The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is a massive single player RPG with a rich open world and hundreds of hours of content. It takes place in Cyrodiil, a fantastical province in the fictional realm of Tamriel. In Oblivion, you are encouraged you play how you want, and explore the game's many quests at your own pace. Whether it's wielding magical powers, fighting with a sword and shield, or becoming an agile assassin or archer, Oblivion allows you to become the character you choose. This freedom, in combination with the rich world building and immersive storytelling, makes Oblivion one of the best RPGs of all time.
Oblivion is both familiar and unique in its gameplay, offering a fun fusion of traditional RPG tropes with modern gameplay. Like the other games in the Elder Scrolls franchise, Oblivion can be played from a first or third person point of view. You have various skills and talents that upgrade as you use them, making your character more powerful in various ways. For example, jumping a lot will level up your agility skill, and dealing damage with a sword will level up your one or two-handed skill.
This allows players to engage in the combat and skills they find interesting, without sacrificing their overall progression. There are tons of different combat options to try out, and plenty of other ways to round out your character. While on your adventure, you'll encounter tons of gear to try on, in addition to new weapons and spells. You always feel like you're earning something when you're playing Oblivion. Whether it's gold, new gear, experience, or just some old fashioned fun, Oblivion is constantly rewarding you with valuable stuff. You'll discover most of this treasure while out questing, completing various tasks for a variety of interesting characters.
Most quests are tied into various story lines, and the first quest you'll encounter kicks off the main story. Awakening in a prison, you'll create a custom character and help initiate a prison break. This sets of a chain of events that sees tour character attempting to thwart an evil cult, who have opened portals to a hell-like realm all over Cyrodiil. The lengthy main quest will have you traveling all over the map and engaging in various battles and side stories. From werewolves and demons to vampires and goblins, Oblivion is packed to The brim with tons of creatures to hunt and secrets to uncover. The main quest is just the beginning though, as some of the best content is in the various "guilds" you can join. There are a handful of guilds to join, and each one offers a dedicated questline and exclusive gear. You can choose to join up with the Assassins Guild, Thieves Guild, Mages Guild, or the Fighters Guild. Each one helps you hone your abilities in a variety of ways, showing you the true power of various character options. The guilds lead to some really cool quests, like solving a murder, investigating a haunted house, and much more.
If you're a fan of RPGs and you like the idea of freedom in both combat and exploration, then Oblivion is a great place to start. There are hundreds of hours of adventures to have, and you'll have a joy leveling up your character. As you craft your own stories and become immersed in the land of Cyrodiil, you'll quickly realize the The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is truly an RPG gem.
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Maryland might not be among the most exciting of US states, and Rockville might not be the most exciting of Maryland cities, but once the gruff Yorkshire tones of our glorious new editor had informed me that I would be flying there forthwith, the passport and travel plug were being dusted off within minutes.
The reason? Rockville is the home of Bethesda Softworks, and PC would be dropping by the company's top secret underground lair to take an exclusive peek at The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Now only a few short months from its Christmas release date, Oblivion is rapidly taking shape. With content pretty much complete, Bethesda has only to apply the final layers of polish and iron out any remaining bugs. According to producer Ashley Cheng, "there's always a point in development where you have to stop making a game, so that you can start playing it" And that's where the team is now. Ashley says that one could now pop into the studio, "hop on a machine, create a character and play through the entire game from beginning to end. It won't be balanced, but all the elements are there.
If you've read our recent previews on Oblivion, you'll know about its hugely impressive Radiant Al system, its incredibly lifelike forests, its advanced visual effects and physics and the fact that the tens of thousands of lines of dialogue are all voiced. Oh, and the horses - we can't forget the horses.
We saw all these elements again during a real-time demo run by executive producer Todd Howard, but we also got the chance to look at some new stuff, as well as wander the dark, labyrinthine dungeon that Bethesda calls home, and chat to members of the team.
After the demo, Howard throws on the latest build of the game and whizzes us through various environments (there will be plains, swamps, scrubland and mountains as well as forests), shows off weapons and armour and even the inside of a cell after getting arrested. Unlike Morrowind, jail is now interactive. You can serve out your time, or try to escape. "You can try to pick the lock. You can pick the guard's pocket when he walks by," says Howard. You can even attack your cellmate and overpower the guard when he comes to investigate the commotion.
Bad To The Bone
In fact, there'll be plenty of room for nastiness in Oblivion, despite the main quest being a 'save the world' type deal. "There's some evil stuff in the game, because a lot of people want to role-play evil." And what could be more evil than becoming an' assassin in the Dark Brotherhood, one of five joinable factions in Oblivion? "Each of the factions is like a role-playing game on its own," Howard continues. "With the Mages' Guild, you have to learn all the schools of magic from all the various cities, then you gain entrance to the Arcane University in the Imperial City. You can't make spells or magic items until you do that. It's a bit Harry Potter-ish. It really feels like a wizard's journey."
Later, character artist Christiane Meister shows off the flexible face builder used in character creation. The ten playable races from Morrowind remain, and each has a basic face that can be aged, stretched and otherwise altered to provide a unique mug for your in-game persona. Add in the hair editor (no, really) and the possibilities become endless. You could spend all day on just one face if you wanted," says Christiane. And believe me, Todd has spent all day playing around with faces, she adds with a chuckle. Needless to say, all faces have animations for speaking and displaying emotions.
Combat has also undergone a thorough re-jigging - programmer Steve Meister takes us through the changes to the enemy Al in detail. The biggest change is we have something called a combat style: a collection of settings that dictates how an NPC or a creature fights. It works in conjunction with their skills and Al settings - things like aggression, confidence, their disposition towards their opponent - to decide how often they attack, how often they block, how much they move, where they're going to stand when they're shooting arrows or ranged spells."
