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Lora's CRPG Reviews: Oblivion

Oblivion (Game release date: 2006)
Action-adventure tour-de-force with incredible detail and gorgeous graphics, but sometimes an unfortunately sterile feel.

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Highlights: Impressive wealth of detail, gorgeous graphics, highly customizable Lowlights: Lots of boring filler, low energy level, too much combat with weak monsters

It's rare that you come across a computer game that is so clearly the height of everything the game designers set out to do. Baldur's Gate II did it; Black Isle Studios wanted to capture the essence of playing D&D in a single-player CRPG, and it's hard to imagine anyone ever accomplishing that better than that game did. Bethesda Softworks wanted to create an open-ended virtual world for a first-person hack-and-slasher, and with Oblivion, they have resoundingly succeeded at that dream. It's fascinating to watch the evolution of the Elder Scrolls series over the past ten years, from the wretched Daggerfall in 1996 to the Oblivion tour-de-force of 2006. You can literally see them keep what is good in each game, throw out the things that didn't work, refine the plot arcs, flesh out the gameworld. Oblivion is almost a revision of Morrowind moreso than a sequel, but don't take that as a criticism; it's a near-perfection of the game designer's ideal, so if you played and liked Morrowind, you're bound to love Oblivion.

None of that's to say the game itself is perfect, of course. If you didn't enjoy Morrowind, this isn't going to be the game for you. The combat interface has been improved from Morrowind, but if you find frequent realtime combat with underpowered but quick-moving creatures tedious on principle, you're still not going to like it. The travel interface has also been streamlined (with a clickable world map of all wonderful things!) but it doesn't change the fact that you're going to be spending half this game jogging eventlessly through the atmospheric streets and countryside of Tamriel. If you're more interested in exciting gameplay than the realistic simulation of a huge fantasy world, you're going to be disappointed. No party accompanies you on this oddly lonely epic; few NPC's have more than a passing conversation with you, and when they do, you have few conversational options. And the gameplay is very frustrating early on, because most of the interesting quests and dungeons you can find near your starting point are much too hard for low-level characters, and the only way to figure this out is to get killed and reload.

But the thing that really struck me is how intentional all those emphases are. Bethesda Softworks wanted to create a game in which 1st-level rats and crabs continue to attack 60th-level warriors, because it should be more common to run into a crab than a lich. They wanted a first-level character to be able to wander into a 60th-level dungeon if he was so inclined, or to naively accept what seems like a simple quest to spy on a merchant only to end up in combat with a bodyguard wearing full daedric armor. Getting in over your head is part of real life, and realistically most adventurers probably wouldn't make it out of first level, when you think about it. They wanted a game in which nothing special is happening in 90% of the gameworld, in which no NPC's intrude on your decisions to go anywhere and do anything that occurs to you, whether that's saving the world, robbing houses, or just dressing your character up in hundreds of different outfits. If playing in an open-ended virtual reality like that appeals to you, then you're really going to love this game. If that's not normally your cup of tea, then Oblivion's priorities are likely to annoy you somewhat. But even if they do, this epic is so huge and so incredibly detailed that you're sure to get your money's worth out of it regardless. With 200-300 hours of gameplay programmed into Oblivion, there's a full-size CRPG worth of material you'll enjoy in here no matter what your gaming preferences are.

Note: It's insanely difficult to take screenshots during Bethesda games, because they've disabled ctrl-alt-printscreen and running a screencapture program at the same time causes Oblivion to lock up on my computer. So the image on this page is taken from the Elder Scrolls official website instead of from my own game. Harrumph. The screen I was trying to take a picture of was cooler looking.

Style: Oblivion is a 1st-person hack-and-slash-style CRPG. You control and develop one character. The plot is a role-playing adventure and there are fantasy themes. Combat is realtime.

Series: Oblivion is the fourth in a trilogy of "Elder Scrolls" CRPG's by game developer Bethesda Softworks. The first two, Arena and Daggerfall, are not worth going back to unless you're a hardcore fan of the classics and have an inordinate amount of patience. The third game, Morrowind, is good fun, but there's no interdependency between the two and you can't export your character, so there's no reason to worry about playing Morrowind before getting to Oblivion.

Finding Oblivion: Oblivion is a recent game and you can find it in most software stores. Here it is for sale online for PC or XBox.

Getting Oblivion to Work: They are really not kidding about the system requirements on this thing-- if you don't have one of the seventeen supported video cards, Oblivion will not run at all. I actually had to go out and buy a new video card for this game. There are some patches you can download that will make the game run on a different video card, but I don't recommend them -- the graphics looked really bad that way and I got a lot of game crashes. Besides, weren't you looking for an excuse to upgrade your video card anyway? :-D

Hints For Oblivion: I do not yet have a low-spoiler walkthrough page for Oblivion. I recommend checking out the Oblivion page at UHS-- they have an innovative format which reveals only one hint at a time, so you won't accidentally learn spoilers while scanning for the one puzzle you're stuck on. You could also buy a Oblivion Hint Book, if you prefer.

Pitfalls In Oblivion: People's voices are difficult to make out when they're not standing directly in front of you, face to face. It's best to always play this game with the subtitles turned on, to avoid missing important information. Combat is realtime and some of the action requires a modest amount of manual dexterity.

