In praise of Oblivion

Oblivion is one of the finest videogames to be released in the last couple of years. It’s available on PC and Xbox360, and the gameplay is similar to games like Gothic/Gothic II, Ultima Underworld, and Oblivion’s predecessors in the Elder Scrolls series (Morrowind and so on). It’s an action RPG with first and 3rd person cameras and an (almost) unprecedented amount of freedom in terms of how you approach the game. There’s an epic plot you can choose to follow and solve, but at any point you can choose to ignore it and do your own thing, and there’s a huge variety of things to do – want to become the world’s greatest alchemist? Head of the Fighter, Mage or other more secretive guilds? Own a house? Hunt wild game in the woods and take their skin and meat? Explore the wilderness and investigate strange ruins and caverns? All of these are in there and tons more as well. The game’s graphics are spectacular and the audio, including spoken dialog for every character and every line in the game, is also mostly great, the only exception being some of the voice acting which is occasionally bad but never awful. The scope of the game is absolutely huge – there’s a huge landmass to explore which if you chose to walk across it in realtime would take you a couple of hours, and there are many cities and towns, each with a distinctive look and one that is itself huge.

The game’s flexibility extends to the character system as well. Want to be an armor clad tank bashing your way through your enemies? Fine. Prefer to be a stealthy assassin who prefers to sneak about and backstab, then dash back into the shadows? That’ll work. Perhaps a mage with devastating elemental spells is more your speed? No problem. Or maybe a summoner who counts on his minions to do his dirty work? How about an archer who relies on speed and devastating accuracy with a bow? It’s also in there, and again so is a ton more stuff. It’s really amazing how well the engine manages all this – all these approaches are viable and fun.

The combat engine is mostly great – it’s got a very satisfying feel to it, whether you’re bashing it out hand to hand, plinking away at a distance with spells or a bow, or dashing in and out in stealth mode. The one problem is that you often have allies and companions in your adventures and they invariably get in the way. This was especially bad for the character I solved the game with, a sort of Paladin type in heavy armor with some healing magic, who was constantly getting in fights with his allies after whacking them one time too many by accident in the heat of battle.

The plot’s a mixed bag but generally good – the first epic encounters in Kvatch blew me away, and the ending is absolutely fantastic, but there are some elements of drudgery along the way.

The game balancing system is as far as I know unique to this title and is also something of a mixed bag. Instead of the traditional RPG mechanic of opponents slowly being more difficult the further you make your way through the plot, everything in Oblivion scales dynamically with you. The good thing about this is that you’re generally never overwhelmed and you never have to go through a grind to raise your level in order to take on new challenges. The downside is that there’s not much incentive in terms of gameplay mechanics to explore anything beyond the main plot, and you also never get much of a sense of accomplishment like you would in games with a traditional balancing system (as in – you go to a new area, get your head handed to you, flee, spend some time leveling up, come back and whomp whatever was devastating you before, then cheer). It also leads to some oddities, as in like the common roadside bandits who occasionally accost you are equipped with artifacts of ultimate power by the end of the game, and it’s also tough to gauge the strength of opponents – is that a goblin over there, or an immortal vorpal goblin of ultimate doom? It’s tough to say in Oblivion. All in all it’s a mixed bag in this department. I didn’t hate it, and I could see the benefits, but by the end I had concluded I would have liked it better with a more traditional system.

The game’s also infinitely expandable and in only a month of release there are already literally hundreds of mods, including some that I would consider essential, and some from the game publisher themselves.

So – all in all I would recommend Oblivion to basically anyone who enjoys computer action and RPG games. It’s almost perfect, and the modders are already working away to perfect it. The ending is one of the finest RPG endings ever and well worth some of the drudgery you have to slog through to get there, and by and large it’s a fantastically fun experience. The one caveat would be – it’s a hardware hog in a major way. The engine is very tunable, but at a certain point turning down the options removes some of the magic of the experience. I have a pretty middle of the road gaming rig at this point and some of the ending battles where there were dozens of characters (spoiler alert – and a giant fricking god the size of the sears tower…ok maybe I exaggerate but when you’re playing and you’re desperately trying not to get stomped by him, tell me you don’t end up thinking the same thing!), my machine was slowed to single digit framerates. So – buy this game, unless you don’t think your machine can handle it – if that’s the case, get a new machine 😉

I’m already figuring I will replay the entire game in about a year, when an expansion pak or two is out and the modders have really tuned it to perfection – that’s how good it is. 5 stars from me, and right up there with Gothic II as one of the best games of this generation.

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