Writing this review proved to be a great deal harder than I'd imagined. I think there are two reasons why: First, Oblivion is a huge and multifaceted game. There's a lot of ground to cover and it's easy to concentrate on the few negatives while skipping over a lot of the positives. Second, it's really hard to talk about the game without referencing Morrowind regularly. The games are obviously from the same universe, but to call Oblivion something as trite as "the next installment in the Elder Scrolls series" doesn't even begin to do the game justice. So, with all that being said, settle in for a lengthy review. Let's get the few negatives out of the way first and then I'll regale you with just how great this game is despite a few flaws.
I'll be the first to admit I had a love/hate relationship with Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, which was the last installment in this series. On one hand, the game was pretty (for its time), massive, lushly detailed, and almost never-ending in terms of what a player could do. I loved these things. On the other hand, it was also buggy, prone to crashing (there was one part of the continent that crashed my Xbox every time I set foot there—no matter how many copies of the game I tried), and it was massive. Yes, the immense size of Morrowind was both a positive and a negative. In many ways, I have the same loves when it comes to Oblivion. Fortunately, most of the complaints have been eliminated—or at least occur with far less frequency than they did in the last game.
Say what you will about developer Bethesda Softworks, but one thing is for sure—these guys are ambitious. Morrowind was a gigantic game with hundreds of quests to undertake and places to explore, and Oblivion seems to have doubled that in most regards. This is an offline Role-Playing Game (RPG) that rivals many of the Massively Multiplayer Online games in terms of sheer content and things to do. When the game's advertising trumpets the fact that players could spend 200 hours exploring the world of Tamriel, it's not just marketing hyperbole—it's genuine truth. If one were to try to see and do everything that's available in this title, they wouldn't have to purchase another game for weeks. Just finding all the dungeons, caves, and mines is an undertaking that would have made Vasco de Gama flinch.
The problem, though, is that occasionally Oblivion is simply too big and too ambitious for its own good. While I certainly can understand people disliking games with excessively linear pathing that guides players from point A to point B by the hand, the Elder Scrolls games have always gone a bit too far in the opposite direction for my taste—there's so much freedom in the games it becomes overwhelming. This was particularly true in Morrowind—a game that I spent over a hundred hours on and never finished the main quest (nor came close to finishing it for that matter). Bethesda seems to have realized this flaw from Morrowind and attempted to tone down the number of miscellaneous quests floating around in the game's world, but it's still simply overwhelming. There are a million stories at work in Oblivion—but the real tragedy is that the main one is often treated with the same amount of significance as "generic fetch quest #608."
This cursory treatment becomes even more disappointing when one realizes that the game's main quest (wherein an Emperor is assassinated in the first few minutes and a cult called The Mythic Dawn is opening Oblivion portals that spew forth Daedric demons all over the countryside) is filled with so much potential. The main quest features a compelling tale with some interesting gameplay (the Kvatch segments in particular) and some excellent characters, but far too often it all takes a backseat to doing series after series of more mundane quests in order to snag loot and level up. Yes, the player has a certain amount of freedom in regards to how he tackles the game—but this is one of those rare times where a little more forcefulness on the part of the developers might have been in order. Simply put, a game should require the player to do the main quest at some point. Oblivion never does.
The game's other flaws are more traditional—the title's combat engine (at least as far as melee fighting is concerned) is still somewhat clunky, there's the occasional bit of slowdown, glitches and bugs lurk around almost every corner, and the game crashes more than every other Xbox 360 game I've played…combined. It's a testament to just how great and gorgeous the game is in all its other facets that it can have these problems and still inspire praise.
The most obvious upgrade Oblivion has to offer is a visual one. Running on the beefed up Xbox 360 hardware, this is arguably the most beautiful console RPG ever released. From sharply detailed cities to lush forests, to spooky dungeons, Oblivion will wow you at almost every turn. Character models are well-drawn and animate with a surprising amount of grace and fluidity. Lips move in synch with speech. Eyes blink, facial expressions change, clothes move—all in all, the characters look strikingly real (save for the fact that most of them look like they have no teeth when they talk…a minor quibble). If that weren't enough, trees sway in the breeze, flowers and plants litter the countryside, lakes of realistic looking water are everywhere, and the sky is an ever-changing tableau. Truthfully, if not for Dead or Alive 4, this game would be the hands down winner of the best 360 graphics award to date. If someone put a gun to my head and made me choose, I'd take Oblivion—if only because it has so much more to animate and does it smoothly and with one of the longest in-game draw distances I've seen.
The second thing most gamers will notice out of the gate is that the game is extremely customizable. Character creation can take an hour or more, depending on how in-depth the person making their avatar wants to be. Aside from numerous races and sexes, almost every facial feature is tweakable. Factor that in with the numerous class choices (and the ability to create custom classes from scratch), birth signs to be born under, and other assorted odds and ends, and the options are almost endless. This is one game where no one can complain they couldn't find a character that suited their play style.
Once the character has been created, the game plops players into the world with little in the way of direction or money. Unlike Morrowind (where it was entirely possible to take a low level character to a place where he'd be slaughtered in seconds), Oblivion features enemies that are leveled to your character. So, when I wander into the first dungeon right outside the Imperial sewers, the enemies inside can be as simple as rats or as evolved as high level Daedra—it all depends on what level I am. This is one of the areaswhere Bethesda has listened to the fans— Morrowind could be beaten simply by power leveling your character to God-like status. This time out, that just makes the enemies encountered harder to kill.
The other great improvement involves travel and travel time. Morrowind had a large world to explore, and while there were mage guild teleports, most of the land had to be traversed on foot. Oblivion deals with this issue in two ways: the game features horses a character can buy and ride across the countryside and it's implemented an instant travel system called "fast travel." Horses are a great addition to the game—particularly for when a character wants to explore the countryside and find new camps, dungeons, and mines. Thanks to their speed, the horses make getting around fast, and they can outrun most enemies the player will encounter in the wild—meaning you won't have to stop to kill every single wolf who happens to notice your passing. Fast travel essentially allows you to warp to any place you've discovered previously. Players simply open the map, select the location, and click a button to be whisked away. While using fast travel, time passes as normal in the game—but players won't be forced to make long journeys across this massive world just to get from point A to point B anymore.
Aurally, Oblivion is very reminiscent of Morrowind. Composer Jeremy Soule once again handles the scoring duties and he's recycled a lot of pieces from the previous game. This isn't a major issue, though, because the last game's score was excellent. There are newer pieces here as well, and they're very classical in structure and almost understated in their execution. The music never overwhelms the action—instead, it's content to serve as a complement to what's happening onscreen.
The other half of the aural coin features the game's extensive voice acting. Morrowind had some spoken dialogue, but a lot of text as well. Oblivion has upped the ante by having all the dialogue voiced—and voiced well. There's a mixture of professional actors (Patrick Stewart) and lesser known but no less talented performers on display here. The end result is a rarity amongst console RPGs—a game wherein the voice acting is actually great and doesn't make players want to mangle the mute button on their television remote.
Honestly, I could sit here all day and talk about this game. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion has so many things to see, do, and experience that it's impossible to cover them all in a simple review. Fans of epic RPGs with deep and involving plots will eat this up—and the time spent here reading about the game could be better used in actually playing it. It's not a perfect game (but I've yet to see a game that is), but if this is the direction next generation RPGs are headed in, then fans of the genre should rejoice. Oblivion is a game people will still be calling a classic a decade from now—and in the fickle world of gaming, that's high praise indeed.
A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.
Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.
In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.