The same power attacks and 'perks' available to the player are available to the Al, including such things as the ability to disarm, paralyse and knock down opponents. Some enemies will yield after taking a beating (this can be accepted or rejected), while others head for the hills at the first sign of combat. If a weapon is lying nearby, they might pick it up and return. We're rapidly running out of space here, and yet we've barely touched upon the amount of cool, scary and downright impressive things we saw during our visit to Bethesda. We haven't mentioned vampires (you can become one, and this time you'll be able to continue playing missions as a bloodsucker), the voice actors (some big names here, as well as Patrick Stewart), the houses that can be bought in each city and the items that let you resurrect dead foes as mindless personal bodyguards.
To put it simply, there's content and gameplay galore. If any other developer was in charge this would be a cause for concern (see Boiling Point) - but Bethesda has pulled it off before, and looks like it's ready to do it again. It won't be long till we find out.
In Ye Olden days, role playing games were little more than just text adventures. Type E' to go east, and you might be greeted by the phrase: You are in a beautiful forest. Sunlight streams through the lush canopy, reflecting dappled sunlight on the grass and flowers below. Twenty-five years on, my character is heading east, and now there really is a beautiful forest in front of my eyes, completely rendered in incredible 3D graphics, branches swaying and reacting to the real-time weather system, birds and wildlife frolicking in the idyllic countryside.
This is The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion -the new RPG from developer Bethesda, and sequel to the critically acclaimed Morrowind, subject of last month's Games That Changed The World. Oblivion is set in a different part of the Elder Scrolls universe, Tamriel, where the emperor has been killed and an evil portal has been opened up below the Imperial capital, letting in all kinds of demonic nasties. It's up to you to vanquish the hellish beasts, rescue the emperor's surviving son and save the world from, ahem, oblivion.
Of course, this being an Elder Scrolls game, it's up to you how you complete the task and what character you wish to become, be that warrior, mage, thief or anyone in between. Oblivion begins in jail, where as a nameless prisoner, you must first free yourself to begin the quest -that's if you can stop admiring the gobsmacking next-gen graphics. And now that Oblivion has a complex physics system, over 9,000 objects can be interacted with - if your character happens to brush past some manacles on the wall, they'll move and clank realistically.
Eventually you escape and can enjoy the rest of the province, approximately 16 square miles, with half of it consisting of forest. Bethesda apparently spent research time with the University of Maryland geology lab studying how soil erodes, rock forms and trees develop. The woods and forests you now see in the game weren't created by an artist, they were literally grown by the game, giving it an intense, organic feel and making it a unique place for unscripted events to happen. You can shoot wild deer that wander about, and eat the meat to boost your stats, or pick berries and mushrooms and even combine them to create potions - if you have the required alchemy skills. In addition, a compass at the bottom of the screen always points towards the nearest point of interest, such as a dungeon, so that you don't end up wandering about lost for hours.
Oblivion has over 200 handcrafted dungeons that the team has spent a lot of time creating, ensuring that there is minute-to-minute action with more quests and interactive items, enemies to defeat and other surprises, such as traps. Combat is still immensely important, but has been revamped so that you can now easily combine melee, defence and magic. By pressing the attack button you pull off a quick sword attack, whereas holding the attack button will perform a much more powerful swipe at foes. You can add magical spells to any fights you encounter, as well as numerous blocks and combos - all governed by character statistics that affect the kind of moves you can pull off and how successful they are.
We've already seen exciting battles in elven dungeons against skeletal warriors, zombies, goblins and hellish knights, with the combat feeling much more brutal and realistic than Morrowind, metal clashing viciously against metal, anguished screams echoing through dark halls and blood spilling freely. You also have the use of other weapons, such as arrows, that will stick realistically in wood or flesh, or bounce off stone.
However, another weapon you can use in the dungeons is stealth - creep into the shadows and your aiming reticule becomes an eye, indicating that you're hidden from view. Now you can sneak up behind enemies and give them a well-timed smack on the back of the head with the butt of your bow. or perform other stealth kills. If you need to check how your character is progressing, bringing up the journal screen will display everything you need to know. Bethesda has decided not to include experience points as in a traditional RPG however, with your character constantly improving different skills the more you play.
It's Good To Talk
A major criticism of Morrowind was the lack of truly interactive NPCs, but this looks to have been improved drastically with Bethesda's new radiant Al' system. Basically, non-player characters now have full day/night schedules, general goals and personalities. They'll engage in non-.scripted conversations with each other pulled from data in the world, and will -react to you differently, depending on your character and previous actions. You can have conversations with NPCs. or just eavesdrop on them to discover new sidequests and find out valuable information. The new 'persuasion area' allows you to give your replies some attitude, so you can bully them, for-example, or tell a joke - the one about the goblin and the farmer's daughter is always a winner. You can tell by the superb facial animation and tone of their voice if you've managed to win them over - or become the social equivalent of an income tax inspector.
With a total of nine main cities, dozens of settlements, gorgeous forests, huge dungeons (including the yet-to-be-revealed hellish underground levels) and a population of thousands of NPCs to interact with, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is definitely one of the most eagerly awaited role-playing games of the year. Don't miss next month's when we'll bring you an exclusive in-depth preview, with unmissable info and never-seen-before screenshots.
How Do You make the ground-breaking even more innovative, the freeform more focused and the visually impressive into the visually spectacular? These are the three challenges currently being faced by Bethesda Softworks - the team behind the now legendary Elder Scrolls series - as it charges relentlessly towards a Christmas release date for what could just be the most ground-breaking role-player in years, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Up till now, Bethesda has been teasing us with snippets of information about this fourth instalment of their Tamriel-based series, without ever unveiling too much. Until now.
This near priceless information, however, cost us dear. After some extensive bartering that saw us parting with Sefton's life savings (almost eight pounds in real money) and Porter's food rations for the next six weeks (a halfeaten packet of Frazzles), we managed to get hold of some exclusive new Infer and screenshots from Todd Howard - the game's executive producer.
What sets Bethesda apart from the majority of its competitors is its undying dedication to reinventing RPG conventions, and breaking away from the norm is at the very heart of the company's developmental ethos.
For us, Oblivion is the chance to go back and look at everything we've done before and decide what we liked, what we wanted to do differently, and what new things we wanted to do, explains Howard. We're big on blowing everything up and starting over again for every game. Even though we're essentially doing a sequel, we don't want it to feel derivative."
