Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
I’ll confess that I’m a big gaming geek. I’ve been into video games since I was a little kid. I can remember playing Pong and Pitfall on the Atari system. In my life I’ve owned a Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Playstation, Sega Dreamcast, Xbox, and my current next-gen console of choice: the Xbox 360. And if all that were not enough (and it really wasn’t) I’ve played an extensive number of computer games over the years. So even though I may not get every reference to Kubrick or Lynch (and believe me, I’m working on it) I consider myself a decent source of information and a pretty good judge of video games, at least within the genres I’ve played regularly over the years. Before I go any further I’d just like to point out those tend to be role playing games (RPGs), first-person shooters (FPSs), action/adventure, and strategy/simulation games. In the spirit of expanding the scope of CC2K, I thought I’d review some of the best and worst games I’ve had the chance to play. I figured I’d dive right into the deep end of the pool with my first review, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
For those of you who may not know, The Elder Scrolls (or simply, TES) is a series of computer-based RPGs developed by Bethseda Softworks. There are four games (or chapters) within the series. The first two (Arena & Daggerfall) were DOS based games released in the mid-90’s (and I’ll admit I haven’t played either, but I’m highly tempted to try and purchase them on Ebay); Morrowind was the third in the series made for Windows and the original Xbox console, which I played & loved. Oblivion is the most recent installment, released almost a year ago for Windows and the Xbox 360 (and I hear it will be available for the PS3 soon). All of these games are known for their expansive environments, free-form style of play, and detailed in-game history & mythology.
The games of The Elder Scrolls are set within the continent of Tamriel, the major landmass of the fictional planet Nirn. Tamriel is divided into almost a dozen different regions (or provinces), each the home of a different fantastical (and playable) race. These range from the somewhat standard varieties of humans and elves to the more original lizard-folk (called Argonians) and cat-people (named Khajiit). Oblivion opens with this cryptic message from Emperor Uriel Septim VII (voiced by the always awesome Patrick Stewart).
“For 65 years I have ruled this empire. Generals and kings have knelt at my command. But a darkness comes. The blood tide rises. These are the closing days of the Third Era…and the final hours of my life. Find him, and close shut the jaws of Oblivion!”
You are who the emperor is addressing. Though you start the game as a lowly prisoner within the Capital City of the Imperial Province of Cyrodiil, your crimes never specified and left for you to imagine, very soon you are caught up in events of cataclysmic proportions that call the fate of the world into question. You will, of course, help determine what the fate of the world will be. You choose your race, appearance, class and skills. The amount of customization you put into the character creation process is completely up to you. There are pre-made templates you can use, or you can fashion a truly unique character all your own. The choice is yours, and it’s something you should get used to if you decide to play Oblivion. This game is all about choice.
TES games are driven by quests. There’s the Main Quest, the central plot/storyline of the game that if you complete will result in “beating the game.” But there are a huge variety of other quests within the game that you are free to discover and take on. There are quests associated with the major guilds (or factions) of Cyrodiil. Each guild caters to a certain class of character and style of play. Are you into heavy armor and believe most problems can be solved with a blade? Join up with the Fighters Guild. Maybe the arcane arts of spellcraft & alchemy appeal to you? Learn with the masters of the Mages Guild. Or perhaps the glint of gold and lure of riches is too enticing to pass up; seek out the Gray Fox and his Guild of Thieves. Or could it be that you sneer at doing good? Find no fulfillment in helping others? Maybe the only pleasure you take is in the taking of life. There’s even a family out there for the likes of you, and the Dark Brotherhood will welcome you with open arms. Rise through the ranks and assume leadership of the guild of your choice (or all if you wish). And if all that gameplay isn’t enough (and it really isn’t) there are numerous side-quests that you will encounter in your exploration & travels. Attempt them all, or none of them. Pick and choose as you wish. And at the end of the day if all you care about is exploring a dark dungeon, a dank cavern, or the ruins of a lost civilization, there are plenty of all of these and more scattered throughout the land just waiting for an adventurer like yourself. There are hundreds of NPCs (non-player characters) for you to interact with and an extensive bestiary that would like nothing more than to eat, rob, and/or kill you (and believe me, they’ll try).
I could go on and on about this game, but let’s break it down into its strengths & weaknesses:
1) Graphics – The graphics of Oblivion are simply amazing. They look great on my fairly standard color TV, but are truly astounding on a big screen, High-Definition television (which my friends with real jobs able to afford such a thing continually remind me). There’s a variety of landscapes and terrain types, from rugged mountains and dense forests to rolling plains and fetid swamps. Each is lavishly detailed and adds to the fun/cool factor.
2) Controls/gameplay – If you’re a gamer, then you know it isn’t enough for a game to look good, it has to play well. The controls should be responsive and intuitive. The game should be free of glitches & lock-ups; they only make you frustrated and can seriously detract from a game’s appeal (I’m looking at you Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, shame on you). In Oblivion you will be faced with lots of “Loading” screens as you enter/exit buildings and move to unexplored areas, but it isn’t too bad. The controls really are straightforward and easy to remember, and they are very responsive. Even though there is a fairly complex menu system, it is well organized and easy to navigate through. By getting the mechanics right, you’re free to PLAY the game, and that’s a crucial, if obvious, (and often overlooked) element.
