Choose your own adventure.
Like most adult geeks reared on Dungeons and Dragons, I often find myself a bit disconnected when faced with the endless waves of Japanese RPGs that have taken over the genre. Every time I find myself in the shoes of yet another spiky-haired protagonist with a mysterious past and a sword the size of a telephone pole, I wonder where all the role-playing
Not that there aren't some excellent imports out there, but is walking my pre-designed character, his bossy, magical girlfriend, and a talking animal through a linear story in which I save the spirit of the earth, or the essence of Gaea, or whatever they're calling it this time, really role-playing? If you're truly playing a role, you should be able to forge your own destiny as a sneaky thief, a righteous paladin, a crude barbarian, a pretentious mage, or a vile murderer. If you want to, you can have gray eyes.
Such raucous freedom has enormous appeal to GR, and if you share our wanderlust, look no further than The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Expanding and improving on the previous three titles in the Elder Scrolls series, Bethesda's massive, open-ended masterpiece puts the role back into the RPG with style, substance, and a whole lot of content.
As in other Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion's plot is big, complex and ultimately not that important. It seems the Emperor of the land of Tamriel has been plagued by strange and powerful dreams, most notably of evil creatures from the plane of Oblivion breaking through into this world. He has seen your face in his dreams and he has seen his own death. The truth of his nightmares become apparent to you when the Emperor and his bodyguards flee from assassins, escaping the royal palace through a secret passage that begins in your lowly prison cell. Led by his visions, the Emperor prevents his guards from killing you and guides you through the passage, relating his dire predictions for the land. Truly precognizant, the Emperor meets his fate at the hands of an assassin and gives you an amulet that must be brought to the illegitimate son that nobody knew he had.
This is where you begin, but other than the vision of a tormented Emperor, who exactly are you? That, like much of Oblivion, is entirely up to you. Tamriel has ten humanoid races from which to choose, from the strong and hardy Nord's and Orcs to the stealthy Khajiit cat-people and a selection of other humans and elves. Each race provides bonuses to primary attributes like strength and intelligence, as well as the game's myriad skills that range from Marksmanship to Speechcraft. Certain races are better suited to particular classes; a High Elf makes an excellent mage, while an Orc is better off wielding a warhammer than a wand.
But even when deciding your career path, Oblivion gives you nearly unlimited options. If you don't feel comfortable with any of the twenty-one initial classes, you can actually make your own by simply picking some primary skills to define your character, and off you go. Regardless of class, your character levels up when he or she improves those primary skills, and you get better at everything by doing it. Swing a sword to improve your attacks, or cast spells to increase your magical ability. Want to create a master merchant character? You'll level up by bargaining well.
Of course you can also customize your look with a wide variety of options, focused mostly on the face. You can manipulate just about everything, from the slope of your nose to the plumpness of your lips. I was disappointed by the very minimal beard options, but I'm really stretching here to find things to complain about. It's just that nothing says "axe warrior" like a huge, bristling black beard.
Unlike Morrowind, which literally dropped you off in a strange land, Oblivion walks you through this daunting customization very well as you make your way out the palace's goblin-infested tunnels. It even makes some educated guesses for you half-way through, recommending a class based on how you've played so far.
However, once you leave that tunnel and step into Oblivion's sunlit splendor, where you go from there is almost your call. You can follow the Emperor's dying instructions to engage the game's main plot, but that's just a tiny facet of one of the biggest single-player worlds ever crafted. If you join any of the game's four guilds (Warrior, Mage, Thief, or Assassin), you can run missions for them and unfold other stories, perhaps even becoming the head of any of these guilds. Talk to a farmer and you might find out about his missing sister, which could lead you down another mammoth plot line. The mayor of a town might want a political rival disposed of, so off you traipse to break some kneecaps.
Almost anything in Oblivion can turn into a quest. In just one of my many meanderings, I happened upon a vintage bottle of wine in the basement of a ruined tower. When I brought it to a wine shop, it turned out to be some fancy rare treasure and led to a slew of new adventures. Flowers and mushrooms in the middle up the forest can be picked, and if you have the alchemy skills and equipment, turned into a nearly infinite number of potions of varying quality. At the higher levels you can even learn to create your own custom spells and forge your own enchanted weapons. It's almost impossible not to get sidetracked in Oblivion. Just wandering the countryside will reveal hundreds of places and things that the game's main quest will never show you.
And once you leave that first dungeon, you'll get your first taste of the truly impressive scope of the graphics. The Imperial City lies on an island in the center of a huge valley ringed by vast mountains. The grass sways in the breeze, the sunlight glints off the rippling lake, and the forest on the side of a distant snowcapped range entices you because you realize that if you wanted to, you could walk all the way there.
To add even more realism, the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of objects in the game obey the laws of physics. Finish off a bandit with a particularly mighty blow from your mace, and his sword will fall from his hand to clatter realistically against the rocks, while his lifeless body flops backwards, knees buckling, rolling down a hill until it stops up against a tree. Go into a tavern and every single mug of ale, every vase of flowers, every plate and knife and fork and spoon is an individual object that can be knocked across the room, where it will fall exactly as it should. Though you could interact with everything in Morrowind as well, Oblivion's awesome physics model makes it feel like an entirely new concept.
