|Oblivion is a genre-defining RPG that sets a new standard for its peers|
Even though we had a big arse group discussion on Oblivion in our podcast
the other day, I wanted to do a proper write-up for this bad boy on the site too. For those too busy playing WoW to notice, this is the fourth in the series of long-running Elder Scrolls games, but if like me you've never touched one before, fear not, as Oblivion pretty much starts over from scratch with a brand new storyline.
Oh, and it's fucking tasty as balls.
Ultimately, it's a first person RPG, one for the PC and 360, that plays somewhat similarly to the Deus Ex
series or Vampire: Bloodlines
. This is a rare sub-genre of role playing game that I'm sad not to see more of, as they've all added so much to an otherwise somewhat stale style of gaming. This one in particular adds some stunning additions to the age-old formula, making it stand out pretty much immediately from anything else you've ever seen before.
The combat is completely real time for one thing, more in common with a first person shooter than any bog-standard RPG. Click attack and you'll swing that sword immediately. No waiting, no turn-taking, no invisible rolling of dice, and most definitely no cartoony floating numbers above heads. If you hit 'em, it hurts, it's as simple as that. And my god, it's so fucking fun.
Oblivion unquestionably boasts the finest RPG combat you've ever seen thanks to this. It feels a decade ahead of the ancient turn taking of yesterday's RPGs, and even throttles the more high-speed, stat-based combat found in the likes of WoW or KOTOR. Even better than the sword fighting though is the archery, featuring fab rag-doll enhanced deaths that result in that same nob-hardening hilarity we haven't really experienced since we first saw the Source engine in action oh so many years back. Every kill really is a work of art in this game, and it comes across like genuine real time blood-soaked action to rival any "proper" FPS.
The other major addition to Oblivion's gobsmacking line-up is its sheer sense of freedom. As the game kicks off, you play a simple anonymous prisoner, who through a bizarre twist of fate, gets caught up a plot to assassinate the Emperor (voiced stunningly well by Patrick Stewart). You're basically tasked with helping him escape through a series of underground tunnels that lead through your cell, while assassins simultaneously attack from all sides. This opening is an extended tutorial of sorts, one that lasts maybe half an hour while you get to grips with the basics of the game.
|Oblivion features fab real-time FPS combat, hinting back to the likes of Riddick and Condemned|
Eventually you escape this underground labyrinth though, and find yourself breathing in the beautiful fresh countryside air of Tamriel. The Emperor tasks you with a mission at this point; you must traipse to a far off town and track down his missing son. Somewhat pivotally however, the way Oblivion works means you can essentially ignore that request and go off and do whatever you want instead.
Now when I say this, I don't mean it in the Grand Theft Auto sense of driving around aimlessly and perhaps messing around with some very basic side missions...I mean you can literally
do anything you want. Tamriel is fully realised in every single way, with a humongously detailed city, a shed load of smaller towns, dozens of outposts, farms, rivers, forests, caves, waterfalls, shops and even families. It's basically a virtual, living world. For those who enjoyed Fable
, Oblivion is pretty much that same basic premise, but cranked right up to a Spinal Tap 11, and realised a thousand times more successfully.
NPCs not only have fully fleshed-out lives here - including jobs, homes and schedules - but they also feel like genuine personalities too. You could quite easily stalk any NPC in the game for a good week and watch them not only carry out their day to day activities, but even hop on a horse and go visit friends and family in nearby towns. It's some amazing attention to detail, especially when you consider it applies to every single person you meet.
This is all rather fascinating in its own right, but the way the game then ties in literally hundreds of side missions into this society is fantastic too. One of my first quests involved following a shop owner in the middle of the night for instance, as he went to receive dodgy stolen goods in a nearby park. This resulted in me exposing his evil doings much to the happiness of the town's fellow traders and the rest of the community. Forget MMOs, I say - you don't need corpse camping 12 year olds screaming, "LOL NOOB" to enjoy massively multiplayer gaming. Oblivion boasts far more thrilling player interactions...and they aren't even real people.
|Oblivion's central quest is fine, but is far from the primary reason to play the game. In fact, all my fave moments so far have been from optional side content and messing with the NPCs|
The game is positively decked out with endless amounts of these wonderful tangents and storylines. Over in another part of the city for instance, I spent the night down on the waterfront, in an anchored ship that had been refurbished into a floating hotel. The twist was, I awoke in the middle of the night to find the ship had been hijacked by thieves, and we were now out in the middle of the bloody sea.