Morrowind was a work of genuine innovation, its freeform, dynamic -though at times intimidating - gaming world providing a fresh new approach to the fantasy RPG genre. So when we recently heard that Oblivion would be less freeform than its illustrious predecessor, we were naturally a tad nervous. Was Bethesda about to sell out on us or were there other, subtler, more refined reasons for making Oblivion less sprawling?
I don't know if it's constrained as much as it is focused, Todd assures us. We simply felt a larger obligation to give the player better feedback on what they should be doing, and providing information to let them know they're being successful as they complete things. We're not constraining anything, because it's still a completely freeform, open-ended game. It's more about the kind of feedback we give and making sure players aren't lost, unless they want to be lost."
With that sorted, it was time to get down to the juicy details. Judging by these screenshots, it's clear that the world of Tamriel has taken on an even more lifelike look than in Morrowind, with character faces displaying genuine depth and emotion and the scenery looking lush and alive.
Howard assures us that the visuals will be made all the more impressive by the game's new physics model. We've really ramped up the level of realism and the sense of immersion In the environments we've created. When you see an arrow bounce off stone or stick in a creature, we don't want you to think twice about it. You can walk up to a dead creature and pluck the arrows out because, well, that's how it's supposed to work.
The combat system has also received a complete overhaul. How often in RPGs have you been left feeling like you've had little to do with victory, or had little chance to avert a crushing defeat, due to behind-the-scenes dice deciding your fate rather than personal skill? It's an age-old RPG problem, but it's one that Howard and his team appear to be tackling with vigour and determination. The fact that two previous iterations of the new combat system are now lining Bethesda'S bins is testament to that fact. It took us a long time to get there, to find something that felt nght and worked within an RPG," explains Howard.
"We wanted combat to be fun and visceral, but we didn't want a click-fest. We wanted things to be under the player's control and make sense, such as swinging a sword, seeing it hit an NPC and having it inflict damage. But we also wanted to have the player's stats and abilities to have a very real impact on what's going on. I think we've found a balance that will make sense to anyone."
Bethesda is also attempting to reinvent how you'll level up, by dispensing with experience points and replacing them with a revamped system. "Basically, you improve your skills by Rising your skills," says Howard. So, killing a skeleton with your sword and shield doesn't give you 100 experience points, but it does improve your skill, more specifically, at using a sword and shield. As those skills improve, your character levels up, and you'll eventually be able to do new things with those skills. So, if you get really good at blocking, there's a chance that when you block an attack your character will knock the enemy back with their shield. It's like an extra attack, and it's based on your skill, not on hitting some combination of keys. Sounds good to us.
But of course RPGs - or at least the best RPGs - are never just about hitting undead beings as hard as you can until they run out of hit points, and the Elder Scrolls series has always prided itself on the quality of not only its freeform environments, but of the believability of its inhabitants, too.
If there was one major failing that Morrowind possessed, it was the woodenness of its NPCs. With Oblivion, Bethesda is seeking to rectify that farting. At first, we saw a lot of interesting behaviour from our NPCs," explains Howard. One time we had everyone in town show up in the same tavern at the same time to eat lunch, and one guy didn't have any money, so he went around trying to steal everyone else s food. We've now got it to the point where we don't see too much wacky stuff anymore, but the process has been a lot of fun - to create this system and then watch NPCs do things you hadn't even considered.
The Passage Of Time
Clearly, Bethesda has matured as a developer over the past few years, its realisation that more isn t always better a clear sign of the new directions and priorities that are dnvmg Oblivion forward. It gives us every reason to believe that the fourth instalment of the senes could be its best yet.
And that's without us having even talked about the game's 200 unique dungeons, each one jam-packed with fiendish traps to snare the unwitting adventurer, or the extensive cast of enemies, including skeletons, liches, trolls, goblins and various kinds of Daedra. And let's not forget the spells, which Howard sadly wasn't quite ready to talk to us about just yet. That juicy info is yet to come. Oblivion really is starting to take on a truly gargantuan form, casting an ominous shadow over the RPG genre with its innovative ideas and mammoth ambition. It's hard to argue with Oblivion's promise, and with Bethesda having already proved itself so conclusively in the past, it's just possible that we could be about to see an RPG evolution that'll send the genre in new and exciting directions - one so consuming, so lifelike, that real life may become just a distant memory.
Give Me All Of Your Money... Now!
One of the most potentially exciting devices that Oblivion is set to employ is something called the Persuasion Area. This will allow you to use your character's unique skills to persuade NPCs to do what you want them to.
Some people will want to just run up to someone and hack them with a sword before they get two words out, so their idea of persuasion will lie more in the careful application of brute force, says Howard. But everyone in the world will respond to what you say and do.
Many different factors will forge your persuasion methods and their effectiveness, such as what quests you've embarked on, what factions you belong to and how you've treated NPCs in the past. If you get really good at Speechcraft, continues Howard encouragingly, you can take an NPC that really doesn't care for you that much, and sweet-talk them to the point where they're sharing intimate secrets with you.
Frankly we're not too sure we that we want to know about an elf's deepest darkest fantasy involving an inflatable orc, three tins of Vaseline and a can of condensed milk. Then again...
Virtual Flora Has Never Looked So Good
As Sefton mentioned last month in his Oblivion preview, Bethesda paid a visit to Maryland University to learn all about nature. No, not because it wanted to start its own herb garden or nurture geraniums, but because it wanted to make Oblivion's forests (of which there'll be plenty) and landscapes look as realistic as possible.
"We wanted more information about how things work in nature, like how different kinds of soil erode, explains Howard. We're using this system to procedurally generate the game's landscape, and so we wanted the system to create environments that looked right. Not just how the trees and rocks appear, but how things are shaped, how mountains have eroded over time. We want you to look off into the distance at a group of mountains and swear they're real."
As Job Interviews, go it'll be short and relatively painless. It's just you, a disinterested chap named Haskill, a bare room, a desk and a chair. After such an imposing entranceway, surrounded by otherworldly vegetation thats leeched through its tableau of linked screaming faces into the lands of Cyrodiil, you were perhaps expecting something a little more grandiose within. Then, as the interview concludes, the dull, featureless walls melt away into a cloud of butterflies. And then it happens: you're somewhere slightly mad.
