Monday, August 4, 2008

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

I named Oblivion my favorite game of 2006 over a year ago, but I never got around to writing a full review, as that's something I didn't start doing until after I had been into it for a while and I wasn't sure at what point I should do so. Now's as good a time as any, as I've probably come as close as I ever will to seeing all there is to see, and I'm about to start playing the prequel, which I'm going to make a new blog for.

Oblivion really isn't like other games for me. I usually play focused single-player games until I complete the story, and then I move on. I might unlock some bonus stuff or eventually replay the game if I like it a lot, but I don't have enough time to give everything the attention it deserves. This is definitely not how I play Oblivion. All told, I've spent nearly two hundred hours exploring Cyrodiil, the Shivering Isles, and Mehrunes Dagon's Deadlands. Even after I get sick of it, it's only a matter of time before I come back, although the chances of that happening again diminish as I complete more quests, reducing the ones I haven't tackled to a very small number. I've split time between four different characters, and really immersed myself in the world.

The closer game designers get to creating a believable place, the easier it is for little things to break the suspension of disbelief, and that happens quite a bit, with the new AI system failing to prevent many awkward situations, although it's still cool how people can move from place to place, attack you if you've wronged them, and even get killed. The fact that all of their dialogue is voiced is also impressive, since there's so much of it, although it gets annoying when you hear the same voice over and over or the actor changes for a character based on the line they're saying. The music and sound effects are also quite good, with a score that's more atmospheric than memorable and appropriate magic and battle sounds. The graphics are pretty good, although it's hard to find a face using the character creation system that isn't pretty ugly and I wish the outdoor areas ran a little better on my system. The game crashes far too often, although the nice Autosave prevents it from being too much of a hassle.

Gameplay wise, the strength of the series has always been the variety. You can focus on pure combat, stealth, magic, or a combination. The ability to customize your own class instead of picking one from a list and improve any skill just by using it gives you a ton of flexibility in creating a fun, unique, and powerful character. The melee fighting isn't great if you're looking for a normal action experience, but it's pretty robust and strategic. Sneaking around, avoiding enemies and picking locks is way more fun than I expected it to be, and my favorite character ended up basically being a ninja master almost able to walk right by someone's face without them noticing, as long as there wasn't a light source in my face. I didn't explore the different schools of magic as much as I could have, but the different spells were also fun to play with, and I ended up collecting a lot of ingredients and making potions, useful when adventuring or just to sell for profit. A couple complains I can see are the simplification of the skill system, which didn't really bother me, and the level system, which does have some flaws. You improve your abilities through repeated use, but to improve your fundamental characteristics, you have to rest and level up. This would be fine, but every enemy in the game, except for a couple quest-specific ones, levels up with you, so you're never too over or under-powered. I'm mixed on this. On the one hand, the ability to go anywhere and do anything, knowing that you will be fairly challenged, is nice. On the other, it takes away the fun of becoming a very powerful character and being able to stomp certain enemies when you think you should be able. It doesn't make sense that goblins living in the sewers under the capital city become badasses just because I'm around. Taking away that progression is disappointing, although it ultimately doesn't hurt the game that much.

What's great about the game is that you can just wander around, and something interesting will always pop up, whether it's a clever side quest or just an enemy encounter you didn't expect. And when you're bored of that, there's the main quest and different factions to play through if you want some structure. The storylines that weave their way through the various paths you can take range from mildly interesting to brilliant, and they're all worth playing through. Not every line of dialogue is a winner, but it's an entertaining game with a really deep background, full of lore and history. I haven't been engrossed more by another RPG.

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