This resulted in me going all "Die Hard" on their arses - taking out the hijackers 1 by 1 - eventually recapturing control of the vessel and returning it to port. How fucking ace is that? This kind of content is so damn plentiful, but it's never really sign-posted, and is thus completely possible to miss...but that's what makes it feel so deep and immersive. Such fantastic moments and plot twists aren't forced upon you, you merely stumble upon them by accident.
That central quest involving the Emperor and his missing son is a pleasant enough fantasy tale too, don't get me wrong. It involves the usual epic battles, fallen comrades, and duels to the death amidst lava-filled wastelands that you'd expect from a Tolkien-esque medieval universe. It's a plot that most RPG and fantasy games would be happy to pretty much focus solely on...yet here in Oblivion, it's really nothing more than one of a number of other such storylines that pretty much run rampant throughout the entire world.
Instead of playing the hero who saves the universe as per usual, I could just as easily tell you about my experiences as an assassin for example, whacking innocents for cash and building up quite the reputation as a cold blooded killer in the process. Or I could tell you about the time I got infected by a vampire while out exploring, slowly turning into a demon of the night, and unable to venture into daylight until I partook in a mammoth 10 hour long epic quest to proclaim a cure. Such plots and missions are decked out with every bit of depth, beauty and imagination as the main quest...if not even more so.
It's not just these optional and heavily scripted quests that make Oblivion feel so immersive either...the scope, depth and pure interaction of the game world is so well realised that it's just ripe for you to poke around with, creating your own
such content in the process.
|The game features an exceptionally complex trading system, with thousands of items to find, buy and sell, along with a vast selection of shops and traders...all of whom you can rob|
Check this out. Early on in the game, I'd heard rumours of a Thieves Guild operating in the Imperial City, but word on the street was that you needed to have stolen - and then sold - over 50 gold's worth of goods before you could even think about being accepted for entrance. Needless to say, I set it upon myself to pull off a robbery.
I spent the day roaming the city, casing the local joints and sussing out potential targets. Eventually I came across a harmless little jewellery store situated in the main square. Bingo.
I disappeared off into a nearby alleyway and waited for nightfall. Later that evening, the shop keeper locked up his store and headed off to the local pub after a hard days work, and immediately I saw my chance. I followed him from the shadows, then when he wasn't looking, quietly darted over and pickpocketed his keys from right beneath his nose. I retreated back to the shop and calmly let myself in.
Once inside, a huge fucking smile crept over my face...the place was loaded. Gold rings, silver necklaces, you name it. I worked my way through the display cases, grabbing everything I could. The adrenaline rush and sheer exhilaration was...actually somewhat worrying.
The real good stuff was stored away in locked cabinets, but due to Oblivion's ability to pick locks, I wasn't about to leave without it. I had no experience lock picking so early in the game, but the freeform nature still allowed me to crack 'em open after numerous lengthy attempts (and many a snapped lock pick).
|Tamriel is the cobble-stone-heavy medieval fantasy world you always dreamed about exploring as a kid. Seldom have we seen such a well realised universe, and I can't stress how much it puts even GTA to shame|
I basically stole every single piece of jewellery that I could carry from that sucker, then buggered off to another town to sell it all the next day. Sure enough, I made over 900 gold from that little heist...a fair bit more than the 50 I needed.
The beauty of this little outing is that none of it was scripted content, it's simply me as the player looking around, sussing out the game mechanics and doing what made perfect sense in the situation at hand. From that moment on, I was in love.
I've been playing as a professional thief for the majority of the game ever since, while making some bonus cash on the side as a stealthy bow 'n' arrow wielding hitman...simply due to the fact those skills go hand in hand. The beauty of Oblivion's choice in character customisation though, means you could quite easily play your toon in a completely different fashion if you so wish, treading the path of a sword wielding hero for the Fighter's Guild, or perhaps earning a wealthy living fighting in the Imperial Arena.
Skills feel less pre-defined and set in stone than in most RPGs here, and considerably more open ended as a result. The skills you use merely upgrade automatically, so you're essentially left with a character who excels at whatever he practices in. Even though I'm a good 40 hours into the game at this point, and have all but perfected my sneaking and thievery skills, there's nothing to stop me leaving the shadows behind and starting to learn the arts of magic if I fancy a change. You're never boxed in, or shut off from trying new things in that respect.
For these reasons, I'd argue Oblivion is really one of the few genuine
role playing games out there, at least in the true sense of the term.
