The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Is that the aroma of a 'killer app' in the oven, dear?

The Emperor of Tamriel is dead, killed by an unknown assailant in the capital province of Cyrodiil. Yet, at the very moment of his death, he charges the player, who the Emperor believes to be a symbol of hope from troubled dreams - despite being held prisoner in his own dungeons - with finding and restoring the rightful heir to the throne of Tamriel. Without a true Emperor, the stronghold gates to the hell-like 'Oblivion' will surely open. And they do. Evil demons surge into Tamriel and begin killing its people and attacking its towns. Only one hero can find the lost heir of Tamriel and uncover the diabolical plans that could plunge the entire kingdom into chaos and ruin.

It's genuinely difficult to know where to start when reviewing Oblivion. Other games, those that create focused and defined aims, singular in their motivations - be they sporting, fighting, or driving titles, etc. - are so much easier to critique. By comparison, Oblivion presents such a wide-ranging sense of depth that it's nigh on impossible to accurately absorb and assess its dizzying array of possibilities. From a consumer point of view, gamers familiar with RPGs and MMORPGs will probably acclimatise to Oblivion in no time; its vast environmental scale, sprawling cities, busy towns, dense forestry, and perilous ruins and dungeons unlikely to phase or unsettle those well versed with the genre. Yet the more casual player, those drawn into the swelling undercurrent of curiosity whirling around Oblivion's pre-release hype, may be instantly overawed in surroundings that offer no step-by-step mollycoddling or overtly clear guiding edge. At its dawning, Oblivion hands the player the first few frayed strands of a central story thread and then thrusts them unceremoniously into a game world that instantly swamps the senses. Whether the player then chooses to immediately pull on that story thread or wander from place to place merely exploring, learning, and evolving on a whim, is completely down to individual desire. And therein lies the true beauty of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.

Oblivion is an impressive aesthetic achievement, and will likely stand as a yardstick of quality on the Xbox 360 for quite some time, yet, oddly, its breathtaking graphical impact and showcasing of the 360's capabilities are not its strongest elements. And neither is the musical scoring, which swings effortlessly between subtle elegance and heart-thumping power; nor its sound, which portrays unfailing authenticity through battle clashes, environmental ambience, swelling atmosphere, and fully spoken and animated dialogue for every in-game character. No, beautiful graphics and layered sound are not the deciding factors when placing Oblivion in the 'must buy' review recommendation category. Indeed, Morrowind (Oblivion's 2002 predecessor) was hardly a standout performer in terms of audio and visual content, yet still it became a renowned gaming classic for such things as imagination, scope, interaction, immersion, creativity, longevity, and emotion. Oblivion has all these attributes in abundance, and when packed alongside fabulous graphics and sound it's hardly a surprise that Bethesda has produced yet another RPG winner. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Without sounding overly critical, Oblivion brings nothing particularly new to the RPG genre, and it's filled with elements that are completely unoriginal in terms of treading pastures new. Its open-ended delivery - a prerequisite for RPGs - means that beside the central quest, which may easily consume around forty solid gameplay hours, there's also a massive array of secondary and side quests, which are usually issued for a host of reasons by needy non-playable characters (NPCs). Again, nothing that reaches beyond established traditions; yet, unlike other games, Oblivion is home to literally hundreds of enthralling NPCs, so players will quickly find that initial 40-hour plotline gleefully expanding to upwards of 200. Of course, satisfying the populace and subsequently levelling-up to be a hugely powerful character really needs to be a motivating concern to squeeze out every last moment from a truly enormous game. And, in terms of character evolution, Oblivion offers an unbelievably in-depth character creation tool, which is put into practice during the opening explanatory segment of gameplay. Completely at home yet without ever pushing boundaries, players can choose which specific creature race they wish to be, as well as their ensuing gender, skill settings, creed, etc, all the way through to eye positioning, hair style and nose length. In short, created characters can be honed and honed and honed until the player is truly satisfied with the heroic end results. Gradual levelling-up is controlled by actual in-game experience; so running around will slowly improve athletic skill, using healing potions will gradually improve medicinal skill, and slowly sneaking up on enemies will improve stealth skills, etc, etc. After certain skill attainments are reached, the player then gets point allocations to further boost stats; and, interestingly, in-game enemies level up according to the strength of the player's character, so the game always offers a significant challenge to progression.

Then there are the in-game Guild factions, whose inclusion is also fairly par-for-the-course in terms of compelling secondary content, and the Thieves, Fighting, Mages and Dark Brotherhood (or Assassins) Guilds all include fantastically involving narratives that can be explored at the player's discretion. Foot speed has also been increased over that experienced in Morrowind and, more significantly, the game world can be navigated by quick-travelling directly from place to place. This saves playing time and avoids mundane backtracking, though the in-game clock still advances according to distance covered and time elapsed. While Oblivion may be packed to the rafters with components that are all thoroughly expected in RPGs, gamers are unlikely to have experienced anything so wholly tangible where collective creation is concerned. Indeed, it's not an exaggeration to say that Oblivion feels almost alive. And this is perhaps due to Bethesda's implemented - and much-lauded 'Radiant A.I.', which dictates that every NPC exists within their own individual life cycle. They follow daily routines, jobs, etc, and interact freely with one another, even making decisions based on in-game events. It's often perverse fun to simply eavesdrop on conversations, pick up new quests, or inquisitively monitor NPC reactions caused by directly applied outside influence.

Despite Oblivion's glowing excellence, it is still - much like Morrowind before it - a flawed masterpiece. The battle system, though improved, is still largely a bland and repetitive affair that never truly feels rewarding, especially in confined areas. And the inclusion of assigning weapons/potions/items to a 'Hot Key' system (via the directional pad) for speedy access is a clever idea that's always just the wrong side of limiting and awkward. The game also offers players both a first and third-person viewpoint, but while first person may feel a little dull in terms of movement, it positively shines compared to third person. The third-person perspective reveals poorly implemented character animation that seems to flow weightlessly across terrain and is guilty of Resident Evil's 'static slide' when walking or running against obstacles. Plus, there are annoying hiccups in the framerate during environmental loading (this is mainly a problem on the massively detailed exteriors), and gamers may even experience the occasional crash beneath the unrelenting processing load. The graphics also betray notable instances of pop-up and draw throughout exterior travels and the vast majority of character dialogue is often inexorably off-sync by 4-6 frames, which hurts the sense of immersion.

Yet, in terms of overall scope and ambition, the above quibbles are little more than extremely forgivable moments of distraction in an otherwise superior gaming package. Yes, Oblivion walks the same beaten path pounded flat by so many other RPGs before it; yet its contributing elements - of which only the Radiant A.I. emerges as innovative - should not be analysed or appreciated singularly in terms of arbitrary pluses and minuses. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion excels in almost every department but emerges as absolutely more than the sum of its parts. When viewed as a complete creation, the RPG genre can offer little else to compare; the console market has never known such deeply involving and open-ended imagination; and there's certainly nothing on the Xbox 360 that better deserves the 'killer app' motif to-date. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

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