Game Length: Gigantic. It takes about 150 hours to finish Oblivion, but there's got to be at least twice that much content in there if you're thorough about it and explore every nook and cranny. If you can overlook the unfortunate lack of conversational and interpersonal options, Oblivion is also highly replayable due to all the different guilds and factions and many quests that are only available to certain characters.

Age-Appropriateness: My copy of Oblivion is rated T (for 13 years old and up), but since its release, the game has been re-rated as M (for 17 and up) for what I consider a very silly reason: some fans produced a mod (an add-on program you can download and run to modify your copy of the game) that will show bare-breasted women. The reason this is such a silly complaint is that, face it, if you've got a teenager that is going to go out of his way to download a computer drawing of breasts, he's also capable of downloading real porn off the Internet and you might as well worry about that. It's not as if there are topless women in the version of the game being sold in the store. But that being said, I would still recommend against giving Oblivion to a younger teen because of the level of violence in the game (lots of splashing blood, grisly images of dead and mutilated bodies, etc.)

Lora's Oblivion Review: (Excellent)

Plot and Quests: Unlike Morrowind, Oblivion's plot starts off with an exciting event that sucks you into it. The main plot arc isn't especially innovative or engrossing, but it's well done. Some of the subplots are interesting. There are tons of quests, most of which are unfortunately of the rote delivery-boy variety, but some of them are unique and can even be handled in more than one way.
Puzzles and Mental Challenges: This is a long game, but an easy one. There are few puzzles and none are very difficult. Dungeons are not that devilish. Some of the subplots are more fun if you use deductive reasoning, but it's not necessary. The most challenging part of the game is mastering the combat system.
Characters: You get one character in this game, who is incredibly customizable both in terms of skills and appearance; as far as I know there has never been a computer game with such detailed face creation before (you can adjust the distance between a character's nose and lips in three dimensions!) On the other hand, it's a strangely lonely epic, with only one person in the party, no NPC followers, and few NPCs that have a personal reaction to your character at all. Most of them say the same exact thing, as a matter of fact. Even the ones that have unique comments rarely betray much of a personality.
Gameworld: Oblivion offers a large gameworld with uncommon attention to detail. The game designers have put a lot of thought into what kind of things a player might try to do and providing real-world consequences -- if you jump into a lake with a flaming torch in your hand, for example, it extinguishes with a hiss. Different species of monsters will sometimes start attacking each other if they catch sight of each other; humans will mingle and make small talk you can overhear as you walk by, which makes the cities feel more populated. The only thing keeping this gameworld from being truly immersive is the lack of interactiveness -- except for the usual heroic finale, nothing you do changes this gameworld at all, and there are no decisions for you to make beyond your character's own development (which guild to join and so on.) There's something vaguely depressing about spending more than 100 hours playing a game and still feeling like you haven't accomplished anything other than gaining levels and running a few errands for pay. Up until the very end of the game, if you had a funeral, no one would go to it.
Gameplay (Leveling, Spells, etc.): Character creation and skill development are a treat, offering many more character options than most CRPG's. The need to press a button around 500 times in order to improve at a skill does get aggravating after awhile--unlike Wizardry 8 (which used a similar practice-makes-perfect system), just going about your usual adventuring business will rarely result in an increase, you have to run around town jumping like a lunatic if you expect to improve your scores. The magic system is pretty good, and item enchantment is a lot of fun.
Interface (Movement, Inventory Management, etc.): The Elder Scrolls interface has been seriously improved in this game. Combat can now be accomplished with a simple left-click, rather than having to keep swishing the mouse back and forth. Maps are clickable. Menus are easy to pop up and put away. The only irritants are the lockpicking and persuading minigames; they're not fun at all and they're stupid (especially the persuasion one... each conversation having to include one compliment, one threat, one joke, and one boast is the dumbest dialogue constraint I've seen in a computer game yet.)
Ambience (Graphics, Sound, etc.): The graphics are excellent; people and monsters, in particular, look less blocky and angular than in many games, and the environment is richly detailed (water dripping slowly down from the ceiling of a cave, leaves rustling slightly in the wind, birds flitting here and there.) The music is atmospheric and the voice acting is generally high quality.

Lora's Recommendations: I recommend Oblivion to pretty much anyone who enjoys CRPG's or action adventure games. There's so much in this game that it's hard to imagine any gaming enthusiast failing to get a week's worth of entertainment out of it. I personally prefer games with more storytelling, character interaction, and intellectual stimulation than Oblivion offers, yet I still found its expansive, epic beauty worth getting a new video card over.

If You Loved Oblivion: You would probably also like Morrowind, though going backwards to an extremely similar game with a more aggravating interface isn't always a pleasant experience. Two more excellent CRPG's featuring lots of open-ended exploration are The Witcher and Gothic II. If you haven't played Baldur's Gate 2 yet, that's a wonderful CRPG epic with memorable characters and lots of clever, branching subplots. Other games you might enjoy are Wizardry 8, a delightful old-school 6-character CRPG with a smoothly updated 3D interface, and Arcanum, a glitchy but highly original steampunk adventure fusing magic and technology.

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