Tell Us Another
|You'll regularly come across rather scary looking dungeons like this when out on your travels, and they're a great opportunity for some balls to the wall action and kick arse loot. They even scale in difficulty depending on your level|
I can give you more fab examples of the stunning freedom on offer in Oblivion. The aforementioned Arena - which is pretty much just ripped straight out of Gladiator - allows you to win cash by fighting people to the death, right? Most games would be content to call it a day there, yet in Oblivion if you're not a big fighting guy, you can instead make cash by betting on NPCs instead. Sure enough, you go up into the balcony, take a seat in the crowd, and watch the fights wage on below, hopefully raking in some cash in the process. I actually made a fair bit of phat bank this way.
But why stop there? Why not wait 'til night fall, break into the arena compound and go steal the prize money as well? Those blood-soaked thugs in the pits don't need that cash half as much as you do after all...their life-spans are measured in mere days, right? That big old lump sum actually went towards buying myself a beautiful new mansion down by the waterfront in fact. Money far better spent.
It doesn't stop there either. Why not venture into the gladiator training rooms and mingle with the other gladiators? I struck up a conversation with one myself, only to find he needed help with a job in another town. In return he taught me some fancy new fighting moves that I couldn't learn anywhere else. Kick arse. Rather than help out a troubled new friend though, I could just as easily whip out my sword and attack all the other competitors for a more...aggressive change of pace.
|Tamriel's wilderness is a joy to explore, as picturesque as it is interesting|
Now the Arena is just one small area of the game, yet I just listed 4 or 5 possible ways to approach and interact with it off the top of my head - this is what I mean when I refer to true freedom. Heck, after I'm done typing this for you people, I'm heading back to the Arena to try and rig some matches by firing arrows at the fighters from up in the stadium. Will it work, or will I get arrested? I have no idea, but I love how my mind is free to conjure up this shit.
To be honest, I could really praise love upon this thing forever. As well as being the most free-form game ever made, it also takes the best bits of so many other games and melds them together so damn brilliantly.
As mentioned, there's strong twinges of Deus Ex, Fable and Grand Theft Auto in the design, but depending on how you play, there's also huge dollops of Thief in the stealth, massive nods towards Condemned in the hand to hand combat, and perhaps best of all, that same glorious emphasis on physics and world interaction found in Half-Life 2
. If you're the kinda guy who worshipped the gravity gun like I did - chucking shit around and smashing labs apart for the fun of it - rest assured that Oblivion features similar rag-doll-centric goodness for you to regularly partake in. Part of my calling card as a thief in fact, is uhh...simply smashing the fuck out of people's houses before I leave.
Finally, I have to send some major love in the direction of the music. Jeremy Soule tops even his amazing work in Neverwinter Nights here, with perhaps his best video game score yet. Absolutely gorgeous.
That all said, Oblivion is so damn humungous in size and scope, that despite the wealth of its amazing features and the flat-out brilliance of its universe, some cracks do start to appear on occasion. The system requirements are pretty ridiculous for one, so much so that this damn game almost melted my PC the other day. You truly do need an utter bastard of a rig to even think about running the sucker, let alone cranking the visuals up.
It has the potential to look truly stunning if your system can cope with it - quite possibly better than anything else currently out. The views border on ridiculous in their beauty, stretching out for literally miles in all directions, while simultaneously showcasing stunning foliage, amazing lighting, and spectacular weather effects that draw you in like nothing else. When seen in their element, the visuals are like nothing you've ever seen before, and still floor me 40 hours into the game.
|While a major looker, it's a right bastard in terms of performance|
Sadly only a small minority of AlienWare-calibre systems will ever be able to pump out these sorts of visuals at any kind of playable framerate, and as a result, options will need to be turned way, way down just to get the sucker up and running. This results in the game looking really rather average in comparison, with huge amounts of pop-up, ugly distant textures, and huge dollops of unfortunate fogging.
It's a shame to see something so gloriously stunning just unable to shine on all but the most ludicrous setups really, but I guess if nothing else, it'll make for a nice revisit 2 or 3 years down the line when we're all running Dell quad SLI PCs.
It's also worth bearing in mind that there's the option of plumping down for a 360 if you're truly desperate to see the bugger running more respectably, which I'd say looks and performs fairly equally to medium to high settings on the PC. The 360 vs PC debate isn't something I wanna get hugely into here, but I will say if you have the sheer horsepower, the PC version is my pick of the two. The archery becomes far more manageable with a mouse for one thing, and the mods and tweaking abilities alone are a major bonus.
Still, I'd be lying if I said my arse wasn't hurting like an absolute bitch after playing this game for so long hunched over my computer desk, and that big comfy sofa sitting opposite my 360 sure does look a hell of a lot more enticing for such a long, involving game. Ultimately both versions have their pros and cons, mostly dependant on what sort of PC setup and home theatre you're boasting.
