, pubs, ruins of old towers, temples, caves and even a haunted shipwreck.
Open-ended, you can tackle the gameplay in any way you wish once you’ve made the initial flight through the Imperial Sewers. You could kill a randomer and begin the assassins guild quests, join the warrior or mages guilds, follow the main quest, walk off down the road and see what the bloke living in that house over there is doing, or steal a horse, defy the guards and gallop to the other end of the land. Completely up to you.
It all began at the beginning
The game starts off with the events that instigate the main quest, with you following Emperor Uriel Septim VII and his bodyguards as they escape from assassins through a secret passage in your dungeon cell, picking you up along the way. Unfortunately Patrick Stewart who voices the Emperor doesn’t get long to work the role as the assassins – members of the daedric cult Mythic Dawn – catch up with your party. He entrusts you with the Amulet of Kings, which keep the dragon fires alight and the daedra at bay from entering the land. With him dead, the dragon fires have died and the daedra from the Plains of Oblivion start to invade through opening burning gates across Cyrodill.
To complete the main quest you have find and defend the Emperor’s heir, Martin (voiced by Sean Bean, who unfortunately rarely gets to be more than extremely apologetic about the whole thing), and defeat the Oblivion gates to restore him to his throne. He’s a monk who didn’t know he was heir to the throne so fair enough if he’s less blood and fury and more ‘let’s take a slow sensible approach to this and only if you’re happy to, come along with me’, but he spends ages sat on his arse in his mountain hideout waiting for me to show up and give him some daedra artifact or other, then saying that actually he also needs blood from armour hidden at the bottom of an ayelid ruin protected by some bad-ass zombie. Many people have tried to retrieve it but none have succeeded he cheerfully adds. Cheers Martin, so no offer of a few guards then to help me out? That’s an impressive amount of faith you have in somebody who only got caught up in this because they happened to be in the right jail cell.
The Plains of Oblivion, or river of Oblivion, comes from Greek mythology. The river Lethe is one of the five rivers of Hades, and any who drink from it experiences complete forgetfulness. However, unlike this world of sleep and forgotten memories, the Elder Scrolls’ Oblivion is a world of burning lava seas and spiked towers of blood red metal. Rather than being one land like Cyrodiil, random plains appear that are quite small but highly convoluted and seething with all sorts of headbutting dinosaurs, ice monsters and towers that throw fireballs. The idea in each is to find the sigil stone which closes the gate, but you have to move along the winding tower corridors, coming face to face with blood fountains in the rending halls, and burning corpses hung from the ceiling. Decorative.
You could, however, completely ignore the main quest and spend your time working your way through the vast array of side quests and guild quests. The guilds of assassins, thieves, warriors and mages all have a series of quests that you have to work through before you become head of the order, and there’s the arena where you can fight as a gladiator to thrill the spectators of the Imperial City, or bet on other fighters to make money.
At the beginning you can choose your appearance, race, birth sign and style (mage / wizard / thief etc.). It’s quiet complex with a lot of different options, but your birth sign gives you a particular gift, such as The Lover, which allows you to paralyse with a kiss, and your race can grant you greater resistance to magic for example. The race element is also used when gaining information from NPCs, as they may be more or less disposed towards you depending upon what race you and they are. Good and evil deeds, or renown, also contribute towards people’s reactions to you, but this is more subtle than in Fable for example where you actually start to look evil and people run away from you. You can also improve somebody’s opinion of you by playing a sort of mini game where you admire, boast, joke or coerce, where the character hates one, dislikes another, likes one and loves one. Failing this you can often bribe your way to information.
Money and items
All of the cities have shops where you can buy various goods, such as armour, weapons, books, spells, jewellery, home decorations and a place to sleep for the night. You can also sell back what you’ve found on your travels, and haggle prices, though they’ll refuse to serve you if you drive too hard a bargain. You might even find some quests if you talk to the right people.
As you work your way through the game your speechcraft and merchantile skills improve, meaning you can get more for your money. However, even thought it’s a pretty straight forward system, I think there are some flaws. You can make loads of money by robbing ruins and completing quests, but there’s not that much to spend it on once you’ve stocked up on potions and recharged any magical weapons. You can buy a house in each city and decorate it, but there’s not really much need to do so because it’s still just a bed for the night in fancy surroundings. You can go to any inn and get a bed for at the most 20 gold pieces, which is peanuts once you’re bringing in weapons that sell for hundreds, and there are camp sites across Cyrodiil, as well as the guild headquarters in each city, that you can sleep in for free, so owning your own houses is irrelevant apart from the Anvil house which you can do a quest in. Also, the best weapons and armour you can get is in the ruins and on the quests, so shops don’t offer you anything you can’t beat yourself by plunging down the nearest mine shaft.