There is a price to be paid for such graphical exuberance, however, especially in the vast overland world. The game stutters fairly frequently as you explore the world, not quite enough to hurt the gameplay, but the frequent hiccupping is certainly noticeable. Pop-up issues occasionally occur as well, as the draw distance isn't terrific. The aforementioned problems do disappear as soon as you enter a building or dungeon, which occurs often enough, but it can make overworld exploration somewhat jarring.
Still, considering the immense size the world, it's not hard to make some concessions, as the visual positives far outweigh the negatives. PC players will have a more varied visual experience depending on the quality of their systems. You'll need a very good computer indeed to surpass the performance of the Xbox 360, and most PC gamers will probably end up running at lower resolutions and slower framerates. They'll also enjoy the enhanced precision of mouse pointing, though just like in Star Wars: KOTOR, the inventory and menu system was clearly designed with the 360 controller in mind.
Either way, you'll have a great time with the game's updated combat system. Despite the fact that this is a gigantic RPG, it manages to have a more interesting hand-to-hand fighting system than action games like Condemned. With both quick and power attacks, timed blocking with your weapon or shield and various different swings, there's a lot to learn, and getting good at it becomes very satisfying. Skilled practitioners can learn new moves to knock down or disarm opponents. Archers and mages both tend to fall into the run-backwards-and-shoot rut, but even they will discover some new tricks at higher levels. It's a significant upgrade from Morrowind's repetitive one-move swing.
Oblivion ensures a worthy challenge as well, because the game automatically 'scales' its enemies (and treasures) to match your level. This meets with mixed results at best. On the one hand, it means you're never really wasting your time fighting something you simply cannot take down, but it also leads to some very bizarre game imbalances, particularly if you do great things at lower levels. You might pull off some awesome thief sneaking, break into the captain's cabin of a notorious pirate ship, pick the lock on the captain's treasure chest while he sleeps, and if you are at a low level, discover that his "vast" treasure consists of 27 gold and an onion. Huh? Though some treasure is pre-determined to match the task, much of it related to your level, which gets a bit frustrating.
Plus, part of the joy of becoming more powerful is, well, being more powerful. Returning to the Imperial City after some leveling up only to discover that the bandits on the road outside the gates suddenly have mystical magic weapons and armor worth a fortune (and could probably kick the entire city garrison's ass) just feels wrong, especially since they wielded rusty daggers the last time you walked past them. They should be fleeing in terror from my newly learned fireballs, not mysteriously ramping up alongside me. Gamers find great satisfaction in finding a challenge that is too difficult, leaving to hone their skills, and then returning to conquer it later. That anticipation, and the accompanying thrill of victory, is lacking in Oblivion because everything is always equally challenging. You never really fear anything.
That also means it's quite exploitable. Since you level up based on your primary skills, you can increase a non-primary skill without officially going up a level. In other words, a mage can eventually get great with a sword through repeated use, but remain level 1 since he's not increasing a main mage attribute. Since all the enemies scale to your level, you'll suddenly find yourself as a kickass swordsman in a world rife with level 1 pansies.
At least the A.I. remains consistently smart, which is a good thing. Monsters stuck on a terrain feature will figure it out and try to come at you from another direction. Archers and mages will lead with their missiles, so you can't run in a straight line. Thanks to the game's touted "radiant A.I." system, the cityfolk are impressively lifelike, going to their jobs, visiting the tavern, and returning to their homes to sleep. They'll even make chit-chat with each other if they meet up in the street (which, like the rest of Oblivion, can lead to yet more quests if you happen to eavesdrop.) Shops do feel oddly empty, however, as nobody seems to buy anything except you, and many characters will forget their previous interactions when they revert to the "standard" daily routine. Small potatoes, though, considering how much A.I. is in here.
And astoundingly, everyone speaks. Though the voices occasionally repeat, it's pretty impressive that they managed to cram so much voiced dialogue in here, and most of it is high-quality work. The Emperor is voiced by the always intense Patrick Stewart, making for one helluva guide. The rest of the sound is admirable, including the tastefully sparse orchestral pieces and the great 3D positioned ambient effects.
The only other games out there that are as big in scope as Oblivion - other than other Elder Scrolls games - are the MMORPGs, and Oblivion turns their primary weakness into its strength. An MMO can never be about you, but in Oblivion, you are not the 35th person to complete that quest today, and when it's done, it's done. You killed the thief and returned the silver chalice to the monastery, so there it is. If you slay a fearsome ogre it stays dead and its treasures stays looted. When you pass through an area you last explored five days and thirty gameplay hours ago and discover that the crappy dagger you dropped on the ground is still there, right where you left it, it makes the world feel that much more real. It's truly persistent and truly yours.
When it was first announced that the price tag for next-gen games would jump to $60, we wondered what sort of games could be worth that type of investment, and the answer is right here. With 100 or 200 hours of quality entertainment on one DVD and so many different ways to play, Oblivion is actually a value proposition. So if you put can put away Suikoden or Grandia or Final Fantasy for a while, you'll appreciate anew the freedom of choice that is The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The number of options is so vast, it's nearly paralyzing figuring out what it is you want to do next. However, what you definitely want to do first is pick up a copy. Don't worry, you can still have spiky hair if you want to.