I’ve put off writing this review for quite a while simply because I’ve been wracking my mind on how to approach it. The Elder Scrolls games are so vast and far-reaching that just trying to list off mechanics and evaluating them seems almost tawdry, especially for a game that is as venerable as Oblivion. Still, patient gaming is the name of my game, so let’s give it a go.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (PC [reviewed], PS3, Xbox 360)
Released Mar 2006 | Developed / Published: Bethesda
Where do I even start with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion? The series is a long-running and stalwart mainstay of PC gaming, though in the modern age it has long since ascended to being a household name due to the wild success of Skyrim. Oblivion has ended up in a strange spot in the franchise; it’s sandwiched between the unstoppable titan of Skyrim, a game which has been so popular it’s seen re-releases on every single thing with a screen, and its predecessor, Morrowind, a game which remains a cult classic and a PC RPG standard. It might seem odd or maybe even unfair to place Oblivion in this context for a review but I think especially as a patient gamer it’s impossible to avoid looking at it as that game in-between and examining how it performs in that space.
So, with that in mind I thought my through line ought to be comparing Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim. What does Oblivion do worse and what does it do well, does it suffer at all from being played by a patient gamer, and in what ways does it hold up?
I suppose the first thing that always strikes me about Oblivion – and it does this every time I load it up, without fail – is the comfortable familiarity of its world; and yet, that itself is already a point of controversy among fans of The Elder Scrolls.
In prior lore the land of Cyrodiil was a jungle, a great grassland ringed by an equatorial rainforest. However, the gameworld of Oblivion is quite evidently a very typical European-themed medieval fantasy setting. This is what I mean by comfortable and familiar. In all honesty, Oblivion’s world is as standard looking as they come. Personally I can enjoy it largely because my own experience of the lore was not that deep beforehand, and once you look past that the game around it is excellent. However, I can sympathise with those who saw it as cowardly or disappointing, and who perhaps carry a sense of being robbed of a more esoteric world.
It’s no doubt that Oblivion is also a deeply safe world in terms of design, and I think that’s only become more apparent over time. Compare it to Morrowind, which featured one of the few gameworlds that I think of as truly alien, with its enormous mushrooms, chitinous houses, and towering silt striders that pick their way across the marshes and ash fields upon spindly legs. Skyrim on the other hand would also be accessible but a frozen Nordic land replete with vikings and barrows to plunder was (indeed, is still) en vogue, and the variance of the landscape was far more apparent than Oblivion ever managed thanks to the more consistent aesthetic choices. In contrast to both, Oblivion’s world, while no doubt grand and deeply enjoyable to explore, in some respects perhaps pales in comparison.
The visuals don’t help Oblivion’s case either in the eyes of some. The facets of Oblivion’s graphics which seem to have stuck in collective memory are largely the awkward ones. From the stony glare of characters in conversation to the oversaturated bloom which suffuses every surface in eye-searing light, some elements of Oblivion have definitely not aged gracefully. That said, I’m loathe to criticise it entirely; yes it’s aged inelegantly but there’s still something magical about stepping out into the rolling hills and dense forests of Cyrodiil and beginning to explore it all over again, and that deeply subjective and ephemeral feeling is it what keeps bringing me back.
Oblivion’s gameplay is also a point of contention among The Elder Scrolls players. Like the other main games in the franchise, Oblivion is a first-person RPG although it sits in a weird place between Morrowind and Skyrim. I think it’s fair to say that Morrowind was much more of an RPG than its successor; your stats screen took up tons of space across the screen, and in my experience although the game is eminently beatable however you choose to play it, making a poor choice in your early stat setup can really work against you at the beginning of the game. In one of its more notorious design choices, despite the fact that you held your weapons out in front of you and could swing them in real time, Morrowind was a little frustrating in that it used hidden dice rolls against your stats to determine whether or not you’d hit an enemy, and how much damage you did if you manage to connect. In that respect it was very much in the vein of traditional CRPGs. Skyrim on the other hand was infamous for the removal of many of the RPG mechanics of the earlier games in the series. In a bid to become as accessible as possible it eschewed the huge stat screens and minute details and replaced it with a much more action-based combat and levelling system, paring down the choices players needed to make in favour of a more playable system that wouldn’t alienate new players.
Oblivion finds an awkward spot in between these two extremes. I actually think in some ways I like it the most for that. Oblivion is definitely more action-oriented than Morrowind; the hidden dice rolls in combat which determine if you hit or not are gone, and instead a system more familiar to patient gamers coming in from games like Skyrim is present. Put simply, if it looks like you hit, you did. However, Oblivion does still feature a ton of stats and skills to manage. At the outset of the game you pick your class, which determines your basic competencies, and your star sign, which gives you a fun perk that might supplement your chosen playstyle. After that, if you want to develop any skills, you just have to use them over and over again; for example, jumping a lot levels up your Acrobatics, or using swords increases your Blade skill. As much as I like this system, it does occasionally work against the game experience, like resulting in countless hours spent hopping along roads because it quickly levels your Acrobatics and Athletics skills, allowing you to spend less stamina and move faster.
This approach to skill-building feeds into one of the most controversial aspects of Oblivion: levelling up. Normally in RPGs the general consensus is that you start in easier areas and then as you progress through the game you fight harder enemies with better stuff. However, Oblivion uses a reasonable aggressive system of level-scaling, meaning that enemies level up as you do. This was done to ostensibly keep the game’s challenge even and fun as you get stronger and to prevent the issue of developing a huge open world and having parts of it stay weak and easy to steamroll over for later characters. However, in practice it creates a bizarre world in which random bandits accosting you for mere scraps of gold can show up equipped in powerful late-game armour and the various imps and minor demons which pepper the Cyrodiil countryside can cast ferocious magic that can tear you to pieces. It almost incentivises not levelling up if you can help it, not to mention it makes tear-arsing your way through questlines that much simpler if you don’t dawdle and just fire straight through them from the start of the game.