The setting is the tom realm of the daedric Prince of Madness, one Sheogorath, if you haven't been keeping tabs on your Elder Scrolls lore. Bethesda's stated aim is to create a new self-contained land where the characters are more tightly defined, where dialogue is richer and where their quest designers can stretch their imaginative powers to the full, under the broad canopy of the insane, the unstable and the downright psychotic.
The Shivering Isles represent madness itself - eternally split both physically and politically between the bickering forces of Mania (wild-eyed, unhinged) and Dementia (paranoid, gloomy, depressed). Sheogorath rules over them all, but his realm is in danger - under threat from the blank conformity of the Knights of Order who have begun to appear on its fringes. And guess what? Thats where you come in.
"Well it's a geographical split to start with - there's a giant ridge that runs the breadth of the island," explains Shivering Isles lead designer Mark Nelson when I quiz him about Bethesda's new psychological leanings. "The highlands are the lands of Mania and the lowlands are the lands of Dementia. Art-wise, Mania is a lot more vibrant colourful - almost over-saturated in parts. In the lowlands, in Dementia, it's really more of a creepy atmosphere. A lot of mosses hanging out of dark trees and stuff - it's a very claustrophobic feeling thats meant to evoke more of a hard feel to it. Obviously we don't do survival horror, but its a creepier place in general."
Mental As Anything
This ridge even runs through the capital city of the isles, New Sheoth, splitting it in two in true Berlin Wall-style. The stunning fountains and impressive waterfalls of Manias half of the city (known as Bliss) are a sight to behold, yet they drain into the half ruled by Dementia (known as The Crucible), and there the water congeals into dank, stagnant piles of sludge in the arse-end of the city. It's a land split between Alice In Wonderlandstye exuberance and the type of ancient and gloomy forests in which hobbits always seemed to be getting lost in the Lord Of The Rings movies.
"The people themselves are very different too, continues Nelson. "The residents of Mania tend to be, well, manic. You get a lot of obsessives, bizarre artists and the like, who are insanely creative but insane nonetheless. Whereas in Dementia you find the psychotics, the paranoid - people who are afraid of things they've created in their own minds." And who wouldnt be a little disturbed, for example, if you lived in the town of Split on the Mania/Dementia divide where suddenly there are two versions of each resident?
Off To Meet The Wizard
Once the fog of butterflies dissipates, you find yourself in a walled area known as The Fringe, and to escape this there's the small matter of getting past the goliath Gatekeeper that adorns this magazine's cover - a terrifying construction of the body parts of various creatures whose job description provides a fair amount t of the plot later on. Once you're past him though, youll find yourself searching out the man of the moment: Sheogorath.
And once you meet him, alongside his loyal chamberlain Haskill (very much a Jeeves to the big man's Bertie Wooster), the plot starts ticking.
"The first time you meet Sheogorath he says: You know what? I need a mortal champion and you're the only one who's made it to talk with me, so you're him. You are my champion'," explains an enthusiastic Nelson. "But you don't really get an idea of what your real job is going to be. Sheogorath only gives you bits and pieces - he doles out information slowly. He's the god of madness, and he tends to speak in unintentional riddles and go off on tangents about pudding."
Right So anyway, Sheogorath's thought is that if you're going to hold any sway in his court whatsoever, you ought to go out and start meeting people, helping them out, pissing them off and basically having a cracking role-play adventure. As with the various guilds and orders of Cyrodiil, your reputation with the houses of Mania and Dementia will rise and fall according to your actions, but there will come a point at which Sheogorath will ask you to makaa final decision as to which side you will join and, indeed, of which you shall become leader.
This in turn will have ramifications in later quests and in whose support you'll have as you battle the forces of the rival daedric prince Jyggalag (mentioned once in a book in Daggerfall, and apparently hotly discussed on the Elder Scrolls lore forums), who's moseying into the madness uninvited. Hes attempting to render a genocide of sensible-ness upon the Shivering Isles known as The Greymarch, an ancient event that occurs every epoch or two that Sheogorath is naturally . anxious to avoid. As Nelson points out it's all very much created in the spirit of Neil Gaiman (author of the Sandman graphic novel series and novels like American Gods), with concepts like sanity and madness being given form and personality, and having them clash against each other while mortals like you and I toil away beneath them, subject to their every whim.
One of the key things Sheogorath wants you to do is help create another guardian for the Gates of Madness. As such, searching out the original guardian's creator and helping him fashion a new one out of body bits is an importantpart of main quest, but the chirpy Mark Nelson is reluctant to reveal much more in terms of storyline - and not just to lessen the risk of spoilerification.
He's equally excited, you see, about the little people - the NPC characters lower down the food chain who may not hold the future of an entire daedric realm in their hands, but are at least entertaining in their own little mentalist ways. There's the chap you come across who's afraid to sleep in his own house in case the walls fall in and crush him, for example, who asks you to find him a truly safe place to sleep. There's the mad woman in the wilderness who obsessed by having one of everything in the world - from creatures to objects - and whose whims you can only satisfy if you've got a couple of aeons to spare. A more professional obsessive, meanwhile runs and gives tours around the Museum of Oddities, to which you are asked to become a donor as the amount of bizarre and useless objects in your inventory starts to build up.
Speaking of which, more obsessive fans will be delighted to hear that Shivering Isles is due to be the first Elder Scrolls game to find a use for calipers - the heretofore useless household implements that have been found (and left) inside the barrels and chests of Tamriel for countless ages.
There's no particular good/bad divide in gameplay this time round, but more of a mottled hue of morals and loyalties. You'll come across a bloke in New Sheoth, for example, who's absolutely desperate to kill himself but cant, since topping yourself is seen as such a crime that theres even a dank, depressing place called the Hill of Suicides for their ghosts to hang out for all eternity as punishment. So it is then, if you choose to help out that you must figure out an inventive accident to ensure that this poor chap snuffs it without it looking like he's asked you directly.
