I have spent every spare waking hour of the day lately playing Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Its an awesome game: if you like deep, open ended single player computer role playing games, then Oblivion is definitely worth a look.
Oblivion is set in the Empire of Tamriel in the world of Nirn, a world that may be familiar to people who have been playing computer games for a few years as the setting for the Elder Scrolls. The Elder Scrolls series has been around for a while, starting over a decade ago with Elder Scrolls: Arena. The last release in the series before Oblivion was Morrowind in 2002, a role playing game that was lauded for its open ended style, huge size, and depth of backround materials. It also received some knocks for its initial bugs (most of which were fixed in subsequent patches). I personally played Morrowind- it was a very good game, but I found it hard to get engaged- it was, for me, a bit *too* wide open. I couldn’t really find a plotline to hook on to. I played it for weeks, but never finished it, and have no idea to this day what “finishing it” would have looked like. That’s both good and bad- good, because I had weeks of gaming and came no where near completing the game. Bad, because I never really felt like I was “part” of the game’s main plot.
Oblivion seems to have kept all of the good features from Morrowind (open ended, massive game world, incredible depth) and ditched some of the less than positive features (lack of hooks into the main plotline, game ending bugs). Right from the start, Oblivion’s story line is pretty obvious. But you can still veer off into the open country side, read hundreds of books, go off on your own adventuring paths…and, with the help of the quest journal, find your way back to the main plot easily.
WARNING: some spoilers follow
Travel in the new game is brilliant: from the main map, you can click on any major city and travel there “instantly”. Time passes in the game world, but for the player its just the click of a button and a brief loading screen. You can cover all the intervening territory on foot (or on horseback) if you wish, and you’ll need to do lots of travelling to find the locations outside of the main cities: temples, shrines, and dungeons have to be visited once “on foot” before you can “instantly” travel there. But manual travel is never a chore- the scenery is glorious.
Yes, the graphics in Oblivion are first rate. And yes, the game with all its visual “candy” active can bring today’s best machines to their knees. But a decent machine (2 or 3 GHz, last years X800 ATI card or Nvidia 6800, 1 GB of RAM) can play quite happily with excellent visuals. My machine, with essentially a 3.5 GHz processor, 2 GB of RAM, and a RAID array of 10,000 RPM SATA drives runs happily at 1600×1200 with most of the effects set towards the upper middle end of the scales. If you have a dual core machine with the latest PCI Express video card X1900 you’ll be in heaven.
An aside: some folks have complained about the occasional “loading” message while travelling across the country side. Most of the folks complaining have XBox360 machines, it seems (Oblivion was released on the same day for PCs and XBox 360s). On my machine, the “Loading” text overlay (its not a loading screen, just an overlay) appears for a fraction of a second now and then while travelling, and there is maybe a one or two frame “hitch”…it isn’t even worth mentioning for me. A slower hard drive and less RAM would probably magnify this. And yes, there are loading screens when you go through doors in some areas- on my machine, they last about 5 seconds. It doesn’t bother me at all, but if it bothers you, be warned.
