Over four years after its release, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion remains a high-profile, talked-about game referenced in most conversations with the keywords “incredible experience” and “showcase RPG.” My time with the game was quite the contrary; like most diehard Elder Scrolls fans and experienced genre players, I remained attached to the previous release, Morrowind, and refused to accept this newfangled, player-friendly contraption into my RPG canon. Until this week, however, when on a whim I pulled my dusty Game of the Year copy from its untouched place on my shelf (simply because I didn’t like it does not mean it didn’t warrant a purchase) and began my quest to save the land from the demonic hordes.
As expected, the game doesn’t quite appear as stunningly gorgeous and artistic as it once did. No longer are the sprawling vistas and sunsets revolutionary, nor the daily routines of the game’s inhabitants a novelty (excepting, of course, that the Ultima series accomplished this decades prior); likewise, the inhuman and slow-motion leaps and mind-numbingly slow pace of the player character don’t seem to translate into today’s fast-paced, reward-heavy gaming environs. But, all the same, that inexplicable charm remained. The first time I lured a shop owner to his own basement and shanked him with a stolen dagger before looting his entire store, I was instantly hooked.
Role-playing games are meant to be role played, a gameplay experience many players overlook in their haste for the next level or the shiniest gob of armor available. The most upfront manner to accomplish this is character creation. Personally, I can spend upwards of an hour fine-tuning and test driving each of my creations (hell, I spent three hours in The Temple of Elemental Evil tinkering each of my party members to precision), and while Oblivion doesn’t present the normal Dungeons & Dragons screen with stat rolls and attributes, it is anything but rudimentary. Generally, and in my time with Morrowind, I would select either a pure warrior class or a pure magic caster. For my triumphant return here, I planned something slightly more unique. My final product was what I deemed to be a more authentic assassin, far superior to the vanilla character profile provided; I was adept at frontal combat and heavy armor while being a skilled marksman and thief -a true death dealer. The sole caveat of this build was a near-complete lack of magical knowledge. A pithy thing.
The sheer breadth of options available in terms of quest completion remain a feat today, which I was not expecting. As per my previous warrior classes, my limited experience with Oblivion taught me that direct assault was the simplest and most beneficial solution to any task. How much I missed out on! These new options were provided to me by way of the Dark Brotherhood, the assassin’s guild of Oblivion whose primary task is to eliminate individuals for reward. Instead of trite “go here, kill this person, collect reward” quests, these were far more interesting. For example, in one instance I was tasked with attending a Clue-like lock in whereby the guests had been informed the house contained a treasure chest loaded with gold. Sadly, there was no chest -only demise. Each guest had to be picked off out of sight of the others, which led to some highly-entertaining sequences of emergent gameplay. With one guest, I angered him to the point of attacking me. What he didn’t expect was me to lead him directly into another guest, which caused both of them to fight and kill one another.
Even the godfather of modern RPGs, Baldur’s Gate II, was not exceptionally strong in the quest department. Where it shone was the stellar writing and character development, which remain the achievement point even today, nearly ten years following its release. With Oblivion, the quests are of extreme variety which hold up quite well against contemporary peers. Dragon Age, a modern referent for the innovations of the genre, doesn’t display nearly as much variety as is present here; sixty hours into the primary story [of Dragon Age] and most every task revolved around traveling to some far-off point, eradicating a threat, rinse, and repeat. Don’t misinterpret that for a bad game at all (Dragon Age is one of my personal favorites despite its flaws), it simply lacks the depth required for an engaging experience. With Oblivion, the doors are cast wide to invite any type of role playing experience players desire.
My preferred character archetype is chaotic neutral with a disposition toward being fair and charismatic with a high lethality and propensity for heavy thievery. In Dragon Age, the game was so heavily scripted and limited I wasn’t able to role play my character at all. I was merely a pawn in a larger chess game constructed by the designers in order to fulfill some higher goal. Mass Effect, Knights of the Old Republic, Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, and countless others are consistently guilty of providing too narrow an avenue for emergent gameplay from the player -outside of what is provided. Even while genuine freedom isn’t maintained in Oblivion, the illusion is strong enough to make the options feel infinite. What if I want to get completely inebriated then pick a fight with an Imperial Guard? Certainly! What if I want to skulk in the shadows for several days and observe the daily schedule of a rich businessman, pickpocket his house key, then burgle his house dry while he is away? This is entirely possible here.
Despite all this, some pieces of the Oblivion experience do not hold up four years after its release. For starters, combat is wretched; any fight feels as if its permanently trapped in a bad 300 action sequence and I can’t get out of the over-exaggerated slow motion. In fact, movement across the board is impossible to enjoy which makes the instant travel feature crucial. The game’s writing isn’t particularly inspired when compared to the epic flavor of Dragon Age. Sure, there are a variety of conspiracies, loads of side plots, and more NPCs than can be fathomed, but each feels parched and word-thin, as if the game’s writers were forced to combine the ten most generic fantasy cliches repeatedly. And lastly, Oblivion‘s central quest is hardly thrilling stuff.
It should be of note that an obscene quantity of modifications are available to enhance Oblivion in nearly every fathomable manner, from graphics updates to XP system tweaks. For my revisit, I conducted brief research and discovered that Obscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul is widely considered the best gameplay mod available and I hastily installed it. If you’ve never played Oblivion (shame on you!), I’d recommend that you steer clear of mods and play the game for what it is. If you’ve got a PC and a copy of the game, however, do some digging (searching “Oblivion mods” on Google will provide an easy gateway to find the best) and give this play through a new twist.
Quite simply, I was taken aback by how well Oblivion has aged in its meager four years. It might not be up to contemporary standards in terms of graphics or art style, but its sheer number of role playing options are staggering and remain the guiding light in a genre quickly being overrun by mega-budget sequels. Hopefully Bethesda can continue to deliver such an experience and not revert to modern trends; if they do, The Elder Scrolls V might be the best game of all time. Yes, expectations are that high.Oblivion: Four Years Later,