Seeing as you're climbing up the chain of nobility, meanwhile, you're also expected to grow a healthy disdain for the tiresome adventurers who keep bundling into the realm with the intention of slaying beasts, looting treasure and generally making a nuisance of themselves. As such, one of the main quests is a direct homage to the venerable Bullfrog box of fun that was Dungeon Keeper. Sheogorath, you see, has a spare dungeon in Xedilian that he uses partly for testing people and partly for keeping unwanted mortal visitors busy. Once you've worked your way through its intricacies yourself, it's up to you and a vast array of booby-traps, pits and heavy swinging objects to deal with one such party of have-a-go adventurers who are dead-set on stealing its fictional treasures. What's more, what happens in the tom realm of Sheogorath stays in the tom realm of Sheogorath, so you could be chief goody-two-shoes back in Cyrodiil and a filthy murdering bastard here and none will be the wiser.
Things That Roar
And what role-playing expansion would be complete without a fresh menagerie of monsters - and weapons to repeatedly hit them round the head with? As with the art style and demeanour of the locals, creatures differ according to which subsection of insanity youre adventuring in. A typical beast found in the over-the-top lands of Mania, for example, is the Elytra - a giant ant-like insect with garish oil-spill rainbow patterning, beady red eyes and furiously jabbing pincers. A similarly feared denizen of Dementia meanwhile would be its representation of Hunger - a ghastly pale figure not unlike the tentacle-mouthed zombies in STALKER, whose emaciated yet muscly figure roains through rural areas picking off livestock and farmers. Other foes that could be mentioned include the big (the Baliwog that seems to be half crocodile, half frog and more than a little Jabba the Hutt), the small (this seasons goblin placements are known as Grummites) and the ones with sexy chests ("Helloooo, Dark Seductresses!").
As for tools of smitage with which to destroy this evil (and sexiness), Nelson doesn't want to go into too much detail for fear of having to talk to me all week. He does, however, mention a sword known as Bawnfang, that gets powered up the more souls you dispatch - essentially levelling fop alongside you. Unfortunately, it resets itself at night when it also changes its name to Duskfang, but it's a great idea nonetheless. If you're a particularly magical character, meanwhile, you'll be interested to hear of the addition of what Bethesda are calling point-blank areaeffect spells', that explode spectacularly around you when they're cast.
Content Is King
Personally, I didn't have too many problems with vanilla Oblivion. I enjoyed every last drop in fact, but I know a fair wodge of people who had one or two reservations. Some of them I have the misfortune of working with on a daily basis. First and foremost, if you didn't like the levelling system, with its insistence that when you got stronger then so did all the bandits hiding behind the trees, then don't expect a magical 'fix' in the expansion. This add-on is all about the content and not necessarily the belt and braces of the gameplay.
Having said that if you were of the opinion that interaction with the residents of CyrodiiI was a touch on the shallow side, then to an extent Bethesda agree with you. Nelson himself regrets that they "couldn't quite get to the meat" of NPCs in the original, but with a smaller cast list of around 60 or 70 (excluding monosyllabic guards and the like), the plan is that each will be a fleshed-out and well-rounded individual. Bar the insanity, obviously.
"We've had more time to really get into their heads, to write them up and really be in this realm of madness," claims the Bethesda man. "Some of them are simply quirky - you'd meet them on the street and you wouldn't realise they were insane. Others are just psychotic." And thankfully, as these screenshots more than attest NPC faces are a bit less puffy this time.
And there you have it the realm of Sheogorath. One card short of a full deck, hot quite in the pink, missing a few screws and most certainly more than slightly mad. Around 30 hours of play on a mad island around a quarter the size of the original game's Cyrodiil.
The very best parts of Oblivion were the ones where its designers were clearly given carte blanche to create something crazy - the stolen ship, the painting quest, entering someone's dreams or watching burning Alsatians rain down on a village of cats. This time, under the expansive banner of madness itself, they're cooking up ingenious and barmy quests as a matter of course. The lunatics have taken over the asylum, and long may they reign.
After Playing Through the ghastly tutorial of Oblivion four times I've finally managed to create a character that works, in that all of my primary skills are used enough that they all improve at a similar rate.
This fact, alongside long-exhausted complaints of enemies that level up simultaneously to you, the weak story, and the giant vaginas that constantly inhibit your exploration, are all reasons why Morrowind is superior to Oblivion.
So when I ask myself why I've replayed Oblivion four times, and never replayed Morrowind I've, unsurprisingly, found myself unable to answer. But I believe that I've finally worked it out: It's down to my stubbornness.
When I first played Morrowind, it was the best gaming experience of my life. With Oblivion my enjoyment of the game is hampered by problems, and consequently I've become determined that one day I'll experience a play-through of Oblivion as blissful as my time on the island of Vvardenfell.
I simply refuse to accept that Oblivion is an inferior game, and so I'm condemned to fotever wander the absurdly grassy landscape of Cyrodiil, searching for the Morrowind-killer that, deep down, I know I'll never find.
Magisterial That's the word we're looking for. Morrowind can take the plaudits for laying the groundwork and scrubbing out the rules of location linearity in role-playing, but The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion takes that model, streamlines it, seamlessly integrates exhilarating combat smothers it in beautiful graphics and takes both Tamriel and the art of role-playing to an unprecedented new height It's bloody daunting at first Your initial three hours of freedom will contain a distinct level of confusion and blind wandering, but after this period of worry an unconscious nerve will fire off at the back of your head and everything will just click. This is where the adventure begins, and this is where you begin to melt into your PC.
So where do you want to go today? Well, there's a pretty wide choice round these here parts - so I'll fill you in on what I've been up to and we'll build from there. I began yesterday by lurking outside a jeweller's shop until approximately 2am.
I then proceeded to creep upstairs and slaughter the owner of said shop with a combination of arrows and fireballs directed at his head. Having looted the shop for anything that glittered, I then crept out and avoided the law until I reached a nearby hovel where I slept until dawn.
