Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion for the Xbox 360

Overall:

Published & Developed by Bethesda Softworks
Platform: PC, Xbox 360 (reviewed on Xbox 360)
ESRB Rating: Teen

My Advice: Buy it and say goodbye to your loved ones.

Having clocked a fair amount of time on every Elder Scrolls game since 1994's Arena, it was pretty much a given I'd be checking out any new titles in the series. Then, at last year's E3, Bethesda rolled out some of the most jaw-dropping eye candy gamers had ever seen, promising unparalleled gameplay on the forthcoming Xbox 360 and PCs with the fourth Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion. I obsessively checked websites for new screenshots, plunked my reserve money down for the 360 and the game on the same day, and waited impatiently for the next generation to make it to my entertainment center. Then the 360 rolled out, sans Oblivion. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Hell, I considered cancelling my console preorder, as the game was the chief factor in my decision to buy one. Then the release date slipped again. And again. I began to worry, given the industry's track record on oft-delayed titles. Fortunately, in this case my fear was ill-founded. Oblivion is, simply, the most fantastic traditional RPG to hit computer gaming.

You start the game, as with all the Elder Scrolls titles, in prison. Why the world-saving hero in Tamriel is always an ex-con is somewhat beyond me, but it makes for a convenient story hook. After a few pleasantries with fellow inmates, a group of guards hustle in, barge into your cell, and reveal that they are escorting the Emperor to safety, though a bolt-hole inexplicably concealed in your cell. Giving not a fig for what you get up to once they get the Emperor through, you are essentially pardoned and cut loose in the dank underbelly of the Imperial capitol. From that point, you're essentially on your own, though there are a few scripted moments in your "escape" to provide clues about the overarching plot of the game. Clues that, as in all the games in this series, can be pretty much ignored in favor of wandering the countryside and looting empty houses or killing brigands or starting riots in towns.

This has always been the strength of the series, in my mind. The developers create a massive world, filled with creatures, towns, plots, subplots, people of all stripes with their own agendas, etc. Then they hand you the keys to the kingdom and say "do as thou will." At no point will the plot come brain you over the head and force you to advance the core story. If you'd rather leave the empire to its fate and spend your days picking flowers to make potions, you can. If you want to set out on a personal crusade to exterminate the entire vampire population of the world, you can. Hell, if you want to drag goblin corpses to the top of steep embankments and roll them down to see which one gets there first, you can (this one, by the way, is endlessly entertaining). When (or if) you do decide to engage the story, you'll find a fairly tightly paced, epic tale involving a lost heir to the throne and the impending destruction of the world by demonic invasion. As videogame RPG plots go, it's a winner, and some of the subplots available for exploration are just as entertaining, including an Innsmouth knock-off, several guilds you can join with their own mission trees, and a host of smaller tasks.

Gameplay will be familiar to anyone that has played an Elder Scrolls game before. You roam the world in first or third person, doing combat in real time with your choice of bows, blades, and spells. A notable improvement from previous games is the way in which spellcasting is incorporated into play. By making spells an "equippable" resource with dedicated casting buttons and a hot button menu to equip a variety of spells, it becomes much easier to roam the world dispensing blasts of fire like Tim the Enchanter than it was in previous games. This leads to another of the game's real strengths: no gameplay style is particularly penalized. Characters that prefer swords, spells, or stealth are pretty much equally capable of succeeding in the game. While some tasks are easier for the wizards of the world to accomplish and some lean towards sneaks and assassins, pretty much anybody can manage anything, given perseverance and some fancy button-mashing.

The game offers up a host of races and classes to choose from, and also allows custom classes to be designed by selecting skill packages. The character design feature is also pretty neat, borrowing an idea from games like Tiger Woods to allow you to customize your appearance with dozens of facial characteristic settings. I'd like to have seen them allow for body customization as well, because I think a hugely fat Orc with a battleaxe would be pretty amusing to play, I can understand why they might not want to do that, as the game's engine is already cranking along pretty hard to render the gameworld and its multitude of movable/destroyable/stealable objects.

The graphics are every bit as stunning as the early screenshots suggested they would be. While this is hardly surprising if you're running the game at 720p on a massive HD television, it's a bit of a shock when the game still looks really really damned good on a 21" standard-def set. Character animations are realistic and believable (usually...as long as nobody jumps). Spell effects are gorgeous and varied. The environments are so well-rendered you can identify the species of flowers from fifty yards away (well, you can if you happen to be a veritable garden encyclopedia like my wife). The lighting effects are excellent, and the ways in which lighting plays into stealth gameplay are very well handled, making it very satisfying indeed to creep about in a bandit lair and start picking them off one at a time, chuckling quietly as the survivors call out in the dark for their dead friends. Or maybe that's just me.

Sound is pretty good throughout, as well. The score is epic and nicely varied, and the sound effects are very good at conveying a real sense of a living environment. The only real beef I had with the sound was the dearth of voice actors. Other than a few big names that voice key characters (Patrick Stewart, Sean Bean, and Terence Stamp), the rest of the game's cast of thousands are voiced by a half-dozen folks. This means lots and lots of repetition of voices. When every orc woman in every town sounds exactly the same (and all sound like Wonder Woman), it gets a little disconcerting. Bethesda really should have looked to expand their cast, or at least run their handful of voice samples through some filters to mix things up a bit. Hardly a deal-breaker, mind you, but with a game that is otherwise so top-notch, it seems a shame for there to be such an obvious blemish.

In a dollars spent/hour of entertainment calculation, this one's an absolute no-brainer. At over one hundred hours into the game with my first character, I've still probably got a few dozen hours worth of stuff to do if I just wanted to close out the guild missions and complete the main plot. If I keep having corpse races down steep hills and stealing everything that isn't bolted down, I could probably go for another hundred hours. Beyond that, it took approximately five minutes into my playing time to cook up a half-dozen additional character types I'd like to try out, so replay value is sky high. The promise of future expansion packs that might add more territory to the already sizeable world map means even more potential down the road, but so far the released add-ons have been tiny and generally not worth the couple of bucks that Bethesda is charging on Xbox Live's Marketplace. It's nice to see them keep rolling out small little snippets of content, but the pricing structure is a little hosed up, and I keep waiting for a bigger add-on that brings more gameplay to the table and rolls up all these small add-ons as well. Despite that, the game's easily worth it's price tag, given the staggering volume of stuff to do and character types to try out.

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Buy it for the Xbox 360 from Amazon.
Buy the Collector's Edition for the Xbox 360 from Amazon.
Buy it for PC from Amazon.
Buy the Collector's Edition for PC from Amazon.
Buy the Official Game Guide for PC from Amazon.