The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
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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.
Download The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
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.