This morning, I scurried to the nearest stable (neatly sidestepping a woman asking me if I'd heard of the terrible tragedy in town), rustled a horse and clippety-clopped into the bright new day. This afternoon I will slink around dusty tombs in search of treasure; and to make up for my many crimes I'll give saving the world a whirl come teatime. Oh, and there's a gang of women convincing menfolk that a night of nookie is on the cards when they're actually going to mug them -1 could sort that out Oh, and I've got to kill a pirate. And I also want to make my horse climb that big mountain. I'm sorry, but if you're not partial to ecstatic liyperbole in game reviews then stop reading. Just stop reading now.
Best giant rats ever? I think so! They're huge! They leap, they jump, they bite! They appear just after your opening escape from prison, what with a secret doorway leading from your cell providing not only an escape route for embattled Emperor Uriel Septim, but also an ingenious tutorial for your good self. And there you are battering rats in a gloomy Goblin cave, happily blocking with your right mouse button and slashing with your left, fighting the most jumpy and savage role-play rats ever created. Does life get any better than this? Yes, immeasurably.
I'll leave the delights of one of the most intuitive character-creation processes of all time to your own discovery, but plot-wise, the prologue sees the untimely demise of the aforementioned Emperor (played by Patrick Stewart), whose dying wish is for you to "Make it so" by finding his long-lost son. Without a hereditary ruler you see, the land of Cyrodiil becomes an open target for ferocious demons intent on expanding their fiery domains into mortal teiritories - an issue somewhat glossed over by its own anti-monarchist movement By the time you reach Martin, the heir (as played by Sean Bean), it's no great secret that the powers of evil have 'Sharpened their interest in affairs and opened up a fiery portal to the planes of Oblivion just outside his house. Adventure ensues.
Of course, you might not have bothered to follow the plot at all, instead choosing a brisk mountain walk in the pursuit of rare herbs. If you have no interest in current affairs whatsoever, individual quests dealing with anything from lusty maidens to bossy high sheriffs can be garnered from the townsfolk of each of the nine major cities -or from representatives of the Mages Guild, Thieves Guild, Fighters Guild and Dark Brotherhood (should you have strayed down one, or all, of their paths).
I stuck my head through the giant flaming eye of Oblivion, got a bit scared and decided to run away and attempt to become Gangster No 1 before taking a walk on the wild side. fys for' Oblivion itself, well I won't spoil anything, but it's a bit red and flamey, and if you're expecting it to solely take up later chunks of the plot then you'll be surprised -these scintillatingly Doomy planes of Daedrlic Princes and bubbling lava are open from early in the game, and you'll come across more than one of their fiery portals.
Hack. Slash. Repeat?
Let's get this straight though - The Elder Scrolls hasn't been turned into some kind of hack 'n' slash bullshit Affairs may have been streamlined but they certainly haven't been watered down: levels, statistics attributes have been meldecjrseamlessly with first-person action. Forget the slightly 'off' feel combat in Vampire -Bloodlines or the strange sensation in MonvwindVal you were hitting creatures with a wooden cane whose tip disappears three times out of five. Oblivion removes the passive tap-tap-tap of role-play combat and turns it into something genuinely gratifying. When you aim just above a bandit's head to account for gravity and fire off an arrow, it feels like your own skill (and your own skill alone) is to account for the neat kill - the rolling of dice is there, but done so far backstage that it could be taking place in a Securicor van in the carpark.
It may feel like they're not there, but at any point levels, classes, allegiances, weights, NPC opinions, attributes, magicka, skills, fatigue, luck, agility and charisma are all bubbling under and waiting for tweakage. You never feel out of your depth though, perhaps because the game and story never pit you against foes that are remarkably out of your league. Which is great because when you're confused and wearing the wrong armour, you're simply a bit crap rather than hopeless fodder for the horde. Streamlining is the name of the game -everything works with ruthless efficiency and there's barely a second of time in which everything snarls up due to a misplaced magical sword or a spell without a hotkey being lost at the bottom of your magic bag. The game is a hugely complex one, but the complexity never makes its presence felt -you're too busy cooing at pretty lighting effects or murdering/saving noblemen.
A noteworthy departure from the Morrowind template, meanwhile, is the fact that once you've visited a location, you can warp to and fro via your handy map screen - bypassing the need for intense route planning and knowledge of public transport It's a welcome move if you found Morrowind that little bit too daunting. If anything, it gives you a greater sense of freedom - meaning that when you're out exploring and adventuring you're doing it for the sake of it, rather than simply as a way of making a trek to a distant city that's more interesting. The exceptionally anal may moan at its introduction, but just because it's there doesn't mean they have to use it.
Let's not bypass this concept of exploring for the sheer heck of it though - the land of Cyrodiil is littered with ancient tombs, mines, shrines and caverns that are full of chests that need looting and some staggeringly animated monsters. Forget Lara Croft and her stupid guns and slow-motion bullet-dodge dives - this is an entirely different thing. The dungeons of Oblivion are pure Indiana Jones-style tomb raiding - stuffed with ingenious physics-based traps, murky pedestals and crumbling walls. The whole game could play out beneath the earth and I wouldn't care - just wait until you set off a trap that spits metal darts out of a wall and watch them shatter an approaching skeleton into a bunch of bones and you'll be just as in love with Oblivion as I am.
Not every love affair runs smooth however even Joanie and Chachie had wobbly moments 23 minutes or so into each episode, and my relationship with Oblivion is no exception. There are a few things that niggle - the fiddly lock-picking mini-games, for example, or the thoroughly daft 'pie-chart of persuasion that lets you butter up NPCs via a random clicking of a rotating circle. Both are needless, clearly developed with the Xbox 360 in mind, and can be circumvented at the expense of either autoresolve or bribery - so why bother?
Other quibbles cover trees and buildings in the far distance getting jaggedy on the highest settings, the fact that horse-riding isn't quite as fun as it could be (how can that ever be right?) and the odd example of AI confusion (ultra-violent stolen horses spring to mind, not that we're obsessed with the horses) - but all this is a dribble of piss compared to the almighty torrent of goodness contained within Oblivion.