This is an area that I feel could be improved. However, the sheer number of items, plants, potions and scrolls is astounding so you never know what you’re going to find next. You could be wandering around the edge of a lake and pick a plant, just to find out that you can undertake a quest related to it. Plants and food items can also be combined to create magic potions, depending upon their various properties.
Graphics and characters
Cryrodiil truly is beautiful to look at. I found myself on a bridge recently to the north in the mountains, looking down upon the Imperial city and the lands beyond, whilst the sun set in a stunning pink and orange sky. If you head up the mountains it begins to gently snow, and throughout the game the weather changes, which really gives atmosphere to the game. I’m not a designer as you can tell from these reviews, but it’s incredible none the less when you compare it to older games. Unfortunately there’s one part where this falls down slightly, and that’s the faces of the characters. There are various races in Tamriel, but people’s faces are often lumpy, broad and frankly unattractive so hopefully this will be improved in the next Elder Scrolls game due out in November 2011 – Skyrim.
Another problem with the design is that caves can be incredibly tedious. They all look the same frankly and yeah, you could argue that how different can a hole dug in the earth look from another hole dug in the earth, but I think a greater array of styles would be far more interesting to investigate. I’ve heard that this is also being addressed in Skyrim with each cave being individually designed, so bring it on.
The number of individual characters is impressive, all with their own names and faces apart from the guards and strangely the porters in each of the fighters guild houses who are all identical. Unfortunately though there are only so many voice actors to go round it seems so you’ll hear the same voice applied to a whole range of characters. Occasionally you’ll even get two voices for the same character. One of the beggars once slipped from a whiney guttersnipe to the voice of a guard when they were asked a question. Work also needs to be done on the tone of voices, as a guard might dislike you for some reason and give you a generic ‘What?’ when you walk past and not engage in conversation, but they can be as nice as pie if you talk to them. However, again if you compare this to games even being made now, this is still an impressive feature that characters react to how you play the game.
How well you fight depends upon your endurance and agility, as well as strength and accuracy. These you can develop as you level up, as well as through the gameplay itself. There are basic skills that you increase in this process, such as strength and magic, but during the gameplay itself there are a whole range of secondary skills that you improve the more you use them. For example, if you run everywhere your acrobatics skill increases now and again as you work your way towards becoming a master of this skill. In this case for example, you can jump higher and further and fall from greater heights without damage. There are also trainers throughout Cyrodiil who will teach you to improve your skills for gold.
Endurance decreases rapidly in a fight and it can often descend into a slugging match with my female character making the most terrible noises, which sound like a cat with a cold having something heavy dropped on it.
I tend towards building up my characters as warriors rather than mages so I can only comment from the point of a player who uses heavy weaponry to fight. I think there needs to be more variation because it gets boring just thumping creatures repeatedly with a broadsword. That could well be my own fault for not using the magic side more, but I wanted to concentrate on improving health and strength, so I think a greater variety of moves would make this more interesting, like for example the fighting in Fable III where the character itself does a variety of moves when in combat, that become more complex as you move through the game.
The map and travel
Thankfully the map and travel system are very simple and convenient. I haven’t played Morrowind but in that you have to travel to places using various modes of transport rather than the fast travel option to points of interest used here, which sounds extremely tedious. It’s the best map I’ve seen in my years of gaming, and it’s a shame all games don’t have something so good (Fable game designers – I’m looking at you here).
There are a wide range of beasties across Cyrodiil, which grows larger the more you play the game. You’ve got the normal wild animals such as rats and wolves, which increases to include lions and bears, but there are also the fantasy staples of goblins, trolls, skeletons and ghosts, all of which have stronger versions the further you get, so wolves become timber wolves, etc. However, there are some really good unusual ones as well, particularly once you start exploring the plains of Oblivion. Flame Atronachs are a good example – these are lithe human-shaped creatures that are made of fire and either throw fireballs at you or leap and scratch like big cats. An interesting development that I’ve heard of with regards to Skyrim is that if you leave certain creatures alone, they won’t attack, unlike in Oblivion where all creatures apart from farm animals try and kill you. This is an interesting development, because in Oblivion when you wander the countryside things like a solitary lion or will-o-the-wisp will just appear and attack, where in Skyrim, apparently, there’ll be a pack of wolves living together but if you skirt around them they’ll ignore you. It’ll be interesting to contrast the two.
Being a huge fantasy fan and a gamer who always goes for the RPG end of the scale, this game clearly had my name all over it. I can barely wait for Skyrim to turn up as Dragons + Oblivion style gameplay = many, many, many hours of awesome entertainment as far as I’m concerned. If you don’t have the time to put in though I’m not sure how much you’d get out of this, takes a hell of a long time.