All of this discussion about the technology is well and good, but it doesn’t begin to touch on what makes Oblivion great. At best I can give some bullet points reflecting things that “stood out” for me…the game is huge and deep, and its not really possible to do it justice in a few sentences. But here are my “bullet points” anyway:
- Deep back story: the collector’s edition (which I bought) comes with a 100 page “handbook” that gives an overview of the history and politics of Tamriel. Its written “in character”, and its a well done piece of fiction in its own right. But in terms of depth, its the tip of the iceberg. As you play the game, you’ll come across hundreds of books within the world. They range from one or two pages to a dozen or more, and reading them is often a big part of my gaming time. They’ll describe a religious cult, or a historical account of a battle, or perhaps describe the correct way to harvest a certain plant. Most have no direct value…but many do- that guide to plant harvesting might come in handy later on when you need some strange root for a potion you want to make…
- Engaging quests: some of the best quests I’ve ever encountered in an computer role playing game, bar none, are in Oblivion. Sure, there are the usual “kill this, fetch and carry” quests….but how about a quest where you climb inside a painting to rescue an artist using a magical paintbrush? Or try to pick sides between a husband and wife team of thieves in the midst of a “seperation” of the most permanent kind? And many quests are situational: they occur because of something you did or did not do. My character was infected with Vampirism…so now he’s dealing with vampire hunters, negotiating with Lords intent on keeping their own vampirism secret, and…well, you get the idea. In another example, my character found and sold a rare artifact. A few game days later, a well dressed fellow approached him on the street and introduced himself as the butler to a wealthy citizen. That citizen was a collector of the very same type of antiquity I had found and sold, and would I like to help him find other artifacts of the same type? That sort of “natural” quest hook isn’t as well done in most other RPGs
- Open ended character development: When you choose a profession in Oblivion, you don’t cut off your alternatives- a fighter can still cast spells, a mage can still wield a sword or wear armour, a thief can still put on plate mail. Its easier for a mage to cast spells than to wield a sword, but not so much so as to preclude the option. And if you join the mages guild, you can walk across the street and join the fighters guild…or the thieves guild. Supposedly, its possible to be a member of every guild there is, all at the same time- you’ll never progress much in any one guild, though, if you do that. And the way skills develop and characters become “characters” is very natural. If you swing your sword a lot, you’ll become good at sword swinging. Carry a shield? If you want to become good at it, you’d better use it to block some blows from your enemies. Want to become a master potion maker? Well, first you have to make some potions…You can also own a horse, buy a house, own a share of a store, create your own magic spells, repair your own armour, craft potions…the question isn’t what can you do, but what can’t you do.
- “Living” NPCs: The non player characters in Oblivion have lives. They have preferred times to sleep, they have places they go to work, they get hungry and go to their favorite spot to eat…they chat with each other about politics and their work. Is the artificial intelligence in Oblivion (what the devleopers named “Radiant” AI) “groundbreaking”? I’d say its an evolutionary step rather than a revolutionary one, but its definitely impressive. Its interesting to note how some NPCs like to stay up late, others go to sleep early, some spend most of their day reading books or practicing with a bow, and still others seem to spend most of their time with something alcoholic in their hands 🙂 Their conversations are stilted, but you can still get clues from them, and in some quests the quest itself is to follow an NPC around and observe who they meet and what they talk about.
- Excellent quest/plotline organization: in a game as open ended and simply “large” as Oblivion, its quite possible to lose track of where you are in a quest. But the game provides you with a well-structured journal- when you highlight a quest, you can click a button to see directly on the game map where in the world the next step for that quest should take you. If you are supposed to find a particular NPC, quest journal will put a marker on the game map showing their approximate location. This makes it easy to jump from quest to quest when you get stuck, making it seem like you are always able to keep moving forward
Oblivion has some bugs…it usually crashed on me once every three or four hours of play. But it also has a good game save feature, and loads back up quickly enough. I’ve also “broken” two quests so far. In one quest, an NPC I was following set off a huge ceiling trap and was squished. This was supposed to happen, but instead of dying (as he was supposed to), he got stuck somewhere up in the trap mechanism…so he was gone, but the quest didn’t progress. I had my trusty save game and backed off one step, and this time he “died” correctly. By the way, this NPC death is actually pretty funny: the guy is all heavily armoured and upset at the fact that they all they sent to help him was me (I guess I don’t look that impressive). He says something like “Harrumph, you’ll have to do- follow me, you pathetic fool”, walks through a door, sets off a trap, and dies instantly- cosmic justice 🙂
The second “bugged” quest tells me I’m supposed to talk to a certain fellow now that I have certain information. Unfortunately, the fellow has no updated dialog- again, the quest seems stuck, probably because something happened out of order. Some folks would get all bent out of shape by these bugs, but Oblivion is a huge game, and the problems are not that common, and thus far are very inconsequential. I’d prefer the game to be “perfect”, but I’m also a realist- the sheer number of combinations of things that can happen in dozens of different orders, and the fact that the NPCs have “intelligence” (I.E.: they aren’t automatons following rails in the floor) means that its staggeringly difficult to achieve even a moderate level of “perfection”. The degree to which Oblivion works is so truly amazing that its failures seem miniscule in comparison.
I’d rate Oblivion as 9 out of 10, or 95 out of 100, on any scale I can think of. If you like computer role playing games you would be doing yourself a disservice to not at least look at it.