Back in my senior year of high school, I was obsessed with a few games. Two of the big ones were Diablo II and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. The former I loved for its loot and heroic plot; the latter I loved for its open world. Almost every single place is open to you from the get-go. Both games allowed for highly customizable characters, though Morrowind takes the cake on that topic. So let’s fast-forward several years later and take a look at Morrowind’s successor: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion: Game of the Year Edition.
Oblivion starts in a similar yet very different manner than Morrowind: Your character has been imprisoned for crimes he may or may not have committed and is then suddenly freed. This time, it is literally Emperor Septus himself who releases your avatar from prison; then he is assassinated before your very eyes. Before his sudden death, he commands you to find his missing son and save the land from destruction. So here’s the main question Oblivion asks: What would you do with newfound freedom?
Freedom is the main theme of this game. Once you make your way through the sewers, you can do what you like anywhere. Do you obey the dying man’s wishes, or do you ignore them? Do you run around the world picking the landscape clean, exploring crypts, caves and abandoned forts without abandon? Do you search out as many side quests as possible? Or how about joining a few guilds and rise the ranks to grand master?
Gameplay is almost exactly like its predecessor: You explore in either the first- or third-person perspectives, attack monsters, deal with merchants and complete quests for certain townsfolk. How you do so depends on how you wish to play the game. For example, fighters work with melee weapons of all types, wear heavy armor and can repair their own equipment. However, you are not chained into any class. If you want to suddenly learn magic, then you’re welcome to do so and practice to your heart’s content. Start working on stealth, and you’ll soon be able to sneak around like the Invisible Man. The possibilities are endless and will provide hours of entertainment. The catch is simple: You have to improve the skills of your major to gain levels and increase your statistics.
What is different in Oblivion is how the gameplay is handled. First, combat is far more engaging. Blocking is done manually, spells can be cast on the fly instead of having you change stances, magic regenerates quickly instead of being a precious resource, certain spells now require a degree of skill to use, horses can be ridden, a perfectly designed quest log that never lets you forget which quests need to finished and which ones are completed, a speechcraft system that has you figuring out how to best coerce people to friendship, picking locks with a crazy “bouncing game,” and a bouncing red/green marker that always points the way on your compass.
OK. How perky the marker might be is an overstatement, but it is almost overbearing how present it is. Although the game quickly stops pushing your shoulders forward, it never stops holding your hand. Even your character’s journal will push you forward in quests. Places of interest are also on your compass, making dungeon finding even easier than finding a slice of bread for a sandwich. That’s one of my peeves with this game: It never stops holding your hand. I’m a big boy; I can take care of myself. While I like finding quest locations with such ease and having some direction, I do not want to feel smothered. That’s how I feel about the quest system.
In terms of a minor complaint is how treasure is handled. As you might already know, treasure is determined by your character’s level. Although this isn’t a bad system as it ensures you’ll probably find something you can use, you’ll never get something “special.” You will never find a weapon or a piece of armor that will give you a quick push above the competition. The same can be said of completing quests: It “punishes” the player for completing quests at lower levels by occasionally giving them lower ranking rewards while “stronger” characters earn equipment intended for them alone.
Graphically, Oblivion is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the game is rich and vibrant. Foliage unfolds before your eyes while you explore. Flowers are eye-catching, and trees are massive. Towns are interestingly laid out and tend to have an icon of interest. On the other is the horrible face system. The characters are naturally ugly while the only thing that moves besides their mouths are the irises. What angers me is what they have done to the different races. The nords, a race of axe-wielding berserkers, are reduced to pastry-sized faces instead of a fierce warrior, the elven races look more like fairy rejects, and to create a character with a beard requires one to turn a man blue with frostbite. Maybe I hate cartoony faces. Maybe I’m just too picky when it comes to faces. Or maybe I really like the faces from Morrowind the best.
The game does a decent job with sound. Sure, the proper sounds are heard and the music is perfectly orchestrated. They’re nothing to write home about as you will not be humming it for hours, yet they are surprisingly soothing. The combat music is, of course, tense with drums. Horse hooves are heard as it runs across the ground. Then there is the voice acting. Every single line of dialogue is voiced, whether you like it or not. As such, some of it is great (Patrick Stewart is the voice of the short-lived Emperor), and some of it is downright horrible. You’ve got to give them some credit for such an ambitious effort. It certainly packs an extra punch of presentation.
Overall, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion: Game of the Year Edition can be just as addictive as its older sibling when its massive tentacles grab a hold of you. It is one of the best open-ended worlds available, and in some ways triumphs in ways Morrowind could only dream. The strong combat system, quest log and graphics are superior in every solitary way. However, the “odd” faces, bland treasure system and constant parental guidance are bound to annoy someone at one point or another. As such, Oblivion is not any better at doing its job better than Morrowind. Maybe I’ve spent too many hours starting and restarting Morrowind and, as a consequence, know its world rather well. Maybe I’m biased because it is a part of my high school years. Or maybe I’m having difficulty telling them apart because they are so inexplicably similar.
These are the reasons our fearless leaders encourage us reviewers to look at a game on its own merits and not by its name. To continuously compare and contrast how each game does their respective jobs could potentially dilute their own respective experiences. In that regard, Oblivion is a massive update for a new generation of gamers while trying its best to be true to what made the series popular in the first place. If you can get into it, it will provide countless hours of joy with its available mods and quick loading times. As such, go find your own scroll to inscribe your destiny and how it was done.