That’s a huge shame because it’s so much fun to dawdle in Oblivion. As with all of the Elder Scrolls games I’ve played, one of the greatest experiences of playing Oblivion is the wonder and variety of the wide open world and the sheer amount of things to discover, places to go, and quests to complete. For any and all of the flaws you can level at Oblivion, I contend that it has some of the finest quests of the games I’ve played, ones which have stuck in my mind for years on years. There are of course the guilds to join and rise through the ranks, of which Cyrodiil has several. You can join the Fighters guild if you’re a fan of smacking stuff with swords or clubs, or the Mages guild if you want to sling spells, or of course the Thieves guild and Dark Brotherhood exist for the sneakier and stabbier characters among you. They do stumble into a little problem which is that some guilds can be completed regardless of how you build your character, which does create a strange sense of the uncanny as my hulking Nord swordswoman blagged her way into the Mages guild off the back of the one basic Fireball spell you get at the start of the game and then slaughtered her way through the questline before becoming recognised as one of the greatest mages in the land, but oh well, at least you get to see the quests I suppose.
The thing I adore about the guilds in Oblivion though is the way they force you to see the world and engage in how they operate. For example, the Mages guild quest is centred around the Arcane University, but they don’t admit just anyone; you need letters of recommendation from each of the guild halls across Cyrodiil, so you need to get trekking to every town in the region, introduce yourself to the local guildmasters, and then do mini questlines for them in order to get your recommendation sent. This means that by design you have to see the entire world that’s out there, and you’re naturally going to take the chance to explore a little and tourist it up while you’re waiting for the local guild to sort out your letter. It comes together to create a genuinely and incredibly immersive experience, and as a result Oblivion is one of those games you can start playing and without realising it burn through an entire day with consummate ease.
Of course, if you’re not guild-inclined then Oblivion still has plenty to offer. Everyone and their mum has quests and tasks for you to have a crack at, and many aren’t readily available until you’ve ingratiated yourself with the populace. This does mean that you have to deal with the godawful dialogue mechanic that Oblivion has, in which each individual character has a chance to improve their disposition towards you via an awkward and confusing minigame. Personally I found rather than engaging with the minigame I just bribed people into being friends with me, which suited me just fine, although it does mean any chatter feels like a bit of a waste of time. You can naturally also just head off into the wilds and explore the world, which is great fun; Cyrodiil is filled to the brim with caves, mines, crypts, and ruins to delve into and clear out of baddies and treasure respectively. Oblivion comes under some fair criticism for its dungeon design however, which is very repetitive and because there aren’t many different ways for each dungeon to look, it does mean it gets a little tiresome to take on too many of the same type at any one time; technically each dungeon is unique, but they all start to blur together, especially as they typically lack any defining or memorable features to set them apart.
There’s even a story buried in all this game somewhere, though who could blame you if you spent 60 hours playing and never even touched it. Oblivion’s never in a rush, thankfully, and it never harries you to deal with the main plot, preferring instead to take a hands-off-and-play-your-way approach, much like other Elder Scrolls games. Still, for those who care, the story begins with the assassination of the Emperor, Uriel Septim VII, here voiced with power and gravitas by Sir Patrick Stewart. Before he dies he passes onto you the Amulet of Kings and asks that you find his only remaining heir, an illegitimate son by the name of Martin (the other big name voice actor of the cast, Sean Bean); however, because no one is sitting on the throne, the legendary Dragonfires are weakening, and Mehrunes Dagon, one of the formidable demon princes, the Daedra, is pushing to invade the world of Tamriel. This manifests in portals to his demonic plane of existence, Oblivion, tearing themselves open all across Cyrodiil and hordes of vicious Daedra pouring out to kill everything. The general strokes of the plot are actually quite good, I think; I love the tangible sense of threat as cities are threatened by the emerging Oblivion Gates, and as you advance the narrative more and more Gates open randomly throughout the world, and you can freely venture into them to fight your way through hordes of demons and close them, saving that region for a little while longer. However, a fair few missions in the plot see you dive into these Gates and the format of how they work never changes, meaning they, like the other dungeon locations in Cyrodiil, end up feeling a bit bland, and by the end it’s easy to feel rather bored by them.
I suppose the question for any patient gamers who’ve not tried Oblivion is whether or not they ought to? Personally I’d reply with an emphatic yes. Of course I have some gripes, such as the oddly repetitive dungeons and the constant Oblivion gates, but I can’t honestly say they’re anything more than minor, and as much as I’m aware of what the general complaints are against Oblivion, I can’t honestly say I ever notice them when I’m actually playing the game. I think some of how you find Oblivion comes down to what kind of Elder Scrolls experience you value most; for die-hard fans of Morrowind, I wonder if Oblivion is already too reduced for a wider console audience, yet it’s undoubtedly more of a traditional RPG experience than Skyrim. Having said that, it’s not that Oblivion hits some kind of sweet spot between them, and nor is it the worst of both worlds; Oblivion stands on its own, a monument to fantastic game design that excels regardless of any flaws, and it stands alongside both its predecessor and its successor as three truly magnificent games.
7/7 – TOP TIER.
As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.