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The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Score: 97%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Take 2 Interactive
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1
Genre: RPG


Graphics & Sound:

When I reviewed Morrowind back in 2002, I used words like "epic" to describe every aspect of the game. If Morrowind was epic, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is somewhere beyond epic. Everything that made Morrowind a great game returns in Oblivion, only in a more approachable package that is sure to snag anyone.

Oblivion is just as much of a technical marvel as it is one to look at. Everything in the world is richly detailed, right down to the tiniest of engravings on weapons. Characters are expressive and, though they're not the prettiest of people (Tamriel isn't home to the best looking of people), there's a nice amount of variation. These details, however, do come at a small price. Compared to current-gen (and other Xbox 360 games), Oblivion looks spectacular. However, when compared to the game running on a high-end PC, there are a few noticeable hiccups in framerate, as well as some draw-in issues that cause details to slowly pop into place when you approach them.

Technical issues aside, it is the simple things that make Oblivion such a visual accomplishment. Nearly every area you come across has one or two aspects that make it different from areas in the same region. Everything about the game feels unique and alive. Townspeople don't just stand around waiting for you to find them. They all have lives and run on their own schedules. It is as if they all have their little lives and you're just a small part of a larger world. Characters are expressive and will react to your comments (and reputation) with expressions that are nearly life-like. They'll hail you as a hero if you save their town from a looming evil, or shy away from you if you're a known thug or approach with weapon drawn.

A sweeping musical score accents every area you visit, from low-key town melodies to dark cavern exploring overtures. Oblivion also features loads more dialogue than Morrowind, so nearly everyone you come across has something to say.


Gameplay:

Size and depth are two things the Elder Scrolls series is known for. Oblivion follows in the footsteps of past games in the series by offering an experience that you can literally play for months and always manage to find something new to do. A consistent narrative runs through the entire adventure (this alone takes about 50 hours), but it is easy to forget an important, story-related quest and forge your own adventure by exploring the game's vast world. You can search for hidden caves, search for long-lost treasure, join different guilds, become one of Tamriel's most wanted, buy a house, raise horses, become a vampire... really, there is so much to do in the game its impossible to list them all. Even the game's main story offers enough flexibility that you can take approaches more suited to your play-style.

None of this is new for anyone who has played Morrowind, but Oblivion manages to improve on the experience in such a meaningful way, that even players who typically don't go for RPGs will want to give it a shot, and will likely find themselves immersed in the experience. Oblivion does a great job of cutting out all of the "fat" that made Morrowind not as easily accessible. Pacing has been turned up, giving the game a more action-oriented feel. You'll still find yourself wandering large, open areas, yet everything feels tighter and more focused.

Nowhere is the more streamlined, easier to grasp experience more noticeable than in character creation. As in past games, you begin as a nameless, faceless person in a big world. Initially, you chose only a name, race and gender, after which you're dumped in a jail cell and forced to listen to the remarks thrown your way by a fellow jail-bird. You are soon met by the Emperor, who decides that fate has brought you together and charges you with finding his lost heir. As you make your way through the sewers, you're taken through a tutorial, which in reality serves as a character creation process. You're briefly introduced to the game's basic magic, stealth and combat system, but given free reign as to how you want to complete each segment.

Before exiting the sewers and entering the vast world that awaits you, the game will suggest a class based on how you've been playing up to this point. There are numerous classes to choose from, but if you can't find what you want, you can go through a simple creation process and create your own.

Again, what seems like a complex process is presented in an easy-to-understand manner. You begin by choosing your specialization (combat, stealth or magic), and then assigning seven skills and finally naming your new class. The cool thing about the whole process is that even though you may not have chosen to specialize in a certain skill, you are still free to use any skill in the game. The only downside is that you won't be as proficient at that skill as someone who specialized in it.

Oblivion also shares in Morrowind's intuitive leveling system. Rather than gaining experience points for everything you slay, your skills improve through using them. So, if you find yourself using a lot of magic, your magic skills will improve. Of course, the same "cheap" leveling mechanics found in Morrowind are still present, so it is possible to quickly level up certain skills by performing simple, repetitive actions. If you want to quickly gain a few spell-casting levels, you can cast a simple spell over and over again, or jump everywhere and fall from high places if you want to build up your athletic skills.

Questing is much improved over Morrowind's bloated, confusing system. Goals are clearly stated, rather than being presented as a vague clue and a direction to travel in. Quests are stored in your journal and can be set as a primary quest, at which point the location is marked on your map. At this point, you can begin the long journey to the marked location on foot or horseback, or choose to be instantly transported to the area. The quick travel is good if you want to quickly complete quests, but exploration is one of Oblivion's more rewarding aspects.


Difficulty:

As open as the game is, judging Oblivion's difficulty is a tough task. By default, the game offers just enough challenge, though a bum character setup can make even the easiest of quests seem difficult. But, that's where Oblivion's flexible nature helps. There's never a point where you feel stuck or lost, and it always feels like the game is growing around you. As you gain skills, enemies become more difficult – so even if you choose to "cheat" your way to higher skills, there's no guarantee you’ll trounce every enemy you come across.

Game Mechanics:

Combat is another aspect that has improved over Morrowind. Combat wasn't particularly bad in Morrowind, but it did suffer from a slower pace that eventually wore you down. In Oblivion, combat feels much faster and more like something you'd expect to play on a console. Combat has a solid feel and, as with everything in the game, offers numerous approaches. You can charge into battle wildly swinging your weapon in a barbarian rage, or use a little more finesse, artfully matching weapon blows and blocking with your shield. Or, you can always stick to the shadows and slowly creep up on your target and gain a surprise blow from the back or striking from a safe distance with your bow. Then there's always the magic-user approach, which can become quite complex considering the number of different spell types in the game.

Control is as easily approachable as the rest of the game. Functions are mapped in logical places on the controller and if you don't like where things are, you can always change them in the Options. Menus are easy to read, though it can take a few minutes to get acclimated to their layout. Pressing the Triggers flips between main menus while the D-pad cycles through sub menus. You can also assign items to the D-pad, allowing for quick access to anything in your inventory.

Like Morrowind, 90% of Oblivion is based on how much you put into it. If approached as a story-driven RPG, you'll still find an enjoyable experience, though you won't even begin to see everything it has to offer. If taken as a broader experience, you can easily find yourself immersed in the game for a long, long time.


-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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