The Elder Scrolls is a long-running videogame series, but I had never had any opportunity to play it as the first three installments were for PC and later Xbox, and I’ve always had Macs as my computers and the platforms I’ve had were SNES, PS, PS2, and finally PS3.
But finally, the fourth title in the series – Oblivion – was released for the PS3. I actually had no real expectations, or knowledge about, the series when I put the disc in for the first time, just that it was a well-received part of one of the most successful CRPG series ever.
It did not disappoint.
The opening, featuring the inimitable Patrick Stewart as the soon-to-die Emperor Uriel Septim, was powerful and immediately immersive, and the quick “flyaround” of the capital city of Cyrodil with the dramatic music of Jeremy Soule brought me directly into the game. I was somewhat taken aback by the complex character creation sequence, but found that I could do reasonably well with it. The initial adventure was also extremely good at both teaching a newbie how to handle all the aspects of the game system, and had the extremely surprising, and gratifying option at the end to revise any of your earlier choices before setting your character in stone. Given that – especially when playing for the first time – you may have completely mistaken priorities in your choices, this is really a well-thought-out element of the game.
I was also very impressed by the openness of the overall world. You could run, jump, and walk in any direction, sliding down hills and even cliffs, swimming through water, and so on and so forth. You could encounter new areas without being directed to them, and explore them or not as you would. The “quest” system was one I had not encountered previously in a game other than ones like Final Fantasy Tactics, and was vastly more sophisticated and flexible.
It was also amusing – and fun, in a way – to find that unlike so many classic CRPGs this one didn’t encourage you to just steal everything that wasn’t nailed down. Admittedly, there were some drawbacks; things in shops might be lying on the counter between you and the salesperson, and if you clicked at just the wrong moment, instead of talking to the shopkeeper you were suddenly picking up (and stealing) an item. “STOP RIGHT THERE, CRIMINAL SCUM! Your spree is at an end.”
The main quest – to protect Cyrodil and, presumably, all Tamriel from a massive invasion by the daedra (demons) of Oblivion (hell), was well written and kept me interested throughout. The existence of many sidequests allowed me to take a break from the main quest whenever I wanted. This does of course introduce a certain break from reality; assuming you took up the grand quest at all, are you going to stop in the middle of this desperate mission to help people find their lost items, or spend weeks training in the Arena? Probably not. But at least it wasn’t as blatant as the “raise chick…er, Chocobos for years while Meteor is just days away from hitting the planet” in FFVII.
Overall, the world itself is very pretty – diverse, well-designed, and “feels” quite real, within the limits of the technology. I often would stop and admire the scenery – even though what I was admiring was just artificial scenery on an admittedly inferior screen (I have yet to get an HDTV I can use for this purpose, which limits what games I can play at this point – I have at least two or three that I simply can’t play until I get a better TV).
The ability to use many different approaches to your character – and mix and match them as you went along – was also an excellent strength of the game. Want to play an almost pure mage? Why not! Concentrate on spells and keep away from people in melee. Wanna just beat people up? Concentrate on punching and heavy armor, and you can KO trolls with your bare hands! Get bored with either one? You can start learning the other skills whenever you like.
Oblivion also offers extensive options for creating potions, spells, and items of various sorts, so you’re never left wondering if there’s anything new there.
With all these advantages did come a few shortcomings. I tend to play for story and character interaction, and while the core story was good enough, character interaction was severely limited. Almost all interaction was restricted to information exchange, clues to pick up for your next quest, and so on. There was almost no interaction of people, even at the levels achieved by varions RPGs on much less advanced systems.
There were also, as one might expect, some jarring idiocies of the sort common in CRPGs. Most obvious in this were the typical “limited interaction” with the universe. You can throw fireballs that blow men off their horses, lightning bolts that strike them dead, or swing a massive sword or axe that can chop a man or horse down at a stroke… but god forbid someone’s put a cheap bar on the door. Unleash all your mystical and physical might against it, the flimsiest wooden door will laugh at your efforts.
Dialogue choices and reactions were also often jarringly wrong. “You… you’re the Hero of Kvatch! This is truly an honor!” immediately followed by something insulting when you speak with them. Bandits would recognize who you were… and then try to rob you with a knife. This got especially ludicrous at higher levels: “Hello? I’m the Hero of Kvatch, who walked into Oblivion ALONE and came out, closing the gate behind him. I’m the Champion of the Arena, victor over every challenger in a fight to the death that’s dared to come my way. I’m the Archmage of the Mage’s Guild. I’m also the Crusader of the Nine, Umaril’s bane. And you’re trying to threaten me with three thugs?”
I’d really like these games to take reputation into account – especially when they actually have dialogue that shows that they do, indeed, have some mechanism for it already in place. Town guards who know I’m like unto a god on Earth should (A) give me the benefit of the doubt if I accidentally pick up a 3-gold item from a counter and let me return the darn thing, and (B) be absolutely terrified at the thought of trying to arrest me, not acting as though I was some street rat they could bully. “Do you realize I could kill your entire FORCE of guards in this city BY MYSELF? And everyone else here, too?” (this is not exaggeration; on occasion when sick or bored I would test just how formidable I had become by letting the character go insane and just kill his way across the map, and reducing entire cities to silent ghost towns was indeed quite feasible, ignoring the few characters who had plot immunity and thus could be killed a thousand times and still get up).
And it does seem… foolish when, at the end, they are talking to your character, who has accomplished so much for everyone (and possibly achieved several other awesome goals) and it’s not even considered that, perhaps, the right candidate for the next Emperor is RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEM. (I mean, really; at that point you’re so badass that if all of Oblivion tried to invade again, you’d kill them all by yourself using a butter knife and a light spell.)
Still, these are actually relatively minor nits, more ongoing annoyances at the fact that game designers seem to keep ignoring what seem simple details that could improve the game considerably. Overall, The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion was one of the best CRPGs I’ve ever played and I would recommend it unreservedly to anyone else who wants a good RPG to pla