Most of the time, when I hear about politicians who want to ban games because of their alleged brain-sucking ability, I usually roll my eyes and laugh, considering how many times politicians base such claims solely on rhetoric. However, every now and again, a game comes along that truly does have brain-sucking power – a game so expertly crafted, so exquisitely polished, so excruciatingly good that it’s like heroin on a DVD. I’m not talking about those supposedly social life-draining MMORPGs either, as many games in that genre fall far short of that descriptor, even with (and sometimes because of) their social aspects. I’m talking of a game that has had so much care placed into its production, so much content squeezed into it, and is so much fun to play, that all other concerns (like food, sleep, and the like) fade away into the background. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is one of those games. It is a single-player RPG masterpiece that will drain more hours away from your social life than most MMORPGs.
Yes, you read that right – completely bucking the trend of the genre of the RPG world to date, Oblivion stands boldly against the wind, proclaiming its defiance of genre trends and conformity to the bottom line. Thusly, instead of going the lazy route of letting other players be the source of all the substance worth anything in an RPG, the developers have taken the time to create a huge, expansive world, packed to the brim with back story, lore, people, places, things, religions, customs, you name it. Whatever it takes to create a fully realized fictional universe on the scope of the Lord of the Rings or other similar fantasy series, Oblivion has it, and you the player have a vital role within it. This vital role lends itself to a main storyline, one which the player can follow in order to properly advance the game, but if you simply stick to the main storyline, you’ll miss most of the game. The huge, expansive world lends itself to endless diversions, what are commonly known as “side quests,” except in Oblivion the amount and length of side quests are too extensive to be merely called side quests. There are guilds to join and advance within, ruins to raid, caves to spelunk, arenas to fight in, artifacts to loot, and yes, even the occasional rat to save (I won’t spoil what would make one save rats as opposed to kill them). The best part of all of this is that there’s hardly any quest redundancy or repetition of specific tasks in order to create the illiusion of original content. Showing improvement over its predecessor Morrowind, the quests of Oblivion draw upon several types of gameplay elements to add true substance to each quest in this game. One quest may have you chatting it up with the locals to find information on the whereabouts of a gang. Another quest may have you hunting in the back woods for a foul beast or sinister sorcerer. Yet another quest will have you guard a helpless hermit from a zombie horde he happened to stumble upon. (Oh, yes, there are zombies.) The non-player characters who assign you these quests even live lives of their own – they follow a schedule for things like eating, sleeping, and other daily activities, which certainly factors into how your quests get assigned and accomplished. No fetch quests here – Oblivion’s quests and overall gameplay are as substantive as you make them.
How does a player make these quests their own and complete them in their own way? If you counted the ways, they’d certainly number more than the human hand can keep track of. This becomes apparent right from the get-go as even the introductory tutorial sequence demonstrates the many different ways to play the game, from straight-up face-to-face combat, to skulking in the shadows to maintain stealth, to flinging magic spells about. This amounts to what is in essence several different game types in one game – action, stealth, even adventure. There’s even traces of WarioWare in Oblivion, as some specific gameplay segments, like persuasion or lock-picking, have mini-games of their own that you must play in order to accomplish the task at hand. Combat, a central part of Oblivion, is also much improved over Morrowind. Gone are the days where just standing there whacking each other (with the occasional sidestep to avoid a long distance fireball) was adequate. Combat is faster-paced this time around, and keeping yourself moving is key to staying alive, while not going trigger-happy on the attack button either. One thing that’s added depth to combat is the ability to block, and oh what an improvement it is. Timing blocking to perfectly intercept your opponent’s blows, while giving yourself enough time to swing away with your weapons between blocks, becomes the key to excelling in many combat situations. The new Power Attacks add another layer of depth; by holding the attack button down and charging up a power attack, you can do extra damage, along with some extra effects such as damaging an opponent’s weapon or paralyzing them.
It’s not just quantity that applies to Oblivion’s gameplay, either – each of these segments is executed with exquisite quality. This is accomplished in large part due to Oblivion’s skill and level advancement system, which is driven by one simple rule – the more one uses a skill, the better one gets at it. As a player improves his or her skills by practicing them, the stats improve accordingly, and as they get higher, new abilities are granted to the player. For example, get a high enough level in the Blades skill (swords and other edged weapons) and you get more of the aforementioned Power Attacks in combat with your chosen weapon. Level advancement is simple – increase the skills that are central to the class you have chosen (or created), find a bed to sleep in overnight, and you will gain that level and have the option to increase your attributes, the stats which govern your physical and mental capabilities. Increasing skills outside of the ones that define your class add to the bonuses you get for your attributes when it comes time to level up.