Continuing along the negative tip, things aren't 100% rosy on the NPC side of things either. Their faces look amazingly life-like at times, but just as often drift more towards the fugly variety, coming across like evil alien invaders cross-bred with Robocop's Emile after his trip to the toxic waste vat. For such a gloriously pretty game, it's odd to see Oblivion fumble quite spectacularly here, but I guess the quality of the voice acting and lip synching goes a small way towards making up for their downright freakiness.
You can also expect some truly bizarre interactions between them at times. Random NPCs will often stop to chat in the street, and reel off the most inane non-sequiturs you've ever heard, such as;
"I hear Andreas is the man to see for weaponry!"
...before moving on. It ain't all that bad by any means, but it can often break that amazing illusion of living among real, breathing humans, and it's further compounded when you regularly see NPCs walking into walls and blocking each others paths.
|While Oblivion's wonderful array of NPCs look spectacular for the most part, there are some right mingers in there too. A shame|
On a more fundamental level, I wonder if perhaps this game is almost too
open ended at times as well. You'll often log in and just not know where the hell to start - particularly on your first day. Mainly this is down to the fact we just aren't used to this kind of flexibility and pure interaction in our games, but I must say I can certainly understand those folk who find the whole thing overwhelming and even a little intimidating.
It's refreshing to be able to attack every single person you see, from a homeless person to the most pivotal character of the central storyline, but the down side to all this is how damn easy it is to get yourself into trouble. Stealing stuff, hitting guards, breaking into houses...this may all sound like fun - and indeed, it bloody well is - but Oblivion's world has rules and laws, and if you break them by accident, you sure as shit have to pay for it.
I had numerous Benny Hill-style chases through the Imperial City on my first day alone, where legions of guards came gunning for my blood for accidentally picking up...some cheese. You can basically do anything you can think up in this world, but unless you're smart about it and do it without being seen, you'll be punished hard, whether it be via good old fashioned jail time, or just getting flat out murdered in the street.
Needless to say, regularly quick saving in this game is an absolute friggin' must
. It is oh so easy to find yourself down a dead end, the sort that requires some serious backtracking, and if you don't have a nice big list of quick saves to choose from, you could be looking at hours of lost time if you're not careful.
Back to Love
|These (thankfully rare) sections taking place in Oblivion itself - aka the Elder Scrolls equivalent of Hell - didn't really do it for me I'm afraid, and actually got old rather quickly|
Still, it's nice to see such a mammoth, humungous triple A title who's faults lay solely in its sheer ambition, rather than the usual foibles like poor game length or unfulfilled potential. In fact this could well be the most ambitious game ever made when I think about it, with its wealth of content just dwarfing all but the most complex MMORPGs.
In a way, Oblivion's play style begs far more comparison to an MMO than any single player game. You really can't just blaze through the main quest in a weekend and expect fulfilment here, you've gotta take it slow, breathe in the universe, and pretty much live
in Tamriel. It could take you weeks, if not months to methodically work your way through the glorious wealth of content and storylines piece by piece.
I must also mention, there's no quicker way to kill off this game than to succumb to the dreaded "fast travel" feature. Quick-loading between locations and merely touching base with the quest waypoints robs you of half the fun if you ask me. There's something far more satisfying to be found in kitting up for an epic quest, jumping on your horse, setting off into the wilderness and travelling through epic forests, over bridges and past gorgeous picture-esque lakes to get there. Trust me, it adds so much to this game, tripling the atmosphere in the process, and providing a wonderful immersive quality you just don't get from warping around in a single click.
|Oblivion ain't some wee little adventure game you polish off in 20 hours. In fact, 200 may be a more accurate number|
I love this game. I really dig the concept behind it, what it sets out to achieve, and most of all, the fact that it pretty much pulls it off. It's certainly set a new standard for RPGs in my book, from the kick arse combat to the incredible size and depth of the game world.
Obviously, RPG fans will be all over this game, but it's those who don't normally dabble in the genre who I truly recommend pick this sucker up. There's just so much here to enjoy that it boasts riches any sane gamer can reap. FPS and MMO fans in particular will find themselves pleasantly surprised I'm guessing.
PC gamers finally have a great excuse to stop playing WoW for a while, and 360 owners have unquestionably their best game yet. In fact, I'd be surprised if even BioWare's upcoming Mass Effect can top this in the 360's RPG roster. It's a whole new kind of game that'll take years to better, and right now, is undoubtedly sitting somewhere among my all-time top 10.
Do we already have 2006's game of the year? I wouldn't be surprised.