3) Free-form play in an Extensive World – I’ve started to address this above, so I won’t rehash it all here. The level of detail in the world Bethseda Softworks has created is incredible. I contend it rivals “worlds” created by Tolkien or Roddenberry. Instead of just dropping the player in a “fantasy” world and letting you go off, fight monsters, and explore dungeons, they’ve taken the time to create an entire (and rather original) history & mythology for this world, whether you are aware of it or not. And the really cool (in a totally geeky way) part is that you can learn about it IN GAME. The creators actually put much of the history/mythology they created into books and scattered them throughout the game. You could spend hours reading all this if you wanted. But again, only if you want to. That’s the biggest strength, in my opinion, of Oblivion. You are not set on a linear path that leads you from A to B to C and so on until you beat the game. I would argue that you can spend hours upon hours playing this game and have a lot of fun and never actually beat the game (i.e. finish the Main Quest).
4) Customization/Modding – I’m sure many fans of Oblivion would argue its greatest strength is the ability to change it. The creators repeated something they did with Morrowind. They included a Construction Set for the game which essentially allows players to go in and modify the game in virtually any way you want. You can create new weapons, armor, & items. You can create and add new NPCs, new races, new cities, quests, etc. You can change the mechanics of the game from the weather patterns to the behavior of NPCs to how potions are made and function. And what’s more, players can put all of these changes (or mods, as they are called) on the internet for free download by other players. So if you don’t have the time or expertise to make one yourself, chances are someone else has already done it, and you can simply download it and incorporate it into your own game. But there is one problem. This feature is only available to the computer version of the game. I bought the console version (for Xbox 360) and so don’t have access to all the mods out there in cyberspace, but I’ve seen them, and I WANT THEM. Perhaps in an effort to appease those fans like me who want access to mods and can’t make their own, the creators have done something really cool that adds to the longevity of the game. Through Xbox Live, an online service available to 360 owners that has all kinds of cool things on it, you have access to a growing amount of downloadable content sort of similar to what’s out there online. There’s two catches. One is that this is “official” content, so it really is quite limited (but thankfully, growing). The other is that while all the mods out there online are free, the “official” add-ons cost money. Not that it stops me; I can’t get enough!
1) Main Quest – A lot of players have voiced dissatisfaction with the Main Quest of Oblivion, feeling it is “too short” or “too easy.” I’ll admit that it does feel shorter and seems to have a less dramatic/compelling resolution than the Main Quest of Morrowind, but (as I’ve stated earlier) there is so much more to this game than just the Main Quest that it doesn’t hurt Oblivion too much.
2) NPC Attributes – There are two qualities of NPCs (and monsters) within the game that are particularly annoying. One is that all of the NPCs level up with your character. I understand the reasoning behind this; if you leveled up and everyone else didn’t, then there would be no danger & no challenge; the game would be too easy. However, it seems to be unrealistic that EVERY NPC is as powerful as you are (or more so), such that EVERY battle becomes epic and EVERY dungeon is filled with the most powerful monsters. It would be nice if there was more variation in how this aspect of the game works. The other quality is what I’ve heard described as “psychic guards.” It works like this: let’s say you want to kill a certain NPC (for whatever reason). You sneak into his house, undetected, as far as you can tell, and do the dirty deed. There’s a chance (and I still haven’t figured out how/why this works) that a guard on the other side of town will “know” that you just murdered someone, confront you about it, and either throw you in jail or outright attack you. It’s really quite annoying and the only solution I’ve come up with is to save your game often, and simply reload if it happens (or allow yourself to get arrested and serve the prison sentence/pay the fine). Whatever you do, do NOT attempt to resist arrest. The guards are ALWAYS stronger than you and they outnumber you >10 to 1.
3) Lack of Coop Play – So Oblivion is strictly a single-player game, and there’s really nothing wrong with that. If Bethseda had wanted to make a MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) then they would have done so, and I’m not sure I would have enjoyed the game as much if they did. But that being said, it still would have been nice if they was some multiplayer aspect to the game where a small number of players (2-4) could play together online. I know there have been plenty of times I’ve been in the heart of a dungeon battling for my life and wishing I had some backup.
4) System Requirements – One final aspect of the game that affects diehard fans of computer games over consoles is that the system requirements for Oblivion are pretty intense. I’ve read numerous comments on message boards complaining about how slow the game is and requesting recommendations for which video card to upgrade to, etc. This isn’t a problem per se, because it simply means the game is so fucking awesome you need appropriate hardware to run it, and it certainly doesn’t affect everyone. Also, there’s a fairly simple, if expensive, remedy.
All in all, this game has consumed a good chunk of my life & free time over the last year or so. I still play it and I am still finding new & engaging elements in the game that continue to make it fun. And Bethseda just recently announced that they will be releasing the first official expansion to the game in this first quarter of 2007, which I’ve read should add another ~40 hours of play to the game (I get all tingly just thinking about it). If you are a fan of RPGs and/or Tolkien-like fantasy, and you have the means, I HIGHLY recommend this game. The weaknesses I pointed out may prevent this game from being perfect, but the perfect game, like the perfect movie, probably doesn’t exist. As far as RPGs go, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion may just be as close as you can get.