This brings us to the class system in Oblivion. Understanding the choice of professions in Oblivion is once again simple and intuitive. Again, part of this owes to the introduction, where after fighting your way to escape the dungeon you’ve been locked up in, the game recommends one of the many pre-made classes for you depending upon your playing style. Although there are many pre-generated classes to choose from in Oblivion, you can make one of your own, in a process that is not only simple, but allows for a very diverse set of characters to be created. All you do to create a character class is select one’s primary specialization (Combat, Stealth, or Magic) from three skill specializations to have those skills increase in level faster; select two primary attributes to be favored; and select seven major skills that define your character class. With 21 skills to choose from, the result is a dizzying array of possible character combinations, and thusly plenty of ways to create your class exactly how you had invisioned it. Combine this with the multiple pathways one can take to accomplish any of the myriad of diverse quests mentioned above, and you certainly will be using each one of those skills to move ahead. It’s all of these gameplay aspects that make Oblivion into the truest console “role-playing game” yet. You truly feel that you are playing a role – not one that’s shoehorned onto you and which you’re obliged to follow as if in a straightjacket, like most so-called RPGs force you to do. The fact that there’s so much to do that the game’s play time can go into the hundreds of hours doesn’t hurt things either, and allows an even greater fleshing out of your role in the world.
All that said, Oblivion is a challenging game. The new faster-paced combat means that quicker reaction times and the ability to think on the fly are required. Not to mention the fact that the monster-leveling system can quickly push you to the brink of your abilities as you advance in levels. Yes, that’s right. As you increase your character’s level, the monsters you fight increase in level as well. Thankfully, though, if you’re not a combat junkie or a glutton for punishment, there’s the Difficulty Slider option in Oblivion. At any time during the game (yes, even in the middle of a fight), you can go to the Gameplay options menu, and adjust the difficulty via fine-tuning the slider in the menu. Therefore, Oblivion can appeal to all types of gamers, from those who like their role-playing as combat-less as possible to those who prefer that their virtual persona receive Ninja Gaiden-style beat downs.
Although not as essential as the gameplay, the graphics of Oblivion are a sight to behold. The environments and style may look like standard fantasy fare at first, and, well, they are, but the graphics are actually used to enhance the gameplay in ways that justify the extreme polygon counts and volumetric lighting. The vast, expansive outdoor environments do much to immerse you, from the dense foliage which you can harvest for potion ingredients, to the giant trees that provide shade and cover, to the lakes of fire and towers of pointy bits that truly define the plane of Oblivion as a hellish place. Adding to the immersion are effects such as real-time progression as the day turns to night and back again, and weather effects that vary from rain to fog to snow, all of which alter such travel conditions as visibility. All of the characters are rendered in exquisite detail, from the nearly infinite number of ways you can customize your character’s appearance, to the unique details of major and many minor NPCs (especially in the area of faces), to the animations of facial expressions that effectively convey a character’s reactions and dispositions toward you. In fact, facial expressions and their animations are extremely important to follow when engaging in dialogue with an NPC, as during the Speechcraft mini-game one must judge a characters reaction based on their facial expressions in order to choose the option that would net the best result. It’s touches like these that make the amazing graphics more than just a pretty face – the high polygon counts and other assorted letters and numbers actually mean something in terms of contributing to gameplay. However, they aren’t flawless. As Oblivion streams areas for loading, errors such as pop-up and “jaggies” occur, as the game struggles to load the content, but it’s a minor flaw that can be fixed by periodically clearing your hard drive’s cache.
Sound is another area that Oblivion has achieved a monumental accomplishment. Almost all dialogue, even from minor NPCs you find in the street, is spoken, with dialogue varying from town to town and changing depending on how far along the main quest you are. Considering how there’s probably thousands of lines of dialogue as a result, I’m surprised Bethesda managed to fit it all on one DVD. Although it won’t win any acting awards, the fact of the matter is that almost all of it was done in a not-cheesy manner, and that’s a feat in and of itself. The classical orchestration for the soundtrack is just perfect – suitably epic without being cliché, and thunderous at all the right moments, especially combat. Not to mention ambient sounds are used to truly immerse a player in the atmosphere of Oblivion – everything from gentle breezes to chirping birds to churning magma is used to capture what it really would sound like to stroll through the woods of Cyrodiil, or the obsidian-crusted pathways of the plane of Oblivion.
All of the above mentioned properties allows me come to this conclusion – Oblivion is a game that does so much to draw the player into its world, that it’s far more addictive than the vast majority of MMORPGs out there. Many MMORPGs promise to create a world that once you enter, you may want to leave the real world behind; Oblivion brilliantly succeeds in such a promise, and it’s not even an online game. This is proof positive that an RPG doesn’t need monthly fees to be good. However, for being such a great game, Oblivion lends itself to addiction, so only play it if you truly have the time to spare. Be sure not to forget about your real life once you get your hands on this game – you have been warned.