Its real triumph isn't even that it's so outstandingly good, but simply that it has managed to exist in this form at all. Look at how Fable was watered down from Molyneux's original vision. Look at the state of STALKER. Look at how Oblivion's only noteworthy competitor is Fallout 3. that's not only aeons away but also made by the same people. These games are a bitch to make and absolutely hellish to actually finish, but Bethesda has gone and done it It's created a masterpiece. As such, right now. the company is so important that if I was on drugs I'd carve its name into my arm with a rusty knife.
If you love gaming - if you love leaving your identity at the door and embarking on red-blooded adventure that's previously only been the domain of high literature and childhood imagination, I can give no higher recommendation. Make no mistake, this is more than the best role-playing game of our times. It's the best one we've ever seen.
Look who's moved in next door...
It's time for some shameless pimping of the writer's avatar
So this is me. My name is Batsphinx, I'm a Dark Elf. and the natty ensemble I'm wearing was presented to me by a group of assassins known as the Dark Brotherhood for my services in fireballing a pensioner while he was sleeping. I was born under the sign of the Thief (although secretly I wish that I'd chosen The Lover), and I have an ancestral power that allows me to conjure up the spirit of deceased relations to protect me once a day. I'm skilled with the bow, effective with a blade and I have spent most of my life in and out of jail. I once got bitten by a vampire, but I feel a lot better. My favourite colour is green. I'm currently standing in an otherworldly plane from which evil Daedric forces plan to destroy life as I know it. To my knowledge, I've never once kissed a girl.
You Can Go wherever you like, do and kill whatever you like, talk to whoever you like," explains Pete Hines of Bethesda. "All we ask is that you don't enter the Jaws of Oblivion - that's a secret." In a darkened office populated with journalists and PCs running The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, it's the equivalent of placing a jar of cookies in the middle of a crowd of hyperactive kids and then waiting outside.
Except we're all particularly unshaven kids and the jar is a flaming portal to the realms of chaos. Naturally, I make the mental preparations required to hunt the portal down and hurl myself into it before Hines can catch and reprimand me - it's not enough that Bethesda has crafted an enormous world full of beautiful cities, scenic forests, peaceful glades and treacherous mountains, oh no... The true meaning of adventure is going where the tall man in the nice shirt told you not to, and then telling him you went there by accident.
My personal quest is largely unsuccessful however, and my closest encounter with Oblivion comprises of a moment or two of standing meekly a few yards from the threshold, trying to edge innocently towards the fiery red gateway while a Bethesda rep looms ominously over my shoulder like a school teacher. I could make a run for it lunging head-first into whatever secrets await me, but then again the Bethesda rep might kill me seven different ways before the loading screen disappears. Besides, there's enough happening on the greener side of the Jaws of Oblivion to keep me occupied.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion begins, as many RPGs do, with the clean slate that is memory loss. More specifically, you wake up in prison, being taunted by a fellow prisoner in a cell across the hall. You're only half-listening to his jeering insults though, because I can guarantee your attention will be held almost entirely by your beautifully realised surroundings. Every brick of your cell looks slightly damp ancf rough, and you'll notice how the shackles swing realistically when you run into them. It's no wonder you're being insulted by a stranger, because you look like a mental patient as you gaze wondrously at the floor and gasp at the light streaming through your window. For the technically-minded, Bethesda is using shaders on everything; for the less technically-minded, Bethesda has I smothered everything in liberal amounts of pretty-juice, and you haven't even stepped outside the confines of your cell yet.
Having chosen your race and carefully designed your own face, you set off to make your escape, traversing a dungeon which offers you many different ways of getting to the other end. You find corpses, some with swords, some with daggers, some with bows and shields You find enemies who can be killed outright in bloody combat or stealthily picked off. You also have opportunities to use magic, chances to use different types of armour and to use melee.
The first section of the game is effectively a tutorial, and rather ingeniously it's a character-creation tool too. Before you enter the wide world of Cyrodiil, you're told by a character that he's been watching you and he reckons you're a capable thief or knight or one of many character classes available (based on the choices you made while you escaped).
It's a clever way of bypassing the boring and meaningless menu screens of character creation, and one that works extremely well. Of course, you can disagree with this character and choose your own class or skillsets - the decision is yours.
Go Your Own Way
And that's where everybody's game stops being the same. That's where you step outside into the world and are given the freedom to go wherever you please. You want to ignore the prophecy and forego the main storyline? Fine, it'll wait for you if you want to do it later. You want to start trading drugs and making a small fortune before buying a house in the capital city? It's a possible, if dangerous ambition. The sheer scope of freedom is astounding, and whereas in Morrowind it was almost intimidating being left to your own devices, Oblivion subtly directs you to your objectives via an on-screen compass.
You can also quickly travel between places you've already visited if you don't like trekking everywhere, although it'd be a shame when the environments are this breathtaking.
As for me, I decide to wander into the vast beyond, eventually finding myself in a small, secluded monastery in the hills. Spurred by the sweet evening air and my naturally destructive tendencies, I draw my dagger and stalk a strolling monk. As soon as I'm close enough, I attempt to pickpocket him.
Unfortunately, he's carrying nothing but a loaf of bread and some books, and even worse, he immediately spots my I cack-handed attempt to rifle through his habit Cornered between a screaming monk and a hard place, I do what any sensible man would do - stab the religious type multiple times and run as fast as I can towards the stables.
High priests and guards alike are already giving chase as I leap over the fence and clamber on top of the nearest shiniest horse. Then, just like in Knight Rider when KITT does a turbo jump, I launch over the fence and gallop towards the horizon, leaving four angry priests, an exhausted guard and a confused stable master in my wake. I've killed a man of the cloth, so I ride hard and fast lest my terrible past catch up with me. A gritty monologue plays in my mind, something about a man wanted by the law, surviving as a soldier of fortune. If you have a problem, if no-one else can help, and if you can find me - maybe you can hire Steve Hogarty, horse thief, regular thief and murderer. I also do balloon animals.
Later that night as I lay in a bed in an inn in a town where nobody knows who I am or what I've done, a shadowy figure appears in my bedroom. He's a member of the Dark Brotherhood, and has observed my murderous actions He's here to offer me a chance to join his ranks of darkness, a society of evil-minded contract killers. This means I get to take part in a huge series of side-quests that I could easily have overlooked. I choose to accept the offer as soon as I learn that killing your contractual targets without them ever seeing you gets you a nice bonus, and that one of my contracts would involve breaking back into the prison I'd escaped from in order to kill the taunting jailbird from earlier on.
It just goes to show how diverse the Oblivion world is and just how many opportunities there are, implicit or otherwise. Get thrown in prison for example, and you're approached by the Thieves' Guild, a society of honourable tealeafs (don't look so surprised) who frown upon murder but smile upon stealing pretty things from people who weren't really using them anyway. In fact, get thrown in prison and you can try to break out rather than live out your sentence: try attacking a cellmate and then ambushing the guards who come rushing in, before stealing their weapons and fighting your way out Or maybe you'd rather pick the lock on your cell door and stick to the shadows. It's all about choice - wonderful, wonderful choice.
All this and I haven't even mentioned the heavily-tweaked combat system. It's changed from Morrowind, in that pointing-and-clicking on an enemy is now a guarantee that you'll make some sort of contact This makes for far more physical melee combat and being able to launch magic attacks while holding a weapon means learning and using magic is a far more appealing pursuit in Oblivion. Bows are vastly improved too, now that whether or not you hit the enemy is based on how skilful you are at aiming rather than your stats. You can block using the right-mouse button, it's no longer a random stats roll, and you can disarm opponents, and even apologise to NPCs you've accidentally (or otherwise) enraged.
If you've played The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, you'll have an opinion of RPGs vastly different to that of somebody who's never experienced the freeform gameplay of Bethesda's classic series Oblivion's precursor brought so much to the role-playing table, it practically brought the tablecloth and those little doily things that everybody assumes will already be there. Foregoing the usual stigmatic RPG features that so often scare regular shavers away, the next Elder Scrolls game again offers you an enormous and deeply involving world right from the game's outset a main quest which can be dipped in and out of at will, plus intuitive gameplay that simply works with you rather than against Morrowind was an amazing achievement for Bethesda and the RF'G genre too, and now Oblivion will arrest your attention like a bullet to the knees. Prepare yourself for something special.
Yet another anecdote courtesy of Oblivion's fantastic AI
Once upon a time there was an Oblivion developer who was putting the finishing touches on a new cloning wand he'd just added. The idea was that if you pointed this wand at an enemy, it would make a body-double of that enemy who would do battle with his genetic twin. Anyway, in order to test the physics sounds, he dropped this wand on the floor, only to have a hostile NPC pick it up and zap him with it Cue shocked faces all round as a perfectly cloned copy of the developer's character appeared nearby and promptly began kicking the crap out of him.
"Everybody come look!" he yelped. "It's me!" While it's likely that such craziness will be removed from the final game for the sake of balance (unfortunately), it's clear that Bethesda's new Radiant AI system will still be very impressive. And they'll probably live happily ever after too.
Have you ever heard someone recite the numerical value of pi to the millionth decimal place? Well, the dude who rendered all the grass in Oblivion is probably crazier. He probably has nightmares about grass, but by "nightmare," we mean something else not appropriate for print.
Should you buy Oblivion? That's most likely the question you're asking yourself and the reason you are reading this review. So let's cut to the chase; yes, you should buy Oblivion' probably. The only caveat to this (thus requiring the probably) is not everyone is going to love this game. RPG fans, action fans, adventure fans and gamers open to new challenges will be ecstatic. However, if anything with a pace slower than a 16 player death match on Halo 2 leaves you bored, steer clear. Very little in Oblivion happens at a fast pace so be prepared to read, travel, visit, re-read, travel more and visit more. Thankfully, the well crafted game system makes these tasks very accessible but I still feel it my duty to throw out that warning.
For those not acclimated to the Elder Scrolls games, they are RPG's through and through. Questing, looting, talking, gathering information, reading books and following a storyline tainted with evil are all on the menu. The development team has listened to the feedback from the loyal fan base and has done a great job making an overwhelming world and quest system much more manageable. I personally quit playing Morrowind after many fruitless hours of searching for quest locations. I enjoyed the game but just ran out of patience. Oblivion fixes this issue with a great waypoint system leading you in the correct direction of your next objective. For the hardcore RPG'er, this may be blasphemy but for the rest of us gamers, it is necessity.
It would be impossible to write a comprehensive one page review on this title because the scope of the game is enormous. Between the main story, the side quests and the guild quests you will not be completing this game in a weekend' or even two. There is so much to do and so many things to see throughout the world of Oblivion, you will spend the first 10 hours or so just getting your feet under you. When I heard 360 games would carry a price tag of $60, I was skeptical. After playing Oblivion, I feel the developers and content folks earned every penny of this price. Regardless of whether you like the game or not, nobody can argue the amount of time, efforts, and love that went into crafting this game and the world surrounding it.
The combat is also handled in a very intuitive and easy to master way. You will have no problems picking up a controller and hacking or casting you way through enemies like it's second nature. You can switch between first or third person perspective giving you options to play the game the way you prefer. It did take me a while to get comfortable with the inventory system and the quest management but once I figured it out, I found it to be quite easy to use.
From a technical perspective, this game also fits the bill as 'next gen'?. When I signed up for Xbox 360, this is what I was expecting to see. The graphics are amazing with draw distance that must be seen to be appreciated. The detail on the buildings, armor and other characters is just mind blowing. Again, if there was every any question about the $60 price tag, it will be gone within the first 5 minutes of playing. However, all of this detail comes at a price. There are moments of graphical stuttering and loading can be a bit frequent but not significant enough to detract from the experience.
Oblivion has been high on the hype scale and it definitely lives up to the buzz. There are hours and hours of content' make that weeks and weeks worth of content available. If you are a discerning gamer who purchases only a handful of games per year, this game will keep you busy. If you have a large library of games, you can prepare to have them begin collecting dust. Again, I can't stress enough how the pacing of this game is not going to be for everyone but if you go in with that expectation, you will have a great time. I will gladly keep paying $60 if this